Gary Lillie

Each time Gary came to the Wall, he stopped by the Memorial Day Writers’ Project Tent and sat quietly in the audience listening to poetry and songs presented by his fellow veterans. Thankfully, I always recognized Gary and would ask him if he had anything to read. Out of his pocket would come several poems, such as those provided below. Gary was a Seabee and spent most of his time supporting construction projects in and around Chu Lai, Vietnam. Gary was a veteran advocate and was co-host of a veteran’s radio program (AM 990) in Ann Arbor, MI. He was run down by a drunk driver as he jogged near his home late one night in August of 2011.


It Don't Mean Nothin’

A friend of mine died on Saturday
in a town about an hour away
my memory's not what it used to be
it seems I lost it to PTSD
So I missed the funeral...
it don't mean nothin’

"It don't mean nothin’" the grunts all said
when a friend was either torn or dead
they built a wall around their heart
not man nor Hell could ever part
That helped you survive...
it don't mean nothin’

We often talked of survival's reward
if we made it to that Freedom Bird
but back in The World it got real mean
it wasn't exactly the American dream
So we stepped in the closet...
it don't mean nothin’

It seems the country that we'd just left
was a whole lot friendlier to us vets
funny how things get turned around
we weren't even sure what it was we'd done
Whatever it was...
it don't mean nothin’

We had a time when we got off track
but we got those monkeys off our back
and now the American people express
the pride they have in the Vietnam vet
Call it what they will...
it don't mean nothin’

Jim & David B

David B was walking point
when we hit the shit on that trail
they got David with the opening rounds
and down he goes with a bad leg wound
we lay separated as he lay bleeding
and things were as bad as I’d ever seen
now almost thirty years have gone
and David calls me on the phone
Jim tells the story and I just listen

The strain's still there as I hear Jim say
how the ambush exploded that awful day
in the triple-canopy of Vietnam
where men and beasts behave as one
and fear can make your blood run cold
while steamy sweat runs from every pore
amid din and chaos and frantic screams
while men react and moments freeze
and where in the hell is God

Jim said they spoke for hours on end
of firebases and trails and friends
they laughed and joked in a familiar way
like it all just happened yesterday
then the easy talk took a new direction
so he half expected David's question
remember what it was like that day
it was like they were running the jungle
through a wood chipper

The chips and leaves and crud and limbs
poured down, around and on us said Jim
like the busy spout of a giant wood chipper
I admit my response was a little bewildered
if it was that bad how did you save David B
the trick said Jim is fire superiority
bring up the M-60, put the M-16s on ‘rock ‘n roll’
then on a signal open up
make the other guys keep their headslow

Two of us go and grab his ass
kept waiting to get one in the back
course the pucker factor's awfully high
couldn't believe it when we didn't die
then David gives up the phone to his wife
thank you for saving my husband's life
I said he'd have done the same for me
still I get a tear and choked up you see
...pretty emotional stuff

We threw him in and the Dustoff left
and it was back to work for the rest of us
never knew what became of him
that's just the way it was back then
from then I worried when my mind would roam
to the lie I told to a friend gone home
but David said he understood
it wasn't just me, anyone would
I told David he wouldn't lose his foot

History tells of the flaccid 10,000
who ran to Canada to avoid Vietnam
but seldom mentions the 40,000
who came south to join in our fight for freedom
now a memorial stands in the city of Windsor
at Dieppe Park, by the Detroit River
it bears the names of some northern brothers
but thankfully not David’s…like the rest of us
it was a part of him that was lost

The story's true but never wonder
what Vietnam vets wouldn't do for a brother
nor how much love they all still share
that's not the only message there
it's what they did when just nineteen
while others clung to children's dreams
and what professionals they became
the best damn citizen-soldiers
to ever strap on a ruck’

(With warmest esteem for the American ‘Grunt’)

