[It is my honor to share here the remarks I gave at the funeral of my uncle, Sergeant John Young. May this small tribute honor him, the 9th Infantry Division, Charlie Company and everyone who served our country in Vietnam.]
Picayune, Mississippi -- I knew there was something special about my Uncle John Young from the time I was knee-high to an infantry rifle. My earliest memories of him came from the old Atlanta airport in the early 1970s. My mom and I would go to the airport and wait for him to come in. He was easy to pick out from the crowd because he was always wearing his Army uniform, not a wrinkle on it or him.
People would stare at him and all the colorful stuff on the chest and shoulders of his uniform. My mom would start sobbing. Uncle John appears, mom starts crying – that’s how it went. When he went back into the airport, more crying. I’m not completely sure I remember exactly the parting words he shared with me each time as leaned down to look in my eyes but I’m pretty sure it must have gone to the effect of, “Take care of your mom, Neph.”
From the time I was a little boy until the last time I saw him, he always called me that – Neph. I in turn also eliminated syllables and called him Unc.
As I grew a little older, I picked up little hints about what made my uncle special. I’d hear the grown-ups use words like “hero” and say that he had served his country in some place called Vietnam. I didn’t really know where or what that was or why everybody tensed up whenever the word was mentioned but, whatever Vietnam was, I knew it had to be important. I knew it had something to do with who my uncle was, what made him special.
I hit my teen years and began to recognize there was also something secretive about him. He was always deep in thought, as if he were in some place other than in a room with me. He didn’t talk a lot – very unlike my mom and Aunt Susan. I sensed a certain tension in him and even as I hit my 20s, it was not something I felt comfortable bringing up with him or my family.
I just put the bits and pieces gleaned from my family together as best I could. I had a rudimentary understanding of the Vietnam War by that point from what little my high school and college spent on the subject but mostly from watching TV, movies and reading about it.
I very clearly learned other things about my Uncle John that made him special. It didn’t take me that long to figure out he was perhaps the smartest man I ever met. He didn’t read books: He consumed them. He had the intellect to read one book one time and then explain it to me in a depth and context that was more riveting than even my best history classes. He and I shared a great love for history.
I also began to recognize the writing gene I was born with may well have come straight from his DNA. The former journalism major didn’t share much of his writing with me but the little he did left me spell-bound. The “hero” image began to take shape, in fact, when I realized he did not go to Vietnam because he got drafted. He could have deferred his service because he was in college. Instead, inspired by President Kennedy, he voluntarily chose to enter the Army and go to Vietnam. I cannot imagine having the courage of convictions to make a similar choice when I was in college.
Throughout my 20s and 30s, I so desperately wanted to ask him to tell me about his experiences in Vietnam but I didn’t have the courage to do that, either. I knew the place birthed in him demons that he would spend much of his adult life battling and I wanted to know about that, too, but I was just the little nephew. How do you ask someone to open up about Vietnam?
I’d get glimpses of it from time to time. Once, we were sitting out in front of my aunt’s house in Minnesota. The two us were probably debating the issues of the day when all of a sudden he disappeared again. Not physically, just mentally. He started staring at his hands and rubbing furiously them against each other as if he were trying to wash something off of them.
“Neph,” he said, “You don’t know what these hands have done.”
We sat there in silence for I don’t know how long. I desperately wanted to find words to make him feel better, as if I had any remote idea of what he was talking about – but he was my “Unc” and I couldn’t stand to see him in pain like that. He certainly wasn’t much of a hugger so that option was absolutely not on the table.
Most of the moments we shared together were not that dark, though. He often used his intellect to help me crystallize my own thoughts. As a grown man sitting with him after dinner one day in Georgia, I was talking to him about my uncertainty about the next part of my career path. I was giving him pros and cons about different options and my anguish about having such a hard time figuring out what was next for me.
He was exactly right. I only liked working for causes, for employers with missions I believed in with my whole heart – and there was no sense in this old dog trying to learn new tricks.
In my 30s and 40s, we spent most of our time together in person, on the phone and with email debating the big issues of the day. Man oh man could we debate some politics – him the gun-toting conservative, me the screaming liberal.
I’m not quite sure that “debating” is the right word as that sort of implies that there was a fair competition – as if I might have ever won one. Neph always came out on the short end of the stick with him.
He’d inevitably make a point that made me go quiet, one I could not defeat. After a lunch some years ago, he left me so stumped that I told him I’d have to come up with something. My poor girlfriend Won-ok over there didn’t see me for a week; It took me that long to come up with a response that I sent him by email.
The breakthrough I always longed for with him, though, finally came. It came because of Professor Andrew Wiest and his book, The Boys of '67. My uncle became a guest lecturer in Wiest's classes at the University of Southern Mississippi, lead summer sessions in Vietnam with him and served as the launching point for the book.
“To my favorite nephew,” Uncle John wrote in the beginning of his inscription. I’m reasonably certain I’m his only nephew but I’ll take it! “I’d write what I really feel,” he continued, “but then I’d be all weepy. Good luck in all that you do.”
I was the one who wept: I wept for 367 pages.
I’d read a few chapters and sob hysterically into Won-ok’s arms. I’d let a day or so pass, muster up the strength to read more, and then sob hysterically into Won-ok’s arms. I was starting to get the hang of my mom’s routine.
I now knew what my Uncle’s hands had done, what they had to do, and what all the Boys of 67 had to do to stay alive. I also learned for the first time the things he did to save the lives of other men.
I grieved for my uncle. I grieved for the men America lost and for the ones who made it home. I wanted to hop on the next plane down here to Picayune, break the John Young rules, and hug the stuffing out of him.
The book, of course, was such a hit that it got turned into a TV documentary on the National Geographic channel, which caused Uncle John to come up to Washington D.C. where I live twice within a relatively short time.
We spent our first visit sparring about politics and national events as we ate lunch. I remained dazzled by his intellect. I didn’t know why the restaurant closed so quickly after lunch, I told him – until we both realized they were now closing after DINNER. Time had just flown by. Turned out he did not think Hillary Clinton was a particularly nice lady.
The last time I saw him, Won-ok and I took him out to dinner. At the very end, Uncle John made a joke and laughed. I had to hide my face for a second, as a tear shot from my eyes. Won-ok knew it and asked me about it the moment we dropped him off at the hotel.
“I’m in my mid-40s,” I said. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard him make a joke and laugh.”
That book and his relationship with the professor and all the reunions with his Army buddies had changed his life for the better and given me the chance to get to know a new Uncle John for the first time. The old sergeant had discharged his demons.
At the end of that dinner, I decided to break rank. I gave him a hug. How a man of his slight physical stature could have performed the feats I now knew about, I have no idea.
He survived the hug.
For the first time in my life, I thanked him both for his service to the United States and for being my uncle. Though such words made him squirm in his boots, I told him he was a hero – mine, and America’s.