Why I Observe Memorial Day: A Vietnam Vet’s Experience as a Messenger of Death

By Norman Davis, Jr. Published on May 27, 2024

Maj. Norman L. Davis, U.S. Army (Ret.), penned this article in 2017. “Buddy,” as he was known to his family, served in the U.S. Army from 1959 to 1979, including a tour in Vietnam in the late 1960s. Buddy went to be with the Lord on January 5, 2021, but his message bears repeating. This Memorial Day, let us remember those who gave their lives to ensure our freedom.

 

For many families, I was the face that destroyed their world. I still remember every one of them. This is why I observe Memorial Day.

I served as an Army captain in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. Those were the bloodiest years of the war for Americans. After my tour was complete, my job was to knock on survivors’ doors and inform them their loved one was dead.

The Secretary of the Army has asked me to inform you of the death of your son/husband/ brother on (date). Those words still haunt me. I had to repeat them to those I talked with. I then did what I could to help. I informed the families that a survivor assistance officer would contact them to assist in funeral arrangements and address other issues.

The Most Difficult Job

My roughest notification came one hot mid-summer afternoon. I had to notify a woman in St. Louis, Missouri, of the death of her husband in Vietnam. He was an Army captain and helicopter pilot. When I identified myself, she would not open the door. Military wives were told that when an officer in uniform came to their door, it was serious business — probably death — that brought them.

I could hear her opening doors and closing them inside the house, opening drawers and closing them. Then I heard her on the phone. I wondered whether she was looking for a gun. I wondered what I could do if she tried to shoot me when she opened the door.

Finally she opened the door and asked me to talk to the telephone operator to get her friend’s phone number. I got it, and she called her friend. She asked if I would stay with her until her friend could get there. I agreed. Her friend was in East St. Louis, Illinois, and we were in the western part of St. Louis, Missouri. It would take two or three hours for her friend to drive the distance.

I saw an infant sleeping on the couch and, through an open door, a two-year-old sleeping in the bedroom.

While we waited, the woman told me her husband had only been gone six days, and she had received her first letter from him two hours before I knocked on her door. He had told her not to worry — he was not flying yet.

We Cried Together

When the woman’s friend arrived, we all cried together. I still get tears, even writing this. And the babies slept through it all.

As I left, I thought about my wife, Mary, and our family. It could have been Mary who heard a knock on her door. But it wasn’t. 

I still suffer from my time in Vietnam. I struggle with health issues because of exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide used during the war. Like many of my peers, I have problems with most of my internal organs. But still I’ve been blessed. Unlike many Vietnam vets who died years younger than me, I’m still here.

This is why I observe Memorial Day. I always think of those less fortunate than my family. I think about those who’ve lost their fathers, brothers, and sons. I think about those whom I comforted during the worst time in their life. I’ll never forget them. And I’ll never forget just how blessed I am.

 

Major Norman “Buddy” Davis, Jr., retired from the U.S. Army in 1979. He served as the treasurer of the Longview chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America before his death in 2021. He is survived by his wife, Mary, their four children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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