Only the dead have seen the end of war.
The guns were at last silent in the valley. The dying was done, but the suffering had only just begun. The men of the 1st Cavalry Division had done what was asked of them. The Army field morgues were choked with the bodies of more than 230 soldiers wrapped in their green rubber ponchos. More than 240 maimed and wounded troopers moved slowly along the chain from battlefield aid station to medical clearing station to field hospital, and onto the ambulance transport planes.
Some whose wounds would heal soon enough for eventual return to duty in Vietnam were flown only as far as Army hospitals in Japan. The most seriously injured were flown to the Philippines; their conditions were stabilized at the hospital at Clark Field, and then they were loaded onto planes that would take them to military hospitals near their homes in the United States.
Sergeant Robert Jemison, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, would spend thirty-two months in Army hospitals. PFC James Young of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, would check out of the Army hospital in Denver with a bullet hole in the side of his skull, borrowed clothes on his back and discharge papers in hand, and make it home to Missouri in time for Christmas, 1965. Specialist 4 Clinton Poley of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, wearing the terrible scars of three separate bullet wounds and judged seventy percent disabled, got home to Iowa in plenty of time for spring plowing and planting.
But on November 18, 1965, in the sleepy southern town of Columbus, Georgia, half a world away from Vietnam, the first of the telegrams that would shatter the lives of the innocents were already arriving from Washington. The war was so new and the casualties to date so few that the Army had not even considered establishing the casualty-notification teams that later in the war would personally deliver the bad news and stay to comfort a young widow or elderly parents until friends and relatives could arrive. In Columbus, in November and December 1965, Western Union simply handed the telegrams over to Yellow Cab drivers to deliver.
The driver who brought the message of the death in battle of Sergeant Billy R. Elliott, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cav, to his wife, Sara, was blind drunk and staggering. As Mrs. Elliott stood in the doorway of her tiny bungalow, clutching the yellow paper, the bearer of the bad tidings fell backward off her porch and passed out in her flower bed. Then the Army briefly lost her husband’s body on its journey home.
When a taxi driver woke up the very young, and very pregnant, Hispanic wife of a 1st Battalion trooper at two A.M. and held out the telegram, the woman fainted dead away. The driver ran next door and woke up the neighbors to come help. The new widow could not speak or read English, but she knew what that telegram said.
The knock on the door at the home of Sergeant Jeremiah (Jerry) Jivens of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry came at four A.M. Betty Jivens Mapson was fourteen at the time: “I have told the story before to friends about how the taxi drivers used to deliver the telegrams to families who’d lost loved ones over there. Today it almost sounds unbelievable. Luckily, my Mom’s sister lived with us and was with her when the knock came at our door at 4 A.M. My Mom collapsed completely as this stranger handed the telegram to us. How cold and inhuman, I thought.”
In Columbus that terrible autumn, someone had to do the right thing since the Army wasn’t organized to do it. For the families of the casualties of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry that someone was my wife, Julia Compton Moore, daughter of an Army colonel, wife of a future Army general, and mother of five small children, including two sons who would follow me to West Point and the Army.
Julie talks of those days as a time of fear; a time when the mere sight of a Yellow Cab cruising through a neighborhood struck panic in the hearts of the wives and children of soldiers serving in Vietnam. As the taxicabs and telegrams spread misery and grief, Julie followed them to the trailer courts and thin-walled apartment complexes and boxy bungalows, doing her best to comfort those whose lives had been destroyed. Two of those widows she can never forget: The widow of Sergeant Jerry Jivens, who received her with great dignity and presence in the midst of such sorrow, and that frightened young Hispanic widow, pregnant with a boy child who would come into this world in March without a father.
When the coffins began arriving home, my wife attended the funeral of all but one of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry troopers who were buried at the Fort Benning cemetery. The first funeral at Benning for a 1st Battalion casualty was that of Sergeant Jack Gell of Alpha Company. Julie turned on the evening news, and there on television was the saddest sight she had ever seen: one of my beloved troopers being buried and Fort Benning had not notified her. She called Survivors Assistance and told them in no uncertain terms that they must inform her of every 1st Battalion death notification and of every funeral for a 1st Battalion soldier at the post cemetery.
