Friday, March 29, 2013

Coming home

With Meg Heckman, my journalistic colleague, I interviewed dozens of World War II veterans for an oral-history project and book called We Went to War. I also helped Steve Raymond, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, write his memoir, Too Dead to Die. One common thread in these veterans’ stories was this: “I just wanted to do my job and go home.”

During my research for Our War, I saw the same sentiment in the soldiers’ letters as the Civil War ground on. For my final chapter I went looking for a man who represented this near-universal wish of soldiers in all wars.

The man I found was Ransom Sargent of New London, a fifer in the 11th New Hampshire Volunteers. Sargent married a local woman, Maria French, in August of 1862 and mustered into his regiment 17 days later. Then, for more than a thousand days, he did not see her.

Sargent’s letters to Maria, transcripts of which are in the Rauner Special Collections at Dartmouth College, often express his yearning to touch her or look into her eyes. In 1865, as the war neared its end, he wrote:

“Oh! I could read your thoughts sometimes, dear Maria, and what joy it gave me for I knew that tender look of passion was bestowed only on me. You are my only hope of happiness in the future. All my plans and bright anticipations could never be realized if you did not share my joys.”

My chapter on Sargent, called “Homecoming,” has three points: the “I just want to go home” attitude of the soldiers, the transition from war to peace on the home front, and the efforts of the citizenry to welcome the soldiers home.

Two recent events, one personal, the other a local news item, reminded me of this “Homecoming” chapter.

The personal event was an encounter at a restaurant with a stranger around my age who was wearing a Florida Gator cap. I told him I had gone to Florida, and he asked me when. I said I had only attended for two years during the Vietnam era, then been drafted. He said, “Thank you for your service.”

That is a common expression these days, but no one had ever said it to me. I thanked the man for thanking me. But as sincere as I meant to be, neither his thanks nor my response altered my feelings about coming home in 1970.

Then I began to read about an event in Concord tomorrow to welcome home Vietnam veterans. I hope lots of veterans and citizens show up, and I hope the veterans feel the love.

I am not a veteran of that war. I served in the army at its height, but rather than accept the draft, I enlisted for four years in exchange for a guarantee of language school. I learned Russian, trained on special radios, and went to Germany to intercept and analyze Soviet military communications in East Germany.

In early 1970, I married Monique Praet, a Belgian teacher I had met in Germany. A short time later, I received orders to come home. I had been in Germany for two years by then. It had been a terrible time for my country, marked by unending, unwinnable war, political violence and assassination. I, meanwhile, had come to appreciate the European mentality, which, for obvious reasons, was skeptical of war.

I packed my duffel bag, put on my dress uniform and caught my flight home in Frankfurt. Monique flew to Florida, where my parents lived. My military flight landed early in the morning at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. There we boarded buses for the Philadelphia airport for flights to our next stations. Mine was Fort Gordon, near Augusta, Ga.

My mother Bernadine with Monique and me
outside the military chapel near Cologne,Germany,
 where we were married on Jan. 31, 1970.
That morning in the Philadelphia airport was my homecoming, and I will never forget it. From the moment I walked in wearing my uniform, the civilians in their double-knit suits and bell-bottoms, miniskirts and flowery blouses, had two reactions to my presence. Some looked at me with scorn, as though I had just returned from spearing Vietnamese babies and hoisting them on my bayonet. The others stared straight through me. I felt hated, invisible.

The moment I realized my uniform made me a pariah, I found a restroom and changed into civvies.

The ironies of this experience were thick. I had never been to Vietnam. While many of my brothers-in-arms had, and while I admired their courage, I knew many – perhaps most – had gone to war against their will. Personally, I had always opposed the Vietnam War and identified with the peace protesters.

In the last months of my enlistment, one of my duties was the funeral detail. I was on the firing squad for the burial of half a dozen men killed in Vietnam. More than 40 years later, thinking about this can still move me to tears.

I hope the Vietnam War veterans who turn out tomorrow find some satisfaction and closure in Concord’s belated welcome.

As for my Civil War fifer, Ransom Sargent, he marched and played in two parades in downtown Concord in June 1865, and he wasn’t thrilled about it. “They kept us parading up and down the street until dark, as tired as the men were,” he wrote Maria Sargent after the first one. He thought – hoped – the next day’s parade might be rained out, but no such luck.

When it was over, the burning ambition of nearly every soldier came true for Ransom Sargent: He hopped a train to New London 30 miles away and went home to his Maria.

1 comment:

  1. Mike,

    As much as I've enjoyed all of your posts to date, this one has to rank as my favorite. I wonder sometime if "thank you for your service" is truly a heartfelt expression by all that express it or for lack of a better word the "trendy" thing to say. I am sure my second example is in the minority in this case.

    My Dad, Uncles, Grandfathers, and Great Grandfathers were all veterans in their day and it is something I am truly proud of.

    Fabulous post Mike and a hearty "Huzzah" to you for your service.