Tour of Duty - Vietnam
A Vietnam soldier's greatest fear was whether he would or could go back within the warmth, comfort & unconditional love of his family and friends without their seeing, somehow, what he or she had had to endure in the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia.
THE BLOOM OF BOYHOOD.
Most soldiers were young, patriotic, and totally unprepared for the world awaiting them 10,000 miles away. Almost 3 million of them sent to fight America’s longest war, prior to Afghanistan. White and black, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Native American, Guam and Hawaiian -- most were not even out of their teens… a boy became a young man, a young man lived through fire fights, a man turned into a battle-hardened veteran, sweating every day and enduring malaria, in Vietnam.
Heart-Wrenching Aspect of Military Efforts.
America has a long tradition of electing war heroes, from George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant, to J.F.K and G.H.W. Bush. The Revolutionary War gave the U.S. independence, the Civil War united a fractured country while ended slavery. WWII saved the world from Hitler’s domination, ending the genocide of the European Jews; while also stopping the Pacific domination of Hirohito’s Japan that committed atrocities in its brutal treatment of prisoners and use of chemical weapons. Even Korea seemed to halt the expanse of communism. But; what exactly was accomplished by the Vietnam War?
It isn’t always as easy to reason away what should and should not have been done in Vietnam; as in retrospect, much seems obvious, that truly is not. Americans think about the 58,000 young Americans killed, and the 1975 collapse of the US supported South Vietnamese government. Images of the 70 Marine helicopters attempting to evacuate some 7,000 people just prior to the fall of Saigon in ’75; and the arrival in the US of thousands of Vietnamese refugees. Movies such as “Apocalypse Now” attempting to project Hollywood’s take on the surreal nature of the war.
Some see the war as a worthwhile fight for freedom. And yes, some 50 years later, we are still naming Russia and China as our biggest “geo-political” arch-nemeses. Others view it as a victory denied to US forces by bungling politicians that wanted to fight a war while still looking pretty – which cannot be done unless you obfuscate and conceal. Still others claim that the US had no business being over there in the first place. It has always been hard to know how to wield power once it has been given, earned, or discovered. “We are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power and it is to serve people.”
And it is always so very confusing to know when protestors within and outside the U.S. would be willing to fight, for freedom. Naysayers critique our troops for fighting for Muslim freedoms in Kosovo for but not Christian Uganda; oil rich Iraq but not oil rich Sudan – and maybe 60 years ago, the dissident would have asked why we fought against German atrocities vs. Jews but not a Turkish holocaust against Armenian Christians in the 1920s. Prior to WWI we were critiqued by the world for being isolationists. We were begged to help in ‘39, but waited some 5 years before liberating France. Some say that if the US had been more interventionist-minded, that Hitler could have easily been stopped before he began. Too fast, too slow, too much, too little -- "Never did seem right to me. S’pose Curley jumps a big guy an’ licks him. Ever’body says what a great guy Curley is. And s’pose he tries the same thing but gets licked. Then ever’body says the big guy oughtta pick on somebody his own size, and maybe they gang up on the big guy. Never did seem right to me. Seem like Curley ain’t givin’ nobody a chance." Of Mice and Men. You can never govern or have foreign policy to appease the world it seems.
It is so very hard to know, even after the fact, how Vietnam should have been handled after the communist takeover in the north and the French mismanagement of their “colony” as France emerged from WWII a broken “empire”. Communism and socialism did, to a large degree collapse on its own accord [with a helping hand from the west] after close to a century of experimentation; but how many billions had to die in gulags in order for history to unfold -- and what is the U.S. role, if any, in ignoring or preventing a nation that vows domination of its people [or the world]? Oh sure, to now look upon Russia, you may chuckle – but as children growing up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s it was never funny when briefed by Walter Cronkite on the evening news -- how China and U.S.S.R. had more soldiers, more tanks, more missiles, more jets and we would be powerless in the event of war. As a current lone superpower; we conveniently forget THAT feeling and the paranoia that it imbued. After Bay of Pigs, it is not so surprising why JFK decided to increase our roll in Vietnam. Communism WAS on the rise with Castro, Krushev, and Mao -- and he DID appear irresolute prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Something, JFK deemed; must be done.
