Jewish World Review November 9, 1998
Where are you Pfc. Flagg?
Every Veteran's Day, I think of Pfc. Paul Flagg, a Marine private in my brother's platoon in Vietnam. The year was 1968 a date most remember as the time when America, as they used to say, "turned on."
I remember it as the year my brother left home for a war in a country I couldn't quite place on the map. He was 18 years old and had joined the Corps as an act of family honor. Connor men did that, fought wars, and then came home "real" men. The Corps was the toughest route Jack could take, he figured. The highest road to manhood for a boy who wanted to do right.
I shudder at the memory of his last night in the U.S. Our father and I flew from Florida to California to spend a few days with him before he left. He was stationed at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, where my father's sister also lived. Our grandparents came, too, all to celebrate my brother's accomplishments in training and to bid him a hero's farewell, just in case.
To this day, I can still picture my brother walking away from us in the dark, heading for his barracks and the long, uncertain journey ahead. I don't think I've ever cried as much as I did that night. One of my older cousins drove me around for hours, trying, I suppose, to shield the adults and preserve what sanity they had left.
Jack wrote letters home on Marine Corps stationery Ð a seemingly odd commodity amid the muck and the rice fields. Some letters were spirited and optimistic; some sentimental. All contained courage I cannot now fathom.
"If I don't see you again ..." he'd say.
Through his letters, Jack introduced his buddies, one of whom was Pfc. Paul Flagg. I don't remember much about Flagg, though I wrote to him for several months. Jack had shown him photos of his little sister back home and Flagg decided he could use a pen-pal. I wrote him as I wrote my brother, sending news and prayers for his safety.
I must have figured we'd meet eventually, though we never did. My memory these 30 years later is foggy. My guess is we stopped writing when my brother came home, scarred by shrapnel and half-dead from amoebic dysentery. I've never heard Flagg's name again, though I've always counted on his having made it back home.
So many didn't. I've examined their names on the Vietnam War Memorial, which, for reasons I can't explain, I visit every time I'm in Washington. I'm not looking for anyone in particular, but am drawn there as I might be to some holy place. I'm always struck by the reverent silence among the strangers gathered there.
If you've never been, the wall is bordered by a long, winding walkway. People move up and down, alone or in clusters, looking at the names. They rarely make eye contact with anyone else. It seems impolite to look at anyone, lest they need to cry. Here and there, a Vietnam vet, sometimes wearing his old uniform, will stop to trace a name. Many weep; many sob.
It's a sad, sad place, where human souls connect no matter what their relationship to the historical event. You cannot go there and not be moved.
The new generation coming along won't know this war the way we did. Just as we baby boomers can never fully appreciate ours parents' experience of World War II, no matter how many times we see "Saving Private Ryan."
The only hope we can sanely have on this day is that they won't ever have to learn first-hand what we remember collectively. That Veteran's Day eventually will become a day of remembrance for a series of human dramas we no longer repeat.
So that none of us ever has to wonder again, where are you Pfc. Flagg?
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