Memorial Day 2009

Prison is designed to break everyone's spirit and to destroy one's resolve. To do this, authorities attempt to exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality -- all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes us human and each of us who we are.

Nelson Mandela

I laid awake for hours in the dark last night remembering my comrades in arms that didn't make it back to the world, Each one that "went south" has their names permanently etched on my soul. No pencil tracings can be made from it.

I think of a young teenager like myself, a kid from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, first black man in his family to attend college, my best friend in Vietnam. He was one of my five team leaders. Augie. Augie . . . .

The hell we went through together, how much mud we ate. How much rain and sweat endured, how many bullets that missed, how many trip wires found and the smell of burning flesh and napalm. The blood we shed on June 2nd, 1966, when I was wounded for the last time in war and Augie went to Japan to heal from his wounds only to return in August to be killed by a sniper's eye.

I remember laying in the isolation ward of the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, waiting to see if my leg would have to be amputated because of the severe infection, when I got the news about Augie. Even though I was "home" and "safe," there were no tears. I felt angry at myself for not being able to cry for a brother that meant the world to me. There were too many comrades to cry for, and I was sure I did not have that much water in me. The 1st Marines had incurred significant casualties, as outlined in Phillip Caputo's book, "A Rumor of War." Then, I had to personally struggle each waking and sleeping hour with the flashes of light from the guns behind my eyelids and the booming of cannons in my ears.

I remember my last night in the bush when Augie and I, both bleeding so badly, had to move our night position and hide in a water-filled rice paddy until morning when my squad could come for us. We were surrounded. Augie, sitting beside me with only our heads, shoulders, and rifles out of the water, kept biting my upper arm to stifle his screams of pain. I had no idea then just how bad my wound was. My leg was under the shit-filled water, and I had to remain deathly still and allow the bugs and leeches to have their way with me. I had to stay alert and force my vision into the depth of the jungle darkness around us and across the small paddy.

The next day, after Augie and I were evacuated to Da Nang Triage and put on stretchers for further transport out of the country, Augie was carried next to my cot and said; "Thanks, Rio. I love you my brother." That was the last time I saw him.

I remember my next meeting of a best friend . . . Kenny Miller. I met him after I got back to New Jersey on extended leave. I stayed at my mother's place in Vineland. She had a small farmhouse away from everything. I bought a Harley and was out riding one day when I met this other lone rider. I tried not to like him because back then, I tried to not like anyone. Why bother, they all get killed around me. I couldn't help myself: Kenny was one of a kind. So was his father, whom I came to admire, respect, and love as my own father.

I took Kenny down to the recruiting station despite begging him not to enlist. He wanted to be a Marine like me, and he was going whether I went with him or not. With an elephant sitting on my heart, I took him to enlist in the Corps. His dad, a true patriot was so damn proud of him.

Prior to enlisting, Kenny was following in his father's footsteps to become a horticulturalist. They had a dozen or so large hothouses that contained the most incredibly large and beautifully aromatic Chrysanthemums. Three nights a week, Kenny and I would deliver a truck full of these flowers to florist shops around Philadelphia. We always split a battle of Jacquin's Ginger Flavored Brandy. It became a bonding tradition for us. We'd get to feeling good, singing along to the radio songs, and laughing at the absurdity of life. Then there were the series of girlfriends, and riding down the Boardwalk, only to get chased off by the Atlantic City police. Back then it was always empty there. Gambling had not yet arrived.

Twice I sent him a bottle of Jacquin's while he was in Vietnam. He was in Con Thien. I went on to become the youngest Marine recruiter in the country, and that's how I ended up in Massachusetts. While at my desk one day I got a phone call from Marine H.Q. in D.C. "The parents of Edward K. Miller requested you to be escort for the body of their son." The phone was sweaty and had bad tobacco breath.

I had to pick up and identify his body at the Air Force base in Wilmington, Delaware, and escort him back to Vineland to face his parents, while struggling with my own deep-seated guilt and excruciatingly painful grief. After the funeral, after everyone had left the gravesite, I sat there on the dirt mound beside his open grave, dressed in my blues, and I filled that last foxhole with tears. It began to rain. I pulled out a pint of Jacquin's and took a long drink, poured one in the hole, got filthy in the mud, and no matter how hard I tried to stand, I just couldn't find my legs or the strength to stop crying. I still cry even now. I always will . . .

This is Memorial Day for me this year, in this time, and in this prison space.

Love and Semper Fidelis to:

Edward Kenneth Miller, Jr.
Francis Joseph August, Jr.
Walter Bienkowski
Nathan Cole
Jose Gregario Urvonejo

Joseph Labriola May 25, 2009

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