Julie recalls, “I was so fearful when I began calling on the widows that I would be very unwelcome, because it was my husband who ordered their husbands into battle. I thought of a million reasons why I should not go, but my father called me and told me to go, so I went. They were so happy to see me and they were so proud of their husbands. That was a little something that they still had to hang onto. There were thirteen widows from the 1st Battalion still living in that little town.”
The same duty for the dead of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry was done by Mrs. Frank Henry, wife of the battalion executive officer, and Mrs. James Scott, wife of the battalion sergeant major, since the battalion commander, lieutenant Colonel Bob McDade, was a bachelor at that time.
Kornelia Scott’s first visit was to the home of Mrs. Martin knapp, widow of a sergeant in Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, to offer condolences and assistance.
“There was immense grief and bitterness. So immense, that one widow was bitter that her husband had been killed and mine only wounded. Names, addresses and faces became a blur, especially when we started attending the funerals at Ft. Benning in late November and early December,” says Mrs. Scott.
Mrs. Harry Kinnard, wife of the commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, and many others went public with their criticism of the heartless taxicab telegrams, and the Army swiftly organized proper casualty-notification teams consisting of a chaplain and an accompanying officer. Nobody intended for this cruelty to happen. Everyone, including the Army, was taken totally by surprise by the magnitude of the casualties that had burst on the American scene at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany.
But even after the Army teams were formed and the procedure was changed, it was months before a Yellow Cab could travel the streets of Columbus without spreading fear and pain in its wake. My wife remembers: “In December a taxi driver carrying a couple of young lieutenants stopped at my house. I hid behind the curtains, thinking, If I don’t answer the door I won’t have to hear the bad news. Then I decided: ‘Come on, Julie, face up to it.’ I opened the door and he asked me for directions to some address and I just about fainted. I told him: ‘Don’t you ever do that to me again!’ The poor man told me that he understood, that all the taxi drivers had hated that terrible duty.”
Far to the north, in Redding, Connecticut, the village messenger, an elderly man, knocked hesitantly on the door of John J. and Camille Geoghegan. Although the telegram was addressed to Mrs. Barbara Geoghegan, wife of Lieutenant John Lance (Jack) Geoghegan, the messenger knew what it said and he knew that Jack Geoghegan was the only child of that family.
As the Geoghegans read the news, the messenger broke down, quivering and weeping and asking over and over again if there was anything he could do to help them. Before they could deal with their own grief, the Geoghegans first had to deal with his; they hugged and comforted the messenger and helped him pull himself together for the long trip back to town through the deepening gloom.
Barbara Geoghegan was away that day; she had gone to New Rochelle, New York, to stay with her husband’s elderly aunt. The aunt’s husband had died on this date two years earlier and the family thought someone should be there to comfort her on so tragic an anniversary. When the Geoghegans telephoned Barbara with the news, she was writing her ninety-third letter to Jack, a letter filled, as usual, with news of their baby daughter, Camille. The next morning, in the mailbox at home, she found Jack’s last letter to her. He wrote, “I had a chance to go on R and R, but my men are going into action. I cannot and will not leave them now.”
When Captain Tom Metsker left for Vietnam in August of 1965, his wife, Catherine, and baby daughter, Karen, fourteen months old, moved home to Indiana to be near her family. Tom’s father was in the U.S. Foreign Service, stationed in Monrovia, Liberia. Catherine recalls: “I finally got a teaching job to occupy my time and save some money. The first day was to be Monday, November 15. On that Sunday night, November 14, I was sick with a cold and fever. How could I start my new job? The phone rang. It was my uncle: ‘There is a telegram for you.’ Probably a message from Tom’s parents in Liberia, I thought. ‘Open it and read it to me,’ I told him. THE SECRETARY OF THE ARMY REGRETS TO INFORM YOU … Tom was dead.”
The pain and grief of that autumn so long ago still echo across the years, fresh as yesterday for many of the wives and children and parents and siblings of those who died in the Ia Drang Valley. Some of them agreed to write their stories of what one death in battle did to their lives, in hopes that their words might somehow comfort other families who have lost loved ones in war.
