My name is Alex Rochford. I’m a freelance writer living in Arlington, Virginia. I was recently commissioned by a publication to write a piece about Memorial Day, and I chose to focus on the heartbreaking story of one individual’s life, and how it compared to the relative ease and comfort of mine.
I never met the soldier I’ll refer to as Robert, but I feel like I know him.
This young man was only twenty years old when he was killed in Vietnam. It can be persuasively argued that he died an unnecessary death. Today he is another deplorable statistic like the tens of thousands of other brave soldiers who died in this national bloodbath that seemed to drag on endlessly as our involvement spanned fifteen plus years and four Presidencies.
His death occurred in the early 1970s as a result of “small arms fire” – a sanitized military description which doesn’t begin to relate the anguish of dying alone, thousands of miles from home.
Unfortunately, his story is not much different from that of so many other soldiers who served in Southeast Asia, which is what makes it so infuriating. Sadly, as history has proved, there was no need for his life to be snuffed out at such a tender age.
I discovered Robert by accident while looking at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall online. I did some research and discovered that there were many things about us that were similar including the fact that we were born in the same month within a few days of each other.
However, he was four years older than me, and that simple fact cost him his life and saved mine. Forty-eight months made all the difference in which one of us had to go to hell and die – and which of us got to stay home, raise a family, and enjoy a long, rewarding life.
The unfairness of one person dying while another is allowed to live is an issue that humanity has always struggled with, but the inequity is even more pronounced when death occurs without sufficient cause.
I do not know whether Robert was drafted or if he enlisted. Perhaps he believed in our government’s claim that we should fight communism wherever we might find it, on the other hand, he may have had strong feelings that the war was immoral and that we had no right to be there.
Whatever the case, he lost his life due to the politically expedient decisions that were made by elected officials who were far too willing to escalate the fighting as long as they didn’t have to witness the human carnage themselves.
It has always been true that the price of war is paid by the courageous soldiers who are killed and wounded while politicians sit back in safety and comfort far removed from the appalling death and destruction they are responsible for.
If he had not been cut down in Vietnam, Robert would be retirement age with many years of life ahead of him. Upon returning home, he probably would have gotten married and had children and eventually grandchildren. He would’ve had the opportunity to find meaningful work and to spend his free time engaged in pursuits that he found fulfilling.
But it was not to be. Robert’s life was taken by another human being who knew that killing him was absolutely necessary to avoid being killed himself.
That is the insanity of war.
Each tragic death that occurs during a military action produces many troubling questions. Did Robert, look into the eyes of the person who shot him or did the bullet seem to come from nowhere? Was he killed instantly or did he linger and struggle while waiting for a helicopter to come to his aid? Did he slip quietly into shock or did he cry out over and over again for his loved ones? Were his buddies able to get to him immediately or did it take hours to recover his body?
What about the individual who shot him? Was Robert, the first person he’d ever killed or had he been exposed to the barbarity of war for so long that it was no longer shocking to take a human life? Perhaps Robert’s enemy is still alive today or maybe he eventually shared the same fate.
When I think I’m having a difficult day, I try to remember Robert’s sacrifice. The cruel brevity of his life certainly puts my insignificant problems into perspective. I have now been blessed with an additional forty-eight years that was denied to him, and I can only hope that I have not wasted those decades foolishly.
I do know that as I grow older, I have a more heightened sense of time which has led to an acute awareness of just how brief a human lifespan really is.
Upon reflection, it is quite easy to feel regret about not appreciating the value of every single day, and you cannot help but wonder whether or not you’ve made a positive difference in life.
But at least I was allowed to experience those days. By being born four years after Robert, I did not have to experience the degradation of war. I was spared the stench of seared flesh and the sight of mangled corpses. I did not have to see small graves dug for children. I was not forced to live with the grim reality of having to pull a trigger and end another person’s life.
I certainly did nothing to deserve my good fortune any more than Robert deserved the fate that was handed to him. It is simply the way it happened all those years ago.
I know for a fact that both of Robert’s parents lived many more decades without him. How much sorrow were they forced to withstand each year on his birthday? How deep was their pain each time they endured another Christmas without their son? How many times did his mother wish she could give him one more hug? How often did his father grieve because he knew that Robert would have been a wonderful dad if he’d only had the chance to have children of his own?
How many years did the anniversary of his death haunt their lives?
While it is some small comfort that the pain of losing a loved one diminishes over time, the fact remains that a parent never expects to outlive their child. It doesn’t seem right. It is not the natural order of things.
But, of course, there is nothing natural about war.
In recent years, I’ve found that people of my generation are increasingly drawn to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Each time I stand and look at the names, I’m flooded with an overwhelming sense of both loss and guilt because so many men and women needlessly lost their lives – while mine was spared.
But that is what makes the concept of war so horrifying. Young people are mercilessly killed before they’ve had a chance to really live.
Each year on the last Monday in May, America pauses to remember those who have tragically fallen in the line of duty – but how sad it is that there needs to be a Memorial Day at all.