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