Betty Jivens Mapson is forty-two and has grown children of her own today, but she has been haunted for years by the trauma of her father’s death on November 15, 1965, in the Ia Drang Valley. She says, “After the initial shock of receiving the telegram announcing Daddy’s death, we kids had to go back to school because it would be two weeks or more before his body would arrive home. It seemed everyone was looking at us and whispering, not really knowing what to say except how bad it was our Daddy died over there.
“They mostly left us alone,” Mrs. Mapson continues. “There were no support groups or any of that to help us cope. Our family was left alone in our grief. My brothers did not talk about their feelings at all. My mother was devastated. She and Daddy were sweethearts in school but each went on to marry other people. When both were divorced around the same time they met again and were married. Daddy and I used to take trips together on the Greyhound bus, mostly home to Savannah. Whenever he and my mother went out, he would not be ready until he sat in a chair and had me comb and brush his hair. It was cut real close but he made it seem like I had really done something special.
“I remember when he first told us he had to go to Vietnam. We drove him to Fort Benning. I remember the Army trucks filled with soldiers and hearing Daddy say he might not come back. I was young and didn’t really see the seriousness of it. He was a good, strict father and my brothers and I thought his being away for so long meant we would be able to stay out later and have more fun. I blamed myself for Daddy being killed because of those selfish feelings when he left. My Daddy was a good man, a preacher’s son. His given name is Jeremiah.”
She adds: “Two weeks after the initial telegram we got another one stating when to meet the body at the train station. The hearse was already there when we got to the station and soon a wooden cart with a long gray box was being pulled toward us. My Daddy! This is how he came back to us. And the pain started all over again for us, only more so because now he was home. You could have heard me screaming three states away. At the funeral home I remember looking at him closely and for a long time to make sure it was really him. Then I saw that little mole on his cheek and I knew.
“I am so very proud of my father and wished that somehow he could know that and know that he is still very much alive with us. For a long time it seemed to me that he was just away like he usually was on Army duty, and one day he would come home. For a lot of years I waited and watched our driveway because I wanted so much for him to come home for my Momma and my brothers and me. I would like to visit the Ia Drang. It is something I have to do for my own sake. I have to know, have to see that this place really exists. I need to see and to be where my Daddy died. Then maybe this will all somehow be complete for me. I just wish with all my heart that we had not been so alone to deal with such a monumental tragedy back then. We needed someone to reach out to us, to explain for us, to help us see why. My mother has passed away now. She never remarried. She loved Daddy so.”
Catherine Metsker McCray, now fifty years old, says the story of how she met and married Tom Metsker, her dashing young Army officer, seems to have taken place a lifetime ago. “I didn’t know him in the early days. He absolutely drove his parents crazy—constantly on the go; accident-prone; strong; never sat still. They were especially proud of his athletic feats—on the state championship football team in high school, Southern Conference pole-vault champion at The Citadel. Tom was raised in Japan and Korea. His father, also named Tom, was with the State Department and worked for the Agency for International Development. High school brought Tom, his mother, Zoe, and older sister Ibby back to Indianapolis while his father was on a hardship tour. The parents were originally from Indiana; graduates of Indiana University.
“Tom then left for college at The Citadel. While he was there his family was transferred to the Washington, D.C., area. I was a sophomore at DePauw University. It was spring break and my friend Betty Orcutt and I decided to spend the week at my parents’ home. My father was a colonel in the Air Force stationed at The Pentagon in Washington. I met Tom on a blind date; we were married on October 5, 1962. We eloped. On October 8, Tom left for Germany where he was to be stationed for six months. I stayed home to graduate from DePauw, then joined him when he returned to Ft. Benning, Georgia.
