“When military personnel came to my door to tell me that Guy was dead, I ran to my bedroom.” — Widow Cindy LaPointe
“As a little kid I never thought about my dad. I started going to ceremonies of one kind and another and began to think that there was something special about him.” — Son Joseph LaPointe III
“In all my 33 visits to the families of deceased soldiers, I wanted to do it with professionalism, respect, and dignity.” — Master Sergeant Ken Williamson (Retired)
It’s Feb. 25, and my college students and I are doing a follow up to our discussion of modern American war literature. The room is crowded with visitors from other classes and three faculty members in addition to me.
Following the presentations, one of my students is crying, hard, as she comes to the front of the room and hugs the speakers. She has been touched by this first-hand account of the story of the death of Joseph Guy LaPointe Jr., a conscientious objector and a medic with a platoon of 18 that had been sent on a reconnaissance mission – a mission with inadequate intelligence – to Hill 376 in Quang Tin Province, Vietnam.
The hill housed a thousand plus Viet Cong, because it provided an excellent vantage point to track what was happening at American-occupied Camp Eagle.
Five of the 18 soldier died that day, June 2, 1969, and the remaining 13 spent the night on that hill until they were rescued the following morning by the U.S. military and airlifted to safety.
Wife, Cindy, and son, Joe, (5 months old at the time of his father’s death) spoke of a need to visit that site. An opportunity came to go to Vietnam and join the survivors of the Viet Cong assault and their families. Therefore, 30 years later, on June 2, 1999, they climbed Hill 376. The bodies of the five who died in 1969 had been returned with detailed autopsy reports of their injuries, but some in the pilgrimage felt that their spirits were still on that hill (A film of this event is on YouTube — “Return to Vietnam: Healing on the Hill”).
Important to both widow and son, that day and at a previous reunion Cindy and Joe had learned about the love and respect the men in his platoon had for Joseph Guy LaPointe Jr.
In a ceremony on Hill 376 , Joe read the names of the five from rubbings on the Wall in Washington, D.C., as the papers were burned, thus releasing the spirits of the five. Joe reports that on June 2, 1999, he (30 years old, had spent three years in the U.S. Army where he had experienced solidarity and a brotherhood he had never known before, had been married and divorced) finally grew up He turned 18 and suddenly a life that had been directionless became a life of direction. College, career, and family took on an importance he had never felt before. He was finally ready to take charge of his life.
Cindy reported to my students that she is like Rose from the movie Titanic, that first love never dies and she thinks about Guy every day. She has channeled this reverence for his memory through work she does as a volunteer at the Dayton Veterans Administration, knowing that if Guy were still alive, she’d be there for him.
Master Sergeant Ken Williamson indicated that if the names of all the members of Congress were placed in a hat with one pulled for each dead soldier, indicating that the selected member of Congress had the responsibility of taking the message of death to the families that perhaps each would be more careful before making decisions to put our young men and women in harm’s way.
My student responses were varied, and I’ll share some with you:
• Morgan McKinney: “ My reaction is utter amazement. His stories (Williamson’s) are filled with passion, enthusiasm and sorrow. His story about going to the woman’s house with the three-month-old baby was tragic.”
• Rachel Zelnick: “I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to have my husband killed in action It’s amazing and inspiring to see how her life (Cindy’s) transformed and changed after he died.”
• Mitchell Meyer: “We know exactly what our friends did 5 minutes ago, but our Army kills its own troops because of the lack of communication.”
• Lindsay Blankenship: “After listening to Cindy, I have a new respect for medics. When I think about wars, I think about the soldiers, and I feel like I overlook the medics and their importance in the war.”
• Stevee Hazel: “Listening to Cindy speak … was very hard for me to not leave the room. My boyfriend is in the Navy and will be deployed next February. It reminded me of how scared I am. It brought me to tears.”
• Connor McClure: “Joseph LaPointe III, used his father’s death to enroll in the army at the age of 17 in order to understand what his father went through and get a full grip of the impact he had and his own world view.”
• Emily Moser: “After losing your own father due to war, it was bold, very bold, for him (Joe) to go into the Army.”
• Eric Wright: “As I sit here, I try to put myself in Ken’s shoes, how he must have felt knocking on people’s doors and telling them their son had died.”
• Ashley Garland: “One thing that really struck me was M/Sgt. Williamson saying repeatedly ‘Just do it right’ in regards to telling families news that there is no right way to do.”
• Anonymous: “I sincerely tried to keep an open mind but am so anti-military that I can’t seem to not let my extremely negative bias cloud the presentation.”
• Anonymous: His story (Joe’s) was very touching. I will not forget the intensity of his story.”
• Anonymous: “ The family members have a physical connection that can be sensed when you are with them in person that simply cannot be felt reading words on a page.”
In conclusion, it’s important to me that the voices of those who have served our country in wars, just and unjust, be remembered. In their comments so many of my students mentioned what Cindy said, “Hate the war but not the soldiers.” So many lessons learned on Feb. 25, 2014.
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