Vietnam Veteran’s Day – Empty Nest by Curt Swarm

EMPTY NEST- BY CURT SWARM

In restaurants or public places he sits in a corner with his back to the wall, close to a window, where he can see the door in case he needs to escape.  He does not carry a weapon because he knows he would use it.  His name is Patrick James Hogan.  His many friends call him PJ.  He’s 75 years young, from Ft. Madison and a Vietnam Veteran. 

He grew up on a farm southeast of Niota, IL.  When he received his draft notice in 1966, being a “draft dodger,” he joined the Marines (Ha!).  He doesn’t know if Vietnam was right or wrong.  He enlisted to fulfill his military obligation and serve his country.  That’s it.

The Marines put him into Aviation.  There was a sign-up sheet for door gunners.  PJ put his name on it.  However, on leave, he read in the Ft. Madison’s Daily Democrat about one of his friends who was a door gunner and was killed.  Back on base, there was a second sign-up sheet for door gunners.  If you put your name on it the second time, you would be a door gunner.  PJ did not put his name there a second time, and he’s glad he didn’t.  Of the 40 who did, only seven came back alive.  His friend may have saved his life.

PJ was put into hydraulics and pneumatics.  When he arrived in Da Nang there was a rocket attack.  It scared him badly.  But there were so many rocket attacks, they became more of a nuisance.  

He almost shot a South Vietnamese citizen.  The citizen had scaled the fence on the perimeter of the base and was stepping off the distance to one of the buildings.  PJ ordered him to stop.  The Vietnamese was scared because he knew PJ was scared.  The citizen was taken away and questioned.  The next day he was back on base raking sand.  PJ saw other South Vietnamese citizens stepping off distances to buildings.  One of those buildings was hit by a rocket.  The South Vietnamese were selling coordinates to the enemy.   

PJ occasionally saw a truck roll by with two-maybe-three aluminum caskets with dead soldiers.  A couple of times there were two trucks full of caskets.  The building was near by where the caskets were stored.  He could smell formaldehyde.  He got used to that also.

He’s the only Marine you will ever meet who never rode in a helicopter.  He saw a helicopter come in once laden with bodies.  The helicopter caught on a trip wire, crashed and rolled up like a cigar.  There were bodies everywhere.  

PJ didn’t realize how much stress he was under until he went home on leave.  He was standing beside his brother who was 13 years older than him.  In the mirror, PJ looked to be 10 years older than his brother.     

Back on base, a friend told him to look over toward China Beach—the most beautiful beach in the world, according to PJ.  There was a bright colored explosion, the sound wave hit them, they could see the rocket going up, and then it disappeared.  That was when the rocket was coming right at them.  “Incoming!”

Back home after discharge, PJ was not accepted into organizations like the VFW because WW II vets didn’t consider him a “real veteran.”  Now they want him because the WW II Vets are dying off.  PJ says, “Nope.” 

He spent 30 days in a drug and alcohol treatment center in Burlington.  He’s been sober over 30 years now.  He was happily married, but his wife died.  Like many Vietnam Veterans, PJ is reclusive.  He lives in town, but there is a chain link fence on both sides of his house. 

58,000 soldiers died in Vietnam, and more died by suicide after the war.  It’s worse for returning Middle East Veterans.  22 are now dying per day, by suicide!  PJ feels it is because of a lack of decompression time for returning veterans.  They’re in a war zone one day, 48 hours later they’re on the street and supposed to be functioning normal.  It is not the Vietnam Vet that needs help and support now, PJ says, it is the Middle East Veterans.

Vietnam Veteran’s Day is Tuesday, March 29, (the date of withdrawal from Vietnam).  Support and honor your veteran whether they be SE Asia Veterans, Middle East or wherever.  Don’t pamper them.  Respect them.      

Have a good story?  Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, find him on Facebook, email him at curtswarm@yahoo.com, or visit his website at www.empty-nest-words-photos-and-frames.com.

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