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Cool in battle, David grew restless when he returned from Vietnam

By Jan Hearne • Sep 15, 2019 at 7:00 AM

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in the Johnson City Press on Aug. 10, 2008. We are republishing it in honor of Jan Hearne, our former longtime Living section editor who died last week.

A green Volkswagen Beetle, a Cat Stevens song, stopping at a train track: The Universe keeps reminding me of David.

He was my “boyfriend” during part of the summer I turned 19. It seems ridiculous to refer to David as a boy. Although he was only 21, he seemed much older. He’d already done a hard tour in Vietnam.

David was a point man in a Long Range Recon Patrol Company. A member of his team told me they worked in four-man teams and were inserted into any area the commanders of their division wanted to know about. As he described it, the only defense they had was staying undetected. Discovery by the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army was “very often fatal.”

They stayed “in the bush” for four or five days, carrying everything they needed on their backs — loads of 75 pounds at a minimum. They slept in shifts on the ground using only a poncho liner for warmth. Even in the rain, they did without waterproof ponchos because they made too much noise.

Another guy who served with him said David “was our Gregory Peck guy. He was calm, cool and collected in combat.” David was awarded the bronze star medal with valor device for his bravery.

Later, I wondered how he could make the transition from the rigors of warfare to the orderly middle-class houses we inhabited. Home, with its candy dish and neat stack of magazines on the living room coffee table, must have seemed surreal.

There was the David I knew and the David his LRRP buddies knew. The guy I spent time with was trying his best to adjust to life back home. He had a tight circle of friends and a supportive family, but he was like a tiger in a cage. David mystified me.

That summer, he drove a friend’s green VW beetle. I have a vivid memory of us in the green bug approaching the train tracks at Morrell Road in Knoxville. He stopped and looked both ways before he drove across the tracks. I took that as a good sign.

I heard Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” the other day on the radio. It always reminds me of David: “But if you want to leave, take good care.”

I knew our time together would be brief, and it was. I knew he couldn’t stay in one place very long, and he didn’t. I knew he had a tough road ahead, and he did.

I saw David a year later — he was back off the road for a short visit — then lost track of him altogether. This January, I learned he died suddenly in 2002.

I hope before his death he found a measure of peace. Life owed it to him.

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