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{From the 2024 Spring magazine}

Written & Photographed By Theresa St. John

One of The Most Heartfelt Things We Can Say To Each Other 

He didn’t want to go to war – none of our kids did. 

Garth was 22 when he was drafted. He spent two years attending Rochester Business Institute and another two at Monroe Community College. But the draft hung over his head the entire time – like a heavy cloud he and so many others couldn’t escape. And when the letter came in April of ‘69, many emotions came with it. “At the end of the day,” he states, “I loved my country; it was my duty to go, so I went.” 

I met Garth a few months ago when I visited the Military Museum here in Saratoga. There was a brand-new, extensive exhibit covering the Vietnam War. “Can I give you a tour?” he asked, getting up from his chair at the front desk before I could answer him – which made me smile. Garth walked me through each of the displays and talked to me about military uniforms, people who’d given their lives, how they all just wanted to get home and live to a ripe old age – not die in a foreign country, fighting a war that didn’t really make sense.  

I wasn’t even born when the war started and was still attending High School when it ended. I really didn’t understand any of what was happening, but I remember the news broadcasts on our black-and-white TV and the harsh reactions people had to soldiers who’d given so much to defend democracy.  

Garth was part of the 25th Infantry Division – The Tropical Lightening Division. Their base was in CuChi, where a 75-mile complex of underground tunnels allowed the North Vietnamese Communists better control over where and when local battles would occur. VC soldiers lurking in the tunnels set numerous booby traps for both U.S. and South Vietnamese infantry soldiers. “In the three months before I was injured, two soldiers tripped these Chinese Grenades. They were hit in the chest and didn’t have a chance – the shrapnel obliterated vital organs, and, like that, they were gone.” Garth looked off for a second. Then, staring me straight in the eye, “Let me tell you why I call myself lucky.” 

In his case, on February 12th, 1970, Garth heard the ominous ‘snap’ he’d been trained to listen for, and as he stepped forward on his left foot, toe down, a piece of shrapnel cut the bottom, causing him to sustain minor injuries. But he wasn’t as lucky with his right leg, which he lost to the booby trap. “No shrapnel hit my chest area, so my heart and lungs were fine. I was alive. That’s all I kept thinking – I was alive.” There was no time to wait for the Dust-off medical flight they’d summoned to help transport him – he never would have made it in this slower helicopter. Instead, they called on the Gunship to fly Garth out to safety, where medical help could tend to him at the hospital in Vietnam, and that decision saved his life.  During his first few days in the hospital, at his bedside, Garth was awarded The Purple Heart. 

Garth shared some poignant memories that made him smile – like when his mom sent a cake, and the soldiers had no silverware or plates out in the field. “We took handfuls of her chocolate cake with thick white frosting and ate it that way, licking our fingers afterward. It was the best cake any of us had ever tasted!”

He recalled shipments that included packs of cigarettes – which he loathed. “I loved fruit cocktail, though, and was happy to trade this-for-that with the guys. I had all the fruit cocktails I could handle.”  

“You know,” he said, looking pensive. “I really liked popsicles – the grape ones. And my dad had them in the freezer for my two-week leave from Vietnam. When mom decided to defrost and clean the fridge and freezer, there was one left behind. So, my dad stopped her. He told her that if there were a popsicle- even one, I’d be coming home for it.” There was a lump in my throat with that memory, let me tell you. The things we do and say to hold onto hope.

“National Viet Nam War Veterans Day (March 29th) is the heroes' welcome they never received. It underscores the need to heal their painful wounds and allows us the occasion each year to pause and give respect, admiration, and thanks to the patriotic men and women who sacrificed so much in service to their nation.” -PVA