When I returned home from Vietnam, I still had a year and several months to serve in the Army before being released from active duty. Most of the guys who served with me at Fort Hood, Texas were also Vietnam veterans. We worked with each other every day and on week-ends, we ate and drank together, but rarely did we mention our Vietnam experience. We were ready to leave that experience behind and move forward into our bright future. Our emotions were bottled up inside. We didn’t realize how changed we were, and how hard it was going to be to fit back in to American society.
In the summer of 1969, I took a couple of weeks leave and drove from Fort Hood to Louisville, Ky. where my parents were living. My family was from St. Louis, but while I was in Vietnam, they moved to Louisville, where my dad had accepted a job. I didn’t know the area and had no friends there. Most of my time was spent hanging out in their condo, watching tv.
They subscribed to Life magazine and the new issue came while I was there. On the cover was a giant picture of the face of a Vietnam soldier. Next to the Life logo the title read, “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam, One Week’s Toll.”
Inside were 242 faces, all soldiers who had died in that one-week period of the war. I examined every face. Each one deserved my full attention. Part way through, I had to set the magazine aside. My blocked emotions finally erupted like a volcano. I finished reverently examining each face and when my parents came home from work, I was emotionally spent and exhausted. My mom asked me how my day went, I said, “Fine.”
How could they understand what I was going through, I didn’t understand it myself.
From the June 27, 1969, issue of LIFE:
The faces shown on the next pages are the faces of American men killed—in the words of the official announcement of their deaths—"in connection with the conflict in Vietnam." The names, 242 of them, were released on May 28 through June 3 , a span of no special significance except that it includes Memorial Day. The numbers of the dead are average for any seven-day period during this stage of the war.
It is not the intention of this article to speak for the dead. We cannot tell with any precision what they thought of the political currents which drew them across the world. From the letters of some, it is possible to tell they felt strongly that they should be in Vietnam, that they had great sympathy for the Vietnamese people and were appalled at their enormous suffering. Some had voluntarily extended their tours of combat duty; some were desperate to come home. Their families provided most of these photographs, and many expressed their own feelings that their sons and husbands died in a necessary cause. Yet in a time when the numbers of Americans killed in this war—36,000—though far less than the Vietnamese losses, have exceeded the dead in the Korean War, when the nation continues week after week to be numbed by a three-digit statistic which is translated to direct anguish in hundreds of homes all over the country, we must pause to look into the faces. More than we must know how many, we must know who. The faces of one week's dead, unknown but to families and friends, are suddenly recognized by all in this gallery of young American eyes.