A Life of Burden: The Unsung Heroes of War
Valerie Schofield ’09
Every year, millions of tourists flock to Washington, D.C. in order to acquaint themselves with the history of our nation’s capitol. In the spring, they congregate by the thousands just to watch cherry blossoms bloom. During the summer months, the city is littered with tour buses and out-of-state vehicles. In the fall, the sounds of Rolling Thunder rumble across the Potomac. For many of these riders, they make their way into the capitol with one place in mind as their final destination – The Wall at the Vietnam Memorial. In lieu of fanny packs and souvenir ball-caps, these visitors sport bomber jackets signifying their old units with patches designating what battles they fought in. These motorcyclists, as well as veterans, reservists, and active duty military personnel, converge on this sacred ground on Veteran’s Day in order to share their grief and remember those who went to war and never made it back – those that died not just to protect the freedom of the United States, but to protect the right to freedom on an international scale. They gave their lives to protect the civil liberties of perfect strangers.
While the tourists that come in the spring and summer seek to take back photographs, souvenirs, and knowledge of our nation’s history, the men and women that gather at the Vietnam Memorial seek to remember, honor, and grieve. They seek not to take but to give. Like the men in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, where O’Brien fictionalized the treatment of his own experiences in Vietnam, they bring with them objects and emotions that they have continued to carry throughout the years. They lend support to one another as they partake in a ritualistic day of mourning. The loss of a brother or sister in arms is an emotion few will ever come to know and understand, as it leaves a hole in one’s heart that never fully heals. What they do end up taking back is comfort in knowing that they are not alone.
I have been to The Wall countless times throughout my life with my father [Linn Schofield ’60], and I can say with assurance that I think more people should go there. The effects of war are felt long after soldiers lay down their weapons and peace treaties are signed. Soldiers take with them emotional wounds that inflict more damage than any piece of shrapnel or mortar round ever could. My father, like many other men and women, fought in a war that most Americans choose to forget. Unlike the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the public outwardly supports the troops but not necessarily the war, soldiers during Vietnam were not as fortunate as they took the brunt of public disapproval. While protestors may not have spit on them as many myths have claimed, returning soldiers from Vietnam did not receive the support that was rightfully earned and rightfully theirs. They were the heroes that we Americans needed, but not necessarily the heroes we deserved.
With a lack of medical and emotional support services from both the government and the community, many veterans suffer in silence. Whether it is one of the many forms of post-traumatic stress syndrome or shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or simply not being able to comprehend the ugliness of war, these men and women carry with them a burden unbearable to the common man. In spite of all the hurt and pain they carry inside, they continue to move forward, one day at a time because soldiers are expected to be stoic. We look up to them and we respect them because they are examples of perfect discipline. They provide us with physical security and comfort. They are brave and show no fear, even in the most trying of times. I think that in spite of what a soldier may do in battle, we forget that they, too, are human.
Something happens to servicemen and women that return to The Wall on the 11th day of the 11th month of every year. From all across the country and from all walks of life, my father included, they come to the wall and they remember. They allow the memories that they have chosen to forget live once more, just for a day. As I make my way along The Wall, I cannot help but feel transported back in time. These everyday adults become temporarily transformed into adolescents, some no more than seventeen years of age, as they exchange stories that link them to people and places that are no more. They recount humble beginnings in towns with more cows than people and they discuss the heartache of being away from home for the first time in their lives. They swap tall tales about near death experiences and chuckle over rebellious R & R exploits. More importantly, they allow themselves to hurt and feel the pain of their past. On this day, Veteran’s Day, emotions of remorse and sadness that have been packed and carried by individuals affected by the war begin to surface. Some keep to themselves while others talk amongst each other, but both do so in an effort to relinquish their burden to The Wall.
For my father and I, we make the trek down to The Wall every November 11th. We try to get there early in the morning before the crowds begin to swarm and the dedication ceremonies go into full swing. If we are lucky, we find a parking spot on one of the nearby side streets and make the short walk over. Although my dad goes to the memorial empty handed, he goes with a heavy heart. We slowly meander through the multitude of people that have already begun to congregate around the memorial. We walk in silence, passing each slab of black granite and the immortally etched names of thousands, until we reach Panel 28E. We count from the top of the panel until we find Line 105 - Riley’s line.
If you were to look up Capt. Riley Leroy Pitts, you would know that he was born on October 15, 1937, in Fallis, Oklahoma. You would find out that he majored in Journalism and graduated from Wichita State University’s Army ROTC program as a 2nd Lieutenant. He had a wife, Eula May, and two kids; a son named Mark and a daughter named Stacie. What you would not know is that Riley and my father were stationed together in Orleans, France, and quickly became best friends. They ate lunch together everyday and even held a joint promotion party when they both made the rank of Captain. As a young buck officer, my father befriended an E5 cook that worked in the General’s mess hall and thus, he and Riley were able to sneak into the uppity dining facilities on a regular basis where they got a taste of the “good stuff.”
Even though they both worked for U.S.A. Communications Zone Europe (USACOMZEUR), my dad as the sports director and Riley as a public affairs information officer, their different jobs eventually led them to take different paths. Both deployed to Vietnam but only one made it back. Riley was an extraordinary person who gave the ultimate sacrifice by giving his life to save the lives of ordinary men. On October 31, 1967, just one month before he was to be rotated back home, he and his unit were called upon to provide support to another company that was heavily engaged against a strong enemy force. As the company commander of Charlie Company “Wolfhounds,” 2d Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, Riley moved his men forward until heavy fire halted their offensive movement. With rifle fire proving ineffective due to the dense jungle foliage, Riley began pinpointing enemy targets with a M79 grenade launcher. He then lobbed a grenade taken from a seized Viet Cong’s web gear at a bunker to his front only to have the grenade hit the jungle foliage and rebound back towards him and his men. Without hesitation and with complete disregard for his own safety, Riley threw himself on the grenade, which fortunately failed to explode.
