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There is a part of me that after more than 50 years still overwhelms and devastates me whenever my memories of that time and place overpowers my mind and my soul: Vietnam. A time and place that forever scared the bodies, minds and souls of hundreds of thousands of boys and men like me. Youngsters filled with dreams of life and of living. Of coming home and growing old, and in between, experiencing the natural evolution through the seasons and through the challenges and diversities promised by time, circumstance and opportunity.

Those were the days of youth, innocence and gullibility — even in war. Even when dreams became nightmares, and nightmares became real. And reality became a surreal illusion.

As a combat journalist in Vietnam in the late ’60s, I saw the faces and heard the voices of America’s “next generation,” as they attempted to come to terms with their own mortality. Young, inexperienced, trusting and scared, beneath the transparent veneer of pretended bravery.

I was one of those boys, playing soldier with the big boys, and with a real enemy I knew nothing about, other than this was no game.

My memories of Vietnam came alive again a few days ago, when I heard what happened in Jordan to Sgt. William Rivers, Spc. Kennedy Sanders and Spc. Breonna Moffett. It brought back the faces and the voices, and most of all the commotions and frenzy of war. A nightmare in real time, without the ability to wake up and shake it away.

And I remembered the days, the weeks and the months of war that changed me and my generation so drastically, so permanently, so profoundly — like all wars do. And in more than 50 years since my own experience, war and the crusades of madmen, maniacs and psychopaths have only intensified in frequency and sophistication.

But what has not changed is the heroics of our men and women sent to battle other men and women, and in some insane cases children — the enemy — many used and abused, and also young, inexperienced, trusting and scared.

The experience of war never changes, only the degree of savagery and brutality. William, Kennedy and Breonna opened the wounds that scars had attempted to heal. And once again, I found myself remembering and feeling the moments that made me grow up before I had a chance to feel and experience my youth. I lost a part of me, and all I feel is guilt.

Many friends of mine, friends I grew up with and went to school with, gone in a flash of light and the chaos and madness of sound — surrounded by the cries of agony and final despair — with no one to hold their hand or wipe their brow of flowing blood that covered their eyes forever, and ever.

And dreams ceased to be in the silence that always follows the battle in war. Even the dreams of those left standing, drained and exhausted by the fight for their lives. And as they walk away from the killing fields, boys no longer feel the innocence of their youth, while young men sense the loss of conviction and passion.

That is the reality of war — loss. Everyone loses. Even back in the insulated world of political shenanigans in the halls of Congress, where reputations and lives, especially those of our soldiers, are cheap, expendable and replaceable. Just ask Marjorie Taylor Greene or Lauren Boebert, who have lost or misplaced their basic human instincts of compassion and empathy.

My personal loss, however, came from seeing, hearing and feeling the daily deterioration of bodies, minds and souls of boys and men like me, who knew not the reason why we were fighting, being mutilated and dying. We were the generation that was supposed to change the world — like generations before us — and yet, here we were, dying for what the end finally brought: nothing. And what I lost, like so many of my brothers-in-arms, was the courage to cry. We were too young to die, but too old to cry. And now it’s too late the find the courage to cry for those who cannot dream, who cannot cry, and who cannot feel the pain or know the sorrow that they left behind.

So, Sgt. William Rivers, Spc. Kennedy Sanders and Spc. Breonna Moffett, you brought me closer than ever before to finding the courage to cry — after all this time, for you and for those I left behind in a place and so long ago, that never seems to want to let me go.

Al Garcia-Wiltse is a published author living in San Juan.

Al Garcia-Wiltse