CHASING THE PAST UNTIL IT CATCHES YOU
by Michael P. Kurtgis, 1Lt. F.O. Bravo Company 2/35th Infantry Cacti Blue
Attached from the 2/9th Artillery, 4th Infantry Division
The year was 1968 and it was July, summertime, in Nam. Of course, that meant the weather was hot; it reminded me of Florida, my home state.
We were two Butter Bar Second Lieutenants who had just arrived at Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam. We had both been assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 9th Field Artillery Regiment 4th Infantry Division Pleiku, Republic of Vietnam.
His name was Roger, Roger A. Fulkerson, and he was a graduate of West Point Class of 1967. He was engaged to a wonderful girl with light brown hair named Jeanne Griffin, and they planned to marry after he returned Stateside. Roger shared that one of his dreams with Jeanne was to have a family and a daughter just as cute as my three-year-old Kirsten. In those short days together, he had asked to look at the picture of my Kirsten several times. He seemed so drawn to her, that I asked him why he had not married his Jeanne before he came over. He responded, like it was in those days, that waiting was the right thing to do. After all, he said, "What if I don't come back?" or words to that effect. I disagreed with him about not marrying Jeanne and told him so.
I saw Roger as the epitome of America's youth and future: handsome, intelligent and patriotic to a fault. He held a purely idealistic attitude towards life, and the future belonged to him. On the other hand, at the time, I felt I was somewhat "tainted goods" by comparison: a college dropout, married, divorced, and my future hopes tied to a little girl I adored. It seemed to me that I had lived a whole lifetime in my short 25 years, and although Roger and I were about the same age, I had been around a different block. In my mind, by comparison, if people met the two of us just once and at the same time, Roger was the one they would remember. I liked his sincerity, his genuine concern for others, his honesty. He was America's boy next door, the one voted in the yearbook as best looking, best all-around, best everything and certainly most likely to succeed. Roger left an indelible mark on me from those first moments. And he changed my life.
Roger and I spent some time at the Officers Club, we saw the returning Vets who were within a wake-up of going home. We heard their pointed comments about the FNG's (F#%! New Guys) and what kind of crap we were headed for. We tried to be nonchalant about the reality that some of us were not going home.
We talked about weighty matters, including why we had chosen the Army,
what were we doing in Nam, what America was doing in Nam, what we did in the World, whom we had left behind, and what were we going to do when we grew up. We spent time discussing everything, from what it meant to be officers and what we thought the coming battles would be like to what it would be like to stare death in the eye and spit. We were young and brave then drinking our beers, Roger and I... We had no doubt that we would be involved directly in the fight.
We didn't mix with them. Our side of the Officers Club was different. We sat quietly at our tables talking and drinking our beer. They stood loudly at their tables, swilling it down. Out of the corners of our minds, we listened to those battle-hardened veterans laughing about going home and watched as they aimlessly stacked beer cans to the ceiling. To us FNG's, it appeared to be a hell of a party. But there was something about those laughing faces that wasn't laughing. Although their mouths were laughing, their eyes were not. We could see that, even though the air in the club was heavy and filled with smoke. And there was something more; we could feel an invisible line drawn between us, as palpable as a stone wall. It divided the club. On one side it was party time; theirs was an atmosphere of exuberance, relief, and new-found joy of living. Our side was quiet, filled with tension spawned from uncertainty and perceptible fear. And we talked about that too, Roger and I, long into the night in the smoke-filled club and later in our bunks. Those fears, both spoken and unspoken, shared and unshared, were our constant silent shadows.
Our job with the 2/9th Artillery was to be replacement Forward Observers. The unit we were attached to as F.O.'s was the 2/35th Infantry Cacti Blue Battalion to which the 2/9th Artillery Battalion provided artillery fire support. We were the eyes and ears for our supporting artillery battery, and we made the calls for artillery fire missions when our infantry company engaged the enemy.
