A Night Fire
Kate M Carey is the sister of PFC David Lee Carey who was killed in Vietnam in 1968. Raised in Ohio, she lives and writes from Lexington and Surf City, NC. She is married and has adult children living in Ohio and Florida.
Sometimes it’s not secrets that hurt, it’s the untold stories that cut to the bone.
Going to college was relatively inexpensive thirty years ago and I was proud to be the first person in our family to earn a degree. After a couple false starts, I got a great first job that led to a successful career in higher education. Then, sometime in my mid 40s with friends still talking about student loans, I realized how lucky I was to have no college debt because my parents paid my tuition. I thanked my father who said, ‘oh, your brother’s life insurance paid that.’
I was gobsmacked. I’d never known.
My brother was smart. He went to a small college, played football, got bored, dropped out and enlisted in the Army in fall, 1967. He arrived in Vietnam in late February 1968 and was listed as missing in action in early March. I was 10 years old and clearly remember when two soldiers came to our house with the news.
My parents, brother Pat, and I sat down to eat dinner one night just as dogs began barking. There was a knock at the front door of our old country farmhouse. The knock, itself a surprise, because no one uses the front door in the country. You enter the house from the back porch, right into the kitchen where we sat eating. I followed my mother into the living room. She opened the front door to two soldiers in full dress uniform who told her that my brother Dave was missing in action in Vietnam. He had been there three weeks.
A week later, my dad came to school and collected me, a thing he never did before or since. We were told Dave was killed on March 8. We had a funeral, we grieved, and we moved on. That’s what you did in rural Ohio in 1968.
In a small town, a story missing details becomes an opportunity to speculate, start a rumor, or add to the gossip. When we had a closed-casket funeral, the story circulated that my brother was damaged beyond recognition. That maybe it wasn’t even him in the casket.
It was him under that sealed glass. My big brother, my hero. The guy who let me sit on his lap and ‘drive’ his car. The guy who gave me my first record album, The Monkeys. The older brother who teased me and loved me.
I always thought the Army’s few words about night fire and quick death felt as though some part of his story was missing. My brother was in-country for such a short time that few letters exist, and they were mostly detailing a camp, chow, and questions about happenings at home. I wondered what it was like for a twenty-year old kid from a small town who had been out of the US to patrol a hot, humid jungle seeking a hidden enemy thousands of miles from home. What was it like to shoot at men instead of deer and groundhogs? Did he suffer? Was he in pain? Who would he have become had he returned? Was it better that he didn’t come home to a country that had turned against the war?
I read the popular Vietnam books seeking something, I’m not sure what. “The Things They Carried,” “A Bright Shining Lie” “Dispatches, “A Rumor of War.” I’d talk with vets whenever I could and in later years, I’d crawl around the web looking for something, anything, that could answer my questions.
A year ago, on March 8, I found a website full of stories and memories managed by the Manchus, the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry. These entries caught my attention.
Companies A-4/9, B-4/9 and D-4/9 conduct Reconnaissance in Force operation to locate and destroy VC forces and positions, at vic XT8402 and XT8502.
At 0730 hours, D-4/9 (vic XT849027) located 2 VC KIA (BC). At (illegible) hours, supporting air (FAC) at vic XT636220 engaged two VC, resulting in 2 VC KIA (BC).
A Manchu Warrior remembered this day, while conducting operations in Gia Dinh Province: PFC David L. Carey, age 20, killed by gun, small arms fire.
Larry Mitchell, Bravo Co. 1967-68 (10/8/2000): I think Carey may have been with Bravo Company, but I’m not sure. According to Dexter’s diary, we had enemy contact that day and thought for a while that we had a man missing [MIA]. Eventually a body was found near where our contact originated. The company had pulled back and artillery was called in. At some point during that time, a man was discovered missing. helped carry him out and I remember that he had a huge gash in his chest. We speculated that he was hit by artillery, but who knows? I remember it was a new man…and Carey arrived in country February 15, 1968. This happened toward the end of the operation in which Charlie Company was ambushed.
Was my brother killed by enemy fire or American artillery? I wish I had the original letter from the Army, which as I remember it mention ‘a night fire.’ We all assumed that night fire meant he was killed by the Viet Cong, but this diary entry suggests something else.
I sat with that for a bit. Was this the information I sought for so long? Did it matter nearly 50 years later?
What do we want to know about the casualties of war once the pain of war has subsided?
Most wars start because someone wants what someone else has. Resources. Power. Property.
Vietnam may have been our first living room war, visually shocking the nation into action, but today we can see destruction almost as it happens. Technology has given us real-time war. Real time destruction of property. Shrines, statues, mosques, tombs and churches in the Middle East. Real time human loss as bodies of refugees wash up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.
The slogan, ‘America First’ rings positive and upbeat, but assassinations and saber rattling from Washington remains troublesome for most Americans. Always. And it leads me to ask, at what cost do we put America first?
A scholarly friend explains the world like this: The United States became a world power only after World War II, after the Cold War. He thinks growing influence by China, India, and Russia could mean that the United States might not remain a superpower. Polls show that many Americans are okay with that. They feel the US spends too much money on defense and recent revelations question the success of conflicts from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Our purse strings and our heartstrings are in conflict. We want safe roads and bridges, but we balk at paying taxes to build them. We seek peace, but we take weapons to the schoolyard. We pledge understanding but remain too busy to listen. Human paradoxes all.
I am not versed in international relations, nor am I a historian, and the situation is much more complex that I have presented. But I do know this: My brother joined the Army because he believed in freedom and democracy. A half century later, I believe in those things, too, wherever they’re found. I remain troubled about world conflicts, but I’m human and I’m hopeful. Hopeful that sharing our stories will help us guide our purses with our hearts – in community life, political life, and as global citizens.
By Kate Carey, United States Army Family Member