Early in December 1969, I was a U.S. Marine Corps junior officer on my way to Vietnam. At 24, I was reconciled to the idea that my service mattered. My peers were great people and, pervasive protests notwithstanding, those of us headed into service were confident in our mission.
I grew up in Syosset and was a mostly immature and unmotivated kid. I was, however, touched by President John F. Kennedy’s call to service and the idea that enthusiastic hard work could make a difference. In 1968, armed with a master’s degree and a draft board hot on my trail, I had joined the Marines as an officer candidate.
My parents were quite upset, particularly my father, a Normandy veteran of World War II who actually protested the Vietnam War. I told them that I felt this was right for me and that later in life I’d have no regrets. (I am happy to say I still have no regrets.)
My friend Jim was a young officer from Brooklyn and a graduate of Southern Illinois University. He and I reveled in the Mets' good fortune that summer of ’69. We flew home together some weekends from Quantico, in Virginia, to LaGuardia on liberty (time off) — usually in civilian attire because in those days wearing a uniform in public could spell trouble with anti-war types.
Another good friend, Roger from Westfield, New Jersey, was already in Vietnam serving in Army Special Forces. Roger and I had been friends at Parsons College in Iowa, where Roger was student body president and with a great future planned after the service. We graduated together in 1967, Roger going to Army Officer Candidate School and I to grad school in Kentucky.
Despite all their plans, Roger and Jim died in Vietnam that half-century ago. They both rest in national cemeteries — Roger at Arlington and Jim out in Calverton.
I got back from Vietnam, had a successful business career, married a great woman, had kids, christenings, graduations, weddings — and now grandkids. Roger and Jim never experienced any of these milestones.
Especially now, at 74, after all these years, I am still affected by their sacrifice. Was it worth it? Did their service matter? Who will remember? Good citizenship surely means different things to all of us. Yet, maybe some form of compulsory service, military or otherwise, would help our country realize the importance of the sacrifice of time and talent of those, like Roger and Jim, who have given up their futures in service to America.
Most mornings, I'm up before dawn to step out in the crisp predawn air. I take a look at the stars — if they’re out — and wonder about my buddies. Had they survived, they could have had all the beauty of life I’ve enjoyed. I silently remind myself that I've had many blessings, these past 50 years chief among them.
During this joyous season, I will drive to Calverton and sit by Jim's stone. I'll tell him what I'm up to and remind him that we've got a good shot next year with the Mets. My friendship is one-sided but alive in my memory and heart.
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