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5/60th Speech 2008

SPEECH GIVEN BY EMILY STRANGE 
5/60th,  9TH INFANTRY DIVISION REUNION
AT THE ADAM'S MARK IN INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA
JUNE 21. 2007

i flew to desolate fire bases
filled with the tools of war
and the men who used them

it was my job to perform the miracle
of making the war disappear
  (however briefly)
for boys who had been trained to kill

it was my mission to raise the morale
of children who had grown old too soon
watching friends die

it was my calling
to take away fear and replace it with hope
to return sanity to a world gone insane

i was the mistress of illusion
as i pulled smiles from the dust and heat
the magical genie of "back-in-the-world"
as i created laughter in the mud

 

When visiting the firebases, it seemed not to matter what time we arrived.  Somehow you knew exactly when we would land and you planned an odiferous ceremony welcoming us to your bases.  It was called, “burning of the shit.”  No matter what firebase, no matter what time we landed, we were always welcomed by the huge clouds of black, smelly smoke emanating from the 55 gallon drums

I missed my appointment to have my hair cut before coming to this reunion.  I called Sherry to ask if she cut hair and she laughed for a very long time.  Then she reminded me that, when visiting the firebases, combing our hair was optional since, the instant the rotor blades reached full torque, our hair looked like a vacation resort for rats.  No hairspray in the world could outlast the whirling, rushing wind of the rotors.  And no fair ride could give such a thrill.

The Donut Dollie uniform came in 2 styles, dresses and culottes.   I preferred wearing culottes rather than a dress.  There is really no way of getting on a helicopter in a lady like manner.  That first step exposes everything.  But to your credit, none of you guys ever complained.  If you got on the chopper first, you simply sat down, held out your hand and smiled.  You were such gentlemen.

Lunch was interesting at the firebases.  Sometimes it was C-rations.  Sometimes a sandwich.  The choice of drinks was either red or green unsweetened kool-ade made from rice paddy water and flavored with an iodine tablet.

Occasionally they flew out hot chow in those metal containers.  When that happened, the Donut Dollies would serve the food because you guys seemed to think it tasted better if we put it on your tray and gave you a smile.  It was always a good feeling to serve a hot meal at the firebase.  It was a momentary one on one contact with you guys who came through the line.  We would smile, make casual conversation,  ……“how you doing?” …………..“where ya from? ……. “would you like some powdered potatoes?”  Always the smile, always scooping the food gently on your trays with a touch of love.

But these many years later, I would like to give you a behind the scenes look at what was really going on.  I rarely ate breakfast, so by the time we started serving lunch, I was growing weak with hunger.  As all of us experienced, when the sun was high in the Delta, the sweltering heat and humidity sucked the life right out of you.  Standing over those heated containers of ………… heaven only knows what …………... I was getting light headed.  So, as I am smiling, making small talk and gently putting food on your trays, inside I was praying to all that was holy,

“Please Lord, don’t let me pass out, fall head first into whatever is in this container and drown.  If it is my time, please make my death look, at least noble.  Please don’t let the headlines in the “Stars & Stripes” read:

"Donut Dollie Drowns in Container of Shit on a Shingle While Serving the Troops.

MEN DIGGING IN

another firebase playing silly games;
anything to help them remember that
the “Real World” still existed and that
their families were still waiting 
to
welcome them home

some greeted us at the chopper,
carried our game bag,
obviously thrilled to see
a round eye in a skirt

(these eagerly participated in
our silly games)

others came shyly late,
not sure they would know
how to act around girl women
after being in the bush
for far too long;
but, if they stayed,
the eager ones usually
teased them into participating
and even these reticent ones seemed
to transcend the war

(if only momentarily)

as they tried to be the first
to yell out that
Country Joe and the Fish
recorded
“Fixin’-To-Die-Rag”

some never came at all
too macho
or too afraid to remember
that there was another world

______________

down the road there were some men
who’d been in heavy contact, 
taken casualties,
would my partner and i go see them?

