by Mary Pfeiffer
For some forty-eight years, Ronald Kraft harbored a nagging notion of an unfinished task. If he retained a restlessness, a feeling of having left a work not completed, a war not won, he tried to push it aside, catalog it next to things too difficult to talk about. But he couldn’t forget.
He had once been a Marine.
Ronald came of age in the 1960’s when a war in Vietnam threatened to hijack America’s draft-age men. Rather than wait for his inevitable draft notice that offered no choice of time or service, Kraft voluntarily joined the Marines. He was appointed to the rank of First Lieutenant at the same time he received his master’s degree. A few days following graduation along with two hundred eighteen other newly commissioned lieutenants, he reported to the Marine Corps Basic School, a required training ground for all new officers.
In 1967, the escalating war and its rising casualty rate required increasing numbers of troops and lieutenants to lead them. To fill that need, The Basic School (TBS) squeezed training for Kraft’s Alpha Company into five months instead of the usual eight. Their schedule included grueling, often fifteen-hour-days, of combat conditioning, both mental and physical. The new lieutenants quickly came to realize that failure was not an option and that donning a uniform in service to their country wasn’t an abstract idea. With an ever-increasing likelihood that they were going to be involved in a shooting war, the men worked together to strengthen those weaker and encourage the discouraged. In doing so, they forged friendships and pledged support to have one another’s back always.
TBS graduation ended what the young men assumed would be years of camaraderie. The majority were immediately dispatched to Vietnam and assigned as platoon infantry officers. Spread among 82,000 Marines fighting in Vietnam, the classmates of TBS had little means of contact or communication with one another.
Coming home a year or more later, Alpha Company scattered still farther. Even if there had been an easy way to find a fellow officer’s whereabouts, it was time to plunge into the lives they would make for themselves, not to look up Marine buddies. Alpha Company men were three years and more behind those who, having seen no military service, were already making names for themselves in their professional fields. With youth passing too quickly, the men needed to focus on family and careers. They did so quietly. Lessons learned in the war zone—detachment, vigilance, control, anger—were habits not compatible with home and were stuffed away as much as possible.
When retirement from his civilian career finally gave Kraft time to look back and reflect, he wondered how his classmates had fared, if they too experienced vague, un-ended dreams. He emailed and phoned the few former classmates whose locations he knew. They compared their various post-Vietnam experiences and discovered common lingering feelings: hesitancy to speak of their war experiences, dread of stumbling onto someone who had protested against what they had risked their lives for, determination not to appear to “live in the past” or “glorify war.” Wondering if looking back together might bring closure to a time so separated from the rest of their adult lives as to read like fiction rather than fact, and, in doing so, influence their futures, Kraft called for reunion.
He directed a yearlong search for class members, from Acly, P. to Zimmerman, J. Several of the first found joined the search. They combed social media, looking hard at today’s photos to see resemblances to those twenty-one-year olds who stood beside them at muster. They explored in Ancestry.com. They discovered three post-Vietnam military deaths and thirty-one who had passed away during the ensuing years. Eventually they found every class member, widow, or family of a fallen. Phone calls went out to the men; letters invited widows and family of those fallen.
By the time they assembled at a hotel in Fredericksburg, near the Quantico Marine base, the planning for the five-day event was evident in every detail: the opening Welcome Home ceremony, young Marines in dress blues posting the flag against a mango sunset, the national anthem sung over lumps in throats, and the bugler signaling evening roll call before a sobering reading of the names of the fifteen who gave their lives in the war.
Reggie James, Marine turned minister and emcee for the program, stated the purpose for the gathering—to “perform reunion, to get back together, to remember, to reconcile who we’ve become with who we were”—and declared the reunion begun.
Those who came to the reunion included career officers, men who left the Corps for civilian careers, and the classmate whose career ended with one bullet to both legs. The attendees were different from their earlier, physically-fit, shorn-hair, straight-standing selves, though the difference wasn’t as great as might be expected. At seventy, these men retained practiced military postures. Even grayed, bald, or bearded, the men recognized one another. They greeted one another with loud voices and shouted nicknames. Although a map on the class website showed the location of every living member (and burial site of the fallen), they still asked, “Where are you now?” “Retired?” “Did you stay in?”
