I spent the 1960s studying to be a priest, so I was exempt from the military draft. I never served in Vietnam. I can’t and don’t claim to know what combat is like. But I have friends who did serve, and no one in my generation could really avoid the war because it dominated our country’s life for more than a decade. The Vietnam War intersected with a sexual revolution and a wave of social turmoil here at home that, in some ways, remain with us today. And yet, along with the war’s bitterness and suffering, there were moments that are frozen in time because they had an impossible beauty. They can move the heart even now. I want to focus on one of them.
In your conference booklets, you’ll find a photograph with the title “Reaching Out.” I want you to study it. October 1966 saw a series of heavy firefights between American Marines and North Vietnamese regulars in the jungles and hills just south of the DMZ. This photo was snapped on Hill 484, moments after a hand-to-hand battle for the hill had ended. The man with the head wound is a gunnery sergeant, or “gunny,” the senior enlisted man in a Marine company.
Things - Marines - Gunny - Medic - Gunny
Two things are obvious. The Marines around the gunny are trying to get him to a medic. And the gunny is doing the opposite – ignoring his own pain to help a wounded young Marine bleeding in the dirt. What’s not obvious is something outside the frame. The same Marines had just dragged the sergeant away from the body of their dead company commander, who had called down friendly artillery fire on his own position to keep his men from being overrun. The beauty in this photograph – what the poet William Butler Yeats called...
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