“I remember these days as the most exciting in my life. He was in a combat-ready unit. A phone call would come at 4 A.M. and the troops would assemble and leave Ft. Benning. The wives didn’t know where they were going or whether it was for a day or a month. It was the time of Cuba and the Dominican Republic. I remember sitting in our Camellia Garden apartment with the gray and pink metal furniture and the one plug in the kitchen, behind the fridge. If you moved the fridge out, you could make toast. I learned to be patient and brave, but mostly I just missed Tom. When he was home, I would stay awake at night and stare at him, wondering how I could be so lucky. Karen Doranne Metsker, 9 pounds 9 and 1/2 ounces, was born on May 31, 1964, and Tom was ecstatic. Tom had wanted a boy but he was so happy to have a girl. Ten days after Karen was born we moved to Washington, D.C., for Tom’s language school. We three camped out in my parents’ basement while we looked for an apartment. Sometime during that school, Tom got orders for Vietnam. He was excited to be going to Vietnam. It was what he had trained for. It was his job.
“I didn’t share his excitement—not because of the danger but because of the separation. We were sent back to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, to get him ready for Vietnam. I was going to stay there with the baby. Training went quickly. They received a photo of their unit. Tom joked it was ‘so we can X out the guys who get zapped.’ All our friends were also being transferred, I knew no one at Bragg and I was pregnant again. I decided to move back to Indiana to my family during his Vietnam tour.
“Tom left from the Evansville airport in August of 1965. I cried a lot. We wrote each other every day and Karen and I had a routine of going to the mailbox every day to mail a letter to Daddy. Tom’s parents were stationed in Monrovia, Liberia, so I didn’t see them. I had a miscarriage in October.
“The telegram came Sunday night, November 14. Tom was dead. I had to make the arrangements. I had never even been to a funeral before. There was no place for friends to gather, except our motel room. All of our friends from the Army came. All of them had orders for Vietnam. Standing on the sidelines was the wrestling team Tom had coached while we were in Washington. He had meant so much to them.
“I wanted to die but had to stay alive for Karen. I guess she saved my life. I started teaching as soon as I got back from Washington. I was offered tranquilizers. No one knew about counseling back then; it just wasn’t an option. When Tom’s belongings were returned, I threw them all away. That way, I thought, I wouldn’t be reminded of him. It didn’t work.
“I stayed numb for so long a time. And smiled. The pain was indescribable. I kept it all inside for years. Twenty years later I went into therapy. With help, I was finally able to put Tom to rest. I am now at peace about that. When I think about Tom I see a smiling young man. I will always miss him.”
Karen Metsker Rudel, twenty-seven years old, is married and the mother of two daughters and a son. “One bullet of the billions fired in Vietnam changed the path I would follow for the rest of my days. I wonder how many other lives were just as drastically altered as the result of one bullet? My father, Thomas Metsker, was killed when I was 17 months old. I have no memory of him, although I have seen pictures of the two of us together. We look alike. He was a career Army man, a 1961 graduate of The Citadel. I have spent much of my life asking, ‘Why?’ Why did he go to Vietnam knowing he might not come back? Why did he have to die? Why would anyone imply that he deserved it for being in Vietnam? Why did it have to be me?
“My mother remarried when I was four. He was a lawyer who was divorced and had two children from his previous marriage. Michael McCray adopted me, so my given name Karen Doranne Metsker was left behind and I became Karen Metsker McCray. Just before my fifth birthday my younger half brother was born, followed a year later by my half sister.
“With the his, hers and theirs meld of our family, I often felt like an outsider. I suppose that how I dealt with it was no better nor worse than any other child. After all, who ever taught me how? I became an over-achiever. I wanted desperately to fit in, but never quite figured out how to do so, at home or at school.
“My father was not discussed. I knew no one else who had lost a relative in the War and sensed at an early age that it was not an acceptable topic of conversation. I would often sneak down to our basement to investigate the trunk where what remained of my father’s things were stored. For some reason, my mother threw away most everything that was his after he died. I remember well the musty smell of the triangular flag which had been draped over his coffin at his funeral in Arlington Cemetery; the scrapbook full of condolence letters from a multitude of meaningless officials; the old musical white Teddy bear my parents had bought for me when I was a baby; a bunch of medals including a Purple Heart; and the handful of photographs that, to me, was my Dad. I once found a card which my mother had given my Dad from me on his first Father’s Day. I don’t recall the outside of the card, but the inside said: ‘ ’cause I’ll always be Daddy’s Little Girl.’ I cried a lot when I went through that trunk. In my quest for family, I married at a young age, by today’s standards. The good that came of this was my children: Alison Elizabeth, born March 1, 1988; Abigail Catherine, born October 11, 1989; and Thomas Alexander, born March 1, 1992. As I had always known I would, I named my son for my father.
