Mike DeMaio has made an uneasy peace with the North Vietnamese soldier he shot to death.
On a hot afternoon near the Laotian border in May 1967, his sergeant took the dead black-haired youth’s bayonet and gave it as a trophy to the stunned red-haired youth who’d survived. DeMaio, 63, now keeps the bayonet on a prayer table in his Corvallis, Ore. home.
Over years of therapy and prayer, he’s come to think of the rusting weapon as a prayer stick. “You can say it was him or me, but when you look into someone’s eyes, it doesn’t take away the fact that we are both human,” DeMaio said in an interview with the Catholic Sentinel just before Veterans Day. A member of St. Mary Parish in Corvallis, he counseled veterans for 18 years but was forced to retire five years ago because of resurgent post-traumatic stress.
Born and raised in an Italian Catholic family in New York, DeMaio was the son of a World War II veteran. He watched war films as a boy and idolized the tough and virtuous characters played by John Wayne. He recalls the Cuban Missile Crisis and the nation’s pervasive fear of communists. So, when Vietnam heated up, he wanted to go and fight the menace like a new John Wayne. At 17, he joined up and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines. He shipped out just before the Tet Offensive got underway.
“No young person can be prepared for the reality of war,” he said.
On a search and destroy mission near Laos, Private DeMaio’s unit was hunting for a North Vietnamese regiment. The Marines found an abandoned NVA base camp in the middle of nowhere. DeMaio was assigned to help guard the perimeter. The day was hot and heavy. As he started opening a can of rations, something moved and he saw a pair of legs in the brush. He caught the dark eyes of a youthful North Vietnamese infantryman. The young man said something that sounded like, “Hi.”
The next thing DeMaio remembers is holding his smoking rifle, the magazine spent. A bloody trail led into the bushes.
“There was no thinking,” DeMaio recalls. “I shot first. He died, I lived.”
For years afterward, he anguished over the young man’s last word. Was it a greeting to the American, an appeal for friendship or mercy? He still refers to the dead soldier as “Hi.” Only later did he learn that in Vietnamese, “Hi” means “run.” The soldier was probably warning his fellow fighters in the bushes.
Still, DeMaio is haunted, having been raised to follow the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” “John Wayne died for me, too, that day,” he says.
The rest of the tour of duty was filled with the usual ennui broken up by terrifying firefights. DeMaio agrees with a fellow soldier who described the experience as like being in a car crash once a week for a year. Grand thoughts ceased and all he could focus on was surviving.
“After a while,” he explains, “you just block stuff out.”
He returned to the U.S. in 1968 and was able to find work and start a family. But much of the time, he felt dazed. He could identify with neither side in the Vietnam debate. The anti-war activists made him feel like a baby-killer. The pro-war contingent refused to recognize the evil in fighting.
DeMaio did not feel safe in crowds. When his son had a wrestling match, for example, he’d come late, sit isolated in a corner, and leave early. He’d take his children to movies and feel compelled to sit in the back row, even though they begged to sit farther forward. He suffered irrational fear, convinced his daughter would die in a building collapse.
For years, he had only fragments of memories. Counselors suggested he journal to retrieve buried experiences that were doing psychological damage. That inner work eventually led to the counseling job. He helped men get perspective on their own struggles, most of which had to do with wracked consciences. Most veterans are plagued by something they did or something they wish they’d done.
One sniper who served in Korea came to DeMaio distressed because the man’s priest didn’t seem to recognize the enormity of what he was confessing — killing other humans, people who had mothers. Other men are tormented over why they survived in contrast to a man next to them.
“You never get over it,” says DeMaio, who notices similar guilt in young veterans returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. “The ones I’ve spoken to don’t recognize how difficult it is to talk about the experiences. There is this macho thing that you can go off and see and do these out-of-the-ordinary things and come back and your life will be the same.”
The question for everyone else, including Catholic parishes, is how to give real support to veterans, DeMaio says. Catholics may not realize how many veterans they have around them on any given Sunday.
About five years ago, DeMaio told his pastor, Father John Henderson, that parishes were dropping the ball when it comes to veterans. The priest asked DeMaio to head up a support group. He did, and it ran for four years until the need waned. But DeMaio is still the go-to man at St. Mary’s when a veteran in need surfaces. Lately, he has begun a writing group for vets.
“I just want to get people thinking about it and to pray and be aware,” says DeMaio, whose son was ordained a Dominican priest four years ago. “We don’t really want to grapple with war and the cost of war — as a church and as a society.”