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A Fateful Decision

By Pat Shine

   I asked Pat if I could share this with all of you.
   His answer was yes.

   His hope is that perhaps it will help one of you make the Fateful Decision and end the feeling of being alone.

   I add my prayer to his hope.

  As I sit here today, February 10, 2003 , it is impossible for me to not be astounded that exactly thirty five years ago, at this precise moment , a band of filthy, but determined soldiers of Charlie company of the 3/22nd were involved in one way or another in attacking the village of Ap Cho in South Vietnam. I was one of those men. On this day , we were less than a week into what proved to be a two week siege.

  I thought it would never end, but for many of my companions - it did. For the entire ordeal, we continually took casualties, right up to the bitter end , and the final siege that caused the annihilation of the enemies that apparently had vowed to fight to the end. Charlie company granted them their final wish. Their determination took its toll on us though. I do not remember even unloosening the laces of my boots for almost three weeks.

  I also do not remember a single day in the last thirty five years that I have not thought of the place. Pick any hour of the day or night during that prolonged battle - Ap Cho was our focus. There was nothing else to occupy our minds or our time. Constant. Relentless. Yet, after it was over , and after we got some rest, some water, some food, and of course, some more ammunition , we prepared for our next
battle , because these things never ended for us.

  Always another to be reckoned with, to anticipate, to survive.
  Another stinking piece of terra firma on which to crawl on our bellies, to inch up to some damn bunker and toss a grenade or two, or help retrieve a grimy, hurt buddy. The life we led had become predictable, unbelievably so.

  Ap Cho and countless other battles have made their way through the
halls of my mind for all these years now - I long ago ceased trying to cast them out. After coming back to the world about six months after that vigil during the Tet offensive , I began the rest of my life. I started taking those first strange, awkward civilian steps a mere thirteen hours after returning to the good old USA.

  I was alone.

  All my brothers were either dead or they were still "over there."
  After returning, many months went by before I got used to seeing people that were not dressed in fatigues, that were unarmed.
  Streets, cars, stores, chairs, bathrooms, plates, oval-eyed women - all so strange - I wasn't so sure any more that "the world" I had yearned for so strongly, with every idle thought that had flowed through my crazed mind, that I belonged here anymore. I had become an alien in my hometown, in my parent's home, around my friends. I could be having sex with a beautiful girl yet I was thinking unfathomable thoughts.

   My walk in the darkness had not ended upon my return to the only
home I had ever known for the first twenty four years of my life. I was still walking point, but now there was no one to back me up.

   I was alone.

   I eventually found true love with my incredible wife and over the
last thirty years together, we raised three outstanding, beautiful children that continue to give my life depth and meaning. Yet for most of those years, in ways that only someone  who owns a CIB could understand - I was alone.
   Sometime around 1990 or 1991, at about nine o'clock one evening, a
man named Bill Schwindt called my house. Even   though I had never met this man, I knew this man. He was a brother that I had never met. But I did not meet this new-found brother of mine until 1995. I met him at a Charlie Company reunion in St. Louis,  and not before, because I was scared. I was afraid to meet him, and it had taken those four to five years to summon up enough courage to go to that first reunion. Here I was - this former so-bad grunt who had witnessed and done violent things so often that it had forever altered the inner workings of
my soul and mind. But I was afraid to go to a hotel in St. Louis and just walk the hell in. It had been twenty seven years since the terms "WIA" or "KIA" had been part of my daily lexicon. Twenty seven years of walking point alone. No vet of any war who has ever attended a reunion of his former comrades-in-arms could have done so with more trepidation than I felt that fateful day in July,1995. No vet could feel more unworthy or inadequate as I did. The reasons I had for feeling that way are still not entirely clear. But it truly was one of the best decisions of my life.

   It has been less than eight years since that fateful day in St.
Louis, where I met Bill , and also many of the actual brothers
that I had walked those walks with so long ago, yet so much had remained fresh in my memories. It didn't seem possible at first that all of it could be actually happening. But it really did happen, and it continues to this day. I cannot even begin to imagine  that I could still be alone after what would now be thirty five years!  It is truly a blessing to have been reunited with this unique band of men and I give thanks to the Lord for all of it. And certainly no small amount of gratitude to Bill for that phonecall.

   For the men , those former grunts who also made those walks through
the darkness, that up to this day have resisted that siren's call to attend a reunion, any reunion, I offer myself as an example of someone whose life has been enriched because I finally summoned up the guts and went. Not a single one of my fears of "dredging up the past" and having it bring me down to the levels of despair that I fought so hard against the first few years back were realized. Sure, we have shared some melancholy moments as well as some tears. But none of us were alone anymore, not one of us.

   Each of us , I know , are wired differently , we grieve differently, we handle this Nam thing a little differently. I could never in my wildest imagination for twenty seven years have believed that all of the positive reenforcement that I have received the last seven and a half years was possible. But the friendships renewed have been the best part. They are a permanent part of my life now.

For those of you still out there who have yet to attend that first one - do it. You won't be alone.


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This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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