COMMENTARY: A Thanksgiving leftover

Thanksgiving is celebration of our blessings and our bounties, but also a celebration of courage and of the struggles and tribulations that helped to made America.

I remember one particular Thanksgiving Day celebrated, or rather, simply tolerated, in a place and at a time in my young life when young men were dying, and America was divided.

We were a band of soldiers in Vietnam — young, spirited and indomitable. We were military combat journalists, or so we were told. In reality, we were just scared young boys, playing with the big boys.

And from the start of each day to the close of the day, our watchword was “persevere.” I believe we each felt committed to what we were doing and we wanted to do it well. We knew we were “special” in the sense that we had opportunities other soldiers did not have or get. Yet to me at least, the “perks,” the “special treatment,” “special preferences” we received were just part and parcel of the job we were tasked with, just like combat soldiers, mechanics, medics, etc. — each had their own needs and requirements to accomplish their task and goal. So, we were no different in that respect.

Our task was to see the whole picture of what was going on and to provide our families and friends back home, and the world for that matter, with a snapshot of that time and of that place — albeit possibly “touched up” a bit.We were military combat journalists after all. We were the military PR guys charged with promoting the continued presence of our forces in Vietnam by disseminating news and feature articles, pictures and recordings that portrayed the bravery and commitment of the American solider and the advancement and success of the fight of good over evil in an unstable and fragile region of the world — an alien world some 8,000-plus miles from the American coast and more than 17 hours by air. That was the story and that was our mission.

And who were these men and boys charged with recording history in the making in that unpopular and demoralizing war (officially a “conflict”) in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam? Well, we were just guys who had been drafted or volunteered for service in our military. We were college kids, dropouts and even some career military types. We were from all parts of the country: from South Texas to Middle America to the East Coast.

Some of us possessed a writing background of some type. For others, this was their first venture into the world of the “Fourth Estate,” and for most of us the first time in a theater of war. We were just guys searching for identity and purpose in a world gone mad, who were lucky enough to end up as journalists and not “grunts” (infantrymen or foot soldiers), marching, hiding or killing in jungles and rice paddies and mountain tops in a land so far from home. We were your sons, your friends, or the kid next door. And the great majority of us did not “sign up” for Vietnam — no new recruit intentionally (or least initially) volunteered to fly off to fight overseas. At that time, however, we each knew the chances of being sent to Vietnam were high. Extremely high. We were living proof that that was the case.

We were a special band of soldiers tasked with covering the entire IV Corps and our assignment was the military operating in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam — the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, SEALS and Special Forces. Thirteen provinces and thousands of American servicemen and women, and we covered it all.

I recall us all being constantly on the move, seeing each other only briefly at times as we arrived or got ready to depart on a story or assignment. We were all continuously on the go and on the road (or in our case in a helicopter). Days tended to blend one into the other, and holidays came and went with little fanfare or acknowledgment.

We had great times together as a group outside the confines of the office too, when we were all at our compound. We bonded over beer and steaks on certain evenings or weekends, or spent time at the compound’s pub, recounting stories of our pasts back home or talking about a story or situation we had just experienced.

Drinking was certainly a part of our evening ritual when we were together and not out on assignment. The drinks were as cheap as a candy bar, the conversation free and the nights long and sometimes lonely, so we usually stayed up until the pub closed at the midnight hour.

I remember so many little things that we did and said and heard that have stuck with me all these many years. Faces, scenes, words, emotions that one would have thought would have faded over time and gone the way of childish dreams. Yet the faces and the words, the senses that surrounded me, the emotions that arose in me so many years gone by still linger and evoke the rawness of those moments and those places.

We were there to help make and keep America great, or so we were told. That was the problem — we were told so little. Yet, we saw and heard the horrors of war, and felt the coldness and the callousness that war exacts upon the young human souls that we were.

And after all these years, I don’t know if Vietnam helped make America better, or wiser, or greater. I still haven’t seen the rainbow at the end of the tunnel. I just keeping seeing the shadows of lost souls and I keep hearing the cries of agony and of despair. One Thanksgiving Day so long ago remains burned into my mind and soul. A lonely and thankless day. A day that still brings back vivid pictures in my mind of young faces and confident voices of dreamers who thought they were invincible. Thanksgiving was just another day. Another meal. Another day closer to going home.

I have lost count of the Thanksgiving Days that have passed since my return. I have lost count of the days and of the years that have passed since so many young men learned that their young lives were vulnerable and fragile, and that their dreams would fade into the nothingness of forgotten ghosts on days they would never see.

This is my Thanksgiving leftover: a memory that never fades and never dies. A memory of courage and of hope. A memory of friends that still lives inside my mind and heart, despite the passing seasons that evade them.

Thanksgiving Day brings back memories of a time when I was a young, lonely and scared young man, fighting the reality of our worst instinct — self-preservation at whatever cost.

This is a Thanksgiving leftover that haunts my mind and ignites the nightmares that wake me in the night.

Al Garcia lives in Palm Valley.