In my introductory post, I mentioned the reason I turned to songwriting about veteran related issues and it was primarily to deal with the lingering feelings associated with survival guilt. In 1968, I was a just turned nineteen year old medic attached to an infantry unit in Vietnam where we experienced a lot of combat over several months. Over this course of time, many fellow soldiers were severely wounded and several were killed. I was among them for eight long months and didn’t receive a scratch. I felt guilty that so many guys were wounded and killed during that year and that somehow I had emerged unscathed. I had great difficulty wrapping my head around the fact that I had been so lucky. I thought Why Me so many times that I didn’t deserve to be so lucky when many soldiers I had served with had been disfigured or killed. I still carry those thoughts with me but not with the frequency I once did.
To deal with the survival guilt, I turned my thoughts to the soldiers we left behind in Southeast Asia - Prisoners of War and Missing in Action (POW/MIA). I believed strongly that soldiers were being held against their will in Southeast Asia after many prisoners had been released and I wanted in my own small way to bring attention to this issue. There were too many soldiers known to be alive in Vietnam and Laos among them Gene DeBruin from the Fox Valley area, that had not been fully accounted for. I was not alone sharing that view as many family members of the missing shared those feelings as did two national organizations for POW/MIA affairs.
I began writing songs from several different perspectives about the POW/MIA issue and the first song I wrote was called O’ America. I imagined that one of my family members was Missing in Action in Vietnam and what impact that would have had on our family unit, particularly my mother. I also wanted our government to do something about the problem. I gathered what I believed to be associated words relevant to the issue and I found a melancholic melody to accompany it. There was significance to the phrase “star in the window“ as the Gold Mother’s Organization signified that their son/soldier was missing in action by displaying a star in the windows in their homes. A few verses and a chorus are listed below.
There’s a star in the window
And it shines oh so bright
You hear a woman who is crying
Another lonesome night
She has a son who is missing
In a distant foreign land
He was drafted from Wisconsin
And sent to Vietnam
Our eyes are turned to you
What are you going to do
I finished writing the song and through the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh recording department I was able to secure studio time and with the help of many talented musicians and vocalists within the community including John Harmon (piano and producer), Tom Hansen (drums), Tom Theabo (guitar), Whoopi Jim (harmonica), Andy Kemp (engineer), Bob Weisheipl (bass), Paul Muetzel (vocals), Dave Nigl (vocals) and Janet Planet (vocals) and other background singers whose names I unfortunately don’t recall, we recorded the song. I sang the lead vocal on the tune.
O’ America was the first of four songs I wrote about the POW/MIA issue and a short snippet of the song can be heard in the Vet Tunes music section of www.jimpurtell.com. The song as well as several others can be purchased and downloaded in the Shop.