The sights Mick Coyne saw in Vietnam will never leave him—a soldier killed just feet in front of him whose legs stayed standing though the top half of his body had been vaporized; the officer blown to smithereens by a mine, leaving only the heel of a boot intact. Coyne, a native of County Galway, won five Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars. He is one of a select band: Irish citizens who served in U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. Now he has lent his support to a project aimed at memorializing those who lost their lives in similar situations. "It's important," he said.
The memorial is the brainchild of Declan Hughes, coordinator of the Irish Veterans Historical Research Center, a registered charity based in Dublin. The memorial would not just commemorate those who had fought in Vietnam for the U.S., but would be dedicated to all those Irish men and women who lost their lives fighting for other nations since the beginning of the 20th century.
Hughes is not himself a veteran. A former human rights worker, he got involved in the issue after a colleague journeyed to Vietnam. During her trip, Hughes's coworker was given a ring by a former Vietcong fighter. The man explained that he had taken it from the finger of a dead American and he wanted to return it to the man's family. Hughes agreed to take the ring with him on a trip to Washington in spring 1998. The attempt to return the ring proved fruitless—there was no way of identifying who it had originally belonged to. While in the U.S. capital, however, Hughes became aware of the Traveling Memorial Wall—a replica version of the Vietnam Memorial Wall that is taken to locations around the U.S. and beyond. Hughes's suggestion that the memorial be taken to Ireland was initially met with scepticism by veterans who questioned whether there were any Irish-born casualties. At the time, Hughes discovered, one Irish-born victim of Vietnam had been identified—a man named John Driver who hailed from Dublin. Hughes, struck by how many Irish names appeared on the Memorial Wall, was convinced there had to be more.
When he returned to Ireland, he says, he "began to do some more digging." Soon, more names were uncovered. By the time the Traveling Memorial came to Ireland in April and May 1999, 15 Irish-born people had been confirmed among the Vietnam War dead. "Most of those families believed they were the sole Irish family to have had a son killed in Vietnam," Hughes recalls." And that, in itself, tells you something about the way they brought their sons back to be buried—almost as if it were in secret." Now, 30 Irishmen and one woman are known to have been among the US and Australian deaths in Vietnam. Hughes believes there are still more waiting to be discovered. Mick Coyne was one of the lucky ones. He got out of Vietnam alive. Coyne spent his first years in tiny Cornamona in the Connemara region. His family moved to Meath when he was about eight. There, they owned a small dairy. When Coyne was 16, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. One of Coyne's uncles, John Casey, lived in
Chicago and offered to bring the young boy across the Atlantic. Coyne went, working first as an elevator operator, and later for an Irish furrier, Jerome C. McCarthy. He was drafted in 1966. After training at Fort Campbell in Kentucky and Georgia's Fort Stewart, he volunteered to go to Vietnam.
"There was a big push on everywhere to try to get people to volunteer for Vietnam. And I had met other people who had been in Vietnam and told me it was a piece of cake," he recalled ruefully.
His first impression of Vietnam was the heat. "It was stifling," he said. "My first morning there I could hardly get up out of bed."
Coyne was part of the 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment, which was then based about 70 miles northeast of Saigon. He initially got a job as a driver, but was soon moved onto one of the regiment's tanks. He spent most of his tour of duty as a machine gunner. He and his colleagues were charged with keeping the highways clear, but they were also often ordered to the aid of other troops when a fire-fight broke out.
"Any kind of major battle at all, we'd be called in," he said.
Four of Coyne's Purple Hearts were awarded because of shrapnel wounds incurred whenever his tank was hit. Much of the shrapnel is still in his body—one piece worked its way out only two weeks ago. His other Purple Heart, along with a
Bronze Star, was awarded for his part in rescuing comrades who had been wounded and were stuck in armoured personnel carriers. Coyne was shot in the arm during the men's rescue. Coyne's tour of duty was almost up when he caught malaria. He was evacuated, first to a hospital in Vietnam and then back to the U.S. He was released in 1968 and immediately returned to Chicago. He arrived to find the Windy City convulsed by the now-infamous riots that surrounded the Democratic National Convention. Coyne, in uniform, was beaten up by anti-war protesters. "Battered," he said, recalling the event. "Punched on the ground and everything."
Though he was officially still in the Army Reserves, the U.S. army never called on Coyne again. He returned to Ireland for good in 1970. Now 60, he said he continues to suffer flashbacks from his Vietnam days. A loud noise or even the turning of a light switch can transport him back to the horrors of the war. He isn't looking for sympathy, though. "With me, it's a lot milder than the things other people seem to experience," he said.
Coyne is one of four Irish Vietnam veterans who have thrown themselves in to support for the memorial project.
"It would mean a lot to a lot of people," he said.