This piece was first published on Memorial Day 1987. Its focus is Vietnam and the ambivalence about the war prevalent in the USA at that time. But its sentiments remain relevant today, and I present it again as an appreciation of all those who have died for us in battle. Please see my note at the end of the piece.
I never knew Donn Sweet. He was killed in Vietnam before I met his sister Joan. We’ve been down to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., my wife and I, to hunt up his name. It’s there, not quite lost among the thousands.
In a way, I’ve become acquainted with Donn Sweet. I’ve watched him mug for photographs and cavort in home movies. I have his collection of baseball cards, passed along to me by his mother.
Several times I’ve scanned a packet of letters written by a young fellow who motored from New York to California and sent home a running account of his first excited, amused view of America.
When he died, in that forward observer post, he was unknown to me. If I hadn’t met his sister a few years later, I would not think to pause before that particular name etched on the memorial stone. It might, by chance, have been any other name.
Today we honor those who died for our country. For the purpose, we’ve moved all their birthdays to a Monday in May. We honor them as America’s war dead, and this year we haven’t forgotten to include those who died in Vietnam. We’re in a mood, as a nation, to do so.
There is unease, though, when we speak of our Vietnam dead. The questions – “What were they doing there?” “What did they die for?” – are troubling. As we celebrate Americans who gave their lives in defense of freedom, we include those who died in Vietnam – but we do so with a note of defiance in our voices.
I don’t know what Donn Sweet thought about what America was doing in Vietnam. But as to what he was doing there himself, why he took the final chance he did, what he died for – it is possible, I think, to know.
When the enemy mortar shell hit, he was alone in that observer post. It was a high ground position he had taken in mortal, hand-to-hand combat with an enemy soldier. He had deemed the personal risk necessary -- in order to direct mortar fire that would cover the pullback of the men in his platoon.
I have no doubt that he died for those men – for his friends, for the family they had become to him. He perhaps did not think beyond that – that he died also for the families of those men back home , and for other men who would live because those men lived to serve beside them.
He was trying to do there what citizen-soldiers in every war are trying to do: he was trying to end it.
He was trying to control the damage as best he could. And he was trying to not to lose his life in the process, knowing though, having thought about it, perhaps, that there is more to life than hanging on to it.
You can safely honor a person for doing something like that. You needn’t feel unease or defiance. You needn’t concern yourself about where it was: the Argonne, Normandy, Korea, Vietnam, [the Middle East].
The first Memorial Day observances honored the dead of the Union and Confederate armies. It was not a day to celebrate victories or to trumpet ideas. It was not a day to speak of national causes.
It was, and remains today, a day to salute heroes.
~~ Robert Brault in The Hartford Courant
Note: In 2008, Silver Star recipient Donn Sweet became the subject of an award-winning book by his sister Evelyn Sweet-Hurd. His Name Was Donn: My Brother’s Letters from Vietnam, was one of the national USA Best Books of 2008, placing second in the category of military history to David Halberstam’s Korean War account, The Coldest Winter. His Name Was Donn is available on both amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com. My review of the book can also be found on Amazon.