It seems that the ‘60s saw the façade of Chamelot revealed; an end of innocence. The 70s brought ugly truths, hypocrisy, puerile idealism gone awry, and an unsightly / decadent decade. In the ‘60s many young soldiers volunteered to serve, wanting to recommit their father and grandfather’s service to our great country. But by 1969, a lottery draft system was installed in order to fill the increasing number of enlisted personnel needed in Vietnam; and from this point; the military was leaning far from the patriotic -- instead toward those pushed against their will. And yet, many willingly answered the call, served, died, were injured -- many returning home to an angry and callow nation. How disillusioned they must have been to reflect on the deeds and honor of their forefathers returning from Korea, WWII and WWI – while Vietnam vets were looked upon in disgust, as if each one of them had been an active ingredient of some My Lai Massacre. Without any understanding of the chaos involved with guerrilla warfare and the blurred vision of friend / foe in Vietnam; some in the U.S. ran to their ivory tower and simply condemned.
After the War, Communist governments ruled oppressively. Punished opponents and former enemies, brutalizing and murdering civilians. Neighboring Cambodia ushered in a communist Khmer Rouge regime, with a genocide of 2 million in the wake of our exit. Vietnam is still under Communist rule. But repression has softened. Leaders have abandoned much of their Communist doctrine in favor of a more free-market, capitalist economy. This change has led to a growing prosperity in modern Vietnam, giving them the 40th highest GDP in the world today. Cambodia remains a distant 120.
HURRY UP AND WAIT
If you ever spent time at the Veteran’s Hospital in Mpls you’ll know what I mean when I say that despite all of the healing, successful surgeries and first rate doctors; the place is a mournful reminder of the thousands of soldiers that were wounded emotionally and physically. Spending time in the VA hospital even waiting for a prescription gives you thinking time you do not always wish to have (the wait lines at the vet’s hospital for prescriptions can be hours long). A keen eye can almost pick out The Vietnam Veteran. Duty of the moment demands we press on with life as they pressed on so many years ago. Yet, I think their sorrow caused deep scars, and indelibly writes its story on their suffering hearts.
MORE THAN A FEW WRESTLING WITH WAR-RELATED EMOTIONS
Last week I arranged to meet with a Professor of English from the University of Mayaguez, PR…a Vietnam Vet. I talk to him often. He had told me he had completed two tours in Vietnam. As I drove to the meeting I was imagining him as a young soldier – I was feeling his fear, I heard his prayers, the longing of his sweetheart, just imagining the accounts of wartime life, the regret about leaving your buddies in the hell holes when you had either R&R or it was your time to go home. I listened intently about his return to New York after the War and the horrible reception he received by students and citizens that grew fatigued over images and coverage the media provided. His father originally came from Puerto Rico, and due to the scorn by our fellow countrymen, he decided to make a life for himself in PR. We talked and when the discussion came to the treatment of his fellow man upon the return at home, he couldn’t go there. “I can’t go there”, he said. You can see when a person is robbed of dignity. Losing that dignity robs us of our very soul.
While my husband was stationed in Ft. Stewart, GA; I worked for a Vietnam Vet. On thoughts about the return to the US, that veteran summed it up by saying, “those who served in the Vietnam War were in the line of fire, not just on the battlefield, but when they returned home.” They received no parades, no accolades, and no public gatherings. He more or less felt they were offered as sacred cows to absorb failures in Vietnam. Who was more to blame? An entitled electorate that expected painless war or a political climate that reckoned the public was not able to handle such truths?
He witnessed operations his buddies were tasked to complete. How full of sacrifice and genuine heroism these units were; and how those that served with him would forever be branded upon his memory. He also believed that some American soldiers came to direct harm as a result of typical Hollywood / Jane Fonda-esque actions. But he stressed sincerely that he personally doesn’t hold any grudges.
During the war when he and his buddies would pick up a battered copy of a magazine and see hippies at home running around naked; skinny-dipping at Woodstock, “Now that seemed a hell of a lot better than ‘greasing’ the enemy, fighting malaria and arriving home in a body bag”. That was when his unit would feel like they were eating a knuckle sandwich from King Kong every day. Later, “back in the States, with hearts desensitized and minds numb, we shut out the turmoil reported on the home front, but, our self-administered anesthesia would only last for a moment”, my old boss explained.
