By John-Paul Witt
Published: Wednesday, February 14, 2007
"On the morning of 14 February 1969, during a company-sized patrol in Quang Nam Province…"
The first time I read these words, Valentine's Day stopped being about buying my mom a heart-shaped chocolate container or exchanging notes with pretty girls.
These lines open the Silver Star citation awarded to my uncle, James Patrick Witt, for his actions on Valentine's Day, 1969.
This medal was awarded posthumously. He succumbed to the wounds he suffered in combat 38 years ago.
This letter is what I have of him, what I can touch and see. All else are ancient memories gleaned from once-soldiers over too much wine, too late at night.
Read on: "the point element took the command post of a North Vietnamese Army company by surprise."
The point element. My uncle.
"Second Lieutenant Witt … while initiating an aggressive assault on the enemy bunker, received multiple wounds as he moved across the fire-swept terrain … Although painfully wounded, Second Lieutenant Witt calmly … delivered explicit directions regarding the course of action to be followed by his men."
I never knew my uncle. In my home, he was always spoken of in quiet, hushed tones.
"Your uncle Jim was a Marine," my father would say.
Marine. Not "brave," not "a leader," but, Marine. As if no other word was necessary.
But all I had of him was a sheaf of paper bearing a red and gold seal, and a plaque of medals, for bravery and valor.
I felt I was missing something. A part of my family. A part of me that runs through my veins.
I don't know how my father bore it, every year. He would take me to a candy store on the 13th, and I would buy something for my mother.
If I were him, I would still weep.
As I grew in age and wisdom, I resolved to learn about my uncle, from the ones who knew him best.
I traveled to Orlando for a reunion of the First Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment. My uncle was part of Delta Company.
There, I met men who still bore the scars of the war that was consigned to history three decades ago. They live it every day. They weep in church, and drink in camaraderie.
From them, I was able to paint a picture of my uncle that was more real than the words of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, or my parents' respectful silence.
"He never asked anyone under his charge to do anything that he himself would not do," his men said.
"It was my fault. I put Jim on point that day, because he was aggressive. It was my decision," said his captain.
They told me about a man who cared about his men, was a good leader and a gallant soldier.
I celebrate Valentine's Day, I weep as I write this, because "We Remember."