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Authors: Greg Dinallo

Final Answers

BOOK: Final Answers
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Final Answers

Greg Dinallo

For those who are still unaccounted for,

and those who live with the uncertainty.


For technical information I am especially indebted to: Lt. Col. Johnie E. Webb, Jr., Commander of the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory, as well as Sergeant Richard Huston and Thorn Helgesen of the CIL staff; and to John Vieira, friend, actuary, and Principal of Towers Perrin, and his associate Gordon Gould. I’d also like to thank: Betsy Cox and Kelly Murphy of the National League of Families; Paul Gray of the National Personnel Records; Center; John Holman and Wanda Ruffin of the Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; Ray Moreau of Electronic Data System Corp., who designed the FVVM’s “In Touch” computer system; Frank Johns, Major, USAF, retired; Shari Lawrence of U.S. Total Army Personnel Command; Major Ronald Fuchs USAF; Nora Alter and Loris Mirella of the University of Pennsylvania; and my colleagues in the screenwriting trade—Burton Armus and Joe Gunn, formerly of the NYPD and LAPD, respectively.

Final Answers

“—2,700,000 served,

300,000 were wounded,

75,000 were disabled,

57,000 died, and more than

2,500 remain unaccounted for.

They are not forgotten.”

From the official program at the ground-breaking ceremony for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

November 13, 1982


tell fortunes,” I say matter-of-factly, knowing the woman will be intrigued. “And I’m good at it.” That’s what I always say at cocktail parties when I’m asked what I do for a living. Pressed further, I admit to being one of the guys who predicts the future for the power hitters of corporate America.

I can tell from her expression that the Capitol Hill matron who’s latched on to me is having visions of risk taking and leveraged buyouts. But her eyes glaze when I reveal that I’m an insurance and pension plan actuary, which means I spend my day statistically predicting when people will die.

She forces a smile, finishes her champagne, and hurries off in search of a refill before I have a chance to tell her that the two most important words in my vocabulary are probability and death.

They usually hang in there until I explain that since my discharge from the Army more than twenty years ago, I’ve realized that the former—in the guise of a high draft number—is responsible for my current fascination with the latter. The specter of Vietnam never fails to send them scurrying for cover.

I didn’t think much about death as a child. I wasn’t one of those kids who squirted ants with lighter fluid. I was the bored, gifted type who cut classes and could be found at Fenway Park recalculating Ted Williams’ batting average in my head, or at the movies watching
Double Indemnity
and rooting for the wiley claims investigator played by Edward G. Robinson, not Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, the conspiring lovers who had murdered her husband
for his insurance. I was still in my teens when I came face-to-face with death in its most violent forms.

It seemed like a great idea at the time. Twelve years of Catholic education had taught me that the wrath of God was nothing compared to the threat of Communism. I breezed through basic training, volunteered for Ranger school, and ended up in Special Operations.

I arrived in Vietnam in 1967 during the first week of October. The monsoon season had just ended. Search and destroy operations were resuming. I was assigned to a counterintelligence unit and soon found myself in a Huey gunship heading to a landing zone about fifteen klicks inside Laos.

“A little OJT for the FNGs,” my team leader said in his East Texas drawl as we streaked above the jungle. At twenty-two, he was a combat-weary three-striper with vacant eyes that concealed his disdain for the fucking new guys they kept sending him, one of whom, he had no doubt, would eventually fuck up and get him killed.

“Tags off, Bambi,” he growled, glaring at me. “One piece of tin in each boot, like this.” He removed the dog tags from his neck chain, then undid his laces, and tucked one behind the tongue of each boot, threading the lace through the hole in the dog tag before retying it. “These start playing ‘Jingle Bells’ in the bush, get you greased real quick.”

When we reached the LZ, the helicopter circled it several times, then hovered above the clearing before touching down. A chubby Asian girl, no more than seven or eight years old, came out of the jungle and began running through the grass toward the chopper.

The sergeant crouched in the door, watching her. He waited until she was about twenty feet away, then calmly fired a burst from his M-16. The rounds tore into the child’s chest. Her tiny body flew backward as if it had been hit by a truck; then it landed, and began twitching in grotesque spasms.

“Chrissakes!” I blurted, horrified. Despite all the training and Special Ops orientation lectures, I was still back in high school. “Chrissakes, that was a kid! A fucking kid!”

The sergeant nodded matter-of-factly, then leapt to the ground as the slick settled down. The patrol piled out and followed. Three grunts approached the child’s body that was laying motionless in the grass.

“Ain’t no such thing in-country,” the sergeant drawled as the rest of us fanned out and began setting up a perimeter around the LZ.

“No what?” I demanded, my voice ringing with anger.

“Fat little gook kids. Just ain’t any. Y’all remember that.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant until a deafening explosion knocked us to the ground in a shower of bloody tissue. When we got to our feet, a smoking crater the size of a two-car garage was centered in the clearing. The girl’s corpse had blown up, killing the three GIs who were defusing the twenty pounds of plastique taped to her scrawny torso. If she had made it to the chopper, she would have blown us all to bits.

The field was covered with body parts. We spent hours tagging and bagging them. By the time we finished, my tiger stripes were smeared with blood and dotted with bits of dried flesh. I tried peeling them off with my jungle knife, then used my fingernails like everyone else. I don’t remember how many times I vomited.

Six months later, I was the hard-stripe with vacant eyes. I was the one who conducted the on-the-job training. I warned the FNGs, “If you’re in the fucking jungle and a path looks inviting, don’t take it. Never,
, go through a gate—climb the fucking fence instead. Enter a hutch through a window, never through a fucking door.” And that was exactly what I did, and still damn near got killed.

