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He Ain’t Heavy

I won’t be the only one shedding a tear this Memorial Day. Too many of us have lost someone dear to us in America’s wars…and it comes on so very hard and, well, so goddamn final, more on this day for some reason.

Today’s tears arrive courtesy of Panel W5 Line 104 on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in our nation’s capital. The name that’s there—Stephen H. Warner—wasn’t supposed to be there.

But it is…

Every time I visit the Wall in Washington, D. C., I make a pencil rubbing of Steve’s name, thinking maybe if I rub hard enough, I can rub his name off, make him come back to life. But like so many futile hands that have struggled at that gabbro wall for more than 30 years, I can’t. His name stays; Steve’s death remains.

Guys like Steve Warner weren’t supposed to get killed in Vietnam. He and I were meant to spend our 365 days in Vietnam safely in the rear (we were categorized as REMFs, specifically “rear echelon mother fuckers”), working in a bright and shiny, public information office in the U.S. Army’s headquarters at Long Binh, a former rubber plantation about 15 miles from Saigon. And while we didn’t necessarily write the truth about what was going on, or going wrong, in Vietnam, we could at least stay out of harm’s way.

Unless you were Steve Warner.

Like a lot of us who were drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam during the later stages of the war (1970s), Steve was not an admirer of U.S. policy in Vietnam. But, unlike the rest of us REMFs, Steve put his principles where his mouth was and took every occasion to go out into the boonies and see exactly what was going on. While he was out there, Steve made a point of interviewing, photographing, and connecting with the GIs who were doing the fighting and dying.

In retrospect, this only helped, I think, to add to his consternation about the war. I remember Steve being especially angry when he was told to “paint out beads” at the bottom of one of the photographs he took when he was out in the field. During this time (1970-71), many soldiers were wearing a plethora of physical adornments, including “love beads,” a direct violation of military dress regulations. Steve shot the photos the way he saw them and stood his ground with the military “censors” who told him to remove the beads from his shots. He wouldn’t do that.

While the rest of us Army “journalists” cursed the military under our breath, Steve, who was a Phi Beta Kappa National Honor Society graduate of tiny Gettysburg College in my home state of Pennsylvania, was more vocal about his concern, and dissatisfaction. He’d been drafted in June 1969 after his first year of law school at Yale and had a first-year law student’s keen sense of actions that were lawful and unlawful. Still, in doing his job in Vietnam, there was no requirement that he accompany troops into combat.

By the time I got to Long Binh in November 1970, Steve had dedicated himself to being the Vietnam War’s version of Ernie Pyle, the great WWII war correspondent. “What sold me on Ernie Pyle,” he wrote to his parents, “was a book by him where he said that, ‘He hates war but loves the men who have to fight them.’ That about sums me up, too!”

Stephen H. Warner was killed in an ambush near the Laotian border on February 14, 1971. He didn’t have to be there covering Lam Son 719, the invasion of Laos. And he sure as hell wasn’t supposed to be killed.

But mourning wasn’t something we practiced in Vietnam. Sure, Steve’s death hit all of us information types hard—he was the first GI from our office killed by hostile fire—but we didn’t weep or talk much about it. Maybe we were all too scared? Or lucky that it wasn’t us?

So what we did do was to look at Steve’s incredible photographs and read his stories. Marvel at how much better a combat correspondent he was.

And, like we did so often in the rear in Vietnam, listen to music. None of us knew what Steve’s favorite song was, so by default, “He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother” by the Hollies got a lot of play. Too much play for my fragile psyche which is maybe why I’d go back to my bunk, put on my Koss headphones, and listen to a self-titled album by some new British singer named Elton John. His “Border Song” on that album summed up my feelings about Steve’s tragic death better than the Hollies.

Holy Moses I have been deceived,” John sings. “Holy Moses let us live in peace.
Let us strive to find a way to make all hatred cease.”

Amen, brother. Little did I know that Elton John had been the pianist of the Hollies song “He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother.” Then again, maybe that’s the way the world works, the way mourning happens, the way the tears come…

The panel on the wall says all that and more. “Holy Moses, we have been deceived.”

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Note: Steve Warner’s writing and photographs are part of a permanent exhibit at Gettysburg College: and his life and death have been the subject of a book by Arthur J. Amchan entitled Killed In Action: The Life And Times Of Sp4 Stephen H. Warner, Draftee, Journalist And Anti-war Activist

Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley is the author of Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance, and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America, co-author with Craig Werner of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, which was named best music book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine, and DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle, now available as an audiobook. His music-based memoir, The Tracks of My Years, will be released by Legacy Book Press in 2025.


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