RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Time now for StoryCorps. And on this Veterans Day, we'll hear from someone who fought in Vietnam. In 1967, Hartmut Lau graduated from West Point. He earned a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart while serving in Vietnam. Hartmut kept the details of combat to himself until he sat down for this StoryCorps interview with his wife.
BARBARA LAU: You've told me a lot about West Point, but you've never told me anything about Vietnam.
HARTMUT LAU: You perform the mission that you're given. You do your job. And then you either perform well or you don't.
B. LAU: You say these things so matter-of-factly, like you're talking about somebody else. And yet, you were there.
H. LAU: A lot of things happen in a lifetime.
B. LAU: They do.
H. LAU: I have one really, really horrible memory from Vietnam. It was in one of those times, you know, when the [expletive] hits the fan. And in the middle of it, one of the soldiers yells at me - behind you. And I twirled around. And I had an M-16. And I saw this guy. And I killed him. And it was after he was going down that it hit my consciousness that he had his hands up and wanted to surrender.
What we always did is looked at the bodies of the Vietnamese that we killed because we're looking for maps, papers, you know, anything of intelligence value. But I didn't go look at that body. You know, when you're out there and you go through pockets on a uniform on a corpse and you pull out a little diary and you open it up, it's got a picture of a woman and a baby, you know, couldn't do it.
B. LAU: You were there during the worst of it. And yet, you came home - to my way of thinking - perfectly normal.
H. LAU: I mean, you talk about no impact. But I can close my eyes and see that guy collapsing with his hands up. And I think about that kid often.
MONTAGNE: That's Hartmut and Barbara Lau at StoryCorps in Austin, Texas. Hartmut's West Point class of 1967 saw one of the highest casualty rates during Vietnam, losing 30 former cadets. This interview will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. You can hear more from StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative on the StoryCorps podcast at npr.org.
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