On Thursday Charleen Carroll, the sister of Brock Elliott, stood just feet away from where her brother’s name was etched into a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall – Panel 20E, Line 114 – and read a letter that he wrote to her father just before his death.
It was telling. It was moving. And coming from the first serviceman from Manteca killed during the Vietnam War – there would be 17-in-all – it was a glimpse into the life of a man that would forever be remembered after the school district in which he attended named an elementary school in his honor.
I remember growing up having contradictory input about the war in Vietnam – coming of conscious age just at the tail end of the Soviet Union – in a family that wouldn’t exist had it not been for the military.
My mother was an Army brat born to a father that was part of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade – a drill sergeant from Fort Devens who commanded absolute respect – and was in country at the time of the Tet Offensive. And my father, who was stationed at Devens at the time that he met my mother, was born to a mother that was a WWII Army Captain that served on a hospital ship in the South Pacific and met her husband, a Merchant Marine from Oakland, onboard.
So if it weren’t for the United States Army, I wouldn’t be here right now.
But my mother’s father, who twice went to Korea during his military tenure, noticeably changed after he went to Vietnam. He never talked about his time there with the family when he returned – the same thing you hear from a lot of families who have veterans that return from war.
But he wrote letters.
And shortly before his funeral – because of his extensive military service he qualified for burial at Arlington National Cemetery – my mother bound all of the letters that he sent and received while he was in Vietnam into a book for preservation.
The contents are telling. And they’re moving. And coming from somebody that I never really knew in any real context, it’s a glimpse into my personal history.
One stood out.
Dated 11 Sept., 1967, my grandfather received a letter from PFC Richard L. Scott, who had just arrived at an Army hospital in San Francisco. Scott thanked my grandfather, Dallas Lawson, for being his squad leader and essentially saving his life in a firefight in which “Charlie” hit him three times.
It was a unique glimpse between the bond that soldiers that face insurmountable odds share with one another, and the kind of man that he was – somebody that was worth the effort of writing that letter.
I made an effort of getting in touch with PFC Scott, who I’m guessing at the time couldn’t have been more than 19-years-old in 1967 – and came up short. The phone numbers I could collect were to people that weren’t him, and attempts at reaching family members to explain what I was trying to do fell short as well.
I’d like to have gotten a copy of that letter back to him, and found out who exactly my grandfather was from his eyes.
It’s on holidays like this that my nostalgia grows, and it’s when I hear stories about the mistreatment of soldiers coming back that I think of that Staff Sergeant arriving at the airport eager to see his little girls and his son and getting spit on because he wore a uniform at a time when it wasn’t popular in America to do so.
Fortunately to my family and me his name isn’t one of the 58,286 names inscribed on that wall.
But as the one of more than 3.2 million troops that traveled to Southeast Asia, his story resonates within my family to this day – just one of millions of stories that people will recount and rehash and remember today when telling loved ones and younger generations about those that came before them and served honorable, and unfortunately for some, paid the ultimate sacrifice.
To all of those who donned the uniform I give my most heartfelt thank you.
The answers to the questions that I seek today lie in those letters – still stacked in footlockers and chests and drawers in houses all over this country – that tell the true story the American heroes who answered the call when it came regardless of circumstance or politics.
Rest easy Grampy. Welcome home.