The year was 1965. There was a war going on in Southeast Asia, but I knew little about it. One day in high school, my American history teacher assigned a current events paper for us to write. He did not consider television an acceptable reference source. Since my parents limited my television viewing, this worked out fine for me. The local newspaper had a limited scope, but my older sister lived in a major city and she brought me copies of the daily paper. It had articles on Vietnam, which I read and cut out for my assignment. Even after that project, though, not much really sank into my head about this war. Being a high school senior and looking toward graduation preoccupied my thoughts. In thinking back now, I wonder why I didn’t know more, why the concept of what a dangerous place Vietnam was just never materialized for me.
I even had a younger brother, Archie Crawford, who graduated a year behind me and joined the Marines. He was sent to Vietnam, and it was during his time there that something happened that would have me remembering someone to this day. Strangely enough, it was someone I had not even considered a friend. We never seem to know whose life we will affect, or whose life will affect our own.
Although it has been more than 40 years, it seems like only yesterday that I saw Dwight Carroll in high school. I don’t even recall ever having spoken to him. I went to a county school in Tennessee, and most students there lived on farms. In those days, you stayed friends with people in your own grade. Seniors especially saw themselves as the big men on campus, and didn’t do a lot of socializing with lower-grade students.
Once my brother and I got off the school bus in the early morning, I didn’t usually see Archie again until study hall, in the library, later in the afternoon. All four grades (9-12) would gather there at different times of the day. Each table had four chairs, with each grade represented at every table.
Whenever I saw my brother, he was always accompanied by his best friend, Dwight Carroll. When they arrived at study hall, though, they would separate and go to their own tables, and I would go to mine. That’s when the ruckus usually began—thrown paper wads and excessive talking. If there was any distraction in the room, it usually started with Dwight. My brother very seldom joined in, but he’d pitch his laughs like everyone else. The whole room was guilty of encouraging this behavior as we laughed at Dwight. He was constantly in trouble, and a trip to the principal’s office never seemed to change him.
The entire school knew about Dwight. If someone was caught smoking behind the bleachers, it was Dwight. If someone was skipping class, it was Dwight. If someone was throwing food in the cafeteria, he was behind that too. By today’s standards those would be seen as minor infractions, but back then such things were major disciplinary offenses. Despite constantly being in trouble for something, Dwight was still my brother’s friend, and I never made any attempt to discourage the friendship. After all, they were merely juniors, and I was a senior.
Upon graduation, I moved to the city to find work. Archie graduated the following year and promptly joined the Marines; his tour of duty took him to Vietnam in 1968. He and I kept in touch by writing letters. He also kept in touch with Dwight, who enlisted a bit later and also went to Vietnam. Archie never saw any direct combat, and the dangers of the war never sank in for me because my brother was a sergeant in charge of a PX in Da Nang.
But around the middle of 1968, I received a letter that would stay with me until this day. Archie wrote that Dwight, a member of Company I, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, had been killed. He was 19 and had served less than three months on his tour of duty when he was killed by small arms fire on May 24, in Quang Nam, South Vietnam.
Dwight’s platoon sergeant, A.W. Green, documented how he died. Dwight’s company was on a search-and-destroy operation when another company radioed for help. Company I responded. As some men lay down covering fire, others crawled up to the other unit’s position to rescue the wounded. When the enemy fire became heaviest, Dwight was the one closest to the pinned down men. Booby traps and land mines killed him and fellow Marines. Sergeant Green wrote: “Pfc. Carroll gave his life trying to save his fellow Marines and is truly a hero. May he be with God.”
Dwight was a farm boy who probably didn’t know any more about the Vietnam War than I did when I wrote that history paper in high school. Yet he gave his life for his country. He was no longer the troublemaker from school; he had become one of America’s best. I have nothing but respect for him. To this day, I regret that I never spoke to him in school. Dwight, in my eyes, is an American hero.
My daughter and I went to a poets’ convention in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1996. Between the activities, having some time to check out the sights, we chose a bus tour that included a visit to the Vietnam Wall. I knew that the time at each site would be limited before we had to get back on the bus to go somewhere else, so the first thing I asked my daughter was, “Will you please help me find Dwight Carroll’s name when we get there?”
We arrived at the Wall, got off the bus and walked into what appeared to be a large park. When my eyes caught sight of the Wall, I was overcome by emotion. There were so many names representing such sacrifice. I had no idea if I’d ever find Dwight’s name. But there would be no search involved: I went right to his name. I could not explain it, nor could my daughter, who was equally surprised.
For whatever reason, Dwight was meant to touch my life. And even if some may still call Vietnam a forgotten war, there are no forgotten soldiers. All of them, in their short lives, touched other’s lives before reaching their final fate.
If anyone should ask, “Whatever happened to Dwight Carroll?” my answer is that he accomplished a lot. He was a U.S. Marine. He achieved his country’s greatest honor. His name appears on the Vietnam Wall. He has written his name in history.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.