Strength & Honor

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Donald Johnson

Selected Excerpts

Ghosts of Torment, Ghosts of Love
Donald Johnson (US Marine grunt)

"As we prepared our rucks for an operation in the bush, sometimes the silence was so thick and heavy it could be cut with a knife. Each Marine would quietly select and pack ammo clips, grenades, C-ration boxes, socks, etc., lost in our own thoughts, unwilling to say out loud what we all knew, that some of us would likely not be coming back alive. I would steal a look at this friend, then that one, wondering if he would be the next to die.

They still visit me in my dreams, the ones who died.

Sometimes we would say to a buddy, "Hey man, if I don't make it back, would you tell my family . . ." One Marine was a minister back in Texas, and he told me before an operation that he had a bad feeling about this one, that if he didn't make it back he wanted me to go through his stuff, make sure his wife didn't receive everything. I asked him what he was talking about and he said, "Just promise me!" So I promised. He was killed on that operation, and I did as he asked, went through his stuff and found the girlie magazines he didn't want his wife to know about. I guess he was human like the rest of us.

I tried to keep to myself, not to get too close to anyone because that makes it tough when they are killed. Since just two of us were black and the others in the unit white, keeping to myself wouldn't be hard, would it? But there were two things I didn't count on.

Growing up in Georgia in the 50s and 60s, I had little contact with white people and that probably worked both ways. But one of Momma's gifts to me was an open mind. She taught me not to judge anyone by the group others put them in, that each person is an individual deserving to be measured on their own actions. In the bush of Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, near the DMZ with heavy concentration of enemy forces, I was only 19 years old and it didn't take long for me to realize the white boys were a lot like me; they loved America, they didn't want to be in Vietnam, they were scared when the shooting started and their blood was red, too.

The second thing I didn't count on was how combat presses people together, forging a bond like a hot furnace making steel out of iron and carbon. Even when things were quiet, the tension and fear of waiting, sitting back-to-back in a foxhole at night staring franticly into the dark trying to see movement and trusting your buddy to stay awake to watch his half of the perimeter, those times pushed us together, too.

And so, slowly, without my realizing what was happening we became close, we became brothers. I realized only years later as I matured that I loved those men. I still think of them every day. . . ."

Photo courtesy of Donald Johnson
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