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At night, artillery units would fire rounds of parachute flares, popping them free of their aluminum tubes. There were millions of them. Illuminating the night’s sky, they would eventually litter the ground and sea. Under the glow of the harvest moon, a pair of hands found me, one of the millions of flares, and cut my round edges along four straight lines; the gold fringe and plastic stars were sewn on later. White linen, stained red and blue—these are the colors I bear. The colors of justice, freedom, and equality. The colors of war and bloodshed.

The 19-year-old trained combat medic hadn’t been in country for a month when he wandered into the shop. I remember the day he came in. He stood tall, his breathing loud and arms folded. They called him “Doc.” He sounded excited—pleased with having found something he recognized. Minutes later, we were out the door, the warm waves of wind pulling at my loose threads. We didn’t know it at the time, but I would later carry the souls of his loved ones in my arms. They would lay outstretched in my lap, and rest their heavy heads on my shoulders.

“I was on a convoy and I wanted to buy something for my mom for Christmas, so we stopped at a random shop on Highway 1 on the coast of the South China Sea in the province of Quang Tin, in what was known as I Corps,” Doc said. “I saw a Chinese-looking brocaded vest, and then I saw it. I had no thoughts about what I was going to get. I bought the flag.”

Before Doc, I had never seen death. Then the explosions started. The rockets, the mortar. It sounded like a wave moving from the land to the sea. It was January 1968, and communist forces of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army launched the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks that would turn into one of the largest military campaigns against South Vietnam and the United States. The first phase began January 31, 1968. Thirteen cities in central South Vietnam were under fire that morning. A hundred more cities would follow. The first of my threads unraveled that day and continued to spool out over each foot of ground we walked. “That year, 15,000 Americans were killed. It was the bloodiest year,” Doc said. “It marked a turning point in the war.”

Battle flag flies over Que Son Valley, Vietnam, July 1968.

Battle flag flies over Que Son Valley, Vietnam, July 1968.

Five months later, on Mother’s Day, two NVA troops advanced into an old French fort at Ngok Tavak, a forward operating base straddling the western jungle of Vietnam and Laos. A small group of marines were securing the area and conducting reconnaissance while a Special Forces camp a few kilometers north in Kham Duc evacuated. Guided by the waning midnight moon, Doc and his fellow soldiers of the Recon Team Snoopy, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment defended themselves from the NVA as they threw exploding satchel charges and opened mortar fire.

“Those of use who survived the battle, we had this commitment to each other to never forget and to do whatever we could to help the families of those who died in combat,” Doc said. “For 40 years, they had no clue. The army’s position was that they were missing. But we knew, and so we had this duty to stay in touch, and once their bodies were found, to go to their service and present the flag.”

I’ll always remember the color: the earth, a dark red, stained by the blood of 13 Americans. Among the Ngok Tavak’s survivors was Doc, who had followed the burnt path of a napalm strike until reaching a safe location where helicopters would take him to the Special Forces camp at Kham Duc. I wrapped around him tight as he waited, holding a radio close to his chest. The voice of first lieutenant Fred Ransbottom came through the speakers. “We’re all wounded. We’re killing them as they come through the door.” That was the last thing he heard from his men.

I carried two souls out that day, one in each arm. The first was Fred; the second was Skip Skivington, Doc’s best friend. I would return almost 38 years later to the Kham Duc battlefield with Bill Wright and Dickie Hites of the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command, where they would find remains of the fallen buried under layers of ash and dirt. That night, as I looked toward the sky, I saw the moon eclipsed, first full and bright, then shadowed by a slow blink. It was the first time I saw Kealiihokuhelelani, the chiefly moon that travels the heavens.

Nainoa’s Ranger graduation, Fort Benning, Georgia, March 2004.

Nainoa’s Ranger graduation, Fort Benning, Georgia, March 2004.

The boy was born on August 28, 1977. That night I saw it again, like an old friend: the moon, full and bright in the sky. Nainoa Kealiihokuhelelani Hoe, son of Allen “Doc” Hoe, was now in uniform. He resembled his father, had the same olive skin, friendly eyes, and infectious smile. Reared in a Chinese-Hawaiian household, Nainoa and his younger brother Nakoa grew up with knowledge and appreciation for military service. “They always heard stories about what I did,” Doc said. “They understood their roots, their Hawaiian heritage, and were always looking for a challenge. There was never really a question of whether they would join the service. They had this sense of duty just like I did, and just like my father and grandfathers did.”

Nainoa lived under the light of two moons. Under one, he and his friends enjoyed a carefree youth on an island paradise, surfing, or singing along to his favorite band, Tenacious D; here, he wed a girl named Emily. Under another moon, he learned to dismantle a rifle, shoot machine guns, and throw grenades. In this world, he did his best to drown out the ghostly echo of shrapnel and screams with the delightfully absurd lyrics and melody of Jack Black and Kyle Gass.

