I knew my mother was proud of me, but I was oblivious of her suffering as she yearned for me to return from Vietnam for virtually the entire year of 1968. It was she, alone, who prayed for my safety every waking moment, wrote to me every week, and remained vigilant in order to keep me abreast of family, friends, and my peculiar interests on the home front.
Mother wasn’t the only woman in my life as I went off to war, but she was the only one unchanged at the end of my tour. I had a sweetheart, but our courtship had begun after I had my orders for Vietnam, and, I believe, we both knew the intensity of our romance was affected by the impending separation and its potential for tragedy. One of my sisters was very young, and the other was very close and caring but pre-occupied by her life in college, just as she should have been.
The burden upon my mother is, in retrospect, the best reason I had to avoid the war, the stupid, undeclared and illegal war. I’ve often thought that if I’d known my wife in 1967, I could not have left her for a year, even with assurances of a safe assignment, and she would not have let me go to kill or be killed. An alternative would have presented itself in spite of my training, my commission, my patriotism, my affinity for politics. My mother, though, would not tell me not to go. My father, after all, had gone to war when he didn’t have to. In no danger of the draft because he was clergy and over 30, he volunteered to be a chaplain and, with an infant son and Mother pregnant with me, sailed away from his bride for two years in the Pacific Theatre of WWII. We were all fortunate enough to have him return before my brother’s 3rd birthday.
It really had not occurred to me that I might die in Vietnam. I was 23 and invulnerable. I had also taken care not to be in a combat branch of the army, which, as it turned out, made very little difference, and I didn’t hesitate to tell my family after I had come under fire. Mother had been there, too. Dad was a chaplain on a large repair ship, but that ship had guns, too. And late in the war, it was targeted by Kamikazes. Vietnam was closer, more immediate, “the first war to be televised.” There were constant reminders that I might be in harm’s way.
My mother would have told you that her faith was enough to get her through both wars and bring her men home safely, but her children saw the wear and tear. Most of us were gullible about those wars. We thought there was something noble, perhaps even great, about fighting for one’s country. My mother was not spared as we learned otherwise. We even robbed her of her belief that the Atomic bombing of Japan had brought her husband home sooner and safer, and that our country would never tolerate the massacre of innocents. And she accepted the truth with less resentment than I, without rancor, but with compassion and sadness for those whom we had labeled enemies.
By 1997, my mother had taken on a new burden, peacemaking. At the age of 85, she was bearing victims and survivors and opponents of the selective wars of the U.S. She joined me and hundreds of others marching to our arrests at Ft. Benning, Georgia in opposition to the notorious School of the Americas, an action she cherished for the rest of her life.
-Lewis R. Nelson, 1st Lieutenant, U.S. Army Reserves.
Combat Boat Platoon Leader, 9th Infantry Division, Mekong Delta, 1968.