Today is Memorial Day. Amidst the Facebook posts about barbecues and cookouts, picnics and family gatherings, I’ve encountered few reminders of the sorrow and grief inherent in the occasion. As I ran around Spartanburg this morning, I observed a few flags posted in yards or hung in tribute from different porches. But more than those displays of patriotism, I observed a lot of people out and about, smiling and enjoying the sunshine. It created a profound sense of cognitive dissonance and, if I’m honest, both frustration and guilt.
I’ve spent a good part of today thinking about those soldiers who were killed in combat but also about those who sometimes fall through the cracks. Those whose loss does not fit neatly in to the categories that our nation and its military have for its veterans. These days, we sometimes call them “Wounded Warriors”: veterans who are seriously injured in service, some of whom can reintegrate into their former lives, many of whom cannot.
My uncle Tom is one of those fallen soldiers.
Thomas Calvert Finn was born November 27,1946. He served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. While overseas, just shy of his 24th birthday, he suffered a traumatic brain injury. Some of the websites I have visited in my attempt to learn about him list that date, November 24, 1970, as a “date of loss.” It wasn’t, technically speaking. My uncle lived for another nineteen years. And yet, in other respects, the kind of respects that matter, November 24, 1970 is accurate. It is the date that he was lost. The man who returned home was disabled both physically and mentally and spent the rest of his life in an assisted living facility. He died on July 3, 1999. His name was added to the Vietnam Memorial on May 28, 2001.
In my mind, there are two different men in the space where my uncle Tom should be.
There is the official Thomas Calvert Finn, 1st Lieutenant 2nd grade 1st Battalion, 7th Calvary, “Garryowen.” This Thomas Calvert Finn is the one I have been able to recover through research online. He enlisted in 1968. He attended Fort Dix, Fort Benning, and Fort Bragg. He was trained as a paratrooper. He was deployed to Vietnam in 1970. The 1st Battalion, at least according to Wikipedia, was an air-mobile unit thanks to Bell HU-1 Iroquois helicopters, or “Hueys,” equipped with the latest weapons: M16s, rocket launchers, and whatever else they could carry. According to GlobalSecurity.org, “the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry participated in 16 campaigns in Vietnam: Defense, Counteroffensive, Counteroffensive Phase II, Counteroffensive Phase III, Tet Counteroffensive, Counteroffensive Phase IV, Counteroffensive Phase V, Counteroffensive Phase VI, Tet 69/Counteroffensive, Summer-Fall 1969, Winter-Spring 1970, Sanctuary Counteroffensive, Counteroffensive Phase VII, Consolidation I, Consolidation II, and Cease-Fire.” Some of their actions have been dramatized by the book and film, We Were Soldiers. (Those events happened in 1965; well before my uncle was in country).
Here is where things get a bit tricky. Thomas Calvert Finn was not injured in combat. He was injured in an accident, a “non-combat” injury. According to togetherwestand.com, he was “injured when a case of C-Rations fell on him.” C-Rations, in case you didn’t know, were the meals issued to troops while in combat. He was sent home to the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington DC. He received a Bronze Star with V for Valor and a Purple Heart. Eventually, he was transferred to an assisted care facility, first in Pennsylvania, then to Florida where my grandparents lived.
I never knew Thomas Calvert Finn. His injury happened almost two years before I was born.
I only ever knew my uncle Tom, and I’m not sure that I ever really knew him either. My childhood memories are foggy at best. I knew that when we visited my grandparents, we would usually also go to visit my uncle. As a little girl, I didn’t like these visits. I didn’t understand them. I remember being shy. I remember being overwhelmed by strangers–mostly elderly residents of the nursing home–who wanted to see me, wanted to touch me, pat me on the head or squeeze my hand. I remember a hospital smell. I remember a strange man who was confined to a bed or a wheelchair, who never knew me or my brother. Who would recognize my mom, his sister, and always ask her, “Who are these kids?” She would answer, “These are my kids, Erin and Patrick.” His reply, “Bullshit!” Except he couldn’t speak very clearly, a result of the brain damage that he had suffered. I remember being confused by this answer. I didn’t understand that he couldn’t form new memories or that his memory of my mom was of a woman who was much younger, newly married and yet without children. I remember that we would often take him a chocolate milkshake from McDonalds–he liked those–and that sometimes we would play cards, or my mom or grandfather would play cards. We would sometimes take him outside if it was a nice day. I remember being relieved when it was time to leave.
By the time I was old enough to understand or appreciate, our family had moved north, so visits to Florida were expensive and infrequent.
I’m sorry that those are the only memories I have of my uncle Tom. I grieve that for all practical purposes, he was gone before I was born. I feel guilty about the way my younger self resented those visits and I wish I had known how difficult they must have been for my mom and my grandparents. I feel guilty about how glad I always was to leave and how I never wanted to go in the first place. I wish I had the chance to meet Tom as he was before his deployment. Apparently, my brother looks like him. I wonder if they were alike in other ways as well. I wonder what he would have done with his life. What kind of job he would have had. Whether he would have gotten married, had kids. Bought the car that he had apparently been saving for while he was in the army. . .
My uncle’s name was added to the Vietnam Memorial in 2001, almost three years after his death, over thirty years after his injury. Members of my family traveled to DC for the ceremony, though I, still in grad school and living in California on a shoestring, was not among them. CNN covered the ceremony. I’ve seen a photograph of his name, and here’s a virtual rubbing of Panel W6, line 89.
On this Memorial Day, I remember him and all those who died in service or as the result of their service to our military. I hope that those who are grieving today find some measure of peace.