Originally featured in The Washington Post

Calvin Tildon, left, and John Fay share a laugh at American Legion Post 8 on Capitol Hill. Both went to Nashville in November as part of Operation Song, which pairs veterans with songwriters.

For Calvin Tildon, Dec. 23, 1968, was a day full of smoke and fire and blood.

Dec. 23, 1968, was the day the young Army lieutenant stepped from a helicopter into a pitched battle in a Vietnamese rice paddy. It was the day he watched his radio operator fall, wounded, at his side. It was the day he was close enough to see enemy soldiers. It was the day he called in an F-4 Phantom jet to drop napalm. It was the day his actions earned him a Bronze Star.

Dec. 23, 1968, is the day Tildon calls his “happy to be alive day.” For years he marked it by getting drunk.

“If you’re so happy to be alive,” Tildon’s wife, Shirley, would say, “why you trying to kill yourself?”

“We’re the tip of the spear,” said Fay, who served from 1956 to 1963 and now lives in Alexandria, Va., with his wife, Victoria. “We’re always moving around.”

After the Marines, Fay went to college, eventually earning a PhD from Yale and becoming a scientist for the Navy.

Fay said he was skeptical that a few hours of conversation with a Nashville tunesmith could distill his Marine Corps experiences into a three-minute song, but when he heard it he was blown away. The tune, called “Squared Me Away,” is a bit Bob Seger, a bit Lee Greenwood. Hamm sings:

I went in a boy, but the Corps made me a man

Everything I thought I couldn’t do, well they taught me that I can

Yeah, fall in, snap to, shine those shoes, get stronger every day

I wasn’t just marching in circles, it squared me away

The song is so stirring, it could be used in a recruiting film — even if the lyrics hint at off-color R & R:

I commanded tanks at 18, I advised in Vietnam

Had some crazy nights in Hong Kong, things I’d never tell my Mom

“I really loved the Marine Corps,” said Fay, 81. “I would go back in a minute if they asked me.”

Fay met Tildon in a music therapy program at Washington’s VA Medical Center. They’re part of Vets in Harmony, a singing quartet that also includes Charles Kearney and Samuel Williams.

Music therapist Nicolette Rubin oversees multiple creative programs at the medical center, from choral groups to guitar classes. Music, she said, can transport a troubled mind.

Said Rubin: “Music can heal.”

Saturday’s event — complete with a red carpet — was to raise funds to send more local vets to Nashville for Operation Song. Since it was founded in 2012 by songwriter Bob Regan, the charity has worked with veterans from World War II to more recent conflicts to create nearly 750 songs.

Tildon, a D.C. native who after the Army rose to oversee personnel for the District government, was paired with songwriter Chuck Jones.

“I like rhythm and blues from the ’50s and ’60s,” Tildon told Jones. “And Motown.”

The result was “Happy To Be Alive Day,” a sweet, Hammond organ-infused song in the style of Smokey Robinson. Jones sings

People ask me all the time about the smile on my face,

So I tell them ’bout my time in Vietnam back in ’68.

When that Huey dropped me off in a hot LZ,

There was angels from heaven watching over me.

When that Phantom rained fire on the enemy,

That’s why Dec. 23 will always be

My happy to be alive day, my lucky that I survived day.

Ever since, everything’s going my way . . .

The melody belies the fear Tildon must have felt, but the song’s lyrics take him from the war back home to “the world” and to the woman who would become his wife, and the family they would raise together.

“I’m old . . . and I’m happy to be alive,” Tildon said Saturday. “Anyways, he put it to music.”

To hear these songs — and others — go to operationsong1.bandcamp.com. The songs by Tildon and Fay are on the album called “Dept. of Veterans Affairs, VISN 5 November 2019.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.