Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Soldier's Tale

Listening to Folk Alley this morning I heard Tim O'Brien's version of "Mick Ryan's Lament", an account of one of the American dead at Little Bighorn.  I had not heard the song before.  The tune is a familiar one--a traditional Irish drinking song -that was adopted as the marching song by various British and American military units, most notably George Custer's 7th Cavalry.  I also recognized the tune's name--"Garryowen".  Garryown was the official tune of the 1st Cavalry Division in which I served in Vietnam.  The division adopted the tune when it was created to consolidate Army cavalry units in 1921.  When the Division left Vietnam in March 1971 it left a separate brigade in Vietnam.  The brigade included one battalion of the 7th Cavalry regiment along with one battalion each from the 5th, 8th (mine) and 12 Cavalry regiments.  The brigade was called the Garryowen Task Force and I saw that name used in various descriptions.

At the time I did not know that "Garryowen" was an official division tune so I thought it unfair to just bundle the other cavalry regiments under the rubric of the 7th Cavalry which incorporated Garryowen into its insignia.  Of course, that was a minor irritation in a war zone and my concern was fleeting.  It did, however, imprint "Garryowen" on my brain so I was all ears when I heard the melody this morning.

"Mick Ryan's Lament" is especially moving for me because the lyrics reflect my own experience in Vietnam.  Like Mick Ryan I was fighting people who were fighting for their homeland.  Like him I "turned into something I hated."  Unlike Ryan I was not killed and carry that memory.  I did not need the song to recall the memory but when the song recalled it, the memory hit hard.

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