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What does Memorial Day mean to you?
I have never served in the armed forces or participated in a war, but as a student of history and a lover of books, I have read many accounts of veterans, wars, battles, survivors, and non-combatants. In May of 2022, we have yet to eliminate war and armed conflict.
And so, the stories continue.
For this Memorial Day, I prefer listen to other voices, reflect, and contemplate. StoryCorps is a project where people get to interview each other and record their stories, which are archived at the Library of Congress. I found Hartmut’s story moving, and invite you to listen to his words in his own voice via the link here (or you can read the transcript below):
After graduating from West Point in 1967, Hartmut Lau was given a choice to serve his active duty in either the United States or Europe. He volunteered to go to Vietnam.
With the U.S. escalating its involvement in the Vietnam War, and the draft still two years away, Hartmut joined the Army’s 9th Infantry Division during one of the war’s worst years of combat. In 1968, American casualties peaked at 16,899, and 29 of Hartmut’s 589 fellow cadets from the class of ’67 were killed.
In 1991, after 24 years of service, Hartmut retired at the rank of colonel having been awarded the Silver Star Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, and the Purple Heart. Five years later, he met his wife, Barbara.
Over the course of their 20-year marriage, he has shared with her stories about his time at West Point, but Hartmut had never before spoken to Barbara about his service during the Vietnam War—until they came to StoryCorps.
Originally aired November 11, 2016, on NPR’s Morning Edition
Hartmut Lau (HL) and Barbara Lau (BL)
BL: You’ve told a lot about West Point. But you’ve never told me anything about Vietnam.
HL: You perform the mission that you’re given. You do your job and then you either perform well or you don’t.
BL: You say these things so matter of factly, like you’re talking about somebody else and yet you were there.
HL: A lot of things happen in a lifetime.
BL: They do.
HL: I have one really really horrible memory from Vietnam. It was in one of those times, you know, when the s*&t hits the fan. And in the middle of it one of the soldiers yells at me, “Behind you!”
And I twirled around and I had an M16, and I saw this guy and I killed him. And it was after he was going down that it hit my consciousness that he had his hands up and wanted to surrender.
What we always did is looked at the bodies of the Vietnamese that we killed, ‘cause we’re looking for maps, papers, anything of intelligence value. But I didn’t go look at that body. You know when you’re out there and you go through pockets on a corpse and you pull out a little diary and you open it up, and it’s got a picture of a woman and a baby. You know…
Couldn’t do it.
BL: You were there during the worst of it, and yet you came home, at least to my way of thinking, perfectly normal.
HL: I mean, you talk about no impact, but, I can close my eyes and see that guy collapsing with his hands up. And I think about that kid often.
Whatever you do this Memorial Day, I hope you are able to listen, reflect, and contemplate.
Hartmut Lau and Barbara Lau, StoryCorps;