Washington, D.C. is home to many a memorial. In fact, when you walk along the National Mall, you’ll find the streets are paved with them. But one memorial in particular really caught my attention. The Vietnam War Memorial.
When I was in D.C., I had been taking a class at my Journalism school called The Pentagon and the Press, which is a class about war corresponding. One of the assignments we’d had was to interview a veteran and write a profile about him or her. Thanks to my Mom, who is a high school teacher, she referred me to a veteran she’d brought in several years earlier to talk to her class, and he’d really moved everyone he spoke to. His name is Tom Henri, and he’d been a marine in Vietnam.
I was lucky enough to get an interview with him, and in the course of the 2-hour interview I had with him, my perspective on war, combat and, especially, Vietnam, changed. I’d never been more inspired to write a profile story in my life.
After talking to Tom Henri, the realities of the throes and aftermath of that senseless war became even more vivid to me, and as I walked along the length of the justly black memorial, I couldn’t help but remember the things he said to me, making my emotional experience at the memorial more powerful than it would have otherwise been. I’ve included my profile on Tom Henri below.
When Corporal Thomas Henri and the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines stopped in Okinawa to refuel before deploying to Vietnam, he thought he’d be in combat in a matter of hours. But this wouldn’t be the first time the Vietnam War sent Tom Henri in directions he didn’t anticipate.
“They lined us all up to get back on the plane,” says Henri, almost 50 years later, about that fateful day in 1966, “and very strangely something happened: a jeep pulled up and the captain came over to us and said ‘I’m gonna need one volunteer.’”
According to Henri, in the Marine Corps, you don’t volunteer. “You just don’t know what to expect, right?”
But at the naive age of 18, a gung-ho Henri who had volunteered to join the marines and graduated first in his class at base camp, raised his hand. To this day, he refers to that action as divine intervention. The captain immediately told him to get his seed bag and all his belongings and head to a jeep off in the distance.
“The captain told me I’d be assigned to special detail, and I thought, ‘Oh no, special detail, I don’t know what that means,’” Henri says. “Well, it turned out to be that I was in charge of all of the golf clubs, tennis rackets—all the stuff that the officers would use in order to have fun.”
The memorial is so shiny, you can see my reflection when I’m taking the picture. It’s fitting though, because with every American life that perishes in a war like that, a part of every American that continues living on dies as well in a way…
That jeep drove Tom Henri off to a 4-month stint in Okinawa where he woke up every day at 10 a.m., played golf, went scuba diving, went bowling, and enjoyed the best vacation a teenager could have on the military’s dime.
For 4 months, Henri was able to stay relatively detached from the grim realities of warfare until one night, on his way back from the bowling alley, Henri saw a soldier in the barracks who, though he was covered in bandages, looked familiar.
“I thought I recognized him,” Henri says, “and I just said, ‘Wolfgang?’ And he turns around and he looks at me and he goes, ‘Henri, they’re all dead.’”
Four months earlier, Tom Henri didn’t know that when the boys with whom he’d just spent 6 months going through boot camp got back on that plane, it would be the last time he saw any of them. Without Henri, the 2nd Battalion 4th Marines flew to Vietnam to engage in combat, and within months, they found themselves engaged in a battle where they became trapped, overwhelmed and ultimately defeated.
“So,” says Henri, “had I not volunteered, I would have been a part of that. I would be dead.”
To this day, Henri has difficulty coming to terms with why he’s still alive. What is it about him that allowed him to survive two tours of duty, unscathed and physically stable? It’s not like he didn’t engage in his share of combat. In fact, many a military therapist has remarked upon the volume of combat stories Tom Henri has collected from his two tours in Vietnam.
“I just kept tellin’ this one doctor all these different stories and after an hour or so I could see that he was pretty shaken by it and he says, ‘Okay
I saw a veteran in a wheelchair having some of the names on the memorial read to him by his caretaker. After hearing about Henri’s experience in the war and the relationships he’d cultivated with his fellow soldiers, the emotions going through that veteran’s heart became all the more brilliant in my head, making the meaning and lasting effects of the war more palpable to me than ever.
okay okay, you can stop,’” says Henri. “He goes, ‘Soldier, I’m really sorry, thank you for your service, I’ve been doing this for 17 years and you’re the first soldier that’s had this many stories. Most guys were in a few combat situations, then they were either wounded so badly they didn’t go back or they died, but you—you just kept fighting.’”
Tom Henri did fight. And though he doesn’t spend much time now in his daily life remembering the more gruesome moments he witnessed, when asked, the memories begin to accumulate, pushing into one another and struggling to find their way out, along with the tears on the rims of his eyes.
“From Okinawa, they shipped me straight to Vietnam and attached me to a unit called the 2nd Battalion 7th Marines. The day I arrived, we were attacked and I hadn’t been issued my weapon yet,” says Henri of his first day in combat. “So that was my first encounter, like, ‘Holy shit, I don’t even have a weapon.’”
It was then Henri realized combat wasn’t a time to think. It was a time to act.
