In 1967, after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Hartmut Lau deployed to Vietnam. During his deployment, he earned a bronze star, a silver star and a purple heart.
He describes his time in Vietnam matter-of-factly: "You perform the mission that you're given. You do your job and then you either perform well or you don't."
For decades, Lau kept the details of his time in combat to himself — until he sat down for a StoryCorps interview with his wife, Barbara. recently in Austin, Texas.
"I have one really horrible memory from Vietnam," he tells her. "It was in one of those times you know when the s*** hits the fan. In the middle of one, one of the guys yells at me, 'Behind you!' "
Lau spun, M16 assault rifle raised. He saw the guy he was warned about, and he 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."
It was standard practice for Lau and his fellow soldiers to examine the bodies of those they had killed — "because we were looking for maps, papers, anything of intelligence value.
"But I didn't go look at that body," Lau says. "You know, when you're out there and you look the pockets on a corpse and you pull out a little diary and you open it up ... and it's got a picture of a woman and a baby. I couldn't do it."
Lau had been in Vietnam during one of the worst periods of fighting there. His West Point Class of 1967 alone lost 30 former cadets, one of the worst casualty rates during Vietnam. And yet, his wife says, he returned home "perfectly normal."
"You talk about no impact," he answers, "but I can close my eyes and see that guy collapsing with his hands up. And I think about that kid often."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by John White.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.