Vietnam, May 18, 1971, the boy’s 23rd birthday. The button flew off his uniform shirt, lost somewhere in the jungle, as the bullet hit his chest, smashing the life out of him. He holds his rifle tight, not letting it drop. He falls to his knees; he falls no further.
Dear Brother: Why didn’t you come home? You said you would come home. I trusted you to come home. I know you stayed for your buddies. But what about me? How can I manage without you? You were the buffer between Mom and Dad. You made things right; you were smart. You were a pilot, a law student, a Green Beret, a member of the Special Forces.
You are my brother.
You operated from your heart with a sense of obligation and duty. On your last leave home, you were disillusioned about your involvement in the Vietnam War. We stayed up all night drinking Kahlua and talking. How I wish I had a recording of our conversation that night. You were so sad, questioning; I wanted to wrap you in my arms, hold you, protect you, My Little Baby Brother.
I miss you now. I miss you every day. My therapist said I would miss you in different ways on different days throughout my life. She said that was normal. Normal? Forty-five years! I’m stunned at how the years have retreated. I protect your memory safe in my heart, sharing it as often as I can.
My daughter, your niece, though at the time too small to remember you, has a strong sense of her Uncle Dale Dehnke. She takes her children to the cemetery on Memorial Day to put flowers and a flag on your grave and those of other soldiers as well. You would be so proud of her and your great niece and nephew. They are amazing children, growing up in a world so different from ours.
Kimmy graduated from Cal Berkeley. Go Bears! She became a teacher. Her husband is an athletic director for a university here in Oregon. You and he would be able to talk sports until the cows come home. He has pictures of you all over his office from your days playing baseball in the San Francisco Giants farm system, along with a picture of our childhood friend Ricky Mundy saving the American flag from being burned during a Dodgers’ game.
In an interview later, Ricky said he thought of you losing your life in 'Nam, and there was no way he was going to let that flag burn. Your best bud, Doug, became a scout for the Giants, but I am sorry to tell you, Doug passed away a few years ago. However, when Doug’s son, Dale, named after you, turned 23, your age at your death, Doug went on a hunt to find the buddies you were with in 'Nam.
We went to a reunion they had honoring you. We met so many of your buddies and heard so many stories. My favorite was how after coming in from a particularly horrific mission, you wanted a beer and were told the bar was closed, so you threatened to start shooting it up if you didn’t get a beer. You got your beer.
Your buddy, who put his life on the line to rescue your body, told us he found you on your knees, clutching your rifle. I understand that. But it’s so painful to think about. Your buddies told us about the time Brad, our childhood friend that Dad taught how to fly, flew in a helicopter and rescued you from a mission. I wish I could have seen the look on your face when you saw Brad.
On Memorial Day I take out the letters you wrote to me from Vietnam and read them to Kimmy and the grandchildren. The children write stories about you to share in their school classes. You are present; I feel you with me always. You died too young.
In one of your last letters to Mom, you wrote down at the bottom in quotes, "a coeur ouvert," with an open heart. On this Memorial Day, I honor you with an open heart. I love you and miss you terribly. Your big sister.
Pam Dehnke is the innkeeper at Nightingales Inn in Ashland.