We Were Soldiers

Delta Winds cover 2007Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


We Were Soldiers

Colby Yeager

I sat with my classmates as we watched the horrors of war play out in cinematic proportions. We watched critically acclaimed actors such as Mel Gibson and Chris Klein portray soldiers in a war that shattered American solidarity, the Vietnam War. I watched the movie riveted with tears streaming down my face, knowing that the man who sat behind me was reliving his own terrifying experience in this tragic fight. His presence was so strong with me, and yet I didn't even know his name. When the lights came up I was unable to move, almost paralyzed. The man behind me smiled at me through his own tears and handed me a small memento from his days fighting the Viet Cong-a tiny piece of history, a tiny scrap of metal that kept this man alive and connected me to a war that took place more than three decades ago.

The movie We Were Soldiers gives its audience an intimate look not only at life and death on the battlefield but also at the life and grief of the wives left behind. As the movie opens we are introduced to Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, played by Mel Gibson, and to Mrs. Moore, played by Madeline Stowe. This is a couple who really love each other, and it is obvious how deeply connected the Lieutenant Colonel is to his many children. Through this initial introduction we are given a glimpse into Lieutenant Colonel Moore as a husband and father rather than just a soldier.

As tensions escalate in Southeast Asia, these soldiers, whom we have come to know, are deployed to the jungles of Vietnam. They say goodbye to their families and ship out, armed with youthful pride and the knowledge that many of them will not come home alive. It is a powerful scene as the men steal out of their homes in the cover of darkness, most with silent tears streaking their young faces. They come together on their old baseball field, again in silence, and we watch as these young men transform from fathers and husbands into soldiers. The scene is also brilliant because it shows these men stepping off of a baseball field and onto the battlefield; they leave as boys and arrive as men. From this point we follow the men into battle and we also follow their wives as they battle the banality and horrors of the daily life of military wives.

We Were Soldiersdepicts the horrors of war on the battlefield realistically and dramatically, but it is the depiction of the wives that really struck me. Perhaps it is because I could never be a soldier myself, or perhaps it is because I am a woman, or perhaps it is because I have held the hands of my worried friends and we prayed for the safe return of their military husbands, that I was so affected by the story of the wives.

There is a scene in the movie where the audience is not sure if Lieutenant Colonel Moore is going to live. The movie then cuts to his wife vacuuming. This is a very poignant contrast between the violent war and the fact that these wives had to continue to do routine chores and continue to live life as usual. As Mrs. Moore is vacuuming, a cab pulls up to her door with a telegram but the devastating message is not for her. Mrs. Moore takes the telegram, to deliver herself, and instructs the cabbie to bring any others to her. Just as her husband was leading and caring for his men, she was leading and caring for their wives. Each time she delivers another telegram, which are now coming in by the handful daily, a tangible sadness rises up. A reality sinks in; this movie is based on a true story that took place in a true war. This happened. This war was more than a blurb in our history books. This was real.

Watching this movie gave me a better understanding of the Vietnam War. I generally stay away from war movies; I guess they are just a little too much reality. I had heard war stories from uncles and friends who fought but they were just that, stories. To see the Viet Cong sneaking up like ghosts or watching young American soldiers throw themselves on grenades to save their comrades is truly moving. Witnessing the wives of soldiers learn that they are twenty-year-old widows and that their children are now orphans shook me to the core. Yes, this was just a movie but it portrays reality. As I watched I wondered just how "Hollywood" this movie was and if the man sitting behind me was going to scoff at this depiction of his nightmare. He did not mock the film. He dried his eyes, smiled at me, and handed me his "lucky charm": a tiny piece of metal that saved his life, a tiny piece of history that changed my perspective.

His name was Captain Nolen, and he was a soldier and a prisoner of war in the Vietnam War. His lucky charm was a penny given to him by another soldier. Captain Nolen carried the penny in his left shirt pocket and had he not, he would have been shot through the heart and killed. Holding the tiny penny, which had stopped a screaming bullet in its tracks, I felt that I was holding the Captain's life in my hands. The bullet was still penetrating the penny and the violent beauty of it was poetic. An enemy bullet piercing the image of Abraham Lincoln, yet unable to reach its target, the heart of an American soldier, makes a very strong statement. To even write about that moment brings tears to my eyes because I grieve for the injustice done to all involved in the war, and I am filled with such pride that I share my little piece of the world with men and women like Captain Nolen.

They were all soldiers and many fought gallantly for their cause. The loss of life for the Americans was no more tragic than the loss of life for the Viet Cong. In war there is no clear enemy. Each soldier is following orders and that filters down from national leaders. I will never be a soldier, nor will I ever support the senseless killing of war, but I will always support our men and women in the armed forces. It is important that we remember what happened in Vietnam. It is important that we see movies that depict the actual horror of war, the death, the gore, the honor. I hope that movies like We Were Soldiers will continue to be made so that men like Captain Nolen will always be remembered.