The North Vietnamese had set up a series of relay stations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, their main supply route through southern Laos, along which massive caches of arms, food, clothing, and equipment were concealed. These storage depots were brilliantly camouflaged and couldn’t be located from the air.

My counterintelligence unit was choppered across the fence into Champasak Province to run search and destroy sweeps. We humped through the jungle for days before finding the main operations hutch just south of Thateng. Prior to entering any building, we’d always toss in a couple of grenades to take out gooks and detonate booby traps. But not this time. This time we had orders to take prisoners. I went around back and climbed through a window. My foot snagged a trip wire concealed in the thatch, detonating a Bouncing Betty buried in the floor. An explosion of steel fleshettes tore into my legs. The impact blew me back out the window into the bush. A couple of my buddies had just reached me
when the North Vietnamese came out of the woodwork and all hell broke loose. GIs were going down everywhere.

I was lucky.

My guys got me to an LZ, where a medic worked on my wounds until a medevac chopper came in and got me out of there. I woke up in a field hospital, both legs wrapped in bandages. A week later, I was flown to a hospital in Saigon, then spent several months in rehab at Tripler in Hawaii before mustering out.

My luck continued to hold. The young woman I was madly in love with since high school had waited for me.

Nancy was bright, compassionate, and incredibly supportive. We married and headed for California, where Cal Tech beckoned. She held me together through the years of emotional turmoil that followed: the guilt at having survived—at what I’d done to survive—the disillusionment of having fought in an unpopular war, and the fire fights that haunted my nightmares, all the while teaching school to support us while I got my degree in economics. She handled the throes of developing a business and raising a family with the same spirit and good humor.

Now, decades later, our two daughters are away at college, and the empty nest syndrome is our biggest problem. They were home for Christmas, but before we knew it, they were gone again. We’re really feeling the separation now.

I have to be in Washington, D.C., for a few days. Congress is formulating legislation that will revise the social security system. Over the years, my company has provided actuarial data for several federal pension and insurance programs, and I’ve been asked to appear before the committee as an expert witness. Fortunately, the trip coincided with semester break, which meant Nancy, who teaches high school, could accompany me.

It was late afternoon when our flight landed in a cold drizzle at Dulles International. We took a cab to the Hay Adams, which rivals the best hotels of London. Our suite has high ceilings, fine antiques, and arched windows that overlook Lafayette Square and the White House directly beyond. After a shower and change of clothes, Nancy and I ventured downstairs to the cocktail party, hosted by members of the committee, where the Capitol Hill matron latched on to me. She turned out to be the high point of the evening, and Nancy and I retired early.

We awaken at dawn to discover the rain has turned to wet snow. I’m not scheduled to testify until after lunch, so we bundle up and go sight-seeing, starting on the Mall with the Washington Monument. Its pale shadow points the way to Constitution Gardens, where the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is located.

Nancy leads the way.

It’s an extremely long walk to the wall.

And my gut tightens with each step.

I wasn’t one of the thousands of vets who flocked to Washington in November of 1982 when it was dedicated. I’d resolved my anger. I had a family and a successful career. The healing was complete. I didn’t want to relive the pain. But over the years, I felt the wall’s pull and did some reading about it. I know it’s the work of Maya Ying Lin, a Yale architectural student whose design was selected from thousands of submissions; that it created controversy and political backbiting; that it was approved, funded, and built in the face of formidable opposition and puzzling apathy; that it has moved men to tears and poetry; and that the concrete foundation entombs a dead pilot’s purple heart.

We come over a small rise where three bronze servicemen are standing in a thicket of bare trees. A mantle of snow drapes incongruously across their tropical battle gear, nestling in the folds of metal. Far below, the white earth appears to have sheared on a V-shaped fault revealing the granite wall. In the soft mound of snow that drifts against it are flags, wreaths, flowers, snapshots, religious articles, and military mementos left by visitors. We continue down a gentle slope to the cobblestone-lined path that parallels the wall. Soon the black granite is towering above us, the 58,176 names stretching as far as we can see in each direction.

“It’s like descending into a tomb,” Nancy whispers.

I nod solemnly, unable to reply. Nothing I’ve read or heard has come close to preparing me for this; neither for the sudden surge of emotion that comes from being in this sacred place, nor for how powerfully and eloquently it expresses the meaning of courage, sacrifice, and devotion to duty.

Large snowflakes are falling lazily around me as I read the names that are listed in chronological, not alphabetical, order. Those who died together are listed together. It doesn’t take me long to find names I know: names of men I led in battle; names of men who died in my arms; men whom I came to love like brothers; and men
who were killed before I ever got to know them. I run a fingertip over the wet granite, reflecting on the thrills and horrors we shared, when I see what seems to be another familiar name. I gently brush aside the snow that has stuck to the wall covering some of the letters, and am baffled by what I see. For a few moments, I just stand there trying to make sense out of something that makes no sense at all.

“Nancy? Nance, look at this,” I finally call out, my voice cracking with emotion. “Nancy?” I repeat to no avail. Like the millions of visitors who come here, she has become lost in the names etched into the polished black granite, and in her feelings.

“Nance? Come here. Take a look at this, will you?” I call again.

“You know,” she says, as she joins me. “The next time we’re thinking about sending men into battle, the President should come here first; and then, if he still thinks it’s a good idea—” She shrugs and lets the sentence trail off.

I nod, my teeth tugging at the inside of my lower lip, and gently touch the wall. “Look.”

Nancy steps to where I’m pointing; and engraved in the granite, in the middle of panel 50E, she sees the name—A. CALVERT MORGAN—my name.

BOOK: Final Answers
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