In basic training, Nainoa excelled over his peers, gaining the recognition and ranking of a leader in the Reserve Officer Training Corp, or ROTC. Over time, he became a first lieutenant and leader of the 2nd Platoon, C Company, 3rd Battalion of the 21st Infantry Regiment. “Both of my grandfathers were part of the first Hawaiian infantry in the early 1900s that ultimately became the division Nainoa was a part of,” Doc said.

At 27 years old, Nainoa felt like he had achieved his goals. It didn’t matter what happened to him; he loved what he was doing and felt compassion for his men. “At one point right before he was deployed, he told his mom, ‘For me, mom, my job is to get them all home safe. If I don’t come home, I’m okay with that,’” Doc said. “He knew better than to say that in front of me, because in my mind, you can’t think like that. But that’s the compassionate part of him. All of them would swear to God the reason they weren’t killed was because he was watching over them.”

The killing, the running, the feelings of fear, rage, and revenge. It all came back to me in Iraq. I had just returned from Afghanistan under the arms of a young Marine, Captain Rodrigo Cantu, a friend of Doc’s, when Doc sent me to join Nainoa in the tortured country. “He had asked me to send him the battle flag,” Doc said. “He told me his men wanted to carry it in honor of the men that I served with in Vietnam.”

The sweltering heat, the demolished buildings, the littered alleyways, the cheap stores, the slums, the bruised, the fallen—I felt it all. Like the young commander, I was faced with a dilemma much too heavy to bear. The reality of warfare in the 21st century, the tragedy of conflicting ideals, beliefs, and cultures separated by the lack of acceptance—if anything, I should’ve been angry. Angry because I was both conceived and unraveled in violence; angrier still because it would be violence that took Nainoa’s life. But that day, looking straight at Mosul, I only felt a great sense of loss. The people of Mosul had nothing else. This was their home. But to the opposing forces, they were invisible. Neither can see each other as they are, neither can accept each other as they are, and so peaceful relations were hard to envision.

Nainoa Hoe serving overseas.

Nainoa rode in the lead Stryker attack vehicle and was one of the first to set foot on the damp ground of Iraq in the Nineveh Province. The squads set out into the streets of Al Wahda armed with M-4 rifles and election fliers. Under the afternoon sun, they searched homes for insurgents until they were ordered to carry out the final phase of the mission. The 1st Platoon was to escort two members of a tactical human intelligence team to the medical clinic, but after some deliberation, the two platoons swapped missions. It was now in the hands of the 2nd Platoon—Nainoa’s unit.

To avoid alarming the clinic’s staff, Nainoa and a squad of nine soldiers dismounted from their vehicle a city block away. They continued on foot until a single shot rang out from a building across the field. An immediate uneasiness grew in the pits of their stomachs as they scanned for the target. It was Nainoa. He was on the ground, his body still. There was no blood. His eyes were halfway open, just like how he slept.

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“They called it a ‘magic bullet’ because it found the right spot through his armor,” Doc said. “When he died, [his men] told me there was this halo that came over them and protected them. They were exposed, but they never once felt threatened. I know it was because Nainoa was watching over them.”

They sped toward the hospital in the 20-ton Stryker, his best friend Corey Myers and medic Rusty Mauney performing CPR. He had no pulse and his chest was swollen and marked by that color again: red—the color of war. But neither of them could give up. Nainoa was their leader, their brother. When they arrived at the hospital, the doctors took every extraordinary measure, but by this time, he was already in my arms. The chief surgeon called it: “Time of death, 1602.”

Allen "Doc" Hoe with battleflag, 2014. Image by John Hook.

It’s true, I’ve traveled the world. From the villages of Que Son Valley with Doc to the battlefields of Iraq with Nainoa, continuing my mission of duty and honor with his brother, staff sergeant Nakoa, in Afghanistan in 2008 and the Philippines in 2010. I’ve flown over the tops of temples and mosques, the rolling hills and the intersecting paths that divide whole communities. I’ve seen the long-gone fields now paved over by different-colored-roofed houses and concrete buildings, and I think about the tragedies that have taken place. I often wonder if peace is possible. And while now I can say I’ve seen death, I’ve also seen love. In 46 years, it is love that has kept me intact. The love between a father and his sons; the enduring brotherhood of surviving soldiers; the love for countries. Even now, as I rest tired and worn on Doc’s desk, I feel it. It burns like a phantom fire, sheltering me from storms and wreckage, keeping me warm through the winters of death.

I am an American flag.

Tags: Features