Rita is Back

My Soldier, Our Hero

Posted in Odd Stuff by ritaisback on December 1, 2010

Once again I go back in time and try to come full circle.  It all starts with fashion:  the great fashions of our day, most of which have gone out of style, were the mood ring, the Huck-a-Poo Shirts, the puzzle ring and the Bracelet.  Most of the girls I knew had the Bracelet and wore it daily.  It was made of silver and if you didn’t put clear nail polish on the inside weekly, it turned your arm black.  Fine silver it was not.

For those of you who haven’t figured it out yet, I am referring to the POW Bracelets that we wore with pride.  Being young and foolish, it was like adopting a Soldier.  Of course, my POW Bracelet came with a defect:  it had a hole in it.  I wanted to get another one, but my mom thought it was ridiculous to spend another $3.00 for such a minor glitch in my Bracelet.  Once again, I found myself having something different from my peers.  Their Bracelets were whole, not WITH a hole.

It took 2 weeks of wearing my Bracelet to discover that there was not a defect in it; the hole meant that “my soldier” was NOT a POW.  He was an MIA.  When my mom discovered this fact, she was now ready to pay for another bracelet.  She had been told that MIA’s were far less likely to come home than POW’s.  She didn’t want me to presume that my soldier had little chance of being found.  By then, however, I had adopted Major Paul.  He was my soldier and I swore, as only the young can, that I would wear that Bracelet forever in his memory.  Ten-year-olds had no concept of what “forever” even meant.  Major Paul was mine and would be for life.

We grew up watching “The Viet Nam Show” on our televisions.  It was a gruesome series, but not a day went by when an episode did not convey new information or show the daily coffins arriving for burial.  When the 6:00 News came on, we watched our serial drama, understanding little yet searing visual horrors in our minds.  After the 6:00 News, we ate dinner (no TV at the dinner table).  We were reminded to eat everything on our plates because there were children starving in Biafra.  I didn’t really know what a Biafra was, but I cleaned my plate to the last drop, lest a child die if I left a green bean still on my plate.  These were the first years when I was developing a social conscience.  As the months went by I began to ask questions and wouldn’t be satisfied until I had an answer that made sense.

As the war that was really a “conflict” started to come to a close, many of us had already removed our POW Bracelets.  I didn’t.  I had adopted a soldier and would tend to his memory forever – until the day that the Bracelet snapped in two.  Though not terribly superstitious, I knew that my Major Paul was forever gone.  He was never coming home.  I cried for days, believing that if I hadn’t broken the Bracelet, Major Paul still had a chance.  I had brought doom upon him.  Would I ever forgive myself?

It didn’t matter.  The conflict ended, our soldiers were coming home and many POW’s were being released.  It was a time for jubilation.  The (mostly) boys who went to fight had been brought home as much by the Suburban Moms as by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  As time went on, many soldiers were ridiculed, taken to task for unseemly conduct, addicted and horribly underappreciated.  The farther we got our minds away from these baby-killers and napalm throwers, the better off we were.  No more Viet Nam and no more Bracelets.  Still, I never forgot Major Paul.  As the years went on, I thought of him less and less, yet I had never fully let my adopted soldier’s name to escape my memory.

When my older daughter graduated from college in 2009, she was recruited by the NIH to work on a two-year study of schizophrenics.  After she settled into her D.C. apartment, I told her that I wanted to visit.  When we made our plans, I told her that we could do very little due to my health; I was going through a very rough patch and was  having trouble walking.  There was, however, one thing I wanted to do.  I wanted to visit the Viet Nam Memorial, which I had never seen.  After all these years, I wanted to find my Major Paul and say “thank you.”

Veronica set me up at the hotel closest to her hovel – the place eerily known as the “Hinckley Hilton” as that was where Ronald Regan, James Brady and others had been shot in the assassination plot.  As soon as my taxi pulled into the turn-around, I recognized it.  My trip was turning odder and odder as past melded with present.  We ate dinner and made plans to meet the next morning and go to the Viet Nam memorial.

As the day arrived, I made certain that I had a pencil and piece of paper in my bag so that I could take a rubbing of my Major Paul’s date of death.  We approached the Monument and my knees were buckling.  This was a beautiful tribute to death, with its sleek black stone and the highs and lows of years when we lost more or less soldiers.  Over 58,000 names were carved into this black behemoth.  I was awed.  I was speechless.  I was crying.  I was going to lay Major Paul to rest.

The weather was cold and rainy and there were few people at the Monument that day.  Veronica went to the book and looked for Major Paul.  As I unsteadily walked the length of the Wall, Veronica told me that my Major Paul wasn’t there.  Of course she had made an error – MIA’s didn’t come home.  “Look again,” I said.  I was ready to reach in to my bag to grab the pencil and paper once she returned and told me what panel he was on.  She came back and told me “Mom.  He’s not there.  Your soldier made it.”

I was in shock.  Major Paul survived the war?  I had mentally buried him over 35 years ago!  The rain was pounding and we got a cab back to the “Hinckley Hilton.”  My emotions were jumbled:  I was elated, I was confused.  So where was my soldier?  How could I find out if he was even still alive?  Veronica advanced a notion.  “Mom, why don’t you google him?”  Hundreds of thousands of soldiers had served in Viet Nam.  What was the chance that my Major would appear in a google search?

When I got back home, I booted the computer and immediately went to google.  My Major Paul immediately popped up.  He had been shot down and taken captive for 3 years.  He underwent torture that was unimaginable. Yet, as a Major, he was credited with keeping up the spirits of the men who suffered with him.  He was awarded so many medals.  And he was alive and  well.  Additionally, I was astounded by all of the sites that one could access to find their own soldiers.

It took me many months to write a letter to Major Paul.  I told him who I was and why I was looking for him.  I thanked him for his service to our country.  He was a career military man, not a draftee.  Though long retired, he was no longer a Major.  He had advanced in rank.  I wanted to keep the letter brief, but brevity of words is clearly not my long suit.  I gave him my contact information.  I mailed the letter and did not hear back from him.

Until last month.  The phone rang and I saw the name on my caller ID and almost fainted.  The voice on the other end was still strong, given his age.  He was kind and pleasant and wanted to know about MY life.  We talked for about 20 minutes, with Major Paul avoiding all talk of Viet Nam and the heroism he had displayed.  He didn’t see himself as a hero.  He had a job to do and he did it.  I was humbled by his attitude.  He wanted to hear about the little girl – and the grown woman – named Rita, who had never forgotten him.  When I asked if I could tell our story, he said “sure, but please don’t use my last name.”  I assumed that he wanted his privacy.  Instead, he told me that by just using his first name and Rank, that perhaps others would believe that he was THEIR Major Paul as well.  “I’m certain that most of your friends have forgotten the names on their Bracelets.  Please let me stand in for those brave soldiers and give thanks to your friends for keeping their hopes alive.”

THAT’S a hero.

Do you remember your soldier’s name?  Did you follow up on what became of him?  Do you still have your Bracelet?  I’d love to hear from anyone who still remembers that information.  Please tell me your stories in the “Comments” section.  What a wonderful tribute that would be for the war that never happened.