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Ode to the Lonely Soldier
The following is a personal story . . .
Years ago, I wrote a novel about Sacramento, California in the 1960s, and in this tale a young guitar-playing man named Tom writes a song about a neighbor named Billy who dies while fighting in the army during the Vietnam War. Tom calls the song “The Lonely Soldier,” which he sings at Billy’s funeral, and then he plays “Taps” on his electric guitar, sounding something like Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Such is my imagination.
In real life, I had a brother-in-law named Eli Real (a Spanish name), now deceased, who was badly wounded while fighting as a Marine in Vietnam. During the monstrous Tet Offensive early in 1968, Eli was shot twice and blown up by a rocket. Eli was so badly wounded that few people thought he would survive. In fact, for two weeks his mother thought he was dead! But, eventually, Eli pulled through, after spending weeks in the hospital.
However, Eli Real was never the same after that.
Eli managed to live well into his fifties, though he had severe health problems, for which he needed pain medication such as Demerol and Dilaudid, and he was considered 100 per cent disabled. Eli told me many of his war stories, real tales of horror, let me tell you – the fragging of officers, napalm falling from the sky and exploding booby traps. One time when Eli and his company were ambushed in the jungle by the Viet Cong, the Marine carrying an M60 machine gun dumped the weapon and fled. Eli pulled out his sniper rifle and shot the man! Listening to these terrifying experiences, you have to wonder how any government would expect its young men and women to endure such gut-wrenching violence, death and destruction. For his trouble, Eli tried to drink away these frightful memories, doing serious damage to his liver, a disease of which finally killed him.
But this essay is not about Eli Real, though he certainly deserves one of his own; it’s about all soldiers, even those who could be called our enemies.
Please keep in mind that I’ve never been in the military, much less combat of any kind. So I can’t give a firsthand account of the terror of war, and I thank the winds of chance for that.
Anyway, throughout history, young men - sometimes not so young - and women too, have been called into service or simply conscripted and forced to fight the battles, skirmishes or “police actions” that many of us have read about – or experienced firsthand, as Eli did. During a single day in the Battle of Antietam in the American Civil War, both sides of the conflict suffered a total of 23,000 casualties. In the Battle of the Somme during World War One, the British suffered 57,000 casualties in one day, many of them chewed up by those newfangled automatic weapons. The advent of the machine gun was supposed to end all wars. Well, if humankind had any common sense . . . but that’s another tragic story.
As for current wartime conditions, the United States is enmeshed in a protracted guerrilla conflict in Afghanistan. Guerrilla wars are the hardest to fight, because the enemy, hard to identify under the best conditions, won’t come out in the open and fight; they hit and run or set off roadside bombs or detonate bombs in crowded markets, etc. Even the vaunted technology of the Americans and its allies – and it’s staggeringly advanced! – can’t eliminate the nasty casualties and deaths caused by the furtive use of high explosives.
Whether the United States should have fought in Vietnam or should be fighting in Afghanistan or any other place is not the point of this essay. Those decisions aren’t left up to us anyway, are they?
Simply put, soldiers go to fight in war zones because they are told to do so. They endure unrelenting terror because they think they should be there, and because they think we give a damn. For what they’re doing, we should always think of them and appreciate their sacrifice. How many of us have taken part or watched a Memorial Day parade? I must admit I never have. And I almost certainly didn’t show enough appreciation for Eli Real’s call to duty. We people who live apart from war are so lucky!
British author Allan Massie wrote, “Do you know what a soldier is, young man? He’s the chap who makes it possible for civilized folk to despise war.”
I just think we should all do more to show our appreciation for the men and women of our armed forces, and also have regard and compassion for every soldier in every war. Many people have suffered throughout the ages, but who has suffered more than soldiers? They do humankind’s dirty work!
The Lonely Soldier needs us all to care, and that’s why I wrote this essay.
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© 2009 Kelley