Saturdays Long Ago
Remembering the 53,000 Soldiers We Lost in Viet Nam One Name At A Time
By Raoul Dennis // @suitemagazine
Going to our grandparents’ house was a favorite thing for my sister and I on weekends. Our parents would drop us off on a Friday night and I snickered at the idea because I just knew my sister and I were getting the better end of the deal: the food was the best, the oversight was lenient and chores were non-existent.
Actually, there was one chore.
It was my job to wake my uncle on Saturday mornings whenever we stayed over at my grandparents’ house. That was a real job. He was 17, we were in Harlem, NY and he kept his own kind of play dates on Friday nights. I didn’t know much about that at three or four years old, but I had a job to do and I enjoyed my work.
It wasn’t really work at all. My typical routine involved poking at him just enough for him to roll into position so that I could use his chest as a trampoline. Big fun. After what seemed like hours of prodding (naturally, I took breaks to peek at cartoons and to harass my little sister), my uncle would finally wake up giving me the full charge of payback I thoroughly earned.
When my uncle joined the U.S. Army, changing our Saturdays, I didn’t think much of it. I only vaguely remember the uniform he wore or how the weeks became months. I remember the cool jacket he had made for me. It had a 3rd armored division tank on the back – “Hell on Wheels” – and my name on the front. It was the kind of jacket my mother had to make me take off. As far as I was concerned, it was to be worn on all occasions without exception. The only thing cooler than that jacket was the fact that my uncle gave it to me.
He was Uncle Bobby and to me, at the time, he was one in a million. But he became one in some 53,000 when he lost his young life in Viet Nam.
I remember the wake at my grandparents’ house. It was not a Saturday feeling at all. I know the day was about Uncle Bobby but I didn’t understand what this really meant. I didn’t understand the finality of it. The house was full of people and my grandmother was ill from the strain of the day. If there weren’t a doctor there, it sure felt like everyone else was trying to be one around her. I remember being close to the door. I was sure, at the time, that my uncle was going to be coming home soon. I thought they would bring him up the apartment stairs in a wheelchair or something like that. Night fell and he still wasn’t there. Somewhere along the way, I understood the finality of it.
The loss of Robert Milliner was all the greater because he was so young. He’d only been in Viet Nam for a year, and was gone by his 19th birthday. As the youngest of his family the loss created an even deeper cut. Our family wasn’t the only one to feel a deeper loss. The war, steeped in controversy, left a whole generation of young men either dead in the jungles of Viet Nam or scorned and nearly forgotten once they returned. To make matters worse, national leaders knew as early as 1965 that the war couldn’t be won and still we sent young Americans into harm’s way. My uncle was killed in 1968.
For thousands of American families the war left a dual loss. First the pain of the deaths of so many young men as is true with any war, but because of the stigma and controversies affiliated with Viet Nam, we lost our collective ability to mourn their sacrifice as a nation. In too many ways, we turned our backs on these American heroes and at the family level, that made the loss all the more painful and the scars slower to heal.
A new solution is on the horizon to help with the healing and to tell the story of the Viet Nam War soldier to a new generation of Americans.
The aim of the Education Center at The Wall is to tell the stories of the Viet Nam soldiers. According to the site: “nearly half of the 5.6 million people who visit The Wall annually were born after the memorial was constructed in 1982. To them, the more than 58,000 names etched in black granite represent faceless patriots without historical context.”
My family shared the first pictures of my uncle Bobby with the Center just a few months ago. Maybe my great grandchildren will have a few of their own Saturdays. Maybe we all will. Our fathers and uncles and brothers made the ultimate sacrifice because we asked them to. We should be sure to remember them.