Weeks later, when Henri and his unit were out on patrol and a Viet Cong jumped up from the blinding grass with a Land Air Weapon (LAW, effectively a small bazooka) and blew up his Lieutenant and radio man, he didn’t have time to think about or process the spinal chord that fell back down from the sky or the fact that his lieutenant’s severed hand was still holding the radio phone. Only now, from the safety of his own living room in Los Angeles, shielded by the barriers of decades separating him from that battlefield can he now sit back and remember, “You know what? Yes, his name was Bush. Our radioman’s name was Bush. And that was the worst day of all because they were capturing a lot of our guys and torturing them.”
But back in 1967 on that humid night in the Vietnam jungle, Henri couldn’t allow himself to stop and think about the bloodcurdling screams keeping him awake from men he’d spent hours talking to about what they’d do together when they got home.
“We’d always say, ‘We just gotta get back to the world,’ because we felt like we were in a different place, a different world, you know?” says Henri, allowing himself to remember, his eyes glazed with the mist of memory. “It was hell. That’s what it felt like. It felt like, ‘Okay, we’re in hell, and when we get back to the world, we’re gonna do all this great stuff. When we get back, we’re gonna celebrate, we’re gonna, gosh, we’re gonna go fishing, we’re gonna go sky diving, we’re gonna go scuba diving and surfing and traveling and we’ll be in love and treat people with respect.’”
Thinking about home was the only thing that kept Henri and his men going. When he first got to Vietnam, Henri’s first sergeant took him aside and told him what the true objective of the Vietnam War was. It wasn’t to capture Hanoi, or stop communism, or keep America safe.
“My first sergeant gave me the breakdown. He said, ‘You don’t get it yet—but we’re all just here trying to survive and get out because it’s not the war you’ve been told about.’ And after a few months, I saw it too. There was no moving forward.”
Every moment of the war left Henri with more questions than answers. Every week, Henri and his men were told to secure Hill 22. And every week, they’d go out, they’d kill men, they’d lose men, they’d secure the hill, they’d come back, and come Monday, they’d start all over.
“We probably did Hill 22 again—I don’t know how many times,” says Henri with a haunting half smile. “And we’d wonder how many men are we gonna lose today? How may of my buddies are we gonna have to be put in body bags? Who’s gonna make it and who’s not gonna make it? And it then became very obvious that you know, like, wait a minute, something is seriously wrong, and everybody started wonder: what’s the real reason? What are we really doing here?”
Yet despite the legion of questions plaguing Henri’s conscience, the moments he got to spend in lucid thought searching for the light at the end of Vietnam’s miserable tunnel were few. He and his men, after all, were being hunted.
“When you’re in Vietnam, you do what you do,” says Henri quietly, looking at his hands. “There’s no time for thinking. There’s no time for thinking. When you’re in combat, you’re reacting. It’s total natural instincts have to kick in, or you’re dead. End of story. There’s no, ‘Oh should I do this,’ no, never, it’s instant, right now,” he snaps his fingers, “right now,” he snaps his fingers, “next thing,” snap, “next thing,” snap, “next thing,” snap, “it’s just constant,” he says, shaking his head.
Henri pauses for a moment; a long, trembling silence that struggles to fill the space between what he’s seen and what the rest of us simply cannot understand.
“It’s your actions,” he manages to croak out, eyes like a wave about to crash. “It’s what’s gonna save your life, and maybe that’s why I’m here. I don’t know, I took it so—seriously. Maybe I was a good fighter and maybe—maybe—I don’t know, you know? You could just go on and on, like, why me? Why—how did you survive? How did you—why did you survive?
There aren’t enough questions in the world Henri can ask himself to figure out why he’s still alive.
“I wasn’t just shot, I got blown up—you’ve seen where bombs come in and explode and you see bodies flying through the air? That happened to me three times. And you just don’t understand why you would just get up and go, ‘Oh.’”
How can he explain the tens of holes riddling the outskirts of his uniform where bullets had passed through, leaving his person unmolested?
How can he explain the times his captains looked at him and the men fighting beside him and told them all to make peace with their makers, that this was it, that death was waiting for them at sunrise; and how can he explain why everyone else shook death’s hand but him?
“There were so many times—I can’t explain it. How do you explain why the guy next to me is completely blown apart?” Henri asks. “Being in so much combat and being so lucky so many times, so many—I can’t even—just one incident: we’re completely surrounded, and our captain said, ‘We’ve got maybe one chance: as soon as first light, I’m gonna shoot the flare and we’re gonna run towards that tree.’ So he shoots that flare, and we run and chaos—total chaos—and I stumble and a bullet goes right over my head and into my back. The coroner came running over to me and rips open my shirt and puts his finger on my back and puts it in my mouth and goes, ‘Peaches!’ The bullet had penetrated the can of peaches in my backpack, and that’s what I was feeling oozing down my back—I thought it was my blood.
“Why me?” Henri weeps, asking no one in particular, knowing no one would answer anyway. “I don’t know. I don’t know why. I don’t know how.”
Maybe this is why it’s better not to think. To turn it all off. Because, at the end of the day, at the end of the battle, at the end of the war—what’s the point of searching for answers if there are none to be found?