Postwar Story

His name appears on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and now on a postage stamp commemorating The Wall. But who was David R. Augustus? The answer is elusive -- and as complicated as the war itself.

April 30, 2000|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,Sun Staff

April 30, 2000

Dear Pfc. David R. Augustus: xxYou probably never expected your name to end up on a postage stamp. But in a way, it makes sense. Thirty-one years after you died in Vietnam, letters are the closest we can get to you.

I have to go out on a patrol for five days with four men. I'll be all right, so pray for me, and I'll be home safe and sound.

In the letters you are real. More real than in the friendly voice of the daughter who never knew you. More real than in the anonymous sea of white headstones at Baltimore National Cemetery. More real than in the conclusion of an autopsy report that raises more questions about your death than it answers.

How is the baby doing? Is she getting any bigger? Does she look like me anymore?

Who would have expected to see your name on a stamp? You didn't win a Medal of Honor. You didn't die in combat. Your fate wasn't something people talked about, let alone celebrated. The truth about your life is elusive and complicated.

But not your name.

Nothing about your story is more clear than your name, etched in black granite at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and printed in tiny letters in the middle of a new postage stamp commemorating it.

Guess what. I got a job back in the rear so keep praying. I just might get home early.

In the beginning, your name was all we knew. Not why you went to Vietnam or how you died or who you loved or what you left behind. That was the point: To tell, 25 years after the fall of Saigon, the story of an unknown Baltimore soldier.

It is very lonely over here. Sometimes I sit and realize how far I am away from home. It is a long way.

The people who designed the postage stamp didn't know you either. A randomly chosen section of the wall was photographed, and the photo was reduced to postage-stamp proportions. Then an artist painted a soldier touching the names.

On the stamp, the names are minuscule, barely perceptible, and yet somehow still legible. Some are fully visible; others are covered by the soldier's hand. Yours appears on the right side of the stamp, in the middle. The soldier's hand obscures the first few letters.

It looks like this:

ID R AUGUSTUS

As if the artist knew: No matter how hard we try, we can't see all of you.

You were the kid with a passion for drums. You had bongos and a real drum set with cymbals and you carried your sticks everywhere. Kids would hang around the steps and lean up against the windows to listen to you practice with your band in a basement on Collington Avenue.

What's been going on in the world? I've tried to write everybody but it seems like I just can't get any letters returned.

It's not that your relatives and friends don't remember you, Private Augustus. They do. They remember you as outgoing and aggressive. Fearless. "All boy." They remember you as the kid who was spoiled by his godmother and protective of his sisters and who led neighborhood kids on nature hikes through Clifton Park. They remember calling you "Gus."

It's not even safe around here. Last night the VC hit a tent next to us. It really shook me up. I think I was the first one to run into the bunker.

Problem is, hearing what people remember about a person isn't the same as getting a feel for him.

Thirty-one years after you died, the obstacles to knowing you are numerous and complex. There is no single keeper of your memory, no thick scrapbook packed with mementos, no longtime confidant to chart the course of your life. Your mother, who died last summer, didn't raise you. The doting godparents who raised you died years ago. Your four siblings were raised separately, each by a different guardian; as kids, you and your brother and sisters didn't see each other often.

Some people who loved you have scattered and couldn't be found. Others could be found but had nothing to say.

And even the letters -- written to your sister and godmother -- have unanswered questions between the lines.

You know, I've sent Ann her rings so now I am legally engaged, and you know if she does the wrong thing, I'll kill her!

You didn't go to Vietnam because you were drafted. You enlisted, like so many of your friends and neighbors and cousins did.

The Army offered you something, people say. A chance to prove yourself to the world. To accomplish something, despite having left high school after two years. To emulate your late father, a World War II veteran. To stay out of trouble on the streets of East Baltimore. To take responsibility for your life, and that of the child you'd fathered at 19.

People give different reasons why you joined the Army in the fall of 1967. But they all amount to the same thing. Whoever you were, you wanted to be somebody.

You know, when I got out here, I thought it was all a game. But now I have realized. Because I could have been dead.

But I think the big stranger in the sky didn't want me to go yet. Maybe because he wanted me to think about how Sister Wilson used to tell me, 'You've got to grow up, David.' Now I see what she meant.

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