May 23, 2016

Remembering Vietnam in the shadow of the wall

Kenneth Pena. Photo by Mike Orazzi.

One from the archives:

BRISTOL -- Kenneth Pena sat on a bench Tuesday morning, waving an American flag half-heartedly and staring at the Moving Wall.
But his eyes were far, far away.
"Panel 23," he said, pointing to a group of names right in front of him. "I was their squad leader. I sent 'em out on an ambush."
The 50-year-old New Britain man, a U.S. Marine veteran who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, spoke softly as he recalled the men who died and the war that killed them.
"There were 19 in my squad. The next morning there was three of us, and we were dragging one of them," he said.
"For the life of me, I don't know what happened that night. Swear to God I don't."
For the past week, Pena has been near the Wall almost all the time, saying little, just watching, thinking, remembering.
"Kenneth Small. 17 years old. John Paulin. Couldn't read or write but he got into the Marine Corps. Tiny was the radio man. Tiny was anything but tiny. He outweighed me 100 pounds. I was their squad leader," Pena said.
"I've got their memory I live with every day, day in and day out," he said. "I was 20 years old. Next week I'll be 51 years old. I'm never ever, ever, ever going to forget them. I'm more devoted to those guys than I am to my wife."
"After my boys got killed, I didn't care whether I came back or not," he said. "I've got two Purple Hearts. That's how close I came to having my name scribbled on that Wall."
During the June 1970 ambush that slaughtered his squad, Pena shared a foxhole with Small, "a white-haired little boy" from Salem, Idaho. Two others were in there as well.
Small finished up his one-hour watch during the night, Pena said, and then woke him to take his turn. "He said 'I got to piss.' He was the first one killed," just a few yards away, Pena said.
"The only reason he joined the Marine Corps: he had two twin sisters. He wanted to help put them through college," Pena said.
Radioman David Patton -- "Tiny" -- got hit during the attack about 3 a.m. He remained in radio contact with the squad as the life drained out of him.
"I said I'd go get him," Pena said, but the lieutenant refused to allow it. "First light, we went out there. David's body was still warm but he was dead. I brought it back into the perimeter."
"I could have saved him," Pena said. He leaped on the lieutenant in frustration and anger. A gunnery sergeant, Pena said, "had to peel me off."
He said he had grown so close to Patton's sister, Carla, through letters that each thought they would marry. But "when Tiny died, I couldn't write her no more."
Growing up in Middletown, Pena said, "I didn't smoke. I didn't drink. I didn't do anything but play sports.
"I came back from Vietnam an alcoholic, a drug addict, smoked like a fiend."
"Democracy," said Pena. "Tell me how John Paulin got in the Marine Corps. Couldn't even read or write. Never got a letter from anybody. But every day he'd sit there and clean that rifle.
"Some of us be out there smoking a joint. But John Paulin be sitting there cleaning that rifle. Came from Owensboro, Kentucky. Couldn't read or write but he passed through the system. He passed the great American system. The one I'm holding this flag for."
"I wonder what they gave him when he got down there to Kentucky. Probably put him in a pasture," Pena said.
"I'm going to go to Kentucky. I'm going to Owensboro, Kentucky. I'm going to find John Paulin."
He said Paulin's grave "had better be in order. It better have a tombstone."
Pena said he's going to go to Philadelphia as well, to search out Patton's grave.
After Small's death, he said, he stayed in touch with his pal's parents, exchanging calls and cards several times a month. He even visited them last November -- and fell apart.
"The pain was overwhelming," Pena said. "I started drinking. I said some stupid [things]" and Small's mother told him she didn't want to speak to him ever again. "I don't blame her," he said.
Pena said Small had "never seen a black person in real life until he was on his way to California to boot camp" but the two became fast friends. "I changed that boy's life around," Pena said.
He recalled a time when the squad "got hit pretty bad" and returned to Da Nang for reinforcements. "All's I wanted to do was take a shower and relax," Pena said.
But Small -- "a warrior who wouldn't give up for nothin'" -- chose to dig into a cooler of beer. He wound up in a fight with other Americans and got beat up bad.
"He came back to that hooch, tent or whatever you call it. Told us what happened. I guess we were 19 or 20 strong at that time. We went back out there" and took care of the attackers, Pena said.
"One dude took it real serious. Middle of the night, he threw a gas grenade in our hooch. The next night, he was Medivaced. I don't know if he lived or died. I really don't give a s--t."
In the field, Pena said, everyone shared every letter and every package with everyone else.
After a long pause, he said, "I can't remember his name. Much as I try, I can't remember his name. Got a 'Dear John' letter from his wife.
"Nobody knew whether that magazine of that M-16 was loaded or not. He put it up on the side of his head. Fully automatic. And he pulled the trigger. Seemed like his body stood there for 10 minutes with no f-ing head on it.
He said he hoped the wife "lived a good life" with the $10,000 death benefit check she got as a result.
Another long pause.
"We killed a rat over there. Put it on a scale. It weighed 17 pounds," he said.
Another pause.
"I was eating C-rations. Stamped right on the box: 'Packed 1945.' I wasn't born until 1947. Scrambled eggs in a damn can. Ham and lima beans," Pena said with disgust.
Yet another pause.
Pena's cousin, who served in the Army in Vietnam, also returned in one piece. After growing up together, the two shared stories over beers after work.
One night, the cousin told him he had to leave the bar and "do something."
"Went home. Sat on the edge of his bed. Put a 12-gauge shotgun in his mouth and blew his head off," Pena said. "He had Agent Orange. It was kicking his ass."
More silence as Pena choked back tears.
He said his grandmother, Pocahontas Moody, died while he was overseas. The military wouldn't let him go to her funeral.
"They took my rifle. Put me in this little padded cell where I wouldn't hurt myself. And you know what? Last year was the first time I ever seen my grandmother's grave," Pena said.
Pena said he'd never seen the Wall before a traveling version came to Bristol. He said he didn't know if it helped him or hurt.
"This is not a monument no more," Pena said. "It's a tourist attraction. There's too many dry eyes come through every day. You got 58,000 names on this Wall. You line up 58,000 coffins and how far does it go?"
Pena said he has five sons.
"My oldest one had to go and join the Marine Corps, just to be like daddy. They just don't know. They just don't know."
Pena said he's never told his sons about Vietnam. "And I never will," he added.
When a young boy walked by, Pena reached out and touched him on the shoulder.
"Hey buddy," he told the boy, "don't ever put on a uniform."

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