A GRUNTS DAY
A great grief to the ‘grunts’ (infantrymen where called “Grunts” because they grunted) was walking up & down unforgiving hills, mountains, across streams, rivers, rice fields, and waist deep in the mud in the Mekong Delta – all the while, fearing an invisible enemy that looked just the same as a local villager. There was stifling humidity, parasitic pests, rodents, jungle rot and immersion food from constant sweating and wet boots – the conditions were as much of an enemy as the Viet Cong.
Comradeship of the bush was the glue that held units together. Friendships were most meaningful, but soldiers in Vietnam were rotated in and out due to death, injury, or tour of duty expired. However, on missions they never abandoned anyone in the field –dead or alive. If six went out, six came back – always.
Morale then, as it has always been, was the key ingredient to unit cohesion with the men in Vietnam. And members of combat units in the field fiercely & desperately held onto their morale as best they could muster.
NURSES, CORPSMEN, DOCTORS
7,500 women served in Vietnam as nurses, therapists, air traffic controllers, aerial reconnaissance photographers, intelligence and language specialists, legal officers, journalists, flight attendants, USO and humanitarian organizations.
Nurses made up most of the bulk of the women serving in Vietnam. Skilled, corpsmen (pronounced core-men) and doctors dealing with the stress of patching up men whose bodies were horribly torn and mutilated -- had to have been rough. The compassion nurses showed for their patients was critical. Comforting when the soldier was afraid, letting them know that they were cared for, and reassuring them that their sacrifice was appreciated.
Have we given those ladies enough appreciation and credit? How could they have maintained a cheerful, positive demeanor and become detached from the suffering that was all around them. Who comforted the medical staff? I have a profound appreciation for these women. I can only imagine the thanks, prayers of appreciation from soldier’s moms and dads back home, said or unsaid.
VETS THEN AND NOW
For many Vietnam Vets it was too hard…sitting down and brooding over the sorrows deepened the darkness surrounding them, allowing depression, addictions creep into their hearts and bodies.
John Wilson, a professor of psychology at Cleveland State University said one difference between Vietnam vets and those who served during World War II is that the older vets had closure -- a recognized victory -- for their conflict. The World War II vets came home heroes and were treated as such.
Probably one of the greatest legacies of Vietnam Vets is that most Americans now have put their focus on opposition to war on the policymakers instead of on those following orders. Vietnam Veterans have taught us that you can oppose a war but support the troops. Vietnam Vets are on the front line welcoming home the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. They speak of the returning soldiers as if they are their own sons and daughters. The soldiers will never completely recover from this grief. Yet the sorrow they endured brought them a greater sense of compassion for others.
Today, we honor all Veterans of all Wars, we think of your parents, your wives, your husbands, your children. Our hearts are with anyone standing post, including US embassies [lest we forget] -- our ambassador & soldiers massacred overseas recently; working on behalf of this country while trying to secure another. We think of you and your loved ones today and we will strive to remember you more often than this day, today, set aside for you – Veterans Day.
On February 1, 1966 Private First Class Hiram Strickland was killed while on patrol near the coastal village of Bong Son. A month after Strickland’s personal belongings were sent home to his family, his buddies in Vietnam found a notebook the private had kept by his bed. In it, he had written a letter to his parents, predicting his own death:
I’m writing this letter as my last one. You’ve probably already received word that I’m dead and that the government wishes to express its deepest regret.
Believe me, I didn’t want to die, but I know it was my part of the job. I want my country to live for billions and billions of years to come.
I want it to stand as a light to all people oppressed and guide them to the same freedom we know…
Don’t mourn me, Mother, for I’m happy. I died fighting my country’s enemies, and I will live forever in people’s minds. I’ve done what I’ve dreamed of. Don’t mourn me, for I died a soldier of the United States of America.
As humans we have forever teetered between undying, naïve selfless service to our clan, tribe or country vs. a tempting, cynical, narcissistic service of only self. Today, we must ask ourselves which need is greater. Where are we as a country? What is noble? Are we willing to fight and die for something larger than self? Who or what determines that which is noble and right? The individual, a central governance, our faith, some professor, Hollywood, the media? Will I only fight when a monthly benefit is reduced? Will I wait until the enemy has my child’s head under boot before I attach a bayonet? Only then to, instead, discuss diversity and tolerance of said boot?
We owe so very much to those that weighed values judiciously and made a decision to stand while others pondered, ran, dithered, wavered and slept. Not just thanks, but honor to all that raised their right hand and did so solemnly swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic… Amen and we salute you.