Remembering a Soldier Who Shouldn't Have Died
His job in Vietnam was to tell the soldiers' stories, not face combat
Panel 5W, Row 104. His name isn’t supposed to be on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. But it is: Stephen H. Warner.
Last time I was here, my 16-year-old niece helped me hold a piece a paper over the name while I tried to make a pencil rubbing. Like so many futile hands that have struggled at this gabbro wall for almost 30 years, I’m hoping I can rub the name off, make his death disappear.
But I can’t. And it won’t.
(MORE: Honoring America's Heroes)
Guys like Warner weren’t supposed to get killed in Vietnam. He and I were meant to spend our 365 days in Vietnam in the rear (we were categorized as REMFs, "rear echelon mother f-ers”), working in a corporate-style, bright and shiny, public information office in the U.S. Army’s headquarters at Long Binh, a former rubber plantation about 15 miles from Saigon. And while we didn’t necessarily write the truth about what was going on— or going wrong — in Vietnam, we could at least stay out of harm’s way.
Unless you were Steve Warner.
Hating the War, Loving the Soldiers
Like a lot us who were drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam during the later stages of the war (1970s), Warner was not an admirer of U.S. policy in Vietnam. But, unlike the rest of us REMFs, Warner put his principles where his mouth was and took every occasion to go out into the countryside and see exactly what was going on. While he was out there, he made a point of interviewing, photographing and connecting with the GIs who were doing the fighting and dying.
(MORE: How Should We Curate Vietnam?)
In retrospect, I think this added to his consternation about the war. I remember him being especially angry when he was told to "paint out beads" at the bottom of one of the photographs he took when he was out in the field. During this time (1970-71), many soldiers were wearing “love beads" and other adornments, a direct violation of military dress regulations. Warner shot the photos the way he saw them and stood his ground with the military “censors” and wouldn’t remove them.
While the rest of us Army “journalists” cursed the military under our breath, Warner, who was a Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society graduate of tiny Gettysburg College in my home state of Pennsylvania, was more vocal about his concern and dissatisfaction. He’d been drafted in June 1969 after his first year of law school at Yale and had a first-year law student’s keen sense of actions that were lawful and unlawful. Still, in doing his job in Vietnam, there was no requirement that he accompany troops into combat.
By the time I got to Long Binh, South Vietnam and was working in the same office as Warner, he’d dedicated himself to being the Vietnam War’s version of Ernie Pyle, the great WWII war correspondent. "What sold me on Ernie Pyle," he wrote to his parents, "was a book by him . . . it said 'He hates war but loves the men who have to fight them.' That about sums me up, too!"
'A Terrible Waste'
Warner was killed in an ambush near the Laotian border on Feb. 14, 1971. He didn’t have to be there. He wasn’t supposed to be killed.
Warner’s writings and photographs are part of a permanent exhibit at Gettysburg College, and his life and death are the subject of a book by Arthur J. Amchan titled Killed In Action: The Life And Times Of Sp4 Stephen H. Warner, Draftee, Journalist And Anti-war Activist.
But for me, the panel on the wall says it all, because it is, like so many other Vietnam war deaths, a terrible waste.
Warner’s steadfastness has been my inspiration for more than 40 years as I struggled to complete my book about life in the rear in Vietnam. DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle, was eventually published. The title is an acronym and stands for Date Eligible for Return from Overseas. The book is dedicated “to all those who served in Vietnam but didn’t live to see their DEROS date.”
Steve Warner, Panel 5W, Row 104, is one of them.
PBS has gathered resources for veterans as part of Stories of Service. Find them here.
PBS stations around the country are gathering Vietnam War Stories like this: