Doug Chamberlain did not tell anyone about an order he was forced to carry out in Vietnam until about two years ago, while he was working on his memoir, “Bury Him.”
A tactical officer had instructed Chamberlain to bury the remains of a Marine discovered in a bomb crater on March 25, 1968, in the jungles southwest of Da Nang. Chamberlain’s book, released five decades after the episode, tells the story surrounding the order and the ramification that would be felt for years afterward.
Chamberlain didn’t talk much about the war after he was honorably discharged as a captain and returned to his home state of Wyoming. But he remained haunted by the experience.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that he learned his men had even discussed killing him over the order.
“But I did know how dishonored they felt and betrayed and abandoned,” he said. “Because that’s the only hope we had. If something happened to us, our remains would be sent home to our families.”
For nearly 50 years after he reported the order, he knew nothing about a legal military investigation into the matter, which went “clear to the president, President Johnson,” he said. “The burial issue unbeknownst to me, until I wrote this book, included President Johnson, the secretary of the Navy, commandant of the Marine Corps, and Sen. Bobby Kennedy just before he was assassinated also became involved,” he said.
That was one of the things he discovered as he worked on an investigation of his own with help from forensic investigator Paul Semone.
“And what our investigation was and what I was looking for was to be able to prove that I was ordered to bury that Marine,” he said.
Seeking answers, finding meaning
Chamberlain decided to write “Bury Him: A Memoir of the Viet Nam War” after a conversation with one of his former students he’d coached, Torrington veterinarian Brent Kaufman. They were working on one of Chamberlain’s cows in 2015, laughing and joking about the old days at La Grange High School.
“And then all of a sudden his mood just entirely changed, and he said he always wondered why I was so mad and angry all the time,” Chamberlain said. “And quite frankly, it hit me like a ton of bricks. And I thought about that for three or four months, and that led me to decide to write this book.”
Chamberlain wanted answers himself to questions that had tormented him for decades. Another reason he wrote the book is to bring assurance to Marines everywhere that their officers should never betray them, he said.
“One other is to emphasize to men and women of all branches of the military that they should be able to have the confidence that they’ll never be left behind.”
In his retelling of the incident, Chamberlain stated the second platoon of his company discovered the body after the company was sent to reinforce another group of Marines because they were in danger of being overrun.
“And then when I sent out patrols we found the body,” Chamberlain explained. “And so then I reported on the radio to them that we’d found these remains and asked for a helicopter not knowing that it was one of their marines. And so once I called for a helicopter to take out the remains, they realized that we had found the guy that they had left behind. So to cover it up, they ordered me to bury him.”
The cover of the book is a photo taken of Pfc. Michael J. Kelly’s grave in Vietnam after Chamberlain and others carried out the burial order. Chamberlain chose a spot he thought he could find later, and he left it unmarked so it wouldn’t be discovered by the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong and become a political issue through the media, he said.
Later, one of his men placed a stick cross on the grave while another took a photo. Chamberlain didn’t know about the photo until a military reunion last spring in Charleston.
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He’d avoided military reunions for more than three decades and has attended only a few. Recently, he attended a reunion in Newport, Rhode Island, and stayed at the home of one of his men in Cape Cod. They talked about how they’d expected Chamberlain as the company commander to be able to do something different.
“I had my orders, but he told me that they had even discussed killing me over the deal,” he said. “That’s how upsetting it was.”
The book covers his time in the Vietnam War and the burial incident as well as the psychological turmoil he’s endured since.
One chapter details his experiences with PTSD. Maybe families dealing with combat-related PTSD will find some hope from his book, he said.
“I just hope in some way it might help someone, or be meaningful to someone, I should say.”
After 13 months in Vietnam, Chamberlain returned to Wyoming. After a semester of law school at the University of Wyoming, he continued teaching and coaching as well as farming and ranching in the La Grange area, where he grew up.
The book’s introduction tells how his years in rural Wyoming and in college at University of Wyoming and John Brown University in Arkansas built the foundation of his values.
“I couldn’t have survived without them,” he said.
Besides his career in education as a teacher and administrator, he’s worked in fields including radio broadcasting and the transportation industry, while his leadership roles have included 18 years as a Wyoming legislator, according to a bio page in his book by retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Edward Wright. He served a term as Speaker of the House from 1992-94.
He’s also a member of the Wyoming Board of Parole and continues a small ranch.
“…What has helped me survive more than anything through the years is just keeping really, really, really busy and not having a lot of time on hands, to think, you know,” he said.
Connections arrived coincidentally as he started to work on the book. He’d get phone calls out of the blue from some of his men he hadn’t heard from since he left Vietnam, and they didn’t know he was writing a book. He and Semone by accident located Kelly’s son, who allowed access to his father’s military records, he said.
“It almost seemed like it was directed by a higher power that all this started coming together,” he said.
If any money is ever made from the book, which is available at Chamberlain’s website and Amazon, half will go to a memorial fund named after Kelly.
Chamberlain’s memory of the events proved remarkably close to what he discovered through his research.
“You know, 50 years and the fog of war, you’re not sure that sometimes that what you remember is the way it was,” he said.
His men who are still alive and able to read the book seem to have found solace and relief in their minds about what happened, he said. As for Chamberlain, he thinks of an analogy about surviving trauma, which he likened to walking with a prosthetic leg.
“And you can walk again, but you can never walk again in the same. And so it’s kind of the same thing here,” he said. “You know, nothing, nothing can unravel what happened. But at least it’s a little more livable.”
Follow arts & culture reporter Elysia Conner on twitter @erconner