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Commentary : For Many, the War Hasn't Ended

November 09, 1986|PAUL J. VANDEVENTER | Paul J. Vandeventer is vice president for the California Community Foundation in Orange County

The words choked from my father's throat. "For me, Paul, the war is over."

Dusk obscured the tears on his cheeks and in his eyes as we rushed down the street. An awkward 16-year-old, I scurried beside him, trying to keep pace with his long stride.

It was still years before the final evacuation of Saigon, but my father had just declared the Vietnam War over. Little did I know on that warm Sunday evening just how long the battles would rage on.

A few hours before, the day had been full of promise. A hot, though welcome breeze escorted a friend and me as we set off toward the local bowling alley. We had driven less than a block from my home, however, when the white lettering on the driver's door of a car creeping slowly in the opposite direction sent a chill down my spine.

"U.S. Marine Corps--For Official Use Only," it read. I silently prayed down the premonition.

Not Jim, God. Don't let it be Jim. Just a few days before, a letter he had sent made me laugh at his wacky sense of humor. On leave from combat, he had been impressed by the pure whiteness of a beach where he and some buddies had gotten drunk on their first real American beer in weeks. As a token of the occasion, he had mailed me an envelope full of sand.

Not Jim. Please don't let it be Jim.

It was.

I was a few frames into the first game when my father, flanked by two uniformed men, marched into the bowling alley. My stomach sank. "What's happened?" I demanded. "What's happened to Jim?"

My father's helpless silence told me everything. The tall, crew-cut major took the lead anyway. His arm around my shoulder, he guided me toward the door. "Your brother has been killed, son. I'm sorry."

His words hit me in the same instant as the hot air outside. "They make mistakes," I told him, my voice cracking. "They're wrong sometimes," I insisted.

"There's no mistake," he assured me quietly.

I could not see well, but I knew I wanted to hit this man, to scream in his face and make him wrong. Instead, I weakly complied with his urging to get in the car. I glanced at the lettering on the door and felt sick. My father sat next to me.

Why doesn't he say anything, I asked myself. Why won't he speak?

"I want to join," I blurted. "I want to go to Vietnam."

The major skillfully deflected my desire for revenge.

"Your mother needs you to be strong right now, son," he said. The driver, a sergeant, was blunt. "Don't go off half-cocked and do something stupid," he grunted. "They need you here."

At home, my mother wept in a friend's arms, inconsolable. My younger brother, adrift, wailed in disbelief. A friend later helped place the call to my sister in North Carolina. The news would travel fast.

My father motioned to me and we fled. As if speed would somehow dissipate the impact of the major's awful message, my father flew along the sidewalk. I pursued.

"They'll never phone or send a telegram," Jim had warned me before leaving. "They'll always come to the house and tell you in person."

Today they had come. This had always been a television war for me. None of it had ever seemed very real. Now all the stories I had seen on the nightly news and the pictures churning in my mind fused into one hideous image of Jim's violent death, a look of utter astonishment forever frozen on his face.

And now my father was declaring it over. The war, he repeated, had ended.

The weeks that followed were full of ceremony and silence. Friends consoled. Cards and flowers filled the living room. At night, bargaining with God in my prayers for just one last chance to talk with Jim, I could detect the quiet crying from other parts of the house.

At the cemetery, the piercing sound of the bugler's "Taps" made my sister buckle in sobs. The rifles cracked and the Marine Corps chaplain talked as if he had known my brother. I secretly saluted the gray metal coffin as we drove away from the gathering of flowers surrounding it. And, ever so slowly, I began burying the plans we had made together.

In the year before Jim enlisted, we had gone from being brothers to being friends. As a sort of sibling truce, we had agreed to buy a car when he returned. It was what we had looked forward to sharing most of all. That, and just being together again.

Seventeen years have passed since the major visited our home, and since Jim left it. The ache of loss has lessened with the years, and yet I still find myself taking issue with my father's words. The Vietnam War, Dad, is not at all over.

As long as there survive, like ours, the families of soldiers killed in combat, or Vietnam veterans, some whole, some maimed in mind and body and spirit, and as long as there survives in this nation a conscience capable of wrestling with the consequences of that war, then so too will the war itself remain alive.

Only for Jim and for the veterans like him whose sacrifices dwarf the black granite wall in Washington, and the silent marble headstones scattered across America, only for them is the war truly over.

We may have died a little with each of them, but they rest in a peace we cannot share.

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