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.