Saving Sergeant Kirksey
6/11/2014, 5:05 p.m.
By Dalton Narine
In the many years following his stint in Vietnam, Sgt. Jesse Kirksey (pronounced Kirsey), of Richmond Heights, fought another war in another world on a post-traumatic landscape. But he couldn’t have persevered through the tug of war with himself and the aftermath without new ways of healing and considerable spiritual support from his wife, Theresa.
“I got to hold the family,” Theresa admitted “I had to be on the battlefield myself. With all these forces going on, I refused to let that happen. The heavy drinking, the nightmares. It’s not about me anymore. Our (five) children are involved.”
She didn’t realize it, but Theresa had moved beyond basic training and was responding to survival instincts.
They’d been married since 1973, and all of his combat experiences contributed to an atmosphere of uncertainty and discomfort in the home. It’s a proven postwar theme of the grunt. How to explain such meanderings and mental agitation of a veteran who seems to be remembering? Or, holding a few names in remembrance.
His drinking is the reverse behavior of a man who, in dancing away far enough from the jungle fever, boomerangs back to the subconscious waltz of life away from the bush.
Sometimes you need a more accurate mirror of yourself to see the truth.
Without much of a choice, then, Kirksey still leans on the arm of his wife, the engineer of his newfound religion, which tends to make everyday struggles spiritual. A deeper sensation than the intellectual stimulation he got from reading the Bible from his bunk in the hootch in the Nam.
Born in Monticello, FL, about 144 miles from Jacksonville, Kirksey came from a family of four brothers and five sisters and was rejected by the army at 18 years old on account of flat feet. Eight years later, he was on a construction site when the army turned around and drafted him. He would report to the induction center in March 1967, at the apogee of the war.
That stung him.
“It was a sad day, because I knew I was going to Vietnam. I had a few buddies from Monticello that were killed over there. I went to their funerals.
“So it pissed me off. It was dishonorable. I was going on 27.”
Training in basic and advanced infantry warfare, Kirksey made fast friends with John, a 17-year-old Jewish jokester and motor cycle rider from Brooklyn, NY, whose nickname was The Road Handler, which served the memory better than his surname; and Robert English, 20, who doted on a wife and young daughter in Newark, NJ. Both trainees doled out such respect for him as a father figure that he went by the plain ol’ sobriquet, Pop. Later he would meet a Native American teenager with a booming voice they called Cochise, who wore his ancestry on a bandanna as if it were included in the uniform.
Upon graduation, John, Robert and Pop boarded a flight to South Vietnam. Cochise would soon follow.
They saw action from the confines of armored personnel carriers (APCs) that earned the nickname 'Green Dragon' by an enemy known as Charlie, for its mashup of heavy thickets in deep jungle and tendency to overrun Viet Cong positions.