Early in each year, my mind turns to events that happened forty-six years back at the Khe Sanh Combat Base in Vietnam. During the seventy-seven day siege that began on January 21, 1968, certain events ensued that are permanently emblazoned in my memory.
One of the most memorable—and for me, disastrous—events that occurred out of a litany of disastrous events is what has come to be called the “Ghost Patrol” that happened on February 25th, 1968, when the Third Platoon, Bravo Company, 1/26, went outside the Khe Sanh Combat Base on a patrol that turned into a catastrophe. The patrol, somewhere around fifty-four Marines and Navy Corpsmen, was ambushed by a much larger unit of the North Vietnamese Army, and twenty-seven Marines were KIA and a large number were WIA. For years we thought the count of KIAs was twenty-eight, but one Marine surprised us in 1973 when he showed up among the other 590 POWs freed from incarceration in the North Vietnamese prisoner of war camps.
Another one of the men on that patrol received serious facial wounds but survived, got back into the combat base and was medevaced out, eventually making it back to the States and then medically retired from the Marine Corps. Military doctors created a new face for this Marine, but more was damaged than the his body, and in the mid-1970s, he committed suicide.
In the last few years, one of this Marine’s Khe Sanh brothers, Seabee Mike Preston, set about to get that man’s name etched into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall) on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Even though this Marine was not technically killed in action in Vietnam, many of the Khe Sanh veterans felt strongly that the man’s death eight years later was a result of his wounds received on 25 February 1968.
Mike Preston, who has a great deal of experience helping veterans, spent forty-five months working with attorneys (including the casualty section at USMC Quantico who encouraged Mike during his efforts), other veterans, medical personnel, doctors and the VA in attempts to see to it that the Marine would be properly honored as he deserved.
Mike spends a lot of his time working with disabled vets. He’s helped get another Vietnam veteran’s name on The Wall. Mike has taken thirty to forty veterans to visit The Wall to “make their bones,” as he calls it. He counsels vets from our more current conflicts, trying to help them understand what all those feelings are inside them that they cannot comprehend, the unexplainable rage and paranoia and sense of distance from anyone who wants to love them. Mike says, “The healer is being healed by healing another. After all, we are our brothers’ keeper.”
Last November, over tacos in the Sierra foothills town of Jackson, California, Mike, Betty and I talked about Mike’s plight to honor the Vietnam veteran, specifically this Marine who was wounded on 25 February 1968. After his forty-five months of effort and sweat and rage at the system that sometimes makes it so damned hard to honor those who fight for this country, Mike received information about this Marine that negated all reasonable attempts to get his name on The Wall, which would have raised the number of recognized combat deaths from 58,286 to 58,287.
Even though this man had a clean record while in the Marine Corps, even though he’d been a real gunfighter who showed up whenever the manure hit the fan, even though he had gotten his brothers’ backs when they needed him, he will ultimately not be honored on The Wall as a casualty of the Vietnam War.
All along, Mike’s premise was that the war made this man what he had become and ultimately made him a casualty, even though the war had been over for three years by the time of his suicide. After his nearly four-year effort, Mike finally got a look at the man’s records. He found out that this Marine had a history of problems prior to his service in the Corps that would have prevented his attempts to even enlist in the USMC in the first place if the authorities had known about them. He also had a history of mental problems and drug abuse after his discharge, so claiming that the war forced him to terminate his own life became impossible to prove.
Mike says that the memorial fund he helped found in the name of this Marine paid for, and had placed on his grave, a military headstone that was due him from the country he served. Mike wishes to thank Mr. Bill Jayne, a BRAVO! Marine, who before retirement was with the National Cemetery Administration for the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Bill helped facilitate the purchase of the headstone. Semper Fidelis, Bill Jayne.
Mike also thinks the Marine Corps deserves a compliment because in just a matter of weeks they helped this individual perform honorably under what could be, at the very least, termed as trying circumstances. Civilian society, for whatever reason, could not do this.
Mike, Betty and I further mused on the proper way to honor a veteran of war. If he has serious problems as a result of the conflict, does it diminish his service? Does the fact that he was in trouble before he enlisted somehow diminish his service? How do you decide? Where do you draw the line? Mike Preston says that what is important in thinking about these issues is that this man should be remembered for what he did from the time he raised his hand and took his oath at induction until the completion of his military obligation, “nothing more, nothing less.”