I Could Have Done Without You

"I helped you out" she said
"I was a protester during the war
I also protested for various rights
there was so much to protest for."
…and the Vietnam Vet just stared
at her self-satisfied self

She looked so proud and smug
arrogant, to be sure
never questioned about her deeds
she had a scornful air
…and once again he smelled
the air of a dying friend

"I helped you out," she said
and marched on Washington, DC"
"It was all just utterly brilliant!
We were so full of life, you see."
…and once more he flashed back
to his best friend's final breath

She smiled down her nose at him
thinking "It feels good to be correct."
no other thought ever occurs to her
But he thought back to Tet
when his weary friend took papers
from the body of the dead NVA

"Hang on comrades" the interpreter read
"The American peace movement grows.
They can't hang on much longer
glorious victory will be ours."
…and the bewildered, weary grunts
just stood and stared at the ground

"We were there in Chicago" she boasted
"when the Democrat's party convened.
1968 it was, a truly awesome scene."
It was about that time that Wilson
his second string center in high school
stepped on a mine near Tam Ky

"My boy friend burned his draft card
and later we burned the flag
and then we burned tokes all around
I guess I'm starting to brag!
While they argued the shape of the table
…in Paris there was time to burn

"We turned out at the airports
I really shouldn't expound
but we wanted the vets returning
to realize they were wrong."
That night a 20 year old basket-case
said "Thanks America" and cocked his gun

"We shouldn't have even been there
it was a civil war, comprehend?
and us supporting a government
neither of nor for the common man"
While at a refuge camp, a family is dragged
to a plane taking them back to Vietnam.

"We were totally proven right
history has shown that's true
everything you see and read
will back me through-and-through"
It helped that point when the protesters
became the teachers of our youth

"We may have made a mistake
with Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge
but the Cambodians are finally free
and their country's on the move."
…and again, some say the estimates were high
and only one third of all Cambodians died

"Well, I really must be going
I merely want you to know
we were only doing it for our boys
we just wanted to bring you home."
…and he could only stare and think
"Thanks, I could've done without you."

I Wasn't a Grunt

"Hot" I answered
They always ask it
"What was it like
in Vietnam?"

I said again
Only this time I'm talking to myself
because they're no longer there
and neither am I
I'm 11,000 miles
and months, years away
but it was yesterday
or a few hours ago
or last night

The heat hit you like a wall
It was the first thing you felt
as you unloaded from the plane
that and the dust
The dust!
it seemed ankle deep
it covered everything
stuck to everything
got into everything
impregnated everything
except where there was sand
reflecting the heat

"You're lucky
it wasn't humid
like in Michigan'
Michigan is an arid desert"
Then how did you take it?

You just look at them and think
'name the choice'

And then they ask
"See any action?'
(that's always next)

A swirl of memories
fill your mind
like the red
swirling dust

that's what grunts have
(thank God, I wasn't a grunt)
and the medics
and nurses
and doctors
and anyone else
who ever saw
bodies torn apart
without a head
inside out
shot full of holes
like Swiss cheese
in embarrassing positions
(are the dead
ever embarrassed?)

maybe it is flashbacks

Again you see the grunts
sweat stained
weeks old sweat
on their torn
they were called
but faded near-white
the color of sweat stains
by the omnipotent sun

It wasn't just the
that were worn
the eyes...
they too
were almost used up
old and far away
when was the last time
they laughed and smiled?
at least at something
people in
The World
would understand

How could they understand this?

Grunts go
out on patrol
while we watch them
walk past
loaded down
with gear

an M-14 rifle
rusted orange
"How do you get the rust off ?"
"Hit it on a stump."
"But your life depends on it."
He gives you a look
this is living?

