Groton Staffer, a Vietnam Vet, Delivers Memorial Day Chapel Talk
Groton staff member James Lockney, who served in the Vietnam War, delivered a Memorial Day Chapel Talk about his recent trip back to Vietnam. He dedicated his talk to his fallen comrade TJ, whose plane was shot down on the day he was to finish his tour of duty and head home.
Lockney stood in the pulpit of St. John’s Chapel in full uniform. “This morning I am wearing my uniform as I would every Memorial Day and every Veterans Day, but today I will not be marching in my town’s Memorial Day parade. On this day, it is my honor to stand before you to deliver this Chapel Talk.”
A Vietnamese linguist during the war, Lockney described his initial reluctance to revisit the country where he had fought, but said he was convinced by history teacher Jen Wallace, with whom he teaches the course, America in Vietnam. Wallace and Lockney, who have taught together for eight years, traveled together through the actual terrain that they routinely visit through coursework with their students.
Lockney said his apprehension began to ease on his fourth day in the country, when he told the tour guide that he regretted what happened in his country during the war, explaining that he was “a soldier, just doing my job.”
The tour guide’s response stunned Lockney. “He looked at me and said, ‘Jim, the war ended almost 40 years ago. We want to move on. We want to improve our relations with America.” The words stuck with Lockney. “Perhaps these people really don’t hate us,” he began to think.
The tour took Lockney, who works in Groton’s Athletic Department, and Wallace to the areas where Lockney had served, but the soldier could barely recognize them. “Most of the bases were nothing more than overgrown fields of weeds, excavated mounds of dirt, dirt roads to nowhere, unusable runways and reforestation efforts,” he said. His base camp no longer existed. “It was very difficult trying to put the pieces back together as I searched for my bunk site...my sanctuary for card games, chess, music, conversation, letter writing, and anything else that was an escape from the war,” he said. He finally recognized a view of Phu Bai Mountain, which gave him his bearings.
“I didn’t return to Vietnam thinking it would be some kind of epiphany—I knew better,” Lockney reflected. “It did, however, provide some measure of healing…It was comforting to receive unconditional forgiveness from the Vietnamese people and witness their profuse contentment with their independence as a nation.”
Lockney encouraged students to seek out the names of the war veterans inscribed on the walls of the Chapel where he spoke. “They are Groton School alumni who represent the sacrifice they made while in service for their country. They start with the Sixth Form year of 1901 and end with the Sixth Form Year of 1964,” he said. “One of them is a Medal of Honor recipient. When you have a moment, please take the time to view their inscriptions.”
Lockney ended his talk with the story of a trip to Wyoming, when he delivered his unit's flag and the personal belongings of his friend TJ to TJ’s family in Wyoming. The experience was undeniably emotional, but he had been trained to keep his emotions in check. In fact, Lockney said that one platoon sergeant often warned the soldiers, “There is no room for emotions on the battlefield. They are nothing more than a distraction in accomplishing our mission…eventually they will end up exactly where they belong, in a hole in the ground somewhere in this godforsaken country.” Lockney said the sergeant referred to this philosophy as “the discipline of soldiering.”
Lockney did control his emotions in Wyoming, but lamented aloud in Chapel that fallen soldiers’ families and friends never get to express their final words of love and caring. “TJ,” he said, “I want you to know that I am here today to honor and commemorate you. You were a very brave, very vigilant, and very honorable soldier. You were a good friend a good person. You made me a better soldier. I want you to know how much you meant to me, how much you did for me, and how much I miss you. And I’m so sorry that I never said the things I wish I had said when I had the opportunity to say them. I will never forget you.”