For veterans organizations, Memorial Day brings a deeper meaning than a day off and barbecues. They observe a moment of remembrance for those who died in our wars.
Not Vietnam veteran Jesse Kirksey (pronounced Kirsey), a retired machinist who worked for Florida Power & Light at Turkey Point.
Kirksey, a father of five grown children, who lives in Richmond Heights with his wife, Theresa, will be as far away as he can be from the truth of his combat experiences. A sergeant with a mechanized unit attached to the 25th Infantry Division in Cu Chi, Kirksey makes no bones about his preference for spending the weekend fishing in Monticello, Florida, his birthplace.
Still fighting a Vietnam mindset that he has struggled with for years, the last time he felt anything real beyond the horrible deaths of his buddies on a trail in the jungle in 1968 was as a boy sitting by a lake in his hometown with a fishing pole in his hand. Kirksey’s actions, contrary to military tradition, may be construed as sacrilegious to veterans who mark the day solemnly. But none of them had pounded the ground in his boots.
Every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost, he’d say, remembering the selfish way he fought in the war, against the grain of the familiar refrain of servicemen who claim they fought for each other.
So, no, there won’t be a moment of silence or listening to taps. None of the trappings of the day.
Where a nation is suffused with the tradition of memory for its fallen troops, he appears to be obsessed with purging the remembrance of those who fell by his side.
Kirksey was rejected by the army at age 18 on account of flat feet. Eight years later, he was on a construction site when the Army turned around and drafted him. He would report to the induction center in March 1967, at the apogee of the war.
“It was a sad day because I knew I was going to Vietnam,” he recalls. “I had a few buddies that were killed over there. I attended their funerals.
“So it pissed me off. It was dishonorable. I was going on 27.”
In basic and advanced infantry training, it was like having a father figure around. Young guns like John, a 17-year-old Jewish jokester and motorcycle rider from Brooklyn, with the nickname The Road Handler, and Robert English, 20, who doted on a wife and their toddler daughter in Newark, New Jersey, gravitated to him. They called “the old man” Pop.
In South Vietnam, Pop was respected not only for his paternal qualities but also his sense of caring and leadership in the field, where he led a squad of younger men, including John and Robert, tramping through the war in a track, or armored personnel carrier (APC).
On a dry, hot, dusty evening in February 1968, a column of 21 tracks is en route to the Mango Woods. Pop’s Bravo company is behind Alpha and Charlie companies led by a K-9 unit of war dogs trained to detect land mines, along with three minesweepers. In the pitch of the jungle, they roll down a worn trail favored by the Viet Cong. An explosion erupts ahead. The blast reaches Pop’s track like the grumble of thunder. He’s concerned for his squad, though. Usually, he sends a few men up front to protect the sweepers.
This time it is Robert and the Road Handler’s turn. They take an assignment that requires a steelworker’s nerve.
Still, the big boom catches Pop off guard, even though the column has trained its ear for incoming shells, the quicker to adopt a defensive posture without blinking. So the cavalrymen position their APCs facing the jungle. Now, all the automatic weapons could be fired from both sides of the trail.
But the problem is not “incoming.” A report on the radio squawks about a mine having been tripped, wounding troops accompanying the sweepers, including two guys from Bravo company. Pop hustles from his track in a mad dash to the front.
The trail bursts with life. But for Pop, the scene captures the twitch of life and the curve of death in the same breadth. Robert’s legs and left arm were gone, heaven knows where.
It is akin to watching a man’s foot squirm out of a sock as he’s being strangled in a horror flick — the memory of a murder hanging on a sock; to Pop, the memory of a dear friend adapting to death without selfish angles. An old Hitchcock trick play in real time. A cold, treacherous sliver of time, this.
“His body was jumping; the trauma.” Pop would note later.
Now, he’s moving toward John, whose legs are lacerated, but they’re still his. The right arm and left ear aren’t anymore. And the right side of his face looks gruesome enough. Pop averts his eyes. But he can’t shake the moaning.
Hell! Fate. The jokester and the family man. Pop can’t quite grasp the moment. A father losing two sons in a meat grinder?
There’s a third wounded man. Thank goodness Cochise, a Native American from his squad, among others, is spared.
On any given day back in the hooch, or shelter used by the men, Pop would be in his Bible and the warrior would greet him strangely.
“Pop, what you thinking this morning?”
