He was a handsome young man, tall and blonde, older than the other Freshmen in my Composition and Lit class. We were probably close in age. I was a grad student in the 1960s. He was a Vietnam vet who had served with the Special Forces. I doubt I would ever have known this about him had he not dropped by my office one day to talk about the class. Our conversation soon drifted from classwork to his tour of duty. He was proud of his service and believed in America’s mission in Vietnam, describing his time there with an almost John Wayne bravado. But it soon became apparent how much he needed to talk, to tell his stories, to be believed and appreciated, to be heard. So I listened. For well over an hour, I listened. Most of the graphic details of war he related to me that day I’ve forgotten or perhaps repressed, other than how ears were cut from dead enemy soldiers for souvenirs—although he was quick to point out this wasn’t done by Americans but by their South Vietnamese allies.
There are other things I wish I could remember about him, where he was from, what kind of student he was, what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, his name, if only to blunt the image I have never forgotten: his hands trembling in his lap as he recounted his experience of war.
A marginal student, he was one of many in the 1960s for whom college provided a refuge from compulsory induction into the Army, the dreaded Draft. He spent a semester in one of my Freshman English classes, a nice guy, a student I liked, despite the poor quality of his work. So I kept prodding him, urging him to get his assignments to passing level. At some point after mid-term, his work began to improve. I praised him for this and encouraged him to work harder, that he still had a chance to pass. But when he bombed the final exam, I felt I had little choice but to give him an F for the semester.
A few days later, he came to see me, not to ask why he’d failed, but to ask me to reconsider. His grades had been poor overall and he’d been told he would not be allowed to stay at the university. It was likely, he said, he’d be drafted. But a D in English would keep him in school. I knew there were other grad student instructors, possibly even some professors, those who opposed the Vietnam War as I did, who might have changed a grade solely for this reason. But I didn’t.
I never saw him again. It was only years later, long after the Vietnam Memorial had been constructed on the Washington Mall, even after I had visited The Wall a number of times, that I did what I had not been willing to do before—I looked up this student’s name in the listings of those who had died in Vietnam. When I didn’t find him there, I suppose I was relieved. Yet even today, I still remember his name.