Updated: Nov 8, 2019
I visited the Wall the other day, October 7, 2019. Not the one in Washington D.C. but the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, which was brought to Blue Ridge, Ga., about an hour’s drive from my home in Woodstock.
I had been to the Wall in D.C., although it took more than 10 years for me to finally get there. Honestly, I was afraid of who I might find up there.
But something was different about this traveling wall. Someone reminded me that – since I would be turning 75 the following day, October 8 – my name could very easily have been up there on Panel 10 E, Line 118, alongside Captain John M. Harrington.
I had long since forgotten most of the names of the guys… my buddies who were stationed with me at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Airborne Division, when President Johnson sent them away to a place no one had ever heard of or even knew was there.
Although we’ve all known for a long time that, by any definition, Vietnam was definitely a war, I never understood why, after more than 58,000 American men and women were killed, it was still characterized as a “conflict” or “police action” by those within our government.
From the beginning, there have always been questions and controversy about how we went from combat advisors to full-blown combat troops in the first place. There were plausible stories and explanations floating around but many of us at the time didn’t understand or just didn’t care. It was a tiny, far-away spot on the map, and the enemy was running around in black pajamas. It should be over before we know it… or so we thought.
One cold day in November 1965 orders came down from the top, and overnight it seemed like 10,000 men were processed and flown off the base in C-130s, the planes we always jumped out of. In exactly 24 hours, everyone was gone with their new helmets, boots, uniforms, duffel bags, weapons and ammo – except me.
The next morning, after having been left behind, I was standing by myself in the middle of a field on the base, saluting the flag during the playing of Reveille over the loud speakers. Afterward, I walked into the barracks’ mess hall for breakfast, and there was one guy standing there with a cook’s hat on looking at me. Neither of us said a word for a long time, both sensing that something “real” was happening and that we may never see those guys again.
The reason I was left on the post was because the Vietnam War was not a war. I was told it was considered an overseas assignment. Those of us too “short” to go on an overseas tour of duty could not be shipped out. The rule was that you had to have at least 12 months left in the service to be sent anywhere outside the U.S. – I had 10.
In November 1965, all of the stars lined up and shined down on me, and at 21 years old, I had no idea how lucky I was at that moment in my life.
I’ll never forget some month’s later, glancing at the cars still parked out back in the lot behind the barracks and remembering on that fateful day back in November, asking “Porky,” a young kid from California, who was all packed and ready to go, what he wanted me to do with his car.
“Just leave it,” he said. “I’ll get it when I come back.”
He never did.
I know that November 11 is the official day we remember and respect and thank our veterans who gave their unimaginable everything for us who were left behind to live out our own lives.
For me, however, it has always been New Year’s Day, as it reminds me that I’m here another year instead of on that wall with thousands of other guys who weren’t as fortunate as me. It hits harder as I get older every year – that nagging question I’ve never been able to get out of my head… “Why was I left behind?”
Months before, on one freezing cold night while lying in my tent during some winter maneuvers in the backwoods of Kentucky, I decided I had to learn how to type so that I could become a clerk and sit behind a desk in an office, rather than running around in the dead of night shooting blanks at an imaginary “enemy.”
While I was still typing 20 words a minute on a borrowed Royal typewriter at the USO, I landed a job as Third Battalion Legal Clerk. This is where I met 2nd Lt. John M. Harrington, an impressive young man, fresh out of West Point and not much older than me. He was as “gung ho” as any paratrooper I knew, and he was extremely serious about being a soldier, far more than I was.
He was my boss and the adjutant to the Third Battalion Commander. When I first met him, I sensed he had come from money and privilege growing up in Durham, N.C., and graduating from West Point. I barely graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. We couldn’t have been more different. Yet, I like him right away. As it turned out, he was the toughest, smartest, most focused guy I had ever met.
Lt. Harrington made me work harder in a first class way on everything I did. He would constantly remind me to finish my sentence with “sir,” as I would always forget that part. He allowed no slack, and some days I hated him for pushing me so hard, while at the same time thinking he was the best friend I ever had – and, if I had to go into combat, I would want him to be my commander.
When he was promoted to 1st Lt. and became a Company Commander, I was, in turn, moved up to Brigade Legal Clerk. We didn’t see much of each other after that, except on legal proceedings or when I would occasionally look out my office window and see him leading his company on a six-mile morning run. But the strong work ethic and drive for nothing less than excellence in everything I would do stayed with me long after leaving the service and into my adult life. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.
Some months later, in August 1966, I was released from the Army and left the 101st Airborne Division. I went home to start a new life with my young wife and two sons, both of whom were born in a military hospital at Fort Campbell.
Exactly one month later, I had heard that on September 19, 1966, Captain John M. Harrington was killed in action outside some place called Tay Ninh City, Vietnam, by a “friendly forces” artillery round.
The war in Vietnam had come home. I was so sorry I never got the chance to say goodbye to him and to let him know what an enormous impact he had on my life.
He was just 26 years old.
For years after that, I was convinced that Capt. Harrington was killed by “friendly fire” that he called in on his own outnumbered and surrounded position. I knew he would want to take out as many of the enemy as he could, even if it cost him his life. That was the depth of his courage and the strength of his character.
I went on believing that story in my own mind for many years until the movie, “We Were Soldiers,” was released in 2002. It was based on the true story of all of my guys sent to fight in Vietnam. There was a part in the movie where the company commander, surrounded by enemy forces, was killed after calling in friendly fire on his own pod. When I saw that scene, I knew in my heart it was my friend – Capt. John M. Harrington, Panel 10 E, Line 118.