‘The Things They Carried,’ and the lessons they taught


I’m known as a surly crank. I’m blunt but honest, satirical yet sympathetic. I can be both acerbic and considerate.
In my 20s, I was called “curt and condescending” in an employee evaluation. My parents laughed. I wore it like a medal.
Time hasn’t tempered my temper.
So when Vietnam War veteran Carl Johnson of West Hempstead told me that an Army lieutenant — a “real schmuck” — was the reason why it has been hard for him, as a civilian, to go along to get along, I knew I had met a fellow crank.
Johnson said the lieutenant’s ineptitude resulted in the deaths of Johnson’s three best friends in combat one day in 1970. “That lieutenant really screwed me up mentally,” Johnson recalled, “with the ability to tell the difference immediately whether somebody was really sharp, and someone I wanted to work for, or not.”

On April 27, 1970, while Johnson was on jungle patrol, one of the soldiers near him was shot. Johnson was the radio operator, and he asked the lieutenant for orders to radio the captain. “He’s frozen,” Johnson said of the lieutenant. “We’re laying on the ground and he can’t talk because he’s so shaken.”
When Johnson had time to reflect on the battle, he realized his platoon shouldn’t have been on point that day. But because the lieutenant was what the soldiers called “shake ’n bake” — a non-commissioned officer who wore his lieutenant bar visibly despite the danger of being identified by snipers — he put the platoon in danger.
“He was a jerk, to put it mildly,” Johnson said. “He’s the reason my three buddies got killed.”
When he came home, there were no parades or bands greeting him at the airport. Johnson earned a degree from Adelphi University, and shifted jobs over the years. “Sometimes I would get in trouble,” he said. “My wife says it’s hard for me to take orders.”
Johnson got married, raised children, and learned how to cope with his grief. He became active in veterans organizations, and continues to help his fellow veterans — even those he meets by chance. He has spent decades volunteering with veterans groups. He initiated and researched a Vietnam War Memorial at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park, his alma mater, to honor nine of its graduates who were killed in Vietnam.
He talks about his war experience as a cathartic and therapeutic way of coping.
A few years ago, Johnson was asked by a Sewanhaka student to speak to her AP literature class. The class was reading the Vietnam War novel “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien — a book about the possessions soldiers kept with them and the emotions they grappled with.
Johnson agreed, of course, to help teach the students about the meaning of service to country.
Johnson prayed in Vietnam, and carried a Bible he passed on to his grandson, who is now enrolled in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He said the war made him a flag-waver. He tears up when he sees the flag.
As I sat in the dining room of the Johnsons’ home, I heard earnest concern in Carl’s voice as he talked about the country he defended with literal blood, sweat and tears. He spoke of fractured friendships because of his political beliefs. One friend got up and walked away after Johnson made a political comment.
Carl and I talked about how the Pledge of Allegiance isn’t required in school, and how kids don’t salute the flag. We agreed on the meaning of the quote often attributed to Voltaire — “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — even though we realized we aren’t cut from the same political cloth.
We agreed that the pervasive divisiveness in the country is dangerous, though we likely disagree on the causes of that divisiveness.
Carl and I share an inability to suffer fools and a love of country. We agreed that if there is a way to repair the deep divide between Americans, it begins with being able to find things that we have in common.
At a time when every comment is scrutinized through a political prism, it was refreshing to be able to have an honest and respectful conversation with someone with different views.
Carl defended my right to disagree with him. I do so with profound respect, and an inability to ever repay his debt of service.

Mark Nolan is the editor of the Lynbrook/East Rockaway  and Malverne/West Hempstead Heralds. He taught high school English for 11 years. Comments? mnolan@liherald.com.