PFC Willie Junior Thigpen.

Death of a Soldier: A Child’s Vietpoint

By Peggy Butler

Beneath the golden sky symbolizing Washington’s ambience, a nostalgic haze looms over the terrain. On this evening, tourists visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall) are deep in thought, as they commemorate the over 58,000 military personnel who lost their lives during the Vietnam War. Peering at their faces, I am suddenly aware that we all share a common bond. But unlike the rest of the visitors, my perception of the Vietnam War is told from a child’s standpoint – from a little girl who discovered all too early – that war is hell.

How shall I start? Should I start in the middle, and leave out the somber details? Or start at the beginning, and tell the story as I experienced it over 40 years ago? Yes, that is what I will do. I will tell you about the images, and about the thoughts. And from there we will meet in the middle.

In the beginning

The ghost of a battlefield strewn with fallen comrades, innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, napalm, exploded bunkers, and all-night ambushes were forever etched in our minds as we experienced the war via television. And as hard as we try, the memories of Vietnam can never be eliminated. Nor should they be.

All of us over the age of 45 were personally affected by the war, as evidenced by the fact that I can still recall men in military uniforms as they delivered those infamous telegrams to families – the ones that began with the words, “I am sorry to inform you that…” The rest of the message notified the recipient of a soldier’s injury, capture, going missing, or death. To further emphasize my point regarding the war’s momentum, we had friends, or relatives, or at least knew someone who was fighting or had fought in Vietnam.

As hard as we try, the memories of Vietnam can never be eliminated. Nor should they be.

To that war, I lost an uncle, who threw himself on a live grenade to protect his squad. Sadly, his death occurred just 12 days before his 21st birthday. And because I was still in elementary school, understanding what had happened was difficult. But over the years I have come to realize that his death had a major impact on my life.

As a woman, it would seem that I have no inkling of the physical and psychological damage the soldiers suffered. But because, in addition to my uncle, my father and another uncle had also served in Vietnam, I can say that I do understand. And from a subconscious standpoint, I have kept a secret regarding the war and my uncle for all this time. It is only through this story that I am finally ready to reveal the secret. I have not told anyone about this secret, but the time has come to tell the story – with total candor.

The secret

A week before my uncle left for Vietnam, I noticed that his once fun-loving demeanor had changed dramatically. Previously outgoing, he now kept to himself. Of course I didn’t realize what was going on. To me, the Vietnam War was just a daily event that I (along with millions of other viewers) observed on the 6 o’clock news. Content with going to school and living my childhood, the war was as foreign to me as the photos in my geography book. But my uncle’s sudden change in character snapped me out of my perfect world, and transported me to a place where, for the first time, I became conscious of the war’s psychological devastation.

Hearing the fear in his voice tells me that he might not make it back alive.

And as hard as I tried to penetrate my uncle’s wall of uncertainty, I could not – until the day he left for the bus station. This is how I remember the events of that day: As the sun sank into its hazy core, the civility of the evening took over. It was then that the foreboding shadows set in. Standing in the middle of room, I observe my uncle. His body is rigid, shoulders slumped, and he is deep in thought. Moving toward him, I notice tears in his eyes. It is at this point that reality and immaturity collide head on.

He looks at me, and quietly says, “I don’t want to go to Vietnam.” Hearing the fear in his voice tells me that he might not make it back alive. Listening to him, all I could do was pat him on the back, in an attempt to ease his pain. But I was just a kid, and since I could not comprehend the meaning of war, my hand on his shoulder was the only consolation I could offer.

As he talked, I listened, occasionally throwing in my childish wisdom, which caused him to smile, and at one point, laugh. Three hours later, when he left our home, I could not shake a strange feeling that came over me when he uttered, “Don’t ever tell anyone what I said, or that you saw me crying.”

That is a secret I have kept until now.

Six months later, when my uncle returned for a visit, he was at peace, and no longer bothered by the worry of becoming a casualty of war. It was at this point that I put away the memory of that long-ago night and buried it.

The knock

Months later, on September 10, 1970, there was a knock at the door. It was two military officials telling us that, “We regret to inform you that PFC Willie Junior Thigpen was killed on September 8, 1970.” I blocked out the rest of the words. Upon hearing the news, Willie’s mother (my maternal grandmother) fainted, and had to be revived with medical assistance. The news of my uncle’s death took a huge toll on everyone, especially his brother and three sisters. For me it was a time of deep sadness. Here was this charming, handsome, and intelligent man – and he was dead at the age of 20. Twenty. An age where you are free to partake in all the privileges of adulthood.

Unfortunately for my uncle, there would be no adulthood. No future. No career. No wedding. No kids. No showing the world what a terrific person he was. His future was forever lost, as his body lay sprawled on the ground near Binh Thuy, South Vietnam, with the wind as the lone backdrop. Thus, five hours after being told that my uncle was dead, I wrote a poem, which I have managed to keep intact despite the now-faded paper it was written on so many years ago.

Unfortunately for my uncle, there would be no adulthood. No future. No career. No wedding. No kids. No showing the world what a terrific person he was. His future was forever lost, as his body lay sprawled on the ground near Binh Thuy, South Vietnam, with the wind as the lone backdrop.

Poem: Thoughts of a soldier before dying.My uncle was awarded a series of medals, including the Purple Heart. He also was posthumously promoted to sergeant. Looking at all those medals, my family beamed with pride. Here was a young man who, like the other thousands of soldiers, made the ultimate sacrifice – their lives. Recalling those moments, my mind slipped back to the night two years before – to the time when I saw the tears in my uncle’s eyes. As days passed, I became more aware of his courage, especially when we learned that he had thrown himself on a grenade to protect his squad. Thus, the awarding of the Purple Heart.

This year marks the 44th anniversary of my uncle’s death, and my memories of him are as strong as ever. I remember his smile and his gentleness. But most of all I remember a man who overcame his fear of death to become an American hero, along with all the others whose names are engraved on The Wall. As I sit typing, I close my eyes and remember his face. In my imagination, my fingers trace his nose, travel to his chin, and we clasp hands. And then, as if on cue, I offer a ceremonial toast, softly whispering, “Here’s to the heroes of all wars.”

To the average American the war ended almost 40 years ago, but for the participants and those who lost relatives and friends, the war will always be there. And for those familiar with the brutality of armed conflict, our sentiments can be summed up in the following words: The world stands still, as heaven and earth unite as one to form the universe. So stands the soldier, poised, ready to fight, and filled with the quivering of valor, relentless and unfaltering in its glory.

 

Peggy ButlerPeggy Butler is a freelance writer based in North Central Florida. She has written for various magazines and Internet publications, including Africana.com and TimBookTu. She lists collecting ’60s memorabilia among her hobbies, writes news, features, sports, and entertainment articles, as well as commentaries and humor pieces. Find out more on her web site: peggysbutler.com.

 

 

 

POEM

 

Poem by Peggy Butler

Thoughts of a Soldier Before Dying

From the four corners
Of the earth
Gun drawn,
My heart stops
As the enemy approaches.

This is the hour
Death is near.
I feel its massive
Teeth, tearing at the
Back of my neck.
Its paws are
Bloodied and bruised.

My God, welcome me as
I enter thy kingdom.

The gun is near
And darkness looms.

Then morning dawns,
So still, so deathly silent.

I am cold beneath
The ground
Yet I live.