By Stephen T. Banko III
Anniversaries … there are all kinds and they are often celebrated; things like birthdays, weddings: positive mileposts in our lives.
There are other anniversaries that aren’t so pleasant to recall but are just as indelible as the joys in our lives. I’m coming up on one of those mileposts pretty soon.
It was the day, 51 years ago, when I first killed an enemy. It was a lot easier to say “enemy” than “I killed a man.” There were lots of days that I recall with angst, pain and remorse from my semi-successful Southeast Asian tour but few that stand out like taking a human life.
I had naively thought I might make it a year without having to kill anyone, that I might be able to focus on preserving the lives of my comrades. That all ended on a very hot Sunday in March when I surprised a pair of enemy soldiers in a nameless patch of jungle near a place called Phu Loi.
We had trained for this eventuality in the “wilds” of Georgia and New Jersey and Louisiana but nothing ever prepares you for that first murder. I never thought I’d squeeze off two bullets that would end a man’s life. And when I did, I knew that something inside of me died just as surely as did my target.
The old “me” that had only known combat on the basketball courts and baseball diamonds of South Buffalo leaked into the jungle floor along with the dying man’s blood. My life as a soldier, a combat soldier, was born that day.
I would maintain that persona for the rest of my time at war, needing it to preserve my own life and those of my men.
Some days, and most nights, I think back to those bad old days as just a nightmare that disappears in the consciousness of today. But the scars, physical and emotional, prove that I had actually lived that nightmare.
The anniversary brings it all back but so do the all too regular headlines from Buffalo and across the country about teenagers committing murder. I’m in the fourth quarter of my life and still struggle with the acts of violence I committed in response to a call from my country.
I recently read of the teenagers in who shot and killed a man in cold blood in Nashville after he refused to give them the keys to his truck. I think back to the difficulty I had trying to reconcile myself to shooting a soldier who might have killed me and wonder how these kids can be so cavalier about taking a human life.
Nothing … not rational thought, not the forgiveness of my religion, not the recognition of my country … has fully assuaged my guilt over killing a man.
Yet such murders happen with all too regular frequency in our own city and across the country. It’s impossible for me to understand how easy it is for some kids hardly old enough to drive to get guns and kill each other over trivial slights.
As hard as we try as citizens, religions, social organizations and governments, we haven’t been able to stem the tide of violence and the flow of blood on our streets.
Why? Why have young people deemed life so cheap that it can it can be taken so cavalierly? That is a question we all need to answer before our collective soul disintegrates like mine did.
Stephen T. Banko III, of Buffalo, served two tours of combat duty in Vietnam.