“An amazing chain of events happened in the fall of 1990. An article in U.S. News & World Report described my Dad’s death in Vietnam. It told how my Dad had been shot and was waiting to be evacuated when he got out of the helicopter to help load a much more severely wounded comrade, Captain Ray Lefebvre, and was mortally wounded. My mother wrote a letter to the author of the article, who put her in touch with Hal Moore. There were a few lengthy calls and a letter to Ray Lefebvre asking him to come to the Ia Drang Alumni reunion marking the 25th Anniversary of the battle. I was so excited and nervous to meet these men who had fought alongside my Dad. I anticipated meeting a group of chest-beating macho types, all pro-war, pro-killing and all the other things I had heard about over the years.
“I am a pacifist but felt compelled to meet with them. My notions about these men were absurd. What I met, and I hope they don’t mind the analogy, was a bunch of Teddy bears. Even my husband was pleasantly surprised to meet what I eventually came to feel was another family.
“Ray Lefebvre received my letter asking him to attend the reunion in the middle of his daughter’s wedding week. He didn’t hesitate a second. He told me of the wounds he had received and said that had it not been for my Dad he probably would not be alive today. I spent a lot of my childhood detesting the anonymous man that my Dad loaded onto that helicopter; the man mentioned in the letter in the trunk. I had always felt that my Dad traded his life for that man. It meant so much to me to be able to look that man in the eyes. I know now if the roles had been reversed Ray Lefebvre would have done the same for my Dad.
“I made my first trip to the [Vietnam Veterans Memorial] Wall that weekend. I walked its length while its power consumed me. I have never before been so moved by any work of art. I suppose I never will be again. I feel that things have come full circle and I can go on. I will always mourn my Dad’s death, but I feel now that I can put to rest the hurt, the anger and the feeling that I was cheated out of knowing half of myself. I know myself now and finally I like who I am. I can only hope that we learned something from Vietnam and that all was not for nothing.”
Edward Dennis Monsewicz was seven years old when word came that his father, Sergeant Lloyd Joel Monsewicz, had been killed on November 17, 1965, in Landing Zone Albany. “My story begins in France, the country where my father met my mother and the place of my birth. I was a year old when we came to the United States. I can remember living in Missouri at Ft. Leonard Wood. A few years later he got orders for Korea. He moved us to Jacksonville, Florida, to be close to his family. We lived there for a year. From there we went to Ft. Benning, Georgia. By this time I had three brothers. My mother was still learning to speak English. The things I remember most about my Dad are how much he enjoyed working in the yard, spending time with us, and listening to Marty Robbins. Every Sunday we would go to church at Sand Hill. I couldn’t wait till the services were over because I knew that I would get cookies and milk.
“In the few months before he left for Vietnam, I remember him training for his mission, coming home and dyeing his tee-shirts green and sorting out his field gear. During the last few days before he left he spent a lot of time with us. The day before he left he put me on top of his car and tried to explain to me, the best way he could, what was happening. He told me that I had to be the Daddy of the family while he was gone and look after my brothers and help Mom. Through the years that has stuck in my mind. My Mom was left alone to raise four boys on her own. I remember receiving several letters from Vietnam in which my Dad mostly talked about the weather and how much he missed home. In one letter he talked about having to go into An Khe Village and feeling very nervous because he never knew who the VC might be. He said he felt safer in the jungle than in the village, because he could blend in with the foliage. We got along the best way that we could, hoping for his return home.
“The first telegram came by taxi stating that he was missing in action. One week later the second telegram arrived stating that he was killed by hostile fire. About a week later we were laying him to rest at Ft. Benning. I was 7 years old and I am now 34. Through the years I wondered why this had to happen. Within the last two years I have finally been able to talk to other Vietnam veterans about this battle, and I am hoping one day to be able to find someone who knew my father during that time or was with him when he was killed. Now I have my own family: two boys ages 4 years and 19 months and a beautiful wife who has stood beside me for the last 13 years. My mother is still living and my brothers have all made lives of their own.
