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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Home after 50 years

On rare occasion my parents spoke of World War II and the men they knew who were killed in combat. The war was one of the essential formative events of their generation. One could say that the Vietnam War was an essential formative event of my generation. Extricating from Vietnam, the U.S. stopped the draft on Jan. 27, 1973, exactly three months after I turned 18. I never served in the military, much less in combat in Vietnam. But my first cousin Mike did. Having volunteered for the U.S. Marine Corps, he was a combat engineer sent to the worst place at the worst time imaginable. I kept a National Geographic map of Vietnam on my bedroom wall as I tried to follow his whereabouts.

Thank God, Mike came home intact. Lt. Thomas Daily of my wife's family did not. Nor did Willard Harold Till, Jr, about whom I blogged last year. Like Mike, he was attached to the 3rd Marine Division near the DMZ in 1968-69. Unlike Mike, he was KIA.

With LT Daily and PFC Till in mind, I pass along a most unusual obituary in today's Raleigh News and Observer. It's a story about SSGT Donald D. Stewart, KIA in December 1965, and the struggle of his family to get his remains identified and brought back. It's also a story of gross incompetence and indifference by the U.S. military. Knowing of the scandal at Arlington, I was not surprised to see a reference to JPAC in SSGT Stewart's obituary. But because of the perseverance of his family, he will nevertheless be brought home to North Carolina next week.

Does properly burying our combat dead really matter, 50 years later? It damn sure does. Unlike my parents, not everyone my age personally knew a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who was killed in Vietnam — but almost all of us know someone who did know. I hope the Stewart family is comforted by events of next week that resolve their uncertainty if not their grief.