Memorial Day

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On
Memorial Day, I always think of Sgt. Jim Dawson of the USMC. I probably
always will, because he shared with me what a private hell this
day was to him. Knowing what I know has made it a day that I don't
look forward to very much either.

Dawson
enlisted in the Marine Corps at age seventeen, and found himself
in Vietnam not long after. Three tours he made, and was hit all
three times. The last few years, the bits of metal in his body had
begun to drag him down.

He
did a tour in Rhodesia as well, and wrote a poem called "A
Few Leftover Grenades" which sort of explained his motivation.
That was where I met him and I did not like him. Perhaps our mess
was simply not big enough for two such characters, or maybe it was
just two he-bulls in the same pasture. We hooked up after the war
and were friends since then.

It
was one of those tours in Vietnam that made Memorial Day so dreadful
for Dawson. At eighteen he was commanding a squad of young Marines
in combat and their position was overrun. He did what he knew he
had to do, and called down an artillery strike on his own position.
There was one survivor and it was Sgt Dawson. Casualties however,
were one hundred percent. He was in action at Hue City and had the
pleasure of hearing one of Jane Fonda's broadcasts from Hanoi about
which it was not wise to remind him.

For
years afterwards he would call the families of those dead Marines,
talking to all of them, or on a bad day, as many as he could until
the liquor took hold. Several times he had visited families of his
men, and once he spoke at a Memorial Day ceremony at their request.
And he'd talk to me. It was not something I looked forward too,
but I embraced it as a duty. Dawson always had a very rough time
on Memorial Day. This one won't be so bad for him since late last
February the VA changed his medicine one time too many and he picked
up a weapon and signed off. Guilt can be an awesome enemy that even
hard fighting Marines can't conquer. Not even with all the various
and sometimes "experimental" drugs with which the VA tried
to help him.

Dawson
was an irreplaceable friend.

There
aren't too many like that, but Dawson qualifies. We fought the same
war, and knew each other as men who wore the camouflaged pseudo
uniforms of bush soldiers. I ducked 122s at Chirundu as part of
the diversion for Dawson's RLI boys (Rhodesian Paratroopers) who
were putting in an airmobile strike at Mapai. Neither of us had
a whole lot of fun that day but we were both part of something bigger
than ourselves, and we were proud of that. We were fighting to defend
the freedom of people who had been America's allies in three wars
and had been deserted by America as political correctness settled
over our land like a dark cloud. Robin Moore characterized American
volunteers who fought there, accurately in my opinion, as "crippled
eagles."

In
Rhodesia, Dawson was well known to my gang as the "crow killer."
He had shot a crow off a power line while sitting in an outdoor
cabaret with some friends. It was making noise while he was trying
to talk so he took it down with a single shot from a .45. That cost
him a trip to the pokey and a 45 dollar fine — an odd symmetry in
that.

His
final posting was with the wackiest outfit in a wacky army — the
Rhodesian Special Forces. Those guys had the specific task of inviting
ambush and eliminating the terrorists when the ambush was sprung.
Often they were hidden in busses or trucks and dressed like native
Africans. A rather hairy way to make a living. Yet in three months
they eliminated over a thousand of the thug like terrorists who
prowled the tribal trust lands, making life hell for the inhabitants.
None of Jim's team were killed in combat — they were that good.

Let
it be said that Jim Dawson was an awesome soldier.

When
we got back to California we gravitated toward each other because
we had a lot in common and there honestly weren't too many folks
who had a clue about what we'd been doing or where we'd been. We
were lonely I guess, in a way that is a distinct form of loneliness
in that is a specific longing to share a specific kind of memory,
that can only be had the hard way. Folks who had never gone to sleep
during a mortar stonk had no idea who we really were. For Jim this
was especially hard — for him Rhodesia had been to an extent, something
to take his mind of Vietnam. He never really left that place.

We
spent a lot of time together in the desert, hiking and shooting,
and yeah, drinking. Several times we fought with our hands, over
real or imagined slights — typically based around "my outfit
was tougher than your outfit" or "I'm tougher than you
are." The sort of thing kids do. And Dawson was in many ways
a big kid — always.

