Much of what surrounds us now could not even have been imagined on July 4, 1969, six months into a horrific year when 11,614 Americans died in Vietnam. That was the year when Life magazine published the pictures of all 242 boys killed in a single week of battle. It was the year Richard Nixon was inaugurated, Lt. William Calley was charged with massacring civilians at My Lai, hundreds of soldiers were slaughtered senselessly at Hamburger Hill, Woodstock occurred and Dennis Sydor died on the Fourth of July in Quang Ngai Province, half a world away from where he grew up, in Jersey City.
“He was 18 when he was killed,” his sister, Cynthia Jernstedt, said. “He would have been 19 that July 24.”
Dennis Sydor went to Public School 39 and Lincoln High in Jersey City. Afraid of getting drafted, he joined the Army. He has a twin sister, Celine, and Cynthia works for the Port Authority. Their mother passed away last month, May, the same month Dennis got to Vietnam all those years ago, only to die six weeks later.
He had an older brother, Steve, who also died in Vietnam - kind of, anyway. Steve spent 13 months there, in 1966-67, with the Marines. When he got back, memory and reality eventually claimed him for the casualty count, too.
“He was never the same,” Jernstedt said. “Steve took Dennis’ death real hard. He worked for the city for a long time, Jersey City, for the Sanitation Department. But he lost his job. I think he drank himself to death.
“He used to call me or my sister every day, and when we didn’t hear from him for a few days, we went looking for him. We found him in his room, dead. He was 49. That was June 7, 1993.”
This time, the nation got walked and talked into Iraq. We are there because terrorists came to kill Americans and the country was told we must be aggressive and root them out in Baghdad, because that’s where dangerous weapons were constantly being devised and hidden for use against us.
The war is all politics now, with people picking sides and pointing fingers. The debate is ugly, and the political climate along with the unfolding campaign is even more unattractive.
But Dennis Sydor as well as his brother Steven are beyond all that now and have been for some time. They are buried in Holy Name Cemetery in Jersey City, as American a location as exists anywhere.
The dead from Iraq return home in numbers dwarfed by the total killed in Vietnam. But that doesn’t mean Iraq is a better place to fight, and it sure doesn’t mean that the burden carried by those who bury their dead now is any lighter than in the past. All it means is that we are at war again, fighting a new enemy that wears no uniform and has no geographic or moral boundaries.
It’s the Fourth of July, the heart of summer. It’s a wonderful day in a truly wonderful country, and it is also the day that a fine, 18-year-old kid named Dennis Sydor saw the sky for one last time in 1969.