Losing A Brother

One family's loss in Vietnam changes everything -- and echoes in silence

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Martin deMasi hurried down the street toward home fresh out of Boy Scout camp, if anyone can really hurry when it hits 115 in Mesa. Even before he got to the house that had been the whole world for his mother and father and seven brothers and sisters, he could tell something was going on.

"I remember I couldn't wait to reach the shade," he said of the day that changed everything. "I could see that everybody was very serious, and everybody was very quiet, and everybody was there, which was weird -- everybody showing up. I remember thinking, this is going to be good."

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Michael deMasi (right) volunteers for service in Vietnam and was lieutenant, at the time he was killed in a bunker collapse.

But it wasn't good.

When he got through the front door into the cool dim house, crowded inexplicably with relatives, his mother handed him a yellow telegram.

"You have to read this," she said.

He took it, not comprehending. He read it: "The Department of the Army regrets to inform you ..." it said.

It said his idol and mentor -- his big brother Michael -- had died in Vietnam.

"It was like, unbelievable," says the chief of the Payson Fire Department nearly 40 years after reading that telegram, as though the words were swimming again before his eyes. "This is not ... it took a long time to accept."

Lt. Michael deMasi, recipient of a Purple

Heart and a posthumous Bronze Star and the protector and teacher and mentor of all his little brothers and the light of his mother's eye and the pride of his father's heart was dead -- one of 58,000 men and women whose names would one day be carved in black granite in the Vietnam Wall Memorial in Washington, D.C. and etched in the face of the replica of that wall which will arrive in Payson with a motorcycle escort on June 6.

The loss of those 58,000 American lives and an estimated 1.4 million Vietnamese soldiers and another roughly two million Vietnamese civilians only begins to measure the impact of that conflict. For each of those deaths, 10 or 20 or 30 friends and family members were deeply affected. Many, like the deMasi family, never fully recovered from the impact.

For Michael -- the eldest -- was the bright hope and the uplifted heart of that family, although they understood the extent to which that was true only later.

His father served in World War II, mostly New Guinea, and then afterward in the Army Reserve. He never talked about his war and his service, but he came back and got a degree in finance, worked in the Mesa Police Reserves and had a career as an office manager. He was a tough, upright, proud and patriotic man -- and Michael, the first-born, lived up to his high standard. A star athlete who dreamed of airplanes and volunteered for the civilian air patrol, Michael was much older than his kid brother, who imprinted on his strength and sense of duty.

"Michael was a standup kind of guy -- with this great sense of duty," recalls deMasi.

DeMasi recalled one time in grade school, when "I had a little trouble with this other fellow and there was going to be a fight, that's what we were heading for." But the other kid said he was going to go home and get his big brother, to administer a beating of epic proportions.

So Martin went home himself and asked Michael to take him somewhere, not telling him the reason.

When they got to the place appointed for the fight, the two grade schoolers discovered that their hired muscle big brothers were actually the best of friends who both had a hell of a laugh at the expensive of their little ducklings.

"It probably would have been less painful to take the beating," deMasi recalls ruefully.

Martin always figured that Michael would be a pilot. But then suddenly one day, he up and enlisted -- right as the danger and controversy of Vietnam was rising to a fevered pitch.

"I still have no idea really why he did it, but it would be what you would expect from him," said deMasi.

Charles, his next oldest brother, enlisted in the Marines.

Kenneth, the next oldest, went to college and opposed the war, the beginning of many family disagreements.

DeMasi recalls one night when Michael was home from training. "I was supposed to go to bed, but it was always such a great treat when he would come back for a visit. I always tried to be around as much as possible and didn't want to go to bed. My brothers and my father would be in the kitchen, discussing whatever and I would sneak back out, sitting around the corner and listening, trying to figure out what it was all about."

When Vietnam came up, the voices would get loud. "My dad was a big supporter of doing the right thing."

Martin wrote many letters to his big brother in Vietnam and haunted the mailbox. Martin read everything he could about the war and about combat.

But Michael's letters were not like the books at all. "There wasn't too much war stuff in his letters. He seemed more interested in what I was doing. It wasn't like he had this big battle. It wasn't like the books. I later found out that he was in the middle of it, but he didn't want to get people wound up."

