War and remembrance: ‘There are so many stories’

Nov 10 2012 - 10:14pm

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Today is Veterans Day and this year marks an event that created a lot of those veterans: The 50th anniversary of the start of our war in Vietnam.

When Dennis Howland and I were talking recently about Saturday's parade, we were both amazed it has been that long. Dennis, a Marine, served 17 months in '66 and '67.

He flew in choppers, pounded the ground, killed the enemy and watched buddies die. He is now your classic grizzled Marine with gray hair, wrinkles and bulldog-bedecked sweat shirt that says "Marines kill 'em all and let God sort it out."

It's bluster. Dennis is a softy.

Having killed other human beings is an experience most veterans carry in painful silence. Concentrating on killing paints a very flat picture of their war experience, which is why many veterans feel misunderstood.

"There are so many stories," Dennis said. "The people of Vietnam were very humble, very hardworking people.

"There was a village near our base and the kids always loved us because we'd give them candy and stuff. One guy ordered a bunch of umbrellas from Sears and handed them out.

"We took them popcorn. They'd never seen popcorn. They called it 'Pop-pop!'

"These villages were very primitive, no running water, no electricity. But it was funny -- you'd go in and ask for a cold Coke, they'd run off and bring you one."

Ice cold. How? He spread his hands in the universal "no clue" gesture.

"We'd go talk to the village elders, and I never wore a watch, but I'd always keep track of what time it was in my head. Some little kid would ask me what time it was and I'd look at my wrist (no watch, remember) and say '11:15,' and they'd go running off to find a clock and prove me wrong.

"They always came back and said, 'Sergeant Time, you're right.' They called me Sergeant Time because I was always doing that. But the kids were great. They'd come back and give me a map showing where the VC had set up bombs along the road.

"If you treated them good and treated them with respect, it would come back 10 times. That's how I got my overcoat made," a raincoat made from his shelter-half, a piece of waterproof cloth soldiers were issued to make a pup tent.

He wore that coat in the Ogden Gulf War parade in 1992.

"A little old lady in the village had a sewing machine and she made that for me," he said.

"But one day I went in the village, it was my last day there, and a little girl asked me what time it was and I told her two hours off on purpose. She looked at me and said, 'Sergeant Dennis, you're going home.'

"I asked her, 'How did you know that, and why did you call me Sergeant Dennis?' and she said, 'Because you told me the wrong time.'

"And the next day I left."

Vietnam veterans complain they feel they've never left the war, and Dennis admits the journey took him 10 years.

"My father, who was a veteran of World War II, sat me down when I first came back and he said, 'Look around you. Your two buddies across the street are gone,' " killed in Vietnam.

"And he said, 'Son, I can't bring you home. All I can do is show you the way, point you down the path, but you have to bring yourself home.

"Unless you bring yourself home, you'll never get here."

I told Dennis I thought his dad was very wise.

Dennis grinned. "Fourth-grade education and the smartest man I ever knew."

The Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. He can be reached at 801-625-4232, or ctrentelman@standard.net. He also blogs at www.standard.net.

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