Conversations accounted for what they were doing in retirement: tutoring kids at a Carlsbad library, authoring a book on Vietnam, bicycling in Colorado, rescuing dogs, making pottery. They came from dentistry, clinical social work, and the priesthood. They took time away from law practices from Maine to Texas. One left his sailboat in New Zealand; another, his fifty-foot yacht in the Bahamas.
The second morning they field tripped to Quantico, site of The Basic School. As the busses pulled into the parking lot, a chorus went up from the men. A new building and air-conditioned classrooms had replaced the stuffy ones they endured. And gone was the mock Vietnam village where they studied Viet Cong tactics and various types of booby traps they would encounter in the sweltering tropical country.
A lieutenant colonel, currently teaching at TBS, addressed the group. He reminded the men—as if they could forget—that The Basic School had to mold Alpha Company like so much clay into leaders who would defend freedom half a world away, their firing kiln the shortened schedule never used before or since. Every day for five months was filled with all they had to learn if they were to survive Vietnam.
He recalled that two dozen brought brides with them to The Basic School, from weddings squeezed in between college graduation, commissioning as lieutenants, and traveling to Virginia. Brides may have thought it time to start their married lives. In truth, their husbands were consumed with preparations for deployment to the war zone. One veteran confirmed what was on every mind. “At TBS I was so focused I’m sure I neglected my new wife. Constant in my mind was the thought, Did I miss something; do I understand it correctly? I had to get it all and get it right.”
The Quantico visit sparked remembered experiences—or escapades—from TBS days: the bachelor party pillow fight that accidently knocked the groom-to-be out cold, the Friday night drinking parties before Saturday morning practice on the obstacle course, their final test—a three-day “war” in an unfamiliar forest when temperatures dropped to record lows with sleet and snow.
Before long, talk took on a serious tone. Wives from TBS days told newer wives that during the final days of school, the men wrote their wills and filled out ready-to-send insurance letters lacking only date and cause of death, “in case . . .” It was a scary time, but neither men nor wives allowed the worry to surface. Husbands didn’t want to worry wives; wives didn’t want their husbands to worry about them.
The men’s conversations that followed compared assignments and experiences in Vietnam. Eventually a voice offered, “Real sad about Allen (or Sandberg or Gray).” Then a silence before someone recalled an incident in Basic School involving their fallen friend. Someone recalled that Ted was the first to fall only three weeks after arriving in Vietnam, before some of the Company finished specialty schools and shipped out. Married while still in college, he left his widow with two small children. These comments cast a somber shadow over the room.
By the fourth day of reunion, with Basic School days revisited and their war experiences shared, friendships renewed. Classmates once again felt trust for one another. They let opinions about the war creep into conversations. Gathered in pairs, sometimes threes, men talked about coming to the reunion. Gerald Aveis admitted, “I had to come to find out what it was like for the others. I needed to discover if they had the same feelings—fear, disappointment, disillusionment—and settle the period in my mind.”
Most of the two hundred four classmen came home with no visible scars from their ordeal. They let themselves imagine that the nation would greet and welcome them and be as thankful for the safe return as the returnees were. Instead, they saw everyone hurrying about their busy lives beneath puffy-clouded US skies. The Marines were treated as if they had just returned from picking up dry cleaning that needed to be put away so they could return to the business of American life. Snatches of conversations mentioned sharp edges. One says they returned from war like pottery shards and fragments of glass. But instead of being ground down and scrubbed until they were polished specimens ready to be displayed and admired like beach glass, he recalled feeling as though he was shoved into a crevice, beyond the tides’ ministering sands, ignored, abandoned to exist with whatever jagged edges the war left on him. Gathered here, they finally could admit their disappointments and disillusionments and turn their talk philosophical. This reunion had, as one man put it, “let me get my old and young selves back together.”
The alums of TBS 68 finished their reunion with a visit to the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Exiting the buses in D.C., everyone paused for a moment to take in the black panels stretching head-high across a sun-spotlighted stage. Without breaking the early Sunday quiet, they separated into couples and threesomes, spread across walkways, consulted lists. Gray heads and navy blazers were patterned over the more than 58,000 names etched into the granite. Come to pay respects, their manner said. A long time coming.
