From the VETERANS series:
Vietnam, U.S. Army, 1st Calvary Division, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry, Bravo Company
Dates of service: 1969-70
[Anthony Wallace was interviewed by Nina Talbot in Flatbush, Brooklyn on September 30, 2010. Edited by Sophie Rand.]
“What do you want me to do now, God?”
-Anthony Wallace, September 30, 2010
“I was brought up in a church - going family, one of the first to move into Brooklyn’s Marcy housing projects. I went to Boys High School (now Boys and Girls High School). I played in the New York City Borough Wide Orchestra, and I also loved history. I have worked at Con Ed for forty - three years and I am the chairman of the Board of Deacons at the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
“I was an Infantryman stationed in Tay Ninh Province, close to the Cambodian border, in Vietnam from 1969 until 1970. I was wounded at Firebase Atkinson near the city of Dong Xoai when a mortar hit my bunker. I had flashbacks with various scenes: getting a glass of water from the fridge, my funeral with a draped coffin with family members sitting in the front row, playing ball outside the projects, going to church, my school classroom. Three of my buddies didn’t make it. I was medivaced to the 24th Evacuation Hospital, then to a Japanese hospital, and finally taken back home to the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital in Queens.
“It never goes away, it’s imprinted on you. You don’t forget what you went through. The smell of jet fuel at an airport, sounds of a helicopter-- all trigger Vietnam.
“I went to night school at Brooklyn college while recuperating at the VA. My captain allowed me to attend with the stipulation that I wear my army uniform. A student in the class hassled me about being a Vietnam vet, saying ‘ You’ve been in combat, you’ve killed people.’ The professor came between us and told the student ‘Don’t even say anything to him because you’ll never experience what he’s experienced.’
When I recuperated, I wrote President Nixon for the addresses of my fallen buddies, so I could write to their parents that I was with their sons when they died. Only one family responded, from the mother of Bill DeSantis in Aurora, Illinois. She wrote, “I prayed to God for someone like you.” She asked, “Did my son suffer when he died?” When I visited Mrs. Desantis’ in Aurora, I found Bill’s father mowing the lawn. Mr. DeSantis and I talked about his son on the porch and went fishing; My first fishing trip. The DeSantis’ told me that I’d never realize what it meant to them what I did by coming out there.
“Back home in Brooklyn, I reflected, ‘Those guilt feelings began to dissipate. And then in the background I still asked myself ‘all right God; what else do you want me to do?”
Nina Talbot, Veterans series © 2012