By Charlie Vallance
…Some of them died.
Some of them were not allowed to.
—Bruce Weigl, “Elegy”
The Band recorded the song “The Weight” in 1968. I arrived in Vietnam that same year and left in late 1969. I spent most of my tour with Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines as a platoon commander in the bush. I first heard the song while I was still in country. Although it’s full significance didn’t sink in right away, “The Weight” struck me even then as yet another metaphor for the war. Gradually it would dawn on me that the song is about laying down burdens, and it appeared we were going to have a lot to learn about that. But, this would all come much later.
When I came home, I assumed I would just move on. I got married, went back to school, got a job, had kids, and did the other things that seemed normal. I had been back fifteen years when my family and I made our first visit to The Wall. It may have actually been the first real step home from Vietnam, but it was going to take a while to grasp the weight of that.
The Wall has helped to heal a lot of people. It has quite literally become the touchstone for veterans and families alike. Alone, however, there’s only so much The Wall can do. This became clear to me recently when I came across a remembrance posted on the VVMF website. It talked about a Marine’s experience during a firefight on the night of August 29, 1969. Two of his friends, PFC Louis Vincent Hermann, Jr. and PFC Gerald Allen Smith, were killed that night when their unit was ambushed by the NVA. On the same night, Hotel Company was also in contact with the NVA. We had several people down including 2nd Lieutenant Michael Patrick Quinn. Mike and his team were cut off from the rest of the company, and for a while, we were unable to reach them. The two Marines were with Golf Company 2/7 and were on their way to help us recover our dead and wounded. They probably died almost within shouting distance of us. I never knew this until now.
I’m at once grateful and sad to finally learn their story; grateful to know that their sacrifice won’t go unrecognized, but sad that it has taken over forty years to find out about it. I wonder too whether the families know of the circumstances surrounding their deaths. And, for that matter, do the families of their surviving comrades know what they went through that night. I suspect not because I doubt any of them have ever talked much about it.
This is just one story that emphasizes the significance of sharing these memories and keeping them alive. There are many more of them. Soon the Education Center at The Wall will begin doing what The Wall can’t; bringing stories like this home before we lose them. The dedicated people at VVMF are working hard to collect these stories. Unfortunately, considering the age of the average Vietnam vet, there is limited time left for this to happen. VVMF has undertaken a mission that amounts to a sacred trust; not unlike the trust that existed between veterans in Vietnam. And, they are going to need some help from us to complete their mission.
When veterans returned from Vietnam, there wasn’t much incentive to talk about our experiences. Given the cultural and political climate at the time, we just wanted to put it behind us. That, of course, wasn’t so easy to do. As time has passed, I think a lot of veterans have attempted to open up but found it more difficult than they expected. This probably goes way beyond just not wanting to relive painful experiences. I suspect we’ve all found that, whether we talk about it or not, that part doesn’t go away. I think we just don’t know how to talk about it.
When we do try and talk about Vietnam, the results may not always be as helpful as we’d hoped. Over the past few years, guys I haven’t heard from since leaving Vietnam have started calling or emailing to talk about our experiences. It’s been great to reconnect, but what’s been a bit unsettling about these conversations is that they tend to deal more with the logistics and chronology of things than with how we felt then, or feel now, about them. For example, near the end of my tour, we landed in a hot LZ on Hill 953 in the Que Son Mountains. The area was occupied by elements of an NVA division. We took casualties during the landing, but due to weather and heavy ground-fire, the LZ was closed before we could get our medivacs out. It took us five days to walk down off the mountain. During those five days, the Marines carried the body of one of their brothers, PFC Wilford Lynn Donoho. Some of the recent conversations I’ve had dealt with this, but mostly they were debates about who was where when what happened. Nothing much was said about how this affected us.