“These men fought and died for their country and it affected a lot of people in so many ways. President Bush said on national television that the Vietnam syndrome is over and done with. Not for me, and not for so many others. We can never do enough to help the Vietnam veterans. May God bless and keep all the loved ones who are still affected by this senseless war.”
His career at Pennsylvania Military College from 1959 to 1963 may have made some think that Jack Geoghegan was born to be a great captain in war. He was president of his class in his junior and senior years; cadet brigade sergeant major his junior year; cadet brigade commander his senior year. He won every medal and award of distinction the college granted. But Jack Geoghegan postponed his Army ROTC obligation to complete a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania.
While there he married his college sweetheart, Barbara Weathers. Then Jack and Barbara left for East Africa, where they spent almost a year working for Catholic Relief Services in the villages of Tanzania. In May of 1965, he reported for duty as a new second lieutenant at Fort Benning. His daughter, Camille Anne, was born there. In July he was assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, and in August he sailed with his unit to Vietnam. Here is Barbara Geoghegan Johns’s story:
“I never really believed he would die. At 23 and untouched by the sorrows of life, even sending my husband off to war didn’t shake my feeling that Jack would live. I felt that God had great plans for him. Jack would complete his commitment to the Army and then return to Tanzania—the place that fulfilled his spirit, the place where we had spent most of our first year of marriage in Africa. He was extraordinarily idealistic. His nature was not warlike. The goal of his life was to help people in need. Even in Vietnam he volunteered his platoon to help rebuild a school, and ultimately he died as he lived, going to the aid of one of his men, Willie Godboldt. Their names are next to each other on the Vietnam Memorial.
“When Jack left for Vietnam I chose to move to Redding, Connecticut, so that Cammie and I could be near his parents. We would support and sustain each other for the year that Jack would be gone. They owned a small house on six acres and were having a large house built nearby. We shared the little house until their home was completed. When they moved to the big house, I stayed on in the little house. They named their home ‘Wind Ridge.’ I named the little house ‘Dar es Salaam’ or Haven of Peace. Cammie was only two months old when her father left for Vietnam, and she was the focal point for all of us. She kept us all smiling and, because she looked like her father, she was a constant happy part of him in our presence.
“When my world turned upside down on November 17, 1965, the night the telegram came, I felt thrust into another existence, as in a dream. I couldn’t comprehend that what I firmly believed wouldn’t happen had happened. I was with Jack’s Aunt Pat in New Rochelle when Mom called. I remember looking out the window and being surprised that there were people driving by, that everything looked the same as it did before her call. I wanted to scream to everyone to stop. I went upstairs to look at Cammie, sleeping peacefully, not knowing how her life was so altered. In a recent letter, Jack had said: ‘How about giving Cammie a little brother when I get back?’ Now there would be no more little Geoghegans. I picked up my sleeping baby and hugged her hard, still not believing that an end had come to everything we had hoped and dreamed and planned.
“The news came on November 17, Jack’s Dad’s 62nd birthday. Jack was buried in Bethel, Connecticut, on December 2. The funeral Mass was held in Pelham, New York, where he grew up, and the church was filled to overflowing. That week the newspaper of the Pennsylvania Military College devoted most of three pages to tributes to Jack.
“Afterward his mother wrote this letter published in The Pelham Sun, January 13, 1966:
Dear People of Pelham:
On November 17, the dreadful telegram arrived notifying us of Lance’s death in Vietnam in the Battle of Ia Drang. He was, as you know, Barbara’s husband, the father of little Cammie, and our only child.
While we awaited the return of his body, we tried to gather up the pieces of our broken hearts. We said to ourselves: It is God’s will. He knows best. And for a minute or for an hour, we managed some degree of resignation, but then suddenly an old sweater, a bowling ball, a photograph, and that bright red-headed boy was bounding up the stairs, three at a time, or rounding the curve on Manor Circle, tooting the horn to let us know he was home from college—from Africa—or from Fort Benning, and our resignation dissolved in the unalterable knowledge that he was dead. We would never, never see his dear face again.
