Memorial Day, 2017
Letter to: John Heiden and Tim Shalk
By: Susan Schnall
It is so very many years ago since spring of 1969 and, although I almost remember your name these days—maybe John Heiden, I distinctly can set our discussion about the war to be the middle of the day, walking around the grounds of the old Oak Knoll Hospital complex to be in the middle of the day. We had worked together when I first arrived and you were a very young, very smart and dedicated hospital corpsman. I was assigned to the surgical and orthopedic wards—those barracks crowded with 35-40 patients, all young men who had been wounded in this country called Viet Nam. They were very young-17, 18, 19 years old. Some were missing limbs, some were so shot up they had tubes coming out from various parts of their body, draining excess fluids. One 18 year old, blonde, clean cut guy on his way to surgery for a foot amputation was terribly frightened and crying. I grabbed ahold of his stretcher as he was being wheeled to the operating room and asked him to talk to me. He said he was scared of dying and, as we started to talk, the doctors pulled away the guerney and said they didn’t understand why he would be scared to have his foot amputated-after all, it was only his foot. They had seen so much worse on other soldiers.. He was chilled and shaking as they moved his bed out and down the ramps to the OR and his death. And I couldn’t protect him—from the war, from his fear, from his death.
How I could not know his name? I know the scene, I clearly remember where it took place-the old orthopedic ward, the doctors were standing around, upset about being called in to operate on this kid-his foot was losing all circulation and gangrene started to spread upwards. I was only a few years older, but felt responsible for him, for his fear, for his pain. He and the other young men were the reasons why I became a nurse in the Navy. Somehow, I could heal them, make them whole again, ease their passage back into society and family. Until I couldn’t and realized that this war had to stop.
It was 1969 and we all thought that John had somehow escaped being given orders to Viet Nam. Now he was married and had a baby. He was promoted to psychiatric technician. We believed he’d been forgotten-until he received his orders overseas. It was after my court martial and I had raised money to pay attorneys for the guys who refused their orders to southeast Asia. I spoke with John about his not going, told him we’d cover legal fees, told him we had been successful before. But he was quiet and calm and resolute as he told me he had to go. I asked about his family and he smiled and shook his head-it was his duty, he couldn’t give it to someone else. He had been lucky in not having to go earlier. I didn’t have many arguments other than the personal. The political ones would have been meaningless to him at that time. So he went to Viet Nam and died when his helicopter was shot down during a rescue attempt of wounded marines.
I’ve always wondered what else I could have said that afternoon that might have made him change his mind. What could I have told him that would have preserved his life? I wonder how his wife and baby lived their lives without him. most of all, I ask myself what else I could have said that spring afternoon.
There another corpsman from that time whose name should be on the Wall. He died many years after we left Oak Knoll from prostate cancer caused by his exposure to Agent Orange when he was a corpsman in Viet Nam. Tim Shalk came back to Oak Knoll from the war and quickly became active with our anti war . He asked for copies of the Underground Oak to hand out, he came to our meetings, and participated in peace demonstrations. He was a handsome, dark haired, smiling-yet serious young man. He was one of my favorites: he was always dedicated and caring to our soldier patients and to peace. I left Oak Knoll in June of 1969 and maintained contact with very few people after I moved to New York City.
And then we reconnected in 2010. I met Tim and his wife Eileen In Oakland, California. He had matured and gotten older with gray hair, a slight paunch, but that same ingratiating smile that I remembered. He showed me pictures of his son who could have been Tim in 1969. We talked about life since the Navy and he told me about his anti war work—and he told me about his prostate cancer and exposure to Agent Orange. He was convinced that he had it under control.
Tim Shalk’s name doesn’t appear on The Wall; his death will never be recognized related to his service in the theater in southeast Asia. He passed away in 2015. His last email to me dated December, 2014: “ I have had a tough summer and fall battling stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer…..it is in the bone and I am in a chemo regimen right now…..scary stuff, and exhausting. Of course there is no give up in me, and I chug along trying get the most out of my life as I can. “
Today, Memorial Day, 2017, I think of those lives changed forever by war and conflict, and, along with millions of others, rededicate myself to healing the wounds of war, to working for peace and social justice, to bringing an end to armed conflict, to move us from a war economy to a peace economy, to care for those harmed and to stop this insanity called war, to end corporate power and destruction, to instead be life giving instead of death giving. For, if we who have known war don’t dedicate ourselves to ending it, who will?
At last count there are 58,272 names inscribed on you.
But you would not even exist if my country did not have a permanent war policy because at the end of World War II, everyone who was still alive would have come home. The war in Vietnam would not have happened.
The Vietnamese call it the American War and the Asian deaths in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are estimated at about 3,000,000. There is no wall anywhere listing their names.
Neither is there a wall containing the names of 36,516 Americans who died in the Korean War. There is a memorial nearby to that war but its impact cannot be compared to your monument because the names of Americans who died there are not listed. It is sometimes referred to as the Forgotten War, except to those who lost someone they loved.
The names are the difference. Even if the people walking by you did not know any of those people listed on you, they would eventually come to the realization that every name one looked at was a real person. It is a hard walk.
It is an immeasurably difficult difference for those visiting you if they knew people whose names are on you. Wives, children, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and all of the other extended family members. And everyone back home who knew one or more of your names.
And especially the men and women who served in Vietnam alongside the names on you. Words cannot adequately express the sorrow and loss they will always feel. These are often intensely private feelings not able to be shared with anyone else.
And so Dear Wall, my deepest and most sincere wish is that you will be the last Wall erected as a memorial to people our country sends off to invade or occupy other countries or fight unnecessary wars.
U S Navy, 1951-1955
Please read letter by Ronald E. Staff here.