“Always A Soldier”
“Earth to Jon.” called Ponch over the roar of their motors.
Jon looked over at his partner and grinned apologetically. “Sorry Ponch.”
“Hey man, me thinks you’re already on vacation!”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Well ol’ buddy, you’re on Getraer’s time for 3 more hours.”
“So, you got any big plans for your week of freedom?”
“Not really. I’m just going to visit some old friends.”
* * *
Jon found his seat and sat down with a sigh. Looking out the window at the
rainy morning, he watched as the plane took off, then reached into his bag
and pulled out a dog- eared book. He opened it to the place he’d marked and
began to read.
……”One morning in Saigon she’d asked what it was all about. “This
whole war,” she said, “why was everybody so mad at everybody else.?”
I shook my head. “They weren’t mad, exactly. Some people wanted one thing,
other people wanted another thing.”
“What did you want?
“Nothing, ” I said, “to stay alive.”
Kathleen sighed. “Well I don’t get it. I mean, how come you were even
“I don’t know,” I said. “Because I had to be.”
I tried to find something to tell her, but finally I shrugged and said,
“It’s a mystery I guess. I don’t know.”
Jon closed the book and looked out the window. All he could see was
swirling gray clouds.
“How come you were even here?” That phrase echoed through his mind. He’d
asked himself that question a million times. Wes had asked him once too.
He’d never been able to come up with an answer that satisfied him. Tim
O’Brien had it right. It was a mystery.
He’d been shipped over a week after he’d graduated high school. Just 18.
Too young to vote, to young to drink, barely old enough to drive a car, but
somewhere someone had decided he was old enough to go to war. Mom had cried,
while dad had just gone out to the stables and taken Nailbiter, their
wildest stallion and ridden him hard, till both of them were dripping in
He’d gone from riding his old jalopy to driving a tank, and from there,
diving off a plane into jungles with names he’d never remember but sights
and smells he’d never forget. He went back to the book and continued to
“This little field, I thought, had swallowed so much. My best friend. My
pride. My belief in myself as a man of some small dignity and
courage……..For 20 years this field had embodied all the waste that was
Vietnam, all the vulgarity and horror.”
Jon closed the book, blinking back tears.
* * *
He stepped out of the airport and blinked in the bright sunshine. On the
cab ride to his hotel, he admired the fall foliage. You’ve been in
California too long, he told himself. You almost forgot there are seasons.
As the cab sped by Capitol Hill, he spotted a sign taped to a fence :
“STOP PUTTING MONEY IN YOUR POCKETS! GIVE IT TO POLICE AND FIREMEN!!”
He grinned. You tell em.
“That’ll be ten bucks.”
Jon paid the driver and walked into the hotel. He was looking forward to a
hot shower and a good meal.
* * * *
He zipped his jacket and stepped out into the crisp November air. He
walked toward the mall, admiring the scenery. He’d never been this far east
before. He stopped to watch as two Metro Police motor officers drove by. I
wonder what their beat is like. He chuckled. Probably as dull and exciting
as ours, he thought.. Then again, he and Ponch didn’t have the White House
on their beat. He smiled to himself and crossed the street.
When he reached the Washington Monument, he sat on a bench and slipped his
sunglasses on. Jamming his hands in his jacket pockets he stared at the
towering monument as it soared up into the morning sky. There was a time,
when he was a boy, that he’d dreamed of coming here, of seeing the heart of
the country he loved so much. He’d been so mad when he’d come down with
Chicken Pox 2 days before the class field trip here. God how things had
changed since then! Two years after they’d sent him away, an innocent, naive
boy, they’d sent him home a man, all of 20 years old. After being debriefed
in Hawaii, he’d taken a flight to LAX, where Caroline, her husband, and baby
Wes were waiting for him. He stepped off that plane in full uniform, so
happy to be home, so proud to have served his country, so thankful to be
alive….and then he saw them…a small group of antiwar protesters. They’d
descended on him like a swarm of bees, shouting angrily. He didn’t
understand then. Did they think he’d wanted to spend two years in the jungle
fighting a war he couldn’t make sense of? Still they taunted him. They made
him feel ashamed, and that made him angry. The next thing he knew he’d
grabbed their sign and torn it to shreds. He’d had 2 or 3 minutes of self
satisfaction, then it happened. He felt the slick warmth of saliva sliding
down his cheek onto the medals that lay on his chest. They’d spit on him.
Funny, how a few drops of saliva could wash your dignity, your self worth,
He sighed and stood up. It was time. He walked with his head down until he
reached it. Looking up, it took his breath away. So this was it. He just
stood there, taking in the glistening ebony granite rising from the earth.
His eyes swept over the thousands of momentos left behind. Roses, dog tags,
poems and letters, stuffed animals and crucifixes. He took a deep breath and
moved closer. When he reached out and ran a hand across the names, it was
like a jolt of electricity had shot through his arm. He held back a sob as
he ran his hands over one name, “Bryan Garrison”
Oh God, he thought to himself…oh Bry…it’s been so long….but I swear
I haven’t forgotten ya. He’d met Bryan in boot camp, and they’d quickly
become best friends. He was from Oklahoma, and shared Jon’s dreams of being
a cowboy. At night they’d lie awake and read Louis L’amour novels aloud to
each other. They were overjoyed at being assigned to the same unit, and
cried together when they realized they were going to war. Even though they
were scared to death, they thought they were invincible…until….his mind
took him back to that day…
They’d been on patrol in the jungle outside Quang Ngai. The unit was on
its way back to its copter when Jon had come across the body of a small dog.
