Editor’s Note: Tales from the VFW is a digital scrapbook of stories and artifacts from U.S. veterans and family members. The project can be described as a “moveable feast” of memories, woven together by novelist and U.S. Navy vet Tommy Zurhellen and publisher Dan Cafaro. Today we present a heart-rending personal essay written by Vietnam War vet George Masters of the U.S. Marine Corps.
It was Sunday afternoon, the first of June, on Daniel Island, South Carolina. While walking our dog, Murphy, I came to realize I was paying an inordinate amount of attention to the lawns and hedges and plants. I stopped to admire the way a warm breeze moved through the tops of the trees. Cars passed on the street. Above me, two children laughed and sang on a balcony. Smelling the smoke of someone grilling, I suddenly felt oddly alone. Not lonely, but solitary. Almost how it is in a cemetery when you focus on a memory to the point where all else fades away.
For reasons I am unable to explain, I had never seen anything so beautiful as the simple greenery that grew around my apartment house. Looking closely at the crew cut grass, I examined a shiny leaf as broad as my palm and the details of a ladybug sunning herself there. The bright yellow of an open flower, the raspberry colored burrs on a stalk all made me wonder if I were visiting here from a world apart.
Remembering Murphy on the leash, I looked down and there he sat patiently on the sidewalk. Head tilted, ears alert, he watched me as if to say, “Hey, are you okay?” Dogs are often more intuitive than their masters.
A week earlier it had been Memorial Day. No matter where I am, that day runs me over like a tank. And through all the years, my old friend, Sergeant Richard Triske has never been far from my heart. That Sunday afternoon, Richie could have been standing next to me, and for all I know, he was. I could imagine him regarding Murphy fondly. I saw him looking up at the apartment house and the noisy children on the balcony. Certainly he would marvel at the new cars. And hell, I’ll bet you a hundred bucks that after getting a whiff of the barbeque, he’d elbow me in the ribs and crack wise.
June 1, 1968 was Sergeant Triske’s last full day on earth. On the second of June, the young, tough, smart, battle hardened Marine would lead his squad down a dirt road in Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam. Despite all his experience and instincts, he made one wrong move, stepped on a landmine and was killed instantly. Two other Marines on that patrol were seriously injured.
And I was not there.
On R&R in Bangkok, Thailand, I was drinking, chasing women, eating off a plate, taking hot showers and sleeping on a bed with sheets. For three days and nights, I had the time of my life.
The day I returned to Hill 55, some of the guys from India Company, 3rd Battalion 7th Marines came to my hooch to bring me the news.
I met Corporal Triske on my first operation in country. At that time he was my squad leader, and I learned from him. The things he taught me to do and not do, saved my life. Later, I would apply those lessons, and they helped me survive. What Richie had showed me, combined with serving with the finest fighting men in the world, and a ton of pure unexplainable luck, allowed me to come home.
When you’re young and go to war, combat changes you. If you’re fortunate enough to survive, that changes you too. When I returned, I was not the boy I used to be. My father had been in the Navy in World War II, and he knew something about it. In time, my mother and sisters, with patience and love, came to sense and feel what even I did not fully understand or was able to express. My family circled the wagons, stayed close and loved me and with their help, I made it.
In Vietnam in 1968, Marines were killed and wounded every day. Some guys you grew closer to than others.
I think of Sergeant Richard Triske, and I miss him. Yes I do.
And through the years, I’m grateful that once in a while Richie can take the time to visit. That Sunday afternoon on Daniel Island, I watched him smile. I liked the way he dropped to one knee to pet and talk to Murphy. I enjoyed how Richie looked about at the trees and flowers and the peaceful street, as if seeing it all for the first time. Looking up at the kids on the balcony, he squinted into the sun. Sniffing the air, Richie smelled meat on the grill. I waited for an elbow in the ribs and didn’t have to wait long.
Sergeant Triske turned to me and said, “Hey, George, what do you say we go find us a couple of hamburgers?”
I said, “With everything.”
He said, “Big, fat burgers, rare and double everything.”
I said, “French fries?”
He said, “Oh man, now you’re talking.”
I said, “How about a cold beer?”
Sergeant Triske laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. “How about more than one?”
Vietnam War Memorial: Names by Martin Burns