A 21-year-old Yale University student named Maya Ying Lin recently won the design competition for a national memorial to honor Vietnam veterans. Her plan calls for a sunken structure to be erected on a plot of land in Washington, D.C., between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. On it will be inscribed the names of the 57,692 men and women who died in the war, listed in the chronological order of their deaths, the last names meeting the first. Lin, who was 8 years old at the time of the Tet Offensive, explained her underlying idea: “Thus the war’s beginning and end meet; the war is ‘complete,’ coming full circle.”
If Lin and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Inc., which selected her design, think the war is over, they should travel to the Caddo Parish jail in Shreveport, Louisiana, and listen to the story of Wayne Robert Felde, a 31-year-old Vietnam veteran who spent his twentieth year in the jungles of the Central Highlands near Pleiku. It is a story that encapsulates all the problems plaguing a significant number of the 2.8 million American men and women who served in Vietnam and for whom the war goes on.
Felde was sentenced to death on February 13 of last year for the 1978 killing of a Shreveport policeman [see Lucinda Franks, “Soldier’s Pay,” The Nation, October 25, 1980]. In his statement to the court before sentencing he said: “I am not a criminal but a troubled and wrecked man. Like many other vets I know what Vietnam did to me…. Critical wounds do not always pierce the skin, but enter the hearts and minds and dreams of those that are only begging for help so badly needed.”
The members of the jury, some of whom wept during the trial, agreed with the defense’s contention that Felde’s actions in Shreveport had their antecedents in Vietnam. Nevertheless, they convicted him of first-degree murder and complied with his request that he be sentenced to death rather than life imprisonment without hope of psychiatric care. In doing so, the jury was speaking for an entire nation that does not wish to hear the cries for help of the war’s survivors.
Felde grew up in a white, middle-class family in Maryland. After graduating from high school in 1967, he planned to attend veterinary school, but he lacked the money and enlisted in the Army instead. Eager to go to Vietnam, he buttonholed a colonel in the corridors of the Pentagon and begged to be sent, even though, as the sole surviving son of a World War II veteran, he was exempt. He arrived in Vietnam in March of 1968, on the day he turned 19.
The average age of American enlisted men in Vietnam was 19. Most of them believed in the war. For many, like Felde, Vietnam was their first time away from home and their initiation into adulthood. Unlike their counterparts in World War II, whose average age was 26, who traveled to the war as a company and fought and came home as a company to a tumultuous welcome, the soldiers in Vietnam were sent off to war as individuals and, when their twelve months were up, were flown back to the United States as individuals. There was no group support, no decompression period. The psychological dislocation engendered by this depersonalized system cast a shadow on Felde’s postwar life.
A week after he arrived in Vietnam, Felde was flown by helicopter to Landing Zone Polly Ann near Kontum. He couldn’t join his unit immediately because they were away fighting Vietcong. When the helicopters returned with the casualties, he unloaded dead bodies until nightfall. The next day he joined a firefight that lasted two hours. Afterward, he and another soldier went to recover the body of their squad’s point man, who had been captured and killed and subsequently napalmed by U.S. air strikes. When Felde attempted to pick up the corpse, the legs came off. Felde vomited, then stuffed the remains into a body bag. “That’s when I started smoking grass,” he told me. “I stayed loaded the whole year I was over there. The captain smoked, the lieutenant smoked, everybody smoked. I’d get up in the morning and have a pipe with my coffee. We’d be on patrol and I’d fire up the pipe. Seven or eight times we were on patrol and men ahead of me or behind me would get shot and I’d be stoned, walking along, reading Playboy. I wasn’t paying attention. Why I didn’t get it I’ll never know.”