The medals came in early January, about one month after my brother Jerry’s death. He was 64 years young, a passive suicide by alcohol, as I came to think of it. Also in the box, the belt buckle from his River Boat Patrol unit – the Delta Mod Squad – and the plaque presented for Outstanding Service. But the citations I recalled from childhood were gone.
I called his widow Deb in Pennsylvania. They’d been married just short of 10 years, but she knew of only what she’d sent, found tucked away in his dresser drawer. She seemed puzzled that it should matter so much and I, with only vague and uncertain details, didn’t know how to explain.
What I remembered most was when my brother first returned from ‘Nam, still not even of legal age to drink, and how he talked about those medals, imitating in a high singsong voice the Viet Cong who, knowing Jerry’s boat was trapped, teased, ‘Hey Joe, Hey Joe.’”
He was discharged two years later, but by then, long haired, bearded and anti-social, he’d quit talking about it all together. Despite the angry façade, I could always find the big brother who once rode me around the neighborhood on his bicycle handle bars, rose early in the AM with me to watch “Cisco Kid” and the “Lone Ranger,” and perpetually called me “kid.”
Five months after I wrote to the National Personnel Records Center for my brother’s records, I received a response: “We regret to inform you that the citations you are requesting is (sic) not a matter of record.” Further attempts to contact them by phone or e-mail were unanswered.
So this was how it ended, I thought. A man goes off to war, still barely more than a child himself, then comes home to spend the rest of his years fighting the demons met there. And that’s that.
His service would disappear, his medals rendered meaningless without context. And it seemed there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it. But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t try.
I contacted Tom Towslee in U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden’s office for help. Tom wrote back to say I’d hear from someone in 24 hours. Sure enough, a day later, there was John Sanford offering his aid.
Last week, I opened a fat brown envelope from Sen. Wyden’s office and found my brother’s records, including the citation for an Achievement Medal – given for leadership achievements clearly of a superlative nature, as well as combat valor; and the other for the Navy Commendation Medal, awarded to those who distinguished themselves by heroic action, outstanding achievement, or meritorious service. Both are affixed with the Bronze V device denoting awards for combat valor.
I read each page slowly, the story of the March night on the Vam Co Dong River, when his patrol was ambushed and my brother “trained his forward fifty caliber machine guns … and delivered a deadly wall of suppressive fire enabling his craft to clear the kill zone …” When I came to citation for the Commendation Medal, just like yesterday, I heard that deadly tease, “Hey Joe, hey Joe.”
On that December 1970 evening when his unit came under fire, my brother’s weapon was hit. “…remaining calm, he coolly cleared the weapon and delivered a barrage of fire…” The boat was again fired upon, throwing the captain overboard, seriously wounding the patrol officer and causing the boat to beach out of control. “Attempts to fight the fire proved futile, therefore Fireman TOBIAS remanned his weapon … and continued to deliver an intense and deadly fusillade of fire into enemy positions until his cover boat was able to come to his rescue… Once aboard the lead boat he detected the voice of his boat captain and aided in his recovery. Fireman TOBIAS’ heavy and accurate fire played a major role in preventing a force considered to be of reinforced battalion strength from crossing the river… Fireman TOBIAS’ professional skill, sense of responsibility, courage and calmness in the face of a hostile enemy fire, reflect great credit upon himself and the United States Naval Service.”
I finished the report, picked up the phone and, reaching my brother’s widow, began to read again.
For a time, I heard only silence, then, “Huh,” she said, puzzled. “I never knew. He never talked about it.”