My Infantry Company was B and Roger's Company was C. We were in sister infantry companies of the 2nd Battalion, Cacti Blue. Both of us went out to our respective companies in the field on "ash and trash" re-supply Huey helicopters.
Roger went first, and I went out on the last bird late that night, alone. I hated to be separated from my buddy.
While sitting on a stack of C-rations suddenly alone again, I thought about it as I tried to calm my fears, riding in that Huey, out into what seemed the blackest of nights somewhere in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
In the following days and weeks, Roger and I talked by radio when we were in the same area, as we practiced our craft, built up our own confidence, and the trust of the men in the Infantry Company we served. The days passed, and the weather was hot. We met again at a FSB (Fire Support Base) when both B and C Companies were on a two-day stand down. It was great seeing Roger again. We talked shop, comparing notes on the two companies and our respective company commanders. We swapped experiences on what combat we had seen, which up to that point had been fairly light. We also talked about home and what was going on back in the "World".
But significantly, the last thing I remember as we separated, was Roger's words, "Mike, you were right. I should've married Jeanne before I came over."
He confessed his innermost feelings and that small confession again emphasized how seemingly insignificant details of one's life become part of the fabric of it. You learn things in combat about your buddies that you would not ordinarily learn about a friend back home in the World, not even a close friend. His remark would echo within me for many years.
For some, the bonds of lifelong friendships and memories are forged fast and strong during times of war. The intensity of the experience is like nothing else, before or after. Because death and separation strike fast and sudden, like an exploding artillery shell, their occurrence become a lifelong memory.
And so it was on the morning of September 25, 1968, at Duc Lap, Vietnam, when an NVA (North Vietnamese Army) unit hit C Company and Roger was KIA. Gone... A memory...
Thirty-two years later, and, the memory of Roger has remained strong. Most Vets tried to put the war behind them and get on with their lives. They got married, made babies, and earned a living. And so it was with me. But through all those years I, like most, carried a memory of "That time and place past". Usually, it was one that represented a snapshot of the mind, such as a firefight, a face, a happening, an experience, or a buddy.
For me it was Roger. To me, he symbolized all that was right with America and also what America lost in Vietnam. I carried with me feelings of anger, frustration, guilt, and impotence tucked deeply and "safely" inside me.
One of Roger's dreams in life was to raise a family and now he would never experience that dream. He gave his life in service to his country, and his country recognized him for that in a ceremonial moment in history with an inscription on a cold black granite wall in faraway Washington. Somehow that didn't seem to speak enough of Roger to me. He was so much more than a name inscribed on a wall, as were all the others. His life and existence were ended, and for those of us fortunate enough to have known him, we have the pleasure of remembering Roger. But I felt that his country should also know the loss that I felt was perhaps more poignant: Roger had given up his dream of having a family. Somehow, America should know that too.
These were some of the thoughts I carried with me. And through the years, whenever I would hear about "the mistakes America made in Vietnam," I would seethe with anger as I thought of Roger, and the purity of this man who gave his all. He didn't make any mistakes. He did not hesitate then, and he would not today.
As he has walked with me all these years, he has provided unfailing confidence about our role in another time and place past. It wasn't about winning the war against communism but rather that we were serving our country and those who would spit in our face back home for doing so.
Still, I have always felt unsettled, like there was something else he wanted me to know, something I needed to know. For thirty-two years I had been thinking of Roger with the feeling that there was so much left undone. He never got the chance to marry Jeanne and raise his family. Of course, in hindsight, Roger has been smiling at me since Nam.
It goes like this: Out of the Past a New voice is Heard.
It was a day in November. The year was 2000. My wife Caryl answered an insistently-ringing phone. A young woman asked for Michael Kurtgis, and right away my wife, not recognizing the voice, wondered who she could be. When questioned, the young lady gave her name and stated she thought that Michael Kurtgis might have served with her father in Vietnam.
Caryl, knowing I would be interested, told her that I was at work and that she could call me there; she rang off by giving her the office number. After Caryl hung up, she immediately regretted not getting the young lady's number in case she did not call me. But a few minutes later, my secretary announced a call from a woman whose name I did not recognize. Shrugging my shoulders, I picked up the phone.