(truthfully, I would go anywhere
i was allowed to go
and some places i probably
wouldn't have been allowed
had i bothered to ask)

two jeeps appeared
50 cal machine gun
mounted
on the front of one 

men wearing flak jackets
steel pots
carrying varying weapons
and two donut dollies

(their light blue uniforms
making excellent targets)

drove silently down the road
for what seemed a long time
in this land of sudden death,
then pulled off the dirt path
and came to a halt

i could see maybe 15 boy men
digging in for the night
wearing tattered uniforms
and thousand yard stares
which were unchanged
by the arrival of our jeeps

i got out and began 
walking toward them
as they continued to dig,
oblivious to my presence
until i stood closely 
in front of one boy

as he looked up
his thousand yard stare
momentarily looked past me,
through me,
then transformed to confusion
becoming bewilderment

(a donut dollie was the 
last thing he had expected
to see)

thereupon his eyes revealed a realization:
"if the donut dollies are here,
i must be safe"

(the absurdity of that 
assumption
escaped us both)

and a twinkle appeared in his eyes
which rippled across his face
producing the smile of a 
child receiving his first puppy

..... and once again I felt blessed to have the privilege of being your Donut Dollie.

   

We went to Vietnam from all over the United States.  We were of different races with different backgrounds, different religions and we had different reasons for going to Vietnam.

We came home and went to different states, different circumstances and went our separate ways, making different lives for ourselves.

Yet, despite all those differences, the fact that we all served in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam gives us a bond that cannot be broken by the differences of our coming and going.  It is the being there that bonds us.  It is the reason we are all here tonight.

No matter where you were in the Delta, you could not escape the heat, the monsoon rains, the dust and mud, the incoming rounds.  We were all, at one time, the FNG. We learned quickly to distinguish incoming from outgoing.  We can still hear the sound of the rotors. And we all remember those who did not come home.

Words can never explain to someone who was not there what it was like to serve in Nam.  But here, these many years later, together at this reunion, our experiences are shared with an understanding that surpasses words.  We understand the reality of war and the bond it forges.  

We have our own secrete language:  
Beaucoup  
Ti Ti 
Nuoc Mam  
MPC  
Number One  
Number 10  
dinky dao  
xin loi

 

I am honored to stand here tonight in a room full of heroes.

Every one of you here tonight is a hero.  No matter where you came from or what your job was in Nam, when America called, you answered.  You put your life on the line for your country.  In most of Vietnam, but especially in the Delta, there was no “rear,” no “safe places.”  In the Delta, everyone was a potential target.

Many of you were decorated for your bravery.  Too many of you earned Purple Hearts.  Many of you earned awards but never received them.  That does not diminish your acts of bravery.

I know that some of you believe that you are not heroes.  Maybe you can’t think of an incident which allowed you to earn the title of “hero.”  And yet, you may have saved lives without even knowing it.  Maybe one of the new guys watched you out in the field, followed your example and, because of you, did not do something that got him wounded or killed.  Maybe you went on a mission to replace someone else and walked 3 steps to the right of the booby trap that would have killed the man who stayed behind.  Maybe you said a few kind words that you don’t even remember that made a guy feel good about himself and gave him the courage to save someone’s life.  Maybe you took the time to listen to someone who desperately needed to say aloud what he felt inside and gave him the will to live.

And, if you were the one who stayed home, the wife, girlfriend, son or daughter, and you stayed home and prayed for a year that your man would come home safely, you are also a hero.  If your man came home wounded, either in body or in spirit, and you stayed with him and helped him get through the horrors of war he could not leave behind, you are a hero.  Even if you met him many years after Vietnam and have come with him to this reunion, you are a hero.

For many of you, the war did not end when your freedom bird touched down on American soil.  Sadly, you were not welcomed home as the heroes you are.  But, because of what you endured when you returned, you have made life better for those who followed you to war.  

