The Price of Duty
by James H. Webb
[former Secretary of the Navy, and former Assistant
Secretary of Defense (27 May 2001)]
Johnny Liverman died in Vietnam more than 32 years ago. Yet his
father, a decorated World War II veteran, still maintains a
graveside vigil. On this Memorial Day, they're a poignant
reminder of our nation's citizen soldier legacy.
My office looks out on Arlington National Cemetery. Finishing a
jog or restless with my writing, I often stroll its rolling hills
and think of those who served our country during troubled times,
now gathered in their final formations. Frequently, I find myself
in one small corner of the cemetery where my father is buried,
not far from a heroic squad leader who died under my command in
It was there, 10 years ago, that I first noticed Troy Liverman.
He was on his knees, tending a grave that, unlike the others, was
surrounded by a carefully trimmed shrub. His nearby car had a
Marine Corps bumper sticker and Purple Heart license plates
inscribed "45 & 68". I assumed he was a retired career
soldier who had been wounded in World War II and Vietnam, perhaps
visiting the grave of a departed wife. But on my next visit, I
went to the grave and saw that it belonged instead to his son.
Marine Lance Cpl. John C. Liverman, 19, had been killed in
Vietnam on December 11, 1968. I also noticed, with some
amazement, that I had been wounded on what would have been his
20th birthday -- July 10, 1969.
I would see Troy Liverman several times a year after that, on his
knees before his son's headstone. The shrub remained neatly
trimmed. Throughout the year, pots of yellow and white
chrysanthemums were left in front of the marker. In December
there would be a Christmas blanket, an elaborate tapestry of
leaves and flowers. Over time I was taken by the power of these
simple expressions of love, for in his visits I could see clearly
the terrible burden borne by families that share a tradition of
Johnny's grave became a landmark for me. Walking past it, I would
remember the only time I saw my career-military father cry, when
"Danny Boy" came on the radio as I prepared to ship out for
Vietnam. Seeing Troy Liverman kneeling in the grass, I would
think of my own son, growing up with a citizen-soldier legacy
reaching back to the Revolutionary War, who already had told me
he wanted to be a Marine. Embodied in Liverman's tragedy and its
remembrance was the haunting tightrope so many American families
walk every day: we teach our children that there is honor in
serving our country, yet we live in dread of the price they may
be called upon to pay.
It took me a long time to approach Troy Liverman, but once we
met, it was only minutes before I began to think of him as a
friend. He is a gruff, no-nonsense man who, at 74 bears the scars
of a cancer operation and a hip replacement and still carries a
knob of shrapnel in one leg from World War II. He gives his
opinions bluntly yet sees humor in unexpected places.
Liverman grew up in Washington, D.C., where his father had moved
from North Carolina to drive a cab. He became a soldier at 17 and
in the final months of World War II was seriously wounded by a
German mortar shell. Married at 20, a father at 22, he worked as
a meter-reader for the Washington Gas Light Co., bought a house
in the Maryland suburbs and raised three sons who became the
focal point of his existence. The boys went to parochial school,
played sports and listened to their father's homilies. On special
days such as Easter and Christmas, there were cards and adoring
notes to their dad. Troy Liverman still keeps them.
There's no way to describe the feeling that I have for my sons,"
Liverman says today. "I don't know what I did to deserve this
kind of love."
Like their father, when their time came, all three sons
volunteered for the military. The eldest, Robert, now a corporate
executive in Texas, was wounded in Vietnam in 1968 as an Army
lieutenant, calling artillery onto his own position to stop an
enemy attack. The youngest, James, who died five years ago of a
liver ailment, served in the Marines after high school. But the
middle son, Johnny, had it the hardest.
A shadowbox on a wall in Troy Liverman's rural Virginia home
binds him and his sons together -- four men, three Bronze Stars,
six Purple Hearts. A professionally bound scrapbook recounts
Johnny's life, from childhood report cards to his final days in
Vietnam. Looking at his photos and notes, one meets a tough but
loving kid with James Dean looks and a strong sense of family
loyalty. He had lost cartilage in both knees to football, which
could have excused him from the draft. Instead, he volunteered
for the Marines. A picture in the scrapbook shows a smiling
Johnny just after he enlisted in the summer of '67, holding a
sign that reads "BEFORE".
There would be no "AFTER".
