Why I Read: For My Fallen Buddies Who Are “Always On My Mind”
James Kiley has come to Washington, D.C. to read the names of the men who served with him in the Vietnam War but did not return. Participating in this year’s Reading of the Names is just one way that James Kiley has chosen to honor his former comrades. Two of the names Kiley will be reading, Richard Proscia and Raul Candaleria, are men he will never forget.
“I think about those guys every day,” Kiley said. “I touch their names and cry every time I visit The Wall, and I even wrote some poetry about them,” he adds. “I always wonder about the people they would have become and what their families and the people they had to leave behind did with their lives after [the] tragedy.”
Kiley served in Vietnam from October 1967 through October 1968. He served with an infantry unit in Vietnam and served in the 1st Air Cavalry Division.
“I was kind of lucky to be a big guy,” he remembers. “I was 6’1” and around 180 pounds, so when I arrived the machine gun squad grabbed me immediately to carry the ammo,” Kiley said. “I got to stay near the Lieutenant as the gunner for the unit which was definitely safer than being the lead walker.”
Despite his position as a gunner, Kiley was wounded three months into his tour during the Tet Offensive in January of 1968.
“I have around five holes in me because I was hit with some shrapnel in January 1968,” Kiley remembers. Luckily, he received some stitches and was able to serve the remaining eight and a half months of his tour.
While Kiley was fortunate to have survived his wounds and service, his comrades whose names he will be reading did not see the same fortune. Richard Proscia is one of them.
Kiley grew up in Elmont, New York which was just the town just over from Richard Proscia’s home town of New Hyde Park, New York. Proscia and Kiley had not met during their early years, but that changed after they were both drafted to serve in Vietnam.
“Richard and I met on the train over to basic training and we ended up hanging out a lot throughout basic training with a group of four or five other guys,” Kiley recalls. “I remember that we also flew out of JFK at the same time and spent the 20 hour flight from JFK to Seattle to Vietnam together.” On his second day in Vietnam, Kiley happened to run into Rich, who was eating lunch. They joked that they could not stop running into each other.
Kiley served in the infantry and Proscia was assigned to be a medic. Their paths always seemed to cross, even on the tragic day Proscia was killed.
In December of 1967, Kiley’s platoon was traveling behind Proscia’s platoon while on a patrol. All of a sudden, Kiley heard shooting and his platoon was told to stand firm.
“It was my first firefight and my platoon was not even participating, but Rich’s was caught up right in the middle of it,” Kiley remembers. “Because I was operating the machine gun I was right behind the Lieutenant who had the radio and when they announced, ‘three killed in action.’ They mentioned two soldiers and a ‘medic with glasses.’ Once they mentioned the medic with glasses my heart sank because I knew it was Rich.”
Kiley recalls this tragic moment in a poem titled, “Medic with Glasses”: “As we waited our turn to join the fray, we were watching the gunship passes, when a voice confirmed the 3rd KIA, the medic with the glasses. And suddenly the war came home to me, the truth pounding in my brain; the last few weeks of wandering around were truly all in vain.”
Proscia had been killed while trying to assist two other soldiers who had been mortally wounded. The name of Richard Proscia is listed on Panel 32E, Line 4 of The Wall. Kiley is given the honor of reading Richard Proscia’s name at 6:44 p.m. on Wednesday, November 8.
That same evening, Kiley will also reads the name of Raul Candelaria, who made the ultimate sacrifice in February of 1968. In some ways, Kiley feels as if he owes his life to Candelaria, who was killed by the same blast that left him wounded during the Tet Offensive.
“Raul was killed right around the beginning of the Tet Offensive when all hell broke loose,” Kiley recalls. “I remember we were patrolling the rice paddies when a mortar exploded literally right behind Raul. Since he was the guy right behind me, we both got hit with shrapnel. He took the worst of it because he was right in front of it,” he adds. Kiley wonders if Candelaria being there shielded him from the worst of the damage.
An excerpt from Kiley’s poem, “A day I’ll always remember” describes that horrible day: “As the mortar rounds were getting thick, we were taking the long way home, a powerful blast sent us through the air it felt like we had flown.
The explosion had sent us flying, my body ripped by steel, but not as bad as poor Raul, his wounds would never heal.
Raul would be killed by the powerful blast that hit his back full force, but when the medivac took us out, we didn’t know all was lost.
We did not know it at the time, we were shocked when he passed away, it took him 5 full days to die, and he passed in Subic Bay”
Kiley vividly remembers Candelaria being treated separately from the rest of the platoon, which indicated that he sustained more serious injuries. Candelaria succumbed to his shrapnel wounds on February 5, 1968, five days after the platoon was attacked. He had only been in Vietnam six weeks. Raul Candelaria’s name is listed on Panel 37E, Line 33 of The Wall.
Being part of this year’s Reading of the Names at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is of the utmost importance to Kiley.
“I have visited The Wall every year for the past ten years and I have always touched Raul and Rich’s names,” he said. “When I went to The Wall for the first time, I could not help but bawl my eyes out because all I could think of was those young men who were not here, but I was.”
Kiley continues to honor his former comrades, but is still left with unanswered questions and sadness. He still thinks about the families they left behind, particularly Proscia’s fiancée, who he met in the airport when they were both leaving for Vietnam.
“I do not know what happened to any of their families or Rich’s fiancée,” Kiley adds. “I do not know if she moved on or still grieves. I just do not know, but I will always mourn those guys as long as I live.”
Kiley’s feelings can be best described by the last verse of his poem, “Medic with the Glasses:”
“A product of those twelve harsh months, in the jungles of Vietnam.
So when you see me crying, or acting out of sorts, please understand I’m doing my best to steer a simple course,
Through a life filled with terror and sorrow, and things you can’t understand,
Yes I sometimes still relive the horrors of a place called Vietnam”
Kiley still wears the scars from his service, but he will always carry the memory of his fellow soldiers with him. Remembering and honoring them is the least he can do.
“Even if these guys have families honoring them, we should all remember and honor anyone who has literally sacrificed their lives for this country,” Kiley said. “Rich left behind a beautiful fiancée and two loving parents to serve our country. So many other young men do the same so the least we can do is remember them as the heroes they were.”
Kiley only knew Proscia and Candelaria from their time in Vietnam, but he will continue to remember them as the heroes they are. As Kiley reads their names, he will be reminding a nation that “they were and still are, brothers-in-arms forever.”
This blog post was written by Scott Lynch