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A Warrior Poet; An Unmarked Grave

Take what they have left and what they have taught you with their dying
and keep it with your own.
And in that time when men decide and feel safe
to call the war insane,
take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes
you left behind.

- Maj. Michael Davis O'Donnell

Somehow, I knew his poetry would survive. Those quiet reflections couldn't simply disappear. And as I read those words in Time's special edition on Vietnam, my thoughts drifted back to two earlier encounters with O'Donnell; 13 years ago in Vietnam and last spring in the nation's capital.

A day lost somewhere in the Pacific...
There are no days
any of us can come back to.
Friday was a day I never had at all...

I never knew the warrior. But I think I understood the poet. Maj. O'Donnell died in 1970, killed while piloting a rescue helicopter in South Vietnam. But his poetry touched something in me that even today I can't explain. Until the Time article, I had read only one of his poems, one selection from a book he called Letters from Pleiku. The poem and a short story about O'Donnell appeared in Stars and Stripes. I tucked the article away in my wallet.

On the days there is no mail from you
I sit quietly in my room and reread what I have...
Because I love you.
I am alone for the first time in my life...

I carried that tattered and worn poem for 13 years, but I didn't rediscover my poet friend until last spring, a name among the more than 58,000 names etched in the black granite wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I went to "the wall" looking for his name ... and for something more, something personal.

Sometimes there is not one thing worth feeling...
Some feelings are not worth a thing.
I will not recall this day except to add it to a growing number not worth recalling.
They all become the same in the end...

So many names. Each one special to someone. Each one gone forever. Emotions come to the surface quickly. And as you study the names, trace them with your fingers, and remember... your own image is reflected back. A sobering experience. I found his name. Just above eye level on Panel 2W, Row 40. His name and a small MIA cross. Michael Davis O'Donnell never came home.

Heaven knows I'm not so proud of everything I've done...
I mean I've let some people down.
And heaven knows there's so many things left I've got to do...

From my wallet, I pulled the clipping, worn and brown from years of carrying. I read it once more and attached it to the wall next to his name. Then, heart pounding and eyes stinging, I walked away.

God knows I'm not so sure of Him these days.
He also knows why people are bleeding to death in the back of my helicopter...
And he understands how we can wash the floor clean
and just one day later forget He knows anything at all...

I left it there ... a small brown scrap of paper fluttering in the Washington breeze. The warrior didn't come home. But the poet did.

(Written May 27, 1985 by Dave Berry, executive editor, News-Texan, Inc., Dallas, Texas. A decade later, in 1995, the remains of Maj. O'Donnell and his crew were repatriated from Cambodia. Their identities were confirmed by DNA tests, which were announced to the public in 2001.)

Photos: Capt. Michael Davis O'Donnell in the cockpit of his Huey helicopter in Vietnam (photographer unknown). Bottom: "America's Huey," the Vietnam-scarred helicopter chosen to represent the air war in Vietnam at the Smithsonian Institution as it comes in for a landing during a special stop in Tyler, TX, Jan. 24, 2004. (Photo by Dave Berry)

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