This is an essay about some of my time in the Army, mostly about that part while I was in Vietnam. It's written to begin to discuss an old wound that has never truly healed. Perhaps sometime I can get over this anger and pain, but not so long as we fight unnecessary wars and kill Americans for no good reason.
For those of you who've never served in the military, this may not make much sense. I'm not suggesting that military service is a glorious thing that makes veterans better than non-veterans. But I am saying that you simply can't understand it properly without that experience. There are parts of military service I can't comprehend, myself. More on that, later. What I'm trying to suggest is that the true substance of this essay won't be apparent to anyone not having been in the military but, nevertheless it's my hope that some concepts will at least be clarified. As it turns out, many of the politicians who are presently running this country have no real military service, nor do their children. Thus, I've argued elsewhere that our current political leader is not qualified to lead this country into new wars, especially wars of aggression.
I can't get over my old anger so long as we pursue such wars. My son has returned from Iraq and is no longer threatened in the same way as I was, in Vietnam - that is, for no good reason. It's a blessing that he's returned safely, but he also now knows the reality of such wars. It's difficult for me even to imagine the agony of parents who have lost their sons and daughters in this ugly, unnecessary war. But I now finally know something of what my parents must have felt. They never said anything about it, but I wasn't a very good son. My son had email and even phone calls home on a regular basis - I hardly ever even wrote my folks - he's a far better son than I was. My poor parents - only now do I realize what pain I must have caused them. I can't forgive the people responsible for making me live through the year of anxiety while my son with in Iraq, dreading every new report from Baghdad about American casualties in that awful, useless occupation. That episode of my son's life, and mine, has reopened old wounds that I hoped might be healed. Apparently not. I'm still angry and may be for a long time to come.
This essay, then, results from that anger. When my son came home, his mother and I traveled to be at Fort Hood when he got off the plane. On the base where he arrived, a grand celebration had been planned. The families and friends of the returning troops were afforded the chance to be there more or less as soon as they got off the plane - except for the mandatory processing they had to go through. A party atmosphere prevailed in the gym where the troops were to arrive - dancing children, music, American flags were handed out (ironically, made in China!) - all in anticipation of the arrival. It was quite a contrast with the weeping and quiet of the deployment ceremonies in a nearby gym a little less than a year ago.
When our soldiers finally arrived, the cheering and applause were thunderous. As I stood cheering and waving my made-in-China American flag to welcome our troops back home, my thoughts inevitably strayed to my return from Vietnam (see below).
Whatever awful things have come from our disastrous involvement in Vietnam, at least we've learned not to hate our soldiers and sailors and airmen, who are simply doing their duty. My son is also a far better soldier than I was, and I'm very proud of his willingness to do his duty in Iraq, however much he didn't want to. He has said that everywhere he goes in uniform, perfect strangers shake his hand and thank him for his service. Actually, I do that with soldiers in airports, too. The VFW veterans even met his plane at an intermediate stop in the US at 3 am, to welcome the soldiers back home. I thank those VFW members deeply for their efforts to be there for our troops. My goodness, how things have changed since 1970! I much prefer it this way