It had somehow gotten itself caught in the middle of it all and had been
rewarded with a bullet in its head. He stopped and began to dig.
“Hey Jonny, whatta ya doin?” Bryan asked, turning to watch.
“I’m digging a grave for the poor thing.”
“C’mon will ya? We gotta go!”
“I’ll only be a minute…go on ahead. The little guy deserves a decent
Bryan laughed. “I’m telling ya Jonny, that bleedin heart of yours is gonna
git you in trouble one of these days!”
As he turned and left, Jon finished digging and buried the little dog. As
he tamped the ground in place, he heard the chopper start up. He began to
run. Just as he got there, a VietCong plane appeared out of nowhere. Jon
dived into the thick underbrush and looked up just in time to see a rocket
hit the chopper as it struggled to escape. It exploded in a tower of flames.
“NOOO!!!” he screamed, running toward it as soon as it was safe.
“Jonnyboy…it’s too late.” said a ragged voice.
He looked over in the brush and saw Bryan lying there.
“Bry!” he shouted, running over.
His joy turned to horror as he dropped to his knees next to his friend.
His chest was torn apart, and his left leg was missing.
“Hold on ol buddy..I’ll get you to help.”
“Hey..speakin of bleeding hearts…”
“Don’t talk okay? Just lie still.”
“I take it back.”
“Take what back?”
“What I said about your bleedin heart. It saved your damn ass this time.”
“No it didn’t! If you all hadn’t been waiting for me-”
“Jonny…we were having engine trouble…” he coughed.
“Hold on Bry..”
“Jonny…guess I’ll be seein ya…”
“Bry, you’re gonna be fine..”
“Hey Jonny, you suppose there are cowboys in heaven?”
“I dunno Bry.”
“Maybe I’ll be the first…ahh…”
And that was it…Bryan died there in the glow of the burning chopper.
He’d fallen over, sobbing like a baby…then he’d thrown up.
Damn it..Jon thought, blinking back tears as he stared at the name etched
in front of him. He was only 19 years old….all he’d wanted to be was a
cowboy…..and all he’d become was a name on a wall. The only reason the
name “Jonathan Baker” wasn’t carved up there on the cold granite too was
because he’d let himself feel sorry for a little dog. A nameless mutt. That
damned bleeding heart of his really had saved his life, and it had gone on
to turn him into a “different kind of cop” or so he’d been told. He was
still holding out hope that he wasn’t, despite what was going on with the
LAPD. What a world. Wiping his eyes , he reached into his pocket and pulled
out a set of dog tags. Bryan’s dog tags. He thought again of the smiling,
sandy-haired boy from Oklahoma, kissed the tags, then set them down gently
at the foot of the monument. Then he sought out the names of his 13 other
unit mates, saying a silent prayer for each. Fourteen boys, full of dreams
and fears, hopes and desires, had their lives snuffed out like the flame on
a candle. And when it came down to it, no one had really noticed or cared.
He cared. As far as he was concerned, they’d left a hole in the world, and
in his heart, that would never be filled.
He reached into his shirt and pulled out another set of dog tags, running
his fingers over the warm metal. “Baker, Jonathan A., PFC,” it read. He
pulled them over his head and clutched them in his fist. With a shuddering
sigh he laid them next to Bryan’s. Jon Baker, soldier was finally laid to
rest. He wiped his eyes again and looked up into the sky. The sun had
disappeared and a light snow was falling. From somewhere behind him, he
heard a bagpipe begin to play Amazing Grace. The sudden wail of a siren
interrupted it. Jon began to laugh.
“Who am I kidding?,” he said aloud, “I’m still a soldier, aren’t I? I’m
just fighting in a different war now. It may not make any more sense than
‘Nam did, but at least I have a chance to do some good in this one. ”
He settled into his seat for the long flight home. He was glad he’d come.
After he’d left the Wall, something in his heart has slammed shut, but
something else had swung wide open, He pulled his book out and opened it.
“That old man,” she said, “is he mad at you or something?”
“I hope not.”
“He looks mad.”
“No,” I said, “All that’s finished.”
Jon closed the book and sighed. Yep, he thought. All that’s finished.
* * *
“Hey partner!” Ponch called as he pulled up next to him at the Glendale
overpass,” Welcome back!”
“So, how was your vacation? What did you do?”
Jon took off his sunglasses, looked up into the sunny morning sky and
smiled. “Oh, nothing much. Like I said, I just went to see some old
“I bet they were glad to see you.” Ponch grinned.
“I hope so.” Jon slipped his sunglasses on. “I sure hope so.” Tears
glistened in his eyes.
“Will I ever get to meet these friends?” Ponch asked, fastening his
“Someday, Ponch, someday.” Jon replied softly. As he started his motor and
drove away, a single tear slipped down his cheek.
NOTE: Book Excerpts from “The Things They Carried” By Tim O’Brien Copyright