For 75 days in 2017, Dan Embree wrote a series of almost daily “Dear Mister President” letters that he sent religiously to the White House. Ever helpful in pointing out the endless ways our Commander-in-Chief had wandered off the path, Dan’s satirical missives always brought a smile to my face, even as I knew no one working in the White House would be moved by them, even the ones there who can read.
More recently, affronted by Trump’s insults to service members and veterans as “losers” and “suckers” for jeopardizing, even sacrificing, their lives in service to their country, Dan has come back with a series of “Dear President Spurs” letters designed to show just what service those losers and suckers gave to our country. I encourage you to read Dan’s letters. We’ll post others as he delivers them to the White House.
Dan encouraged others to join his letter-writing campaign and a few have. I immediately thought I would join in but, first, I’m working my tail off editing LA Progressive and, second, my wartime experiences were more prosaic than Dan’s. A West Point grad and infantry officer who served a couple tours of duty in Vietnam, Dan knew people and saw things on a far broader scope than I did as an infantry grunt during a single abbreviated tour in the fall of 1968 and spring of 1969.
The fellow soldiers who fell around me mostly died in pointless firefights and booby trap explosions, none of which affected the outcome of the war
Dan writes of men who fought heroically in big battles and were awarded Silver Stars and Distinguished Service Crosses for laying down their lives. The fellow soldiers who fell around me mostly died in pointless firefights and booby trap explosions, none of which affected the outcome of the war, none of which affected, really, anyone but those of us around them who put what remained of their bodies on the helicopters to send to their families back in The World.
But then, the privates and sergeants I knew who died did so honorably as well. They were willing to do what Donny Bone Spurs clearly could never do.
So let me honor one of them.
Private John Houston was a Black teenaged infantry soldier from East Saint Louis, Illinois. Shy, or possibly simply terrified, he stayed to himself and kept his nose buried in his Bible—one way, and perhaps not the worst one, for dealing with the daily craziness and gut-wrenching terror of the war exploding around him.
On a daytime patrol outside a village called My Phouc Tay in the Mekong Delta, John was walking maybe 10 yards ahead of me in the file of 9th Infantry Division soldiers heading out of a stretch of rice paddies and into a woodline. Ahead of him were maybe three or four other soldiers, including the medic and the platoon leader, and behind me were maybe the same number—so maybe 10 or 12 of us in all.
As had the grunts before him, John leaped across a narrow irrigation ditch to land on the paddy dike on the far side. I was watching as he made the simple jump. Sadly, unlike the soldiers before him, John’s leap triggered a booby trapped artillery round, which killed him instantly.
Afterwards, we figured the weight of the dud artillery round had sunk the shell deeper into the mud than the Vietcong who set it had intended. So, instead of blasting out shrapnel horizontally in all directions, killing or maiming more of us—no doubt me included—the explosion blew John straight up in the air, his body disintegrating before my eyes.
After a search, we found his M-16 twisted in a knot, his oddly untouched helmet, and what looked to be a piece of his shoulder.
I was completely untouched. “Doc,” walking before him was knocked to the ground and lost some of his hearing, but was otherwise okay. He was sent to the rear on a helicopter with John Houston's body, while the rest of us continued on with our mission, that night or the next engaging in a prolonged firefight in which two of our sergeants were badly wounded.
Assembled a few days later, when we were back in a basecamp, an officer, who didn’t know John, and a chaplain, who did, said kind and bracing words. Since he was in my squad and since it was known that I had a couple dissolute years of college under my belt, I was asked to write a letter to his parents, which I did.
Walking behind John, I was much larger than him, plus I carried a heavy M-60 machine gun and maybe 50 pounds of ammunition, grenades, C rations, and other supplies. Surely, had John not triggered the blast, I would have. For a few years after I returned to civilian life, that thought would come to me—that and a few others—after I'd had a drink or two.
So that’s what I know of John Houston and the service he rendered his country.
But That’s Not His Name
Except that a couple decades later, I found out his name wasn’t even John Houston.
For a couple decades, I worked for a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington D.C., with offices in a stately mansion in Northwest D.C. Maybe four or six or eight times a year, I would travel from our editorial offices in Southern California to Washington, D.C., where I would attend executive committee meetings.
It was something of an honor to attend those meetings and certainly a break from my regular routine, but in the evenings, after dinner, I would be at loose ends. Unless my wife is with me, I don’t sleep well in hotels. So, to tire myself out, I would take long walks through the city, always ending up at the Vietnam Memorial, designed by the artist Maya Lin, adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial.
At night, I was often the only person there as I scanned the thousands of names etched into the stone tablets, lost myself in my memories, picturing the soldiers I fought with. I traced the names with my fingers of several other soldiers I knew who had died. But I could never find John Houston listed there.
I was pretty sure I knew what had happened.
I had another soldier in my platoon, a Texan named Frank, whom the Army insisted be called the name of his original father, whom Frank detested, and not the name of his stepfather, who had raised him and whom Frank loved. But complain and petition as he might, Frank was saddled with the name the Army paperwork said he should have—and let that be the end of it.
I imagine something similar happened to John Houston, a black kid from East St. Louis who gave his life because his country asked him to, a country which couldn't even get his name straight.
On one of those trips, I took my wife and daughter. On a cloudy spring day at the Memorial, they pressed me to share my thoughts, which I ordinarily keep to myself. But, with their urging, I recalled all the guys I had known—Monk and Coconut and Chi-Town and Preacher (like John, he carried a Bible), and Daddy (he was an ancient 23 and had a kid at home) and Pappy (because he was even older at 25 or 26 and had three kids at home — and got the back of his head blown off before he ever got back to them).
Forty, forty-five years later, I found myself tearing up. Forty years!
But John, whatever your actual name was, you’re remembered. I can still picture you huddled over your Bible in our little base camp.
Were you a sucker? Were we all suckers? Well, at least we weren’t small-handed cowards.