“Most” people who meet me think I am a pretty nice person; but I always tell people that my brother, Charles W. Honaker (Bill) is nicer! He really is! We are all that is left of our “family of origin”. Our parents and our older brother, Tom, are dead and have left us as the matriarch and patriarch of the family. Sometimes that feels like a heavy responsibility to me, but Bill and his wife Bobbie (who I have known since I was 13) shoulder that responsibility the way they have walked through their 50+ years of marriage – with faith and joy.
Bill served two tours of duty in Vietnam and in 2014 he wrote a book about that experience: The Dead Were Mine. It is a well written account of his service and work in Vietnam. Serving in the Army as a Non Commissioned Officer in Graves Registration meant that he and those who served with him, searched to find and recover the remains of those who died in battle. These are soldiers who performed those duties with reverence as a sacred trust. Once a fallen soldier’s remains were recovered, they were never left unaccompanied as they were returned to the US and to their families. As an Episcopal priest I had the honor of accompanying the dead at funerals where I presided. From the moment the casket or urn was received into the church, it was my honor to “shepherd” that person’s remains until they were buried, praying every step of the way. Most of the mortuary people I worked with knew that I took that responsibility seriously and always waited for me before they moved the remains. My experience is only a small picture of how those in Graves Registration maintained “vigil” with those who were recovered from the field of battle.
The first time I ever heard my brother talk about his experience in Vietnam was when our dad was dying. During that week we were often up at night together staying with daddy. I’m not sure how it happened but one night Bill began to tell me about the work he did during those two tours of the war. It was, for me, a tender time of getting to know Bill again. The experiences he shared were sobering. I do wonder now why it took so long for me to ask him about Vietnam. Part of it is, as Bill writes in the Preface to the book, an assumption that he would not want to talk about those experiences. But part of it too is my own feelings about war…in part formed by my participation in a generation that had grown to believe that the Vietnam war was not our war to fight. I am a pacifist who possesses a heart which is incredibly tender towards humanity. I hold on to Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount as a hopeful guide for our lives. These things do not interfere with my respect for those who serve in the military…or for those who disagree with my point of view. Reality teaches me that we need to have both sides of any question represented as we make decisions and especially decisions about war. Killing others, even when it is justified, leaves a residue of pain in our hearts and soul. The Vietnam War left us with thousands of scarred people; so many of them live on the streets of our cities. Those who served our country in Vietnam have not received either the gratitude or the services they deserved over the intervening years.
Watching The Vietnam War by Ken Burns on PBS over the past week hasn’t been easy. My hope is that this documentary will exorcise some of the demons of silence that have surrounded this war. I wonder, with hope in my heart, if we can begin to understand this war, with all of its intentions for good and its enormous sacrifices as a part of the history we own as less than perfect humans. The misjudgments and hubris by those in charge should never stand in our way of thanking those who fought, and those who died in Vietnam.
The Dead Were Mine gives a picture of the Vietnam War that most of us would probably rather forget. But we need this book to remember that as my brother says, “there is a cost involved” in the freedom we cherish for ourselves and for others.