The woman on the other end introduced herself as Lynne Krause and asked me if I had been in Vietnam in '68, to which I answered, "Yes". Instantly, as the seconds went by, before she asked the next question, my mind raced back to the past, to the central highlands of Vietnam.
Then she said, "I think you might have known my father."
My brain went into its rewind mode-I frantically searched for "Krause"-but my memory banks came up blank.
The only name I could think of and that I chose to remember was Roger's. And I knew he didn't have a daughter or any children, for that matter.
Then came the bomb--
As if reading my mind, she said, "My father's name was Roger Fulkerson."
My brain stumbled and went into a slo-motion like I was caught in a whirlpool: for a fleeting moment, I thought she said "Roger Fulkerson." But that couldn't be. Could it?
This had to be some kind of hoax. This woman, whoever she was, was playing some kind of cruel joke. But in spite of myself, I was mesmerized. I wanted to hear more, and more importantly, I wanted to believe her. I also remember thinking, "Please God, don't let anything happen to this phone connection." (I didn't have her phone number nor did I have caller ID).
My mind snapped back to the present, with a rush of adrenalin. I don't recall what I said, but she must have taken my words as a promising sign. Like a torrent, she rushed forward.
And the more she talked, the more I knew she had to be who she said she was.
She told me about how she had been adopted, and that she had searched for several years and finally narrowed down Roger as her possible father. This revelation alone stunned me, for I knew that Roger, too, had been adopted as a child. Now this was his child telling me that she had been adopted. I struggled on listening to her, trying to assimilate and to make sense out of the information that she was telling me.
All that Lynne ever knew about her biological parents was that her father was a West Point graduate and that he was killed in Vietnam in September, 1968. That was all!
Meanwhile, Lynne grew up in California, marrying a computer-savvy husband, Scott.
With his knowledge of computers and the Internet, Scott tracked down information about West Point graduates killed in Vietnam, including Roger, as well as the infantry battalion Cacti Blue, and, along the way, a vet named Michael Kurtgis.
He also left a message about Lynne looking for her mother on Roger's West Point memorial Website. A woman, visiting Roger's memorial site as she often did, read it, and after some hesitation, called Lynne. Mother and Daughter finally found each other! Yes she had found Jeanne Griffin, the girl left behind. It seems that Roger and Jeanne had let their desires speak for themselves one night before he left for Nam. Jeanne was pregnant, and wrote in September to tell Roger about the baby, but sadly, the letter was returned. Unopened.
Roger's parents did not know that Jeanne was pregnant, and under the circumstances, at the time, Jeanne deemed it best to go to California, near her brother and remain out of touch. When the baby was born, although it broke Jeanne's heart, she gave the infant up for adoption, hoping that her daughter would have a better life with two parents. The infant was immediately adopted and raised by her new loving parents who named her Lynne.
With Lynne's telephone call to my wife Caryl, the Past caught me.
So, like a gift and a dream-come-true, Roger bursts into the 21st Century, with his legacy full of life, "live and in color", through his daughter Lynne and his sweetheart, Jeanne.
Talk about a legacy of life: Lynne and Scott have two beautiful children of their own, Jensen and Colton, which makes Roger a grandfather.
The family. What an important link between us humans family is.
You see, discovering Roger's living legacy lifted my burden, for I believe a man is alive as long as he is remembered. And now Roger will be, for generations to come, through his family.
I am deeply touched and pleased to be able to share my memories of Roger with his family to enhance their knowledge of the man, my friend. I now know why Roger has walked with me all these years. He wanted me to share in his dream.
Roger has his family. And I am honored to be a living witness and to validate his dream.
Thank you God, the chase is over because my past caught me. I am at peace and I know Roger is too.
Thank you Roger, Jeanne, Lynne, Scott, Jensen, Colton and all my Cacti Brothers.
© by Michael P. Kurtgis, July 26, 2001