Memorial Day 2007

There is no way that I have ever been able to get through Memorial Day without crying. I have even tried not to look at the TV set or not to listen to the news, not to see the tributes, nor God forbid, to hear Taps blown. I am still "allergic" to Taps to this very day.

I think of those brave and honorable men and women who are dying on foreign soil today, as I think of those who died in all our other wars, including the one I fought in.

Have you ever been to visit Gettysburg and felt the presence of the men who died there? It is an eerie place: the three times I visited that battlefield, there was always the sense of being watched — by those who died fighting for a cause for which they felt was worthy of giving their very lives.

So many times I have wanted to sit down and write my feelings about Memorial Day, but I never felt that I could adequately write what I felt because of my war experiences in Vietnam. I put it off thinking that "maybe one day" I might be able to say how I was feeling.

I will take it one step at a time and see if in some way I can give the deserved tribute to those whom I knew that gave the proverbial last full measure of devotion.

Walter Bienkowski. He was a big guy, and young, like the rest of us. We were the reason Vietnam was called the "Teenagers War." Walt, like me, was about 19. On a routine patrol one day, as we crossed a rice paddy, we were ambushed in the open. Walt ran for cover and stepped on a land mine, blowing himself into the air. We fought our way out of that, and we got Walt evacuated by chopper to Danang for treatment. He seemed okay when we loaded him on the chopper. It was hard to see how bad his wounds were because he was bleeding from so many places. He lived two days before succumbing to his wounds and dying in a hospital tent at the base in Danang. Man, he was one of the first of us to die, and he was also one of the very best men in our entire company.

Walt, or Ski, as we all called him, was a really nice kid. He was a great Marine, always full of laughter and able to make jokes, no matter how bad the situation got for us. Because he was one of the first guys in our platoon to die, it hurt a lot. It got (for lack of a better description) "easier" after that, as there were just so many deaths and not enough time to grieve any of them.

I am not sure who went next or in what order, but let me tell you about Jose Gregorio Urvanejo. He was an Indian, from Mexico originally. An Apache, I think. He was killed when we were in a place called Marble Mountain (later to be named "The Arizona"). A very quiet and personal guy who just did his job and never complained about the conditions of combat or the weather or the bugs and snakes. I am told his name is not even on The Wall, and I do not know why. I should contact some American Indian organization and put them on the case. The Marine who killed him just happened to be his best buddy — and that kid was never right after that, as you may well imagine.

Nathan Cole. He died and laid there bleeding while bullets flew all over the place. His pal named Knopick held his hand, as he lay dying and asking for someone to be sure and tell his mom how much he loved her.

There were all the wounded who left by chopper that we never learned about that may or may not have died. Many were in such condition that the idea of them living seems so far remote.

There was my best friend Francis J. August Jr., or "Augie," whom I loved so dearly. On June 2nd, we were both wounded in The Arizona. While I went home because my wounds were so bad, he went to Japan to recover, only to return to Vietnam in August and be killed by a sniper.

I loved Augie better than I can imagine loving a brother born of my own mother. We had seen so much combat together and shared so many foxholes in dangerous places, in the process coming to know one another better than brothers ever could. We shared so many things together, including our trip to Hong Kong, where after three days the police asked us to leave the country, escorted us to Kai Tek Airport, and put us on a plane for Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Needless to say, without getting into the hilarious details, we raised more than a fair share of hell there.

On June 2, I received a bad wound to my leg from a machine gun bullet, and Augie took one in the elbow that sent him to Japan. He returned to Nam a few weeks later and was killed by a sniper. I was not there to watch him die to or do anything to protect him, even if that were humanly possible.

I got home and was put in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital. On weekends they allowed me to go home on a pass. I met Kenny Miller (Edward K. Miller Jr.), and we became fast friends. He had been home for the summer from college somewhere in New York, studying biology. His dad was a horticulturist who grew flowers for commercial use. Like me, Kenny had a motorcycle, and we began to ride together. We would go to Atlantic City (after drinking a bottle of Jaquins Ginger Flavored Brandy), ride our bikes up onto the boardwalk, and get chased all over AC by the cops, who of course never caught us. It was great fun, and we laughed so hard that we would lean against each other and cry. He helped me to heal without even knowing he was doing so.

Kenny wanted to be like me, so he joined the Corps. In fact, it was I who took him down to the local Marine Corps recruiter to get him enlisted. His family went to Parris Island the day he graduated from boot camp to watch his platoon "pass in review." While he was in Vietnam and I was on recruiting duty, I would send him a bottle of Jaquins Ginger Flavored Brandy from time to time. He got killed by a machine gun near Con Thien. I was the Marine Escort at his funeral, because his parents requested that honor. I've written about his experience before, but all one need do is read "Kenny's Flag." After they buried him, I stayed behind at the gravesite, and sitting on the wet dirt that covered his coffin, I cried like a baby. I still cry like a baby all these years later, and I cannot stop no matter how hard I try.

These are some of the stories of veterans who are honored on Memorial Day, and there are thousands of stories like mine that fit each and everyone of these brave Americans. Most of us never got to know the people they were before they died, but we must all remember they were indeed the sons and daughters of parents, and the brothers, sisters, husbands, or wives of those left behind. To say they were friends would not do justice to the kind of brotherhood and camaraderie we shared. The love between warriors is the most special kind of love anyone could ever dare imagine. It probably cannot be explained, except to say we were closer than our own parents were to us, or even our own wives.

Each and every Memorial Day I would like for our Veterans to be remembered as not just soldiers or Marines, but as loving family members who died because they had reasons to believe their lives were not as valuable as the lives they died to protect, or because they wanted to give us all a safer place to live in this wide world.

From a personal perspective, though I cry every year, I find myself crying at odd times. And I am not able to explain it to those who catch the drops falling from my eyes, while I am doing other things that have nothing to do with Memorial Day. To me and many like me, Memorial Day is every day, as it is to those who loved the men and women carried to that last resting place in a flag-draped coffin.

To all my brothers and sisters beneath the dirt, those above it will not forget you on any day. The love we once shared only grows, as the years pass without you to make us laugh and to cry the good tears of love.

Inadequately submitted,

Joe Labriola, Sergeant, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division

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