It is because of what you endured when you returned from Vietnam, that the soldiers now returning from war are welcomed as heroes.  You taught America that, no matter the politics of the war, the troops are serving for the American people.  It is because of you that people stand in airports and shake the hands of men and women in uniform saying, “welcome home” and “thanks for your service to our country.”  It is a great legacy that you have left and I know the price you paid to leave that legacy to this generation.

It is because of how the families of those killed in Vietnam were treated that there is an outpouring of sympathy and caring for the families of those who are lost in the current wars.  Some of you have ridden your motorcycles to funerals to allow those families to feel the respect they deserve for their sacrifice.  

And it is because you still care about those families whose loved ones did not come home, that you are still helping to heal the wounds of war which occurred so long ago.  It is why you welcome the members of our Gold Star families as members of your Vietnam family.  We all understand what was lost in Vietnam and we all feel the bond that can never be broken.

 

A guy who found my website, James (Snake) Stone had intended to come to the MRF reunion for only 1 day because he had prior commitments.  But at the last minute he emailed me that ………… 

I had planned to stop by on the 30th for the day but I'll have to continue my trip further north instead of stopping in to meet everyone for the 1st time in 37 years. I have been communicating with Albert. I have yet to meet him. So please forgive me if I feel a little un-easy. I don't know what to expect. I know all will be OK. We all have changed over the years.  

I began writing a reply to Jim’s email and found myself expressing things that are meant for all of you here tonight.  So I will share them with you.  

My Dear Brothers,

You are correct that we have all changed in the 30++ years since we were in Nam.  Our exteriors are not as buff or perky as they once were – darn gravity.  Those of us who still have hair are getting to the point that the color of our hair is all the same.  I prefer to think of it as really light blonde. 

But when we look at each other, we don’t see the physical ravages of time.  We see the kind heart, the generous spirit, the caring soul that is the essence of our being.  We see friends who have shared the time in our life that changed us forever and we see the love in their eyes. 

We are not as strong as we were back then.  I don’t think there is even one guy here who could now hump 5 klicks with a full pack in the Delta heat.  Yet, our strength of character has not diminished.  It has grown even stronger with the passing of years, strengthened by those difficult times when we felt we could no longer go on, could no longer stand the pain, the sadness, the hurt, the loss, the guilt.  And we have gained the gift of compassion.  

Our internal organs don’t function as well as they did back then.  Most of us know the true blessing of a flush toilet complete with paper.  But, though our hearts may not beat as steadily as they once did,  the depth of our love for each other has grown and blossomed and produced the fruit of friendship which we gladly share with each other.  There is nothing sweeter.  

Our minds may not be as sharp as they use to be, but we have gained the wisdom of years, the knowledge taught by life’s lessons.  We have learned to laugh at ourselves and don’t mind if others join in.  We tease each other mercilessly, as only those who share a great trust can.  Together we laugh until we cry and cry until we laugh.  We have learned that tears are not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of humanity.  

 Our memories may not be as sharp as they use to be, but we have each other and when we are together, the memories come flooding back and it is as if we have never been apart.  And it is a blessing to get together and make new memories.  

Best of all, the Brotherhood has grown stronger with each passing year.  It was forged so many years ago in a place far away called the Mekong Delta, where life and death hung in the balance and was measured in inches.  It was built on a solid foundation of trust, assembled brick by brick with the courage of those who have faced the horrors of war side by side.  Its’ steel girders have been tempered by the baptism of fire.  And through the years, its’ interior has become gloriously beautiful as the gentle, caring souls welcome each other into the camaraderie which has bonded forever our family of Vietnam Vets.   

So I say to you, do not feel uneasy about meeting your brothers and sisters of war.  You are a cherished member of our family and we’ve been waiting to welcome you home.  Please, come in.

 

All of you here tonight deserve to stand tall and feel proud of your service.  Many years ago in Nam, you were my heroes.  Standing here tonight, you still are. 

Welcome home and thank you for your service to our country. 

emily strange
© 6/08

 

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