We began to make funeral arrangements. We reasoned that since Lance’s grammar and prep school companions lived in the Pelham-New Rochelle area, we would bring him to his hometown for the services. We phoned the Pelham Funeral Home. We did not wish to inflict our sorrow on others and I think we also felt deep down inside that perhaps no one was too much interested, so we asked Mr. Flood to put a short notice in the paper and to arrange for a brief, simple service.
Lance’s body arrived by plane from Vietnam. We gathered what courage we could find and went to the funeral home. As we looked down at his dear face, we felt that the world had fallen in on us. He had fought in an action that was not termed a war; he had died thousands of miles from his beloved country; his blood and the blood of his men, whom he had loved so much, had now become part of the soil of Vietnam, and there were no bands, no parades, no anything—just three desolate people standing beside his coffin. Never had we been so alone.
Behind us a door quietly opened. Someone came into the room. It was a man. He was crying. He knelt. He prayed. He came over to us. He said fond, kind things about our boy. He left. But that was the beginning of what [one friend] said was ‘a spontaneous outpouring of love for a boy.’Again the door opened, and again and again. People poured into that room—people who had known Lance—people who wept for him unashamedly—people who cared—people, blessed wonderful people.
Through Bob Cremins [a family friend], a service was held for him at the monument. Braced against the evening’s cold, clergymen of all faiths voiced their tribute. The American Legion was there; the Veterans of Foreign Wars, men who had made possible our boy’s growth in a free country, through their own sacrifices. And again the people, hundreds of them crowding the street for this lovely ceremony—and that beautiful flag at half staff with the wind gently raising its folds like a benediction over all.
We cried, the tears streaming down our faces in sheer gratitude to everyone in Pelham for such a remembrance. The day of burial came and the police quietly cleared a path for the funeral cortege through the streets. They stood straight and tall at each intersection with arms raised in a last salute. St. Catherine’s Church was filled to overflowing. Lance’s flag-draped coffin rested at the feet of his God.
This boy had loved people so much. He didn’t care if they were black or white. If they needed him, he always came a’running. He had fed and cared for them in Africa, and he was in Vietnam because he had heard the same summons and was answering it, and suddenly we realized that Lance was really all the boys in Vietnam—the weary, the courageous, the wounded, the dead—and Pelham had said: We love you all, opened its arms and gathered them all to her heart in the person of one young man, Lieutenant Lance Geoghegan.
On behalf of our boy, his men of the 2nd Platoon and all the young Americans in Vietnam, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. God bless you.
Barbara continues her story: “Quite a while after Jack’s death, two battered boxes arrived in the mail. They had been returned from Vietnam, marked ‘Verified deceased.’ They were the chocolate chip cookies I had sent two months before. There was also a camera Jack had asked for and never received. Then there was the shipment of his personal effects, among them his wallet in which he had kept a picture of the ‘little house’ in Connecticut to which he longed to return. Also in that wallet was a letter from his mother. It says, in part, ‘Dad is asleep and I am sitting in the den—thinking of you—loving you—wishing you well—wishing you home—thanking God for our wonderful son. Dad and I pray so constantly for you and your men that the seconds, the minutes, the hours are full of you.’
“I don’t know how I would have managed had it not been for Jack’s parents. Years later they said the same thing about me and, of course, Cammie. I guess we kept each other going. When one was weak, another was strong.