After Lynn was killed, his Marine brothers carried him down the mountain with compassion, love, and respect. In a sense, they were his pallbearers and brought him home to his family. The family may never know this, but those Marines paid Lynn the highest possible honor, and they did so at great personal risk. They will live with this for the rest of their lives, but they should recall it with pride. Unfortunately, without the feedback they might otherwise have received, I’m not sure this will be the case. So, I’ve come to appreciate that, while the facts are important, so too are how they made us feel. Perhaps through these emotions the veterans and the families will be able to connect.
Much of the difficulty in communicating stems from the fact that veterans came back filled with conflicting emotions. Pride, shame, anger, regret, and sadness were among them, but perhaps the one that surprised us the most was homesickness. We were, to our dismay, homesick for Vietnam. Not homesick for the war, but for the others who were still there. A lot of us weren’t quite sure how we got back, or in fact, whether we deserved to be here.
Deserved or not, we’re here, and it seems that we now have an opportunity to do something we couldn’t do, or didn’t know how to do, back then. The Education Center at The Wall will give us a chance to pay our respects in a way that I hope will help the families of Vietnam veterans who died there as well as the veterans who didn’t. However, as I’m finding, even as we try to tell our stories, questions arise. How much of the story do I tell? What do families and friends really want to know? Am I even worthy of telling their stories?
PFC James Stingley‘s story is one that I found particularly difficult to tell. James was a young Marine from Durant Mississippi. He was a college graduate with a degree in accounting and at the time had a two-month-old daughter he would never see. Few of us knew any of this about James. He was a quiet guy, well liked by his fellow Marines, but apparently not one to talk much about his personal life.
James was killed on the morning of August 25, 1969, during a daylong firefight in the Hiep Duc Valley. Just about all of 2nd Battalion was similarly engaged that day. James was among a number of Marines killed, but he was in a different platoon, and I didn’t know him by name.
In the days prior to the 25th, our Battalion had been in almost constant combat. As we moved out that morning, we knew contact with the NVA was certain. James, fully aware of the danger, took his position with the point squad without hesitation. I can imagine him thinking, ‘I don’t really want to be here, but if it’s not me, it will be one of my friends’. As they moved through a tree line, the NVA opened up with mortars, RPGs, and heavy machine guns. He and two other Marines died in the initial volley.
Repeated air strikes and artillery failed to dislodge the NVA, and they kept the company pinned down until dark. At that point, we were out of ammunition and withdrew under cover of darkness. James and the other two Marines were left on the battlefield that night. We went back early the next morning, and under covering fire, several marines went into the open to bring back the Marines. I helped another Marine bring James back. I didn’t know who he was at the time. I don’t remember who the Marine was who helped me, and I don’t know who the Marines were who recovered the others. It didn’t seem important then, and as it usually happened, the choppers arrived, took away the dead and wounded, and we moved on.
Now I’m beginning to realize that there are a lot of stories like James Stingley’s and that the details are indeed important. James has a daughter somewhere who never knew him and may have no idea of the kind of man he was or what his fellow Marines did to make sure he got home. I didn’t known James, but I can still feel the weight of him.
I have gone to The Wall a number of times since that first visit. It’s a profound and emotional experience each time. On the first visit, my daughters were very young, but as they grew up, and we returned to The Wall, they started to realize how deeply these visits affected me and millions of others. Over time, they asked a lot of questions, and, I think, truly began to understand what was lost to the names on The Wall and their families. In the picture above, my daughter Susan is holding an old photo taken when I first arrived in Vietnam. Corporal Christopher John Ricetti, my radio operator, and Lance Corporal John Joseph Schmidt, one of my squad leaders, are on the left. I’m still working on their stories, but when I look at this picture, it reminds me that The Wall really can keep the memory of these names alive. If a weighty hunk of black granite can do that, I can only imagine what the Education Center will be capable of.
Charlie Vallance served in Vietnam from 1968-69 as a platoon commander with Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines. He lives in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida with his wife Marianne, where he works for Underwater Engineering Services, Inc. as Vice President of Nuclear Power Services. He has two daughters, Susan and Catherine, and one grandchild.