A man of slight build, a 4th Platooner, moved along the wall, passing several panels, pausing, reading, moving on, searching. “Conway.” He traced the letters as though reading Braille, fingers lingering over the name just found. He squinted, lost in thought, then touched a patriotic-ribboned rose to the name, let it drop, moved on. He found others: Hoffmann, Figueroa. When he hadn’t found a name in several panels, he retraced his steps, reread.
“They have to be here. Together,” he spoke to the wife of forty-eight years beside him. He ran his finger along one line then down to the next. “It was the same day, their deaths. They’re grouped by date.”
His wife knelt to inspect names that ran all the way to the ground. “Kelley,” she pronounced, touching a name. “And Knollmeyer.” The final name was spoken as benediction before she stood to watch her husband place a rose in front of this panel. He didn’t stoop but bent slightly and dropped the white flower to the ground. These found names were not among the fallen from TBS Alpha Class.
Speaking almost in a whisper, more to himself than to the one who watched his actions, he claimed, “Seven are mine, my platoon; twelve in the company. We were hit by heavy fire: rifles, machine guns, mortars, grenades … I remember them all … every September … call their families.”
All here knew his story, the man who carried himself confidently, white hair clipped military close, gray eyes, tanned complexion testimony to an active life. His classmates spoke in regret for him, that he should have followed in his father’s, his uncle’s footsteps, both USMC generals. Then they added admiration for the life he had made for himself. They watched for but failed to find hint of his career-ending injury, his souvenir from that September skirmish. Their eyes said they recalled his brief bio, the one each man prepared before the reunion, printed for all to read but never spoken of.
Someone might think that it was foreordained that I would become a Marine, given that my father, uncle, and brother-in-law all served in the Corps; and unquestionably, I was immersed in everything Marine from an early age. … No one ever said to me, “Are you going to be a Marine when you grow up?” However, it was clearly communicated to me that I had an obligation to serve my country.
Several Basic School classmates and I arrived in Vietnam the first week in January, 1968. It was going to be a very bloody year. We just didn’t know how bloody it was going to be.
On the morning of [September] 19th, near the intersection of Route 4 and a railroad berm, the battalion encountered a large force of NVA hidden in holes and trenches concealed by tall grass, banana trees, and a tree line. Fox Company mounted an assault only to be hit by heavy fire. ... In a brief period of time, we had twelve men killed and thirty wounded, of which I was one. One instant I was erect, and the next I was splayed out on the ground. It was as if I suddenly had an amputation without any anesthesia. I kept staring at my right leg, trying to figure out why it was on backwards, with my right heel inches away from my eyes. I was paralyzed, and it was dawning on me that I might not make it. Not once did it cross my mind that I might be wounded and never be the same again, that my “career” in the Marine Corps would consist of ten and a half months in a body cast, rehab, and a medical retirement.
A short distance from the wall, three soldiers frozen in bronze looked on in solemn tribute to the names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their comrades and nation. Time for ceremony. The reunited Alpha Class assembled in front of the statue and assumed its same respectful gaze until eyes were drawn to a Marine in dress blues. He paced a distance to dappled light filtering through tree branches and lifted his bugle. The observers caught their breath at his slow, mournful sounding of “Taps”. Shoulders squared, backs straightened in muscle memory of long-ago training; the moist eyes reflected another kind of memory. Every clear note pulled at hearts with all is well.
Maybe Kraft’s magical five days of reunion accomplished his purpose. Their fallen were honored and remembered. As important, classmates not seen in forty-eight years discovered they had wrestled with common feelings of abandonment and rejection after they returned home from the war. They weren’t and hadn’t been alone in their recollections of a time more difficult than anyone who hadn’t been through it could understand. That realization fostered healing. In reuniting, reconnecting, and remembering, they put back together the pieces that hadn’t fit since that time. As the remaining members of the class—those they referred to as “sitting up and taking nourishment”— were pulled back into the supporting body that sustained them through Basic School, the last jagged edges from that early duty finally were smoothed, allowing them to feel like the polished specimens they are.
From procrastinating to editing to teaching, Mary Pfeiffer loves all aspects of writing. In her teen years, she wrote a weekly newspaper column. Then she taught writing to teachers in her local school district. Currently she teaches Memoir Writing at Collin College in Texas, edits for other writers, and works on her own and her family’s memoirs. Her recent writings are anthologized in Ten Spurs: Best of the Best and Widowhood for Smarties.