Commissioner Joe Byrnes poses at his base in Vietnam in 1967. | Submitted photo

Memorial Day was established in 1868 with the aim of remembering the 600,000 soldiers who died during the Civil War. The “Decoration Days” that followed have likewise tended to focus on remembering service men who have passed. But Village Commissioner Joe Byrnes said he’d rather focus on the positive memories and relationships he formed during his two tours in Vietnam.

“I think of all the fun we had,” he said.

On his first tour in Vietnam, which began on Christmas Day 1966, Byrnes was stationed just 65 miles from the so-called Demilitarized Zone, in a unit charged with gathering intelligence about the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regular army.  Although they were not in a combat platoon, they were in danger every day. Byrnes remembers losing comrades of his unit in a rocket attack.

But there was something about living in a dangerous situation that bonded the group like family, Byrnes said. Fifty-two years later he remembers the names of every guy in his unit. He said these guys came from all over—Chicago, Hawaii, Guam and more. They were black, white and Hispanic, but they bonded together in a way that “when somebody got hurt, we all got hurt.” He remembers when one unit member found out his mother died back home. “He was black, but we didn’t see his color. He was part of our family,” Byrnes said. U.S. occupation of Vietnam occurred as the Civil Rights Movement unfolded back home. 

Byrnes attended language school to learn conversational Vietnamese, because his unit’s approach to gathering intelligence was to form trusting relationships with locals. U.S. army members would go to the villages, hang out and joke with the Vietnamese, Byrnes said, adding that they’d sometimes bring villagers gifts like high-protein rice seeds from America or tomatoes.  

The group’s relationship building was effective. One night, the Viet Cong shot a rocket at the village, on the suspicion that the Vietnamese were getting too friendly with the Americans. Locals died in the ensuing fire, but Americans were killed too. When Byrnes and his unit visited the village a few days later, they discovered that residents felt so bad about the casualties of their American friends that they had built a shrine for them.  

As a whole, Byrnes believes his time in Vietnam made him a better person. It made him understand life and death. His memories center on the relationships he formed with the Vietnamese, as well as with the guys in his unit.  

“Like learning how to eat Spam,” he said with a laugh. “Luis Lopez would cook canned Spam with spices he got from home and it would taste like steak. Or, in my weekly care package I would get from home, there would sometimes be six dozen cookies. As soon as I got out of the mail room there would be guys following me, and all the cookies would be gone by the end of the night.”

He added: “When guys got bad news from home, we all had bad news from home. We were there to hold and comfort each other through the bad times and laugh together in the good times.”

Byrnes explained how he dealt with the emotional wounds the army left him. When he returned after his second tour to a base in North Dakota, a lot of people advised him to sign up for unemployment and take some time to relax.

But Byrnes, an Irish kid from Chicago’s West Side, ignored their advice. “Three days after I got back I got a job working on a freight dock at O’Hare [International Airport],” he said. “After all I’d been through, I needed to do stuff. I saw what happens to people who sit around and have time to think.  

“Some of the things you think about are not good. When I dwell on things, I find myself trying to reinvent the past. For example, some bad things happened when I was a sergeant in charge of a squad. I would start asking myself if I could have done something differently.”

He turned to work and laughter as medicine for his war wounds. “If you can laugh at yourself and have people laugh with you—not at you—you’ll be better off in life,” he said.