Arlo Guthrie, ‘When a Soldier Makes It Home’ (Live)
At first there was no particular holiday or anniversary spurring this Video Moment for the Ages selection. It grew out of a purely personal moment, the result of rummaging through boxes of forgotten lore while doing research for my book-in-progress Texas League, 1961, which will be part memoir about a special friendship four boys shared in our youths on the north side of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and how that friendship–and our fates, it seemed–was inextricably linked to the fate of the Tulsa Oilers’ Double A baseball club of 1961. At the bottom of an unmarked box I found letters from my childhood friend Richard Moxley, dated 1970. They were sent from Vietnam, where he was doing his first tour of duty after being drafted the year before. It wasn’t long after receiving the last of the letters, in which he told of his platoon preparing to go into Cambodia—this, while the Nixon administration was insisting our troops were not going into Cambodia—that Mox’s mother called to tell me Richard had been seriously wounded but was still alive. After a few weeks he was back in the States, a patient at the hospital on the Army base in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. When I made my first visit to him, his head was wrapped in bandages and his right side was paralyzed. A mine had exploded under a boat he was in, and all he now knew was that part of his skull was left in the river he was blown into. I’m happy to report he eventually recovered from his terrible injuries and regained the use of his right arm and leg again, and now, all these years later, is retired from the U.S. Post Office and living life large back home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with his lovely wife and beautiful daughters. The war had once reduced this former all-conference high school tackle to a disabled shell of his former robust self, but, never a quitter, Mox overcame his personal obstacles and has lived a successful, honorable life. When I reflect on his journey, the final words Charlie Sheen’s character speaks in voiceover at the end of Platoon completely possess me: “Those of us who did make it have an obligation to build again, to teach others what we know, and to try with what’s left of our lives to find a goodness and a meaning to this life.”
Then there was Monty, another high school buddy, full name Dwight Montgomery Durham. He was the first in our Central High Class of 1967 to go to Vietnam,preceding Mox by two full years (they didn’t know each other). Maybe I didn’t know him as well as I thought, because my Monty was a peace loving soul, a gifted thespian seemingly destined for–and indeed dreaming of–entering a drama program at a top-tier university. To this day I have no idea why Monty enlisted in the Army but enlist he did, con gusto. Some of the mystery of Monty that had shadowed and bedeviled me all these years was solved only days ago, when I stumbled across a website billing itself as “the Official web page of Vietnam veteran LRRP/Rangers who served in the 1st Cavalry Division from 1966 until 1972.” There I found a story headlined “Everyday Hero” by Katie Meisel. It tells of Monty Durham’s life and of what happened to him in Vietnam. I learned, to my complete astonishment, that the quiet, sensitive aspiring actor I knew underwent a dramatic personality change after enlisting. “He went from Beaver Cleaver to Rambo in 18 months” observes his best friend from childhood. After eight months in the Army he was a Sergeant in the three-year-old Ranger division and was known to his peers as “Bull.” On Thursday, April 10, 1969, while engaged in combat in the Tay Ninh province of South Vietnam, Monty suffered fatal multiple fragmentation wounds. He died with two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star medal and a Bronze Star on his resume. Now his name is engraved in the gabbro of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., on Panel 27W. When I touch his name on the wall, I see my reflection staring back at me and it’s always searching, wondering, Why? Why?
So when I stumbled upon this Arlo Guthrie video, it brought back those times, how Mox was never honored for his service and sacrifice; how Monty was buried without fanfare in Fort Gibson National Cemetery in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, but was at least back on native soil and in peace. I am reminded that the men and women serving in our armed forces today are coming back Stateside with too little of the respect and compassion they deserve, much less the services they need to adjust to civilian life and to overcome horrific injuries, physical and otherwise. The carnage just goes on. And, as I immersed myself in my personal connection to the Vietnam War, I realized Veteran’s Day was approaching; and I wondered, Why do we honor these brave souls with but two special days a year (Memorial Day, honoring those who died in service to their country, and Veteran’s Day)? So make every day Veteran’s Day, I say, and treasure Arlo’s song “When a Soldier Makes It Home” as a powerful reminder of things we need remember most. -–David McGee, New York City, November 2015