In May of 1969, just a little over a month before I turned six years old, I attended my first funeral. Most of my memories of that day so many years ago have disappeared into the mists of time. Yet, a couple moments stick out in my mind as clearly as though they happened just yesterday: walking into a dark room and up to a large black box where my cousin Larry slept on a bed of red satin and being startled by gunfire as I stood in a rainy cemetery surrounded by crying people. I don’t know for sure how much I understood of what happened at the time, but I know now that I’d seen Larry in his coffin wearing his Marine Corps dress uniform, though he’d only been visible from the waist up due to the fatal wounds he’d suffered in the far-off country of Vietnam. The gunshots were the result of the twenty-one gun salute fired off as he was buried with military honors. Cousin Larry died on May 10th, the same day as the Battle of Hamburger Hill and Operation Apache Snow, but hadn’t fallen in action; he’s listed as having died as the result of a non-hostile action – an accidental homicide with a grenade. He’d only been in-country for a few short days and was all of nineteen years old.
My memories of Larry before he went to Vietnam are almost gone now. I have a hazy recollection of a photo of the two of us taken at his graduation from Marine Corps boot camp just a few weeks before I attended his funeral. He stood tall and proud in his fatigues and I looked a little like an orphan in my pink dress, black tights, cardigan, and uneven ponytails. My family often told me stories about how I’d asked my cousin to marry me when I was all of four years old. I’d adored him for the short time I’d known him and though I can no longer see his face in my mind without looking at a photo, I’ve never forgotten him.
Cousin Johnny (Larry’s older brother by two years) also served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam. Unlike Larry, Johnny survived his tour in the war zone, though I heard he went through a rough readjustment when he got back to the States. We lost touch many years ago and I didn’t know what was going on in his life until I stumbled across his obituary a couple years ago; he’d died at the still-young age of sixty-six. Unlike his younger brother, Johnny had married, had children and grandchildren, ran his own business, and enjoyed many hobbies. The photo that accompanied his obituary looks like one of a happy man enjoying the prime of his life and might be how Larry would have looked if he’d survived Vietnam. I can definitely see a resemblance between them.
I hope Johnny came to terms with the demons he fought when he first returned from Vietnam and that, in the end, he had a happy life. I’d hate to think that he’d spent forty-something years suffering the after-effects of his time serving his country the way I’ve heard other veterans are suffering. Though the deaths of the young women and men like Cousin Larry are horrible tragedies, I must admit I sometimes wonder if the ones we lost over there weren’t in some ways luckier than those who came back.
The parents of Larry and Johnny, my aunt and uncle, have now outlived two of their four children. As a mother and grandmother myself, I can’t imagine having to deal with the pain of such a loss for so many years. When I think of how many parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses, and children are in the same situation, I’m moved to tears by the sacrifices made by so many.
As an another Memorial Day dawns, I remember and honor my two cousins who went to Vietnam as young marines – as well as all the young men and women in uniform now facing their own nightmares in various parts of the world. I also wish comfort and peace to those who’ve come back and to the loved ones of everyone affected by war.