Riley then took on the task of repositioning his men to permit friendly artillery to be fired. Upon completion of this mission, he once more led his men toward the enemy positions, and once more they followed. He then put himself directly in harm’s way in order to place effective fire on the enemy, pinpointing the Viet Cong’s fortified positions, all the while directing and urging his men forward, until he was mortally wounded. “His conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and intrepidity at the cost of his life, above and beyond the call of duty, are in the highest traditions of the U.S. Army and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the Armed Forces of his country (U.S. Army Center of Military History).” On December 10, 1968, President Lyndon B Johnson went on further to say that, “What this man did in an hour of incredible courage will live in the story of America as long as America endures – as he will live in the hearts and memories of those who loved him. He was a brave man and a leader of men. No greater thing can be said could be said of any man” (The New York Times). Capt. Riley L. Pitts, the beloved husband and father of two from small town America, was the first African American commissioned officer to receive the Medal of Honor.
In The Things They Carried, O’Brien states that soldiers are afraid of dying but are even more afraid to show it. While there is validity in that statement, I do not think that in Riley’s case that assertion holds true. I think that Riley was more afraid to live with the loss of the men that served under him. He carried not only the weight of his own life, but the lives of the men that depended on him. While his rank commanded their respect and their loyalty, these things were given to him because he respected his men in return. My father says he was a thoughtful, generous man who was well liked by all who knew him. I wholeheartedly believe that when Riley looked at the soldiers he led, he saw not just the person that stood in front of him, but the families and communities that stood behind each and every one of them. As President Johnson stated during Riley’s Medal of Honor ceremony, Riley was a brave man and a leader of men in his final hour. He kept Charlie Company moving and he kept them alive. He did not allow his men “to submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply close the eyes and fall.”
The Army is a transient organization where people come and go on a regular basis. Keeping in touch with everyone a person meets during his or her career is a hard thing to do, even if they have the best intentions to do so. But for some people, like my father, there are people who they meet who they will never forget. For my father, Riley was that person. On our most recent trip to The Wall, I asked my dad what he missed most about Riley. For a while, he did not respond. As we strolled past the Lincoln Memorial, he somberly replied, “God he was funny. He always had a joke.” While my father never suffered the effects of Agent Orange or the psychological effects of PTSD, the Vietnam War took its toll and left its mark. A good man had fought and died not because he hated what was in front of him, but because he loved what was behind him. As we walked back to our car and made a second pass of The Wall, I looked at the immortal names of men my father might have known, faces he might have seen, lives that may have touched others in the way Riley touched his.
In lieu of recent news reports that discuss Iraqi and Afghan war veterans suffering from PTSD, one must remember that no one survives war without being altered in some way, whether it is physically, mentally or emotionally. Many returning Gulf War veterans suffered not only from PTSD, but a multitude also began suffering a wide array of ailments collectively known as Gulf War Syndrome. Much like victims of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War era, little was done for these veterans during the initial onset of the disease. Only now, almost twenty years later, governments worldwide are acknowledging the claims of soldiers deployed to the Gulf region during the 1990-1991 conflict and that they are suffering from an inexplicable ailment. According to the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, fatigue, mood-cognitive, and musculoskeletal systems are often involved, with those who also developed PTSD clearly having elevated rates of illness (Golomb 2008). Of approximately 700,000 deployed U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf, epidemiological studies estimate that 26 – 32%, or 182,000 – 224,000 soldiers, may have chronic health problems related to acetylcholinesterase inhibitors as a result of prolonged exposure to pesticides, low level sarine nerve agent, and the nerve agent pre-treatment carbamate pyridostigmine bromide (Steel 2000). With mounting medical evidence that validates the symptoms of Gulf War veterans, we cannot turn our backs on them as we have in the past.
The vast majority of soldiers that suffer from the effects of war do so knowing that there is no definitive cure for whatever ails them. Lost limbs cannot be replaced, clean slates of conscience cannot be given to a troubled mind, and painful memories cannot be erased. What many seek is not necessarily a cure as much as it is acknowledgement of the state of their physical and mental health as well as the sacrifices they have made both in the past and the present. Veterans are tough. In times of war, O’Brien states, “they carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die.” Some still continue to carry emotional baggage but not of men that might die but of men that will never come back. Grief, terror, love, longing – these emotions are intangible things that have an intangible weight that many continue to carry. Maintaining the mask of composure and keeping all of these things inside – the shameful memories, the fear of the unknown – requires “perfect balance and perfect posture” as there are reputations to be upheld and appearances to be kept.
The Wall serves as a place where soldiers and civilians alike can come and lessen their burden. Many bring photographs and letters, with some bringing the occasional pair of combat boots. Some bring shot glasses accompanied with a small bottle of Jack Daniels – the final toast to a job well done. Others bring flowers and childhood teddy bears. For the aviators, some bring toy planes because after all, most of them were just kids when they left home. Some come to The Wall with nothing more tears and words of regret. “If I had only re-enlisted for one more year, things might have been different,” one man wrote. It is a place where veterans can come and let things fall. It is a place where grown men come to cry. For the time that they are there, they can let their guard down, as there are no reputations to be upheld and no appearances to be kept. When the day comes to a close, they collect themselves once more and they do what they have always done and what soldiers behind them will continue to do – they pick up the pieces and they do what they can to maintain the mask of composure and their perfect posture, one step at a time.