Michael had gotten married just before he shipped out to Vietnam, to his high school sweetheart. She spent a lot of time at their house, bustling with life and this great anticipation -- this long and anxious wait during which no one spoke their fears.

News of Michael's death devastated the family, inflicting wounds they did not even understand.

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Michael deMasi hands out treats to some Vietnamese children who came up to his convoy in Vietnam.

For a couple of years, Martin could not shake the notion that Michael would come back on the anniversary of his death if Martin would just meet him at the right moment at the Newberry Store in Mesa. He knew it was a crazy notion -- and he never did go to the store -- but still he could not stop thinking about it in between anniversaries.

Michael's death marked a boundary in the life of the family, a frontier they all crossed, unknowing.

Now, his father and his brothers started having big fights -- shouting matches that never healed, just lapsed into exhausted truce.

When the shouting started, "us kids would just get out of there fast."

"My dad would never talk about anything and I think my mom had a bit of anger. They just never were the same after," he says now.

The whole family shut down, no one daring to talk their shared wound.

Complicating their loss was the hostility toward the war and the warriors.

"The soldiers who came back" like his brother Charles "were treated almost with disgust and that got me mad. And maybe we learned something from that because you don't see people spitting on the soldiers coming back today."

That silence in the face of the enormity of the loss, the crippling guilt and the public hostility entombed many veterans and many grieving families. It is largely why deMasi agreed to talk about how the loss had affected the family.

And when in the course of the interview, he was asked precisely how his brother had died, he realized that he didn't know. He had sealed himself off from those details, perhaps in his struggle to believe that his big brother might meet him someday at Newberry's.

So Martin called his brother, Kenneth, and they talked for hours about Michael and about what had befallen their family.

"I told him, I wasn't sure it was good to be talking about it," said Martin. "And he said, ‘It's been 38 years, I think it's all right to talk about it.'"

So here then, is how Michael deMasi died -- fulfilling all the greatest expectations of his father and serving his country and doing the right thing.

Michael had been wounded once previously, in a firefight somewhere on one side or the other of the Cambodian border.

On the day that Michael died, his squad had been assigned to destroy a complex of deep, but unstable bunkers. One of his guys was down in a bunker when it started to rumble and groan and collapse. Michael didn't hesitate, he rushed in to bring out his man. The bunker collapsed, killing them both.

Michael was awarded the Bronze Star posthumously on July 27, 1970. The citation misspelled his name. His unit lost three other lieutenants and many other men at about the same time. Their names are on the wall as well -- William Aldridge, Joseph Belew, William Kock, Sammy Booker and Mark Nash. They served in Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion of the 22nd Infantry. The bunker in which Michael died at 5 p.m. on July 12, 1970 was at Fire Support Base Katum in northern Tay Ninh Province.

You will find his name on Panel 08W Line 011, with the name of the men he literally died to protect nearby.

Martin said he found Michael's name on the original wall and was surprised at the impact it had on him. He found it again the last time the moveable replica of the wall came to Payson. And it hit him just as hard. He will go again when the wall returns and reach out and touch that name, his name, the family name.

His father is gone, into that great silence with Michael. His mother is frail. But he and his brothers are talking, fitting together the separate pieces of the puzzle they have fingered all this while.

Kenneth said that losing Michael changed them all. He said that Martin got very quiet after Michael died, so that it muffled his voice and his movements.

"It makes you appreciate things -- makes you appreciate the contribution of our veterans. A lot of people don't have awareness of things. I hope that no one ever has to go through it -- and I know it sounds foolish, but freedom isn't free -- it's really true."

And it feels good, finally, to talk about it, he says. Not that it changes anything.

"I don't think you ever get over it. You learn to deal with it, because you need to. But then, you should never forget. You almost feel guilty when you don't think about it for awhile. And I guess it's good, if people remember them."

And maybe someone else out there is still entombed in that silence all these years later or still wondering whether they ought to go to Newberry's on a certain day at a certain time, if they only knew the time. And maybe they'll read this.

"And maybe they'll think, ‘that's the same (stuff) that's happening to me -- so maybe I'm not weird.'"

And besides, now anyone who reads this knows the name of one person on the wall to touch, softly with the tips of your fingers.

Just find panel 08W Line 011.

He did the right thing.

And he is loved -- still -- and for a long time to come.

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