He
is irreplaceable, there is no doubt in my mind, and it is on several
levels. Men who fight for causes, and for honor, are getting mighty
thin on the ground. A country cannot survive when that group of
men diminishes past a certain point. It's a rough tough world out
there and to defend us, and our families, we need men like Dawson.
When it counted, he was there. So yeah, he's irreplaceable on that
level.

But
there were other areas where he will be equally impossible to replace.
I was never as surprised in my life as when I met the Dawson that
no one suspected existed, Dawson the father. He cherished his Kara
and considered her his number one priority. Being a Dad made him
a better man — how can you replace a Dad? I remember Jim and Kara
debating whether she could have some more cherries. She was five
at the time. It was something to see this little girl wrap the toughest
man I ever knew around her little finger. I taught her to draw a
fish in the dirt — the way the early Christians did.

Then
there is me — there are a few guys left in the world, I suppose,
who would die for me, at least in the course of a specific action.
Of that small group there is now one less and that is a tragedy
for me.

I
had a lot of strange times with old Jim. He thought nothing of calling
me at three in the morning to debate some issue that he considered
important. It could be politics, military history or Abrahamic religions
— if he wanted to talk, he called. He was probably the only person
in the world who could do that without pissing me off. If he wanted
to talk, I was always willing.

He
blessed my marriage and indeed, helped me get there.

I'd
been pursuing my Diana for over a year. Then she invited me to a
Fourth of July party with the folks from church, and after some
thought I turned her down. I was still feeling very much like an
outsider in those days. By sheer luck Dawson happened to call that
day and I told him about it, figuring he'd sympathize with my decision.
He most certainly did not! He did for me what he had so much trouble
doing for himself — he told me in no uncertain terms to call that
girl back, go to that party, "…take off those dark glasses
and don't stand in the corner of the room like an asshole looking
sinister!"

I
took his advice and when I proposed to Diana — I insisted upon taking
her out to California to meet Jim. I figured it was only fair that
she see firsthand that side of my life and I felt that she
and Jim needed to meet. And I felt it was right that my best friend
should meet my fiancée. They were the flip sides of my coin,
so to speak. Jim acted his usual tough self, and we had our traditional
toast to fallen comrades. But the hard case Marine stuff didn't
take with Diana — the first night there she hugged him and said
"Dawson — you're not nearly as mean as you'd like me to think
you are!"

After
that she was his hero and he'd constantly remind me not to "…mess
this up — you're not likely to find anything that good again."
It was important to me that they got along.

And
Dawson was a Marine. They are a special bunch — there are no "former"
Marines. I told a Marine captain with whom I correspond, the story
of Dawson after I heard the bad news. He promised to toast him that
night, and tell his story to his assembled company. Several others
I've talked to have reacted the same way. When they buried him —
a whole squad of real Marines showed up for the honor guard. Yeah,
they are a special bunch.

May
God grant us leaders who use sound judgment when committing kids
like Jim Dawson and his young squad mates to battle. Very little
is worth that much and the measure of a leader is how well he understands
that. Wars are not good for the economy, and our men should
not be frittered away on ludicrous tasks like "peace
keeping!" That they should ever be sent to war in an unjust
cause is a travesty and it has happened in my lifetime. These men
are a God given resource that a nation must preserve for the very
special cause of defending the borders and vouchsafing freedom.
Nothing else is worth the sacrifice.

To
all who knew him, Dawson is irreplaceable. Funny isn't it, how we
all call him that? "Dawson" I mean. It was almost like
a title. This was a guy tortured by the demons of a miserable war
that would never let him be, but he managed to find time for us,
his friends and his family. He will be missed, and the world is
no longer quite as interesting a place without him in it.

May
26, 2000

Mr. Peirce [send him
mail
] fought with the Rhodesian freedom fighters (the Ian Smith
side, of course).

Michael
Peirce Archives

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