“We got to make it back alive.”
And Cochise would bellow across the hooch: “Well, as long as you keep reading that Bible it’s good enough for me, too.” Leaving Pop to muse now — this instant: “Quite a character. I loved all those guys.”
Above the treetops, the familiar whup-whup of a Huey intervenes.
The chopper with a red cross on its nose and doors arrives on station. A forklift in the column is almost done hacking out a makeshift pickup zone, mashing down everything in its path. The pilot brings the bird to a safe hover and the crew chief works a wire basket on a winch line down through the trees, the rotors furiously beating the treetops in a tense connection. For the VC is known to hit while casualties are being hoisted.
The helicopter having spooled up across the treetops, the APC crews catch their breath for a half-hour. The blast bounces back like a boomerang. Like the sound between the black and white keys of life on a trail, it wells up again, portending an ominous note that would ultimately haunt for the rest of Pop’s life. When the news of the deaths streams over the radio, he’s bashed anew by a waterfall of tears and drenched all over.
Pop finds himself shying away from the pain. The platoon sergeant offers a drink of whiskey (the track is a mini convenience store that serves up free cold beer, food, snacks and cigarettes by the carton to the troops).
Sarge’s consolation slides way down to Pop’s heart as a chaser to the Johnny Walker Black. They take another drink together. And Pop hangs onto a cloud looking for a spot in the sky. When night falls, he volunteers for an ambush patrol. Lucky him. It is as if the day’s agony had been sucked away by the glowing results in the inky blackness. Charlie have stumbled upon the ambush, tripping claymore mines and flares that illuminate the triangular formation with deadly lines of fire criss-crossing a humongous swath of terrain; the spectral coloration and the rah-rah squad’s whooping and hollering imbuing it with an otherworldly, surreal and hellish appearance for what would become a mega-wake.
A lot of Charlies are boxed in. Mortars and heavy artillery, accurately coordinated from distance, grind down the enemy, leaving Puff the Magic Dragon, a C-47, modified into a gunship on steroids and armed with side-firing Gatling guns, to lay down an apocalyptic 18,000-round-per-minute cone of fire that would bring “pee outta kingdom come,” as Pop tells it, a toothpick in the right corner of his mouth, as always, for he’s given up smoking as well as the bottle, with considerable spiritual help from his wife.
“We survived good that night,” he’s saying now under a wooden-roofed Tiki hut in his corner lot backyard. “There were so many of ’em, they flew in bulldozers the next day and we pushed all them bodies in and buried the whole lot.”
Eventually, Pop made platoon sergeant and distinguished himself as a sniper who never missed a target in a major battle against VC forces on Nui Ba Den mountain.
Each and every kill resonated with a roar in his heart for the friends he’d lost on the trail.
It was no different when he was assigned perimeter guard duty despite an illness. That night he was amazed to learn how smoothly Charlie operates alone.
“Like a ghost. How did he get through those flares, those claymores? That stuff was set out there to prevent him from coming in. I didn’t expect him to be in there. No way.
“Sometimes you have guys nodding and snoring after they’ve come in from the bush. I try to wake ’em, because if Charlie did come by he wouldn’t hear anybody snoring. He sliced the throats of eight men from another unit in a trench one night.
“I was supposed to be in the bunker, but it just so happened I was outside the bunker. I think we scared each other. I put the X on his chest, and that’s where the bullets landed. He dropped a bayonet when he fell. He’d have slit the throats of the guys in the bunker, for sure.”
When the army discharged Sgt. Kirksey in August 1968, it took a lot of nerve for him to turn his back on the war. He’d pulled into a gas station in Crystal River on his way to Monticello and asked to use the restroom. They directed him to the back.
Rather than make an issue of it, he recalled, the soldier simply walked away.
“Why do I need to go through this. I felt cheated bad. Something came through my head and say, ‘You oughta blow that dude’s brain out.’ Truth. That’s the way I felt. I had a .357 Magnum. But I moved on.”
It may be convenient for veterans who observe Memorial Day in their own way to segregate their motive from Kirksey’s motive. With assistance from his wife, Theresa, he’s still moving on, leading a life with monastic diligence, though John and Robert still jog the memory, right now, right here under the shelter of a spiteful sun.
Dalton Narine is a Vietnam combat veteran who served as a features editor and writer at the Miami Herald until his early retirement due to treatment for PTSD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.