Golf offers peace for one American Hero
One of the great things about golf is you get to meet all kinds of people from all different kinds of backgrounds. Doctors and lawyers play with plumbers and carpenters, kids with retirees, rich with poor and the game of golf humbles us all equally.
Usually people play golf as a diversion and an escape. No one ever pries into anyone’s private life but if you play with someone enough you become aware of certain aspects of their situations.
We all have our pasts, our triumphs and tragedies and leave it to others to volunteer what they wish to share.
Although Memorial Day is meant to honor our fallen soldiers, their voices have been silenced so it is left to the living to tell the story.
I have gotten to know a man through golf, who I’ll call Jim to protect his privacy, whose narrative is obviously different. He has only one leg. In recognition of Memorial Day Jim agreed to sit down and tell me his story.
Jim was born in a small town in Maine to a full-blooded Penobscot Indian woman.
In the 1940’s when he was born, the Penobscots had no status as citizens so his birth certificate listed his father as solely responsible. His mother surrendered him at birth and he would grow up not knowing who she was.
He became a star hockey player in high school and part of a team that would win two state championships. Toward the end of his senior year he and some friends were consuming alcohol and a local cop tried to arrest them. Jim resisted and beat up the cop.
When he came before the judge for arraignment the judge said that since there was a little military conflict going on in Southeast Asia he offered Jim the option of joining the military instead of being convicted of assaulting a cop. “The military could use someone with your kind of attitude,” is how he put it.
Three days later, in the summer of 1965, he was on a Greyhound bus bound for basic training at the United States Marine Corps base in Parris Island, S.C. After four months at Parris Island and a couple more at Camp Lejune, he boarded a Navy ship bound for Vietnam.
In December of 1965 he landed in Da Nang, a proud and brave 18-year-old Marine infantryman.
He was part of a scout patrol sent on reconnaissance missions, mostly at night. He was unharmed in those missions until April of 1966 when he took an enemy round off his helmet. The shock fractured his skull, sending bone fragments into his brain. It required two brain surgeries to clean out the fragments.
He could have taken his Purple Heart and honorably discharged out of the Marines at that time. He didn’t. He felt his prospects at home were nil and decided to make the military a career and re-upped. By September of 1967 he was back on the ground in ’Nam, rifle in his hand.
By then the war had escalated and the battles were now with the Viet Cong, the elite forces of the North Vietnam regime. They were bigger, better equipped and more motivated than the regular forces they had engaged previously. Jim took part in major fire fights in Khe San, a “very bad place,” he recalled.
Having survived Khe San, Jim was sent to Hue, the beautiful Imperial City for what he thought would be a break since it was now the Tet holiday season in Vietnam and the North Vietnamese always had a ceasefire during that time of year. Not in 1968. Instead they attacked.
In what would become the bloodiest battle of the war, the Tet Offensive led to the Battle of Hue.
It was there on the steps of the Imperial Palace that Jim’s life changed forever. He was hit hard in the leg by AK-47 fire, dragged to safety by his sergeant and removed to a Navy hospital ship.
With casualties everywhere, he ended up on the floor under a bed where his leg got gangrene. Making it back to Portsmouth Naval Station the doctor gave him a choice; he could save the leg but it would be useless or he could have it amputated and he would “have him skiing Tuckerman’s Ravine by spring.”
Jim went for amputation.
He never made it to Tuckerman’s but did go to college and went on to become a vice president of a billion dollar company. He plays golf regularly with his prosthetic leg and never complains. He’s on his fourth wife but smiles all the time now.
“I’m not bitter. I had my eyes wide open. Not everyone is cut out to deal with the sounds, smells and screams of war. A lot of them could never shake it off,” he said.
Through all his trials Jim took it stoically, like a Marine should, but eventually came to learn that he hadn’t really dealt with his emotions. He had never cried.
It took a visit to The Wall in Washington D.C. where the names of the 55,000 men who died in the Vietnam War are inscribed in black marble. Upon seeing that incredibly moving monument, he finally let it go and sobbed like a baby. It was his own personal Memorial Day and the only way he could honor his fallen comrades.
“I’m a better man for it,” he said.
Wayne Mills can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.