KIA Tribute - Robert Clements
from the Seattle Times
Sunday, May 26, 2002 - 12:00
A shared grief: Web's brotherhood of Vietnam veterans eases a younger brother's loss
To 12-year-old Ricky Clements, his brother Bob was the coolest. He had a '66 blue Chevelle and didn't mind taking a kid brother on a ride, "lighting up the tires" on Renton streets. About two years later, in 1969, Bob Clements exchanged the high-school days of hot rods and hamburgers for a crisp, green uniform and a deadly mission in a faraway place called Vietnam.
Before that year was out, Clements, 21, was dead, another statistic in one of the nation's most divisive wars. The soldier was a victim of what is now called friendly fire, but was then passed off without any attempt at a full explanation.
According to the telegram that arrived just before Christmas, he was killed when a mortar shot into the jungle to clear out possible enemies fell short, killing him and his best friend, Jim McCarthy. As it turned out, there were no enemies in the area.
The round that killed Clements caused 32 years of bitterness for Rick, now a 45-year-old King County court protection officer. He is only now getting over the loss, thanks to a chance encounter via the Internet that changed his Memorial Days forever.
"Such a waste," he said. "They were only kids."
For years he wondered how such a tragedy could have happened to his beloved brother. Who was responsible? He suspected that his brother served with machismo-driven commandos who killed him through a careless act, one they tried to gloss over with a form letter to the family.
Now, Clements said of the sergeant his brother served under, "I just want to meet him and hug him."
A connection on the Web
It all began when Clements found http://www.virtualwall.org/, a Web site honoring the 58,226 servicemen and women killed in the Vietnam War. He was stunned to find that Ben Youmans, who served with his brother, had entered a remembrance.
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother," Youmans wrote, quoting Shakespeare, under Clements' name.
"I got cold chills when I found it," Clements said. Here was a link to the past, and a sign that someone outside his family cared.
That Web site led him to one for the U.S. Army 35th Infantry Regiment, 1/35th Company B, where he found listings not only for his brother but for McCarthy, who grew up with Clements in Des Moines, and comments from their former sergeant, David Muxo.
Rather than the bravado Clements expected, he found the stories shared were laced with pain. And he realized that those who served with his brother had also suffered from his loss.
"It mellowed me out a lot," he said.
In his Kenmore home, Clements, a patriotic bear of a man who has an American flag in Christmas lights over his garage, pores over photos and letters.
He has tried to contact McCarthy's family but has been unsuccessful. He and his mother, Helen, who shares his sense of peace at learning more about Bob's death, plan to attend the July reunion of the 35th Regiment, to be held in Tukwila.
In the meantime, with every contact he makes with the veterans, Clements learns more about the brother he lost, and how he died.
Muxo, the sergeant, is now a Disney World computer programmer in Orlando, Fla., who also maintains a Web page of Vietnam photos and stories at http://www.dnmuxo.com. He recalled Bob Clements as a man who "grumbled like all of us did. Just an average guy, very young."
Clements was 20 when he enlisted, joining a high-risk rifle reconnaissance platoon led by then- Lt. Jeffrey Rogers.
On Nov. 29, 1969, the platoon moved out early, crossing rice paddies, then seeking cover in dense bamboo near the Cambodian border. Rogers called a halt for lunch and Muxo, whose squad was in the point position that day, sent Clements and McCarthy about 10 yards ahead to watch for the enemy. They dropped their gear and began to eat.
Anticipating an ambush when the platoon moved forward, Rogers called for rounds to be fired into the brush ahead. Muxo now says the order was a good idea, except that the men were sitting too near the target and the shells would travel over their heads.
Rogers called for the gunners to launch a smoke round, a test to be sure the artillery was on target.
"We heard it go over and pop well in front of us. We couldn't see it because of the bamboo, but none of us were worried because it was a good ways out," Muxo wrote on his Web site.
Rogers added another 100 yards to the target. Again they heard the round, which exploded well out in front of them. To be safe, Rogers asked for another 100 yards and then called for the high explosives.
Muxo took another bite of cold beans, confident the men were safe.
Soldiers say you can't hear the round that hits you, "but I think Bob and Jim did," he wrote. The round sailed overhead with a "funny sort of sound like a swish and a jet sound rolled into one. The next thing I knew my ears exploded. The pressure of the explosion was intense and the loud bang left my head ringing."
The sun was obscured by the heavy smoke, and the tropical air was filled with the sharp smell of sulfur. Then came the sounds of moaning up ahead.
The men moved quickly through the smoke but it was pointless. McCarthy was dead and Clements, severely wounded, was being aided by a paramedic who'd been posted nearby. They were awaiting helicopter evacuation. It seemed like hours before one came.
"I was standing close to the chopper when they carried Bob toward it. The wash from the rotors blew the poncho off ... I had nightmares about that for awhile," he wrote. That night Muxo could almost hear Clements complaining about having to dig a foxhole, which he hated to do. Everything reminded the sergeant of the lost men.
For days the platoon members asked themselves what had happened. Why had the explosive fallen closer than the round of smoke, when it was always the other way around? What had gone wrong?
Back at Camp Enari, the commanding officer read a letter that had been sent home to Clements' and McCarthy's parents, saying their sons had died honorably in battle.
'They will never be forgotten'
For years Muxo, like the younger Clements, was angry about that letter. The deaths continued to haunt him.
He said he blamed himself, the gunners and Rogers until one day he heard and accepted the Army Board of Inquiry's explanation: The round that killed the men was one of a number of defective devices incapable of traveling the intended distance.
Muxo eventually came to the realization that the lost men had lived and died honorably.
"They will never be forgotten," he said.
"The most precious thing a leader has is his people," said Rogers, now a retired colonel living in Connecticut. When there are deaths, "a professional soldier always carries it with him."
Tomorrow, as they do every Memorial Day, Rick Clements and his mother will go to the Evergreen-Washelli Memorial Park to visit Bob Clements' grave.
This year, Rick Clements said, it will be without the anger and hurt and with a newfound gratitude for those who gave their lives for their country. And maybe they'll speak of better memories, like Bob's smile, his laugh or the time he skated down the icy driveway in his tennis shoes and crashed.
Through the Web site that led to healing, Clements has found a place to express his feelings to the brother he once had.
"I want you to know I have never stopped thinking about you," he wrote. "Though the years go by you will always be in my heart."
Nancy Bartley can be reached at 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org.