“Not long after Jack’s death I received a beautiful letter from Jack’s battalion commander, Colonel Hal Moore. He also wrote to the Geoghegans, and reached out to us across all those miles, bringing us consolation and courage and wonderful words about Jack. In one of his letters, Colonel Moore suggested that he might stop by to see us. The day came, in 1967. We would be grateful for even five minutes with him. He was with us for five hours. He came first to my house. I picked up Cammie and went outside to greet him. He walked slowly up the stone stairway to us, staring at us with sorrow in his piercing eyes, and surrounded both of us in his arms. This man who had carried my husband’s body off a bloody battlefield thousands of miles away was now here at our home. What a painful and difficult task he had, coming to speak of war in a setting so full of tranquility. We hurried up the hill to the Geoghegans’ house and there were more hugs and tears. Then we sat and talked and talked. It was cathartic, sitting together, sharing the pain and grief that enveloped us all. Then Colonel Moore asked where Jack was buried. When I told him St. Mary’s Cemetery was two miles away, he wanted to go there, so I took him. We walked to Jack’s grave. After standing there a minute, Colonel Moore asked if he could spend some time alone at the grave. I sat in the car while he did so. I glanced at him just once, and saw him kneeling by the grave, his head in his hands. I quickly looked away, not wanting to intrude on this private moment. The healing effect of that visit lasted to the end of Mom and Dad Geoghegan’s lives, and the memory of it will stay with me always.
“About two years after Jack’s death, Mom Geoghegan chose a moment to tell me something that she and Dad felt I should know. They wanted me to know that they wanted me to marry again; that I should not feel tied to them because of our deep closeness; or that I would somehow betray Jack by loving someone else. I could not imagine loving someone else. I loved them so much. In December, 1968, a neighbor asked Mom and Dad how they felt about him introducing an old friend to me. Since they wanted me to meet people, they agreed and invited him to bring Lieutenant Colonel John Johns over for cocktails when he visited from West Point where he was stationed. John and I met on December 21, 1968, and we were married on April 5, 1969. John adored children and instantly fell in love with Cammie and she with him. She was almost four when we married. For years we’d talk about when WE married Daddy. In May, 1970, a son was born and two years later we added a sister. Mom and Dad Geoghegan remained a vital part of our lives all of their lives. They were a third set of grandparents and all three of our children loved them. Our family was their family.
“America at War! That’s how NBC News started out every night during the recent Persian Gulf War. A war. Not a skirmish. Not a police action. A war. Back home the country was in fervent support; flag companies did record business; tons of care packages were shipped to the troops; children wrote letters by the thousands to Any Soldier. What a contrast to Vietnam. Was it guilt feelings? America should feel guilty for its collective treatment of the Vietnam veteran and so should our government—or at least those who governed during the Vietnam conflict. They wouldn’t even call the long, long siege in Vietnam a war, because war was never declared.
“Jack’s original death certificate read that he died ‘as the result of gunshot wounds to head and back, received in hostile ground action.’ In 1978, I had to write for another death certificate for insurance purposes. What a shock when the certificate arrived in the mail. Under ‘Casualty Status’ the box titled ‘Non-Battle’ was checked. I looked up the one remaining original certificate. That whole section was blanked out. I was horrified and wondered for a moment if I had been lied to; maybe Jack had been killed by friendly fire and no one wanted to tell me. My husband worked in the Pentagon and checked it out. A written answer was forthcoming that very day: ‘the policy in 1965 was that hostile deaths were treated as non-battle since the conflict had not been recognized as a war or battle. Because of numerous comments received, the policy was later changed to properly classify combat deaths as battle casualties.’
“Even after 26 years, it is still there, that golden thread in the tapestry. I may see an expression on Cammie’s face for an instant that brings a feeling. Or it may be a dream. The doorbell rang in the dream. Cammie, age 8, was beside me; Bobby, age 3, on the other side. The baby, Barbi, age 1, was in my arms. I opened the door and there was Jack, in his tan uniform. He stared at the four of us through the glass storm door and I, my children surrounding me, stared back. Nothing was said. His face broke into a smile, and then his image faded away. When I awoke, at first I felt deep sadness, then a feeling of guilt that my life had taken such an unexpectedly happy turn when once I thought I would never be happy again. But I focused on the smile on Jack’s face as his image faded. I knew that if Jack could be present in any sense, he would have been profoundly happy for me.”
They are the Gold Star children, war’s innocent victims, and their pain shimmers across the years pure and un-dimmed. They pass through life with an empty room in their hearts where a father was supposed to live and laugh and love.
All their lives they listen for the footstep that will never fall, and long to know what might have been.