Johnny reached Vietnam in January 1968, just in time for the Tet
Offensive, the worst fighting of the war. He was 18. His
childhood friend and next-door neighbor, "Trippy" Streeks, had
just been killed during the siege of Khe Sanh. Johnny reported to
the famed "Walking Dead" -- First Battalion, Ninth Marines -- and
was immediately thrown into heavy combat. In early March he was
wounded in the shoulder by shrapnel. In late April he was hit
again by shrapnel and suffered a serious gunshot wound to his
thigh. "The fighting was so fierce that they couldn't get him out
for two days," Troy Liverman remembers. "He almost bled to
His wounds entitled Johnny to go to Okinawa, where he could have
remained for the rest of his tour. But he grew restless. Learning
that a close friend from his old unit had been killed, he
volunteered to return to combat. "Grandma told me for your's and
Mom's sake don't go back to Nam," Johnny wrote to his father.
"But like you always said, Dad, 'a job worth doing is a job worth
doing right'. I'm getting straight with myself. I have to go back
and finish the job."
Back in Vietnam, Johnny was assigned to the Second Battalion,
Fourth Marines, in the rugged terrain near the demilitarized
zone. On Dec. 11, 1968, his company fount an extended battle
along infamous Foxtrot Ridge. Johnny was wounded for the third
time early in the battle. As the fight wore on, a bullet hit him
in the head.
Troy Liverman was managing the night shift at a McDonald's in
Rockville, Md., when a Marine Corps officer came in. It was just
before Christmas, and the Marines had been busy with their
seasonal Toys for Tots program, so it was not unusual to see an
officer in dress blues in the restaurant late at night. But when
the young lieutenant asked for him by name, Liverman knew.
"You think you've had disappointments and troubles in your life,"
he says. "But they all add up to nothing when a man is telling
you your son is dead."
Johnny was buried a few days after Christmas on a slope that
looks out from Arlington toward the monuments on the other side
of the Potomac River, a short walk from the Iwo Jima Memorial.
Few graves surrounded his then, but over time the cemetery has
filled. In the early days, Troy Liverman spent countless hours at
his son's grave, working out his grief. Against cemetery rules,
he brought in sprigs of shrubbery, planting them around the stone
and tending them himself. "The caretakers didn't mind," he
remembers today. "They all knew me. I spent more time in the
cemetery than they did."
In the summer of 1969, anti-war protests were held at the
Pentagon, only a mile from Johnny's grave. When Troy Liverman
heard that protest leaders would be reading the names of Vietnam
dead, he became incensed and staged a one-man
counter-demonstration. "When they saw me, they huddled for a
while. Then the leader of the demonstration came over and told me
they wouldn't be bothering me." Liverman says. "I told him that
was a wise decision."
On three different days, he stood in the heat across from the
rallies, carrying a sign that termed the demonstrators
"parasites". It made the papers, but his motivation was simple
loyalty to his son. "They had a right to protest," he says, "but
they had no right to use his name to undermine his cause. My son
was not a victim. He died serving his country."
When it comes to Vietnam, the years have not particularly
mellowed Troy Liverman. The Clinton era was especially difficult.
If he had known that a man who avoided serving while criticizing
those who answered the call in Vietnam would someday be elected
president, he reflects, "I would have pushed my sons into the
basement and locked the door." And yet, hearing him say it, one
knows that he would never have done it. "One of the things I'm
proudest of," he says, "is that all four of us were true
The years go by. The old veteran moves more slowly now. The
sprigs he planted more than 30 years ago have grown into a thick
shrub that surrounds Johnny's headstone on three sides. An apple
tree, once a sapling, overshadows the grave. but above all, Troy
Liverman has remained firm in his devotion -- to his son and to
his cause. And those of us who fought in the war that took
Johnny's life cannot help but look at his father with an enormous
sense of gratitude. What more could we have asked for, had we
ourselves not survived?
Every time I pass Johnny Liverman's grave in my strolls through
Arlington, I think of son and father, father and son. I am
thankful I lived to bury a father who had entered his dotage, and
I pray that when I am a very old man, my son may likewise bury
me. But always in my heart I will honor Johnny and the others
like him, who got straight with themselves, who disregarded
shrapnel and gunshot wounds, and went back to finish the job. Who
gave us everything they had. And who, as we grow old,
will always be 19.