The medics
were issued 45s
but most of them carried
extra field dressings instead
You go out unarmed?"
"When I need a weapon
I'm too busy to use one
and when
I really need one
don't worry
there's plenty
laying around
I can take my pick"

Some grunts
carried their M-14s
over their shoulders
and a pump shotgun
in their hands

they walked up front

Packs, canteens
plenty of ammo
plenty of water
grenades, fragmentation
grenades, concussion
grenades, smoke
3.5 rocket launcher rounds
for some
mortar rounds
for others

Unless they actually carried
the 3.5
or the mortar
or its base plate
or the M-60
('hog' they called it)
or its ammo
"How much do you carry?"
"The pack's 65 pounds
but it's over 100
by the time you add
everything else"
"How do you do it?"
The look again

We work in their camp
while some of them
lay around
and try to sleep
in the day's heat
because tonight
they go to work

into the jungle
thank God
I don't have to go
nto the jungle
thank God
I sleep on a cot tonight
did I say it?
in case I haven't lately
thank you God
I'm not a grunt
I don't have to go
out into the jungle
and because
I sleep on a cot tonight
under a tin roof
I'm not a grunt
and please
watch over the grunts
tonight, God
tonight they work

In the morning
we drive by
the helicopter pads
we look in silence
dozens of
dark-green choppers
in the pre-dawn

as they run up their engines...
the old Sikorskis
gliding along
a foot above the ground
getting in position
as if in anticipation...
the sleek Hueys

They wait for their cargo
of 19 year old boys
pushing 60
to see 20

Standing alone
in groups
silently staring
at their boots
nervous laughter
loaded packs
and weapons
stacked nearby
for their destiny

We drive by
what they're thinking
what they're thinking

While we work
the sun screams at us
we hear
the Hueys whop,whop,whop
skirt the ground
lift over tree lines
rush to the shore
over the shore
past the shore
to the white ship sitting
just this side of
the horizon
with the red cross
on its side

A frantic landing
on the ship's deck
too far away
to see the scramble
men and women
grab the stretcher
or the limp body
slumped in a poncho

Then it lifts off
lowers its nose
and heads back for more
always more
whop, whop
all day long
whop chopper after chopper
carrying their precious
to the glistening white ship
that sits in the tropical sea
under the tropical sun
off the tropical beach
of this tropical land
inhabited by tropical people
with blank faces
and SKSs

We ride to our job
along the coastal plains
past the coastal hills
where gunships
blast a hillside
with rockets and Gatlings
artillery pounds a slope
with Willy Peter
Marines sweep paddies
patrols head out
grunts flush snipers
from the spider traps
"Fire in the hole!"
tanks belch fire
from their snouts
and the ground burns.

You see
the three white contrails
high in the sky
and the B-52s
(BUFFS-Big Ugly Flying Fuckers)
shorten some hills
while the ground trembles
beneath you
and the pounding
sound reaches you
and the hills turn to dust
for two miles

"Did you see any action?"
they ask again
Your mind snaps back

They're disappointed
they hoped
you could tell them
war stories
but all you can tell them is
you had it easy
compared to others
"I wasn't a grunt
I just built things"

"What'd you build?"
"Things out of wood
sometimes concrete
sometimes steel
I wasn't a steelworker
so I worked mainly
with wood
and concrete"

"Was it important stuff?"
I guess it was all important"

"Hold it"
says the young marine
'Damn, this is dehumanizing'
you think
"Damn, this is dehumanizing"
you say out loud
and the big black marine
sits down next to you
in the four-hole outhouse
and answers with a grunt
You look at him
out of the corner of your eye
at least I can shower tonight
you think
and put on my clean pants
he hasn't done either
in about six weeks
by his looks
and his smell
he's a grunt
thank God
I'm not a grunt

The rear hatch slams
as they slide
the cut-off 50 gallon drum
out from under you
with its load of slop
fuel oil and feces
"Three more to go, hold It!"
the two grunts say again

"Anything to read in here?"
the black marine asks
"Stars and Stripes over here"
I answer
and hand it to him
The two young marines
slide the four refills under you
"OK, go ahead"

"Man, I can't wait
to get outta
this fuckin' place
and back to civilization"

The black marine
takes the filthy copy
of the Stars and Stripes
that I offer
"Le's see
if they got anythin' in here
'bout the war
See how we're doin"'
"It says we're winning"
I answer
"Someone better tell Chuck"
he mutters

Yeah, I built
those four-holers
they and those
who worked on them
were called
but I helped
my battalion build
a 10,000 foot runway, too
and warehouses
and 1400+ hooches
and drainage systems
and galleys
and a firebase
and a hospital
(stretching the word)
the hospital...

Sharon Lane
was killed in it
two years later
in 1968
during an NVA rocket attack
as she lay across wounded
Vietnamese civilians
protecting them
from the rockets

We built every day
we built
during the monsoons
and our clothes
were never dry
and our skin
turned white and wrinkled
and the mud was over
the tops of our boots
which never dried out
and our feet rotted
and we were walking
and rashes
and rot

We built
before the monsoons
under the angry sun
one day it was 138
while we nailed steel roofs
but mostly it was
only in the 110s
or 120s
it was just that one
10 day stretch
in the 130s
a few times
it was merely
in the 90s
and one night
it dropped
to 85 degrees
and I caught a cold
and couldn't shake it
for a week

It was
as if Sol
who's rays build life
was saying he didn't like
what we were doing
with the napalm
and the bombs
and the Agent Orange

"Did you ever get exposed to it?"
"What, the Agent Orange?
but it didn't do anything to me."
How was I to know
they were connected?
the time I woke up
and my skivvies
were full of blood
from bleeding
through my penis
a few days
after we were sprayed
they said it wouldn't hurt us

"I hear it gives you cancer."
"It does, but I've been lucky"

Lucky I didn't have kids
with the birth defects
that can last
seven generations

"Was it pretty?"
was it pretty"
"Under any other circumstances
it was beautiful"

you remember

Time to go to work
the sky's growing light
the horizon's streaked
brilliant red
the fishermen paddle
their round
palm boats
out to sea
(how do they go
in a straight line
in a round boat
while paddling
from just one side?)
past the navy ships
anchored off shore

"Is the white ship
out there?"

Thank God
at least around here
the grunts
are safe
for today
relatively speaking

It's beautiful
Vietnam is
looking across
the mouth of the river
up the beach
under the palm trees
heading north
along the sea
where does it go?

up there
along the beach
of the South China Sea
and into the dark
of the enemy-controlled
right there
across the river

At night
the island
spews tracers
at us for days
trying to touch off
the pallets of napalm
and 250 pounders
and 500 pounders
and artillery rounds
unloaded from LSTs
that pull up
right here
on our side
of the river

The bombs and ammo
are stacked
next to our camp
and the Marines
fire back
and our tracers
and never go off
and we go back to sleep
and eventually we think
it's stopped
the machine gun duels
until we pull
night bunker watch
and find out
we've only been
sleeping through it
and the tracers
still visit each other
every night
green in
red out
and the choppers
still roar
100 feet over our heads
every night

will do that
make you think
the war has stopped

We load in our trucks
for another day's work
it'll be hot again
don't set your tools down
in the sun
or they'll blister
your hands
when you pick them up
and don't take too long
nailing down the steel roof
or the heat
will burn your feet
through the soles
of your boots

The squad leader growls
"Is the water in the truck?
Then let's roll."

"Man, I hate this place
But, thank you God
cause, I'm not a grunt

and please, God
take care of them
today, at least
they're all so young
but, if you do see
them coming
take them to you
'cause, they've earned it

"What about it?
"How do you feel?
about the war
and what you did."

I shake my mind
force it to think
in today time
I'm back now
it's today again
it's here now
I'm back with this person
in this place
in this time
and they want to know

I simply answer
"I just thank God
I wasn't a grunt"

In memory of 58,000+
named on The Wall
whose memory
saved my life
when, in shame I realized
that what I had
they lost