An Overheard Conversation

Just outside of Wilmington, North Carolina I had stopped at a grocery store to pick up a few things before heading to a friend’s house for dinner. It was September of 2023, and I was on the long drive from New England back to my home in the Florida panhandle. The past three days were spent visiting old friends and reminiscing about our families and our time in uniform, but I still had one more stop to make. It was to the home of my former commanding officer, a great leader, and a peerless mentor. We had served together during the early days and years of the War in Iraq, and my visit was long overdue.

As I walked into the market, I noticed two men speaking quietly to one side. Thinking nothing of it, I strode past them but quickly picked up on the subtleties of the conversation. I had, by chance, stumbled into a very private and intimate but somehow public conversation – and in doing so, had unknowingly taken a small step back in time.

Both men donned ball caps, and I noticed the distinctive Republic of Vietnam Service Medal embroidered on both. As I slowed my pace, I heard the energetic voices of young men straining to communicate through the weathered mouths and withered hands of the old men they had become. I paused, feigning to find a cart, and listened more intently. It took me some time to piece together what I was hearing and seeing, but it was clear the two had never met. I listened to them speak softly about their now-distant lives. Spoken in an almost secret code of units, locations, and dates. I heard, “1st Cav, ’69, north of Saigon, and 5th Marines, Phu Bai, ‘68”. Before I realized it was over, the two shook hands, turned, and went their separate ways.

As one of the two stepped towards me, the impact of the conversation was immediately recognizable. In his face, as he looked past and through me, I saw anguish and pain. Something in that simple exchange with another forgotten ghost of the Vietnam War had struck an emotional chord. Whatever senses of loss, frustration, or grief he felt while serving in that war – nearly 50 years after the last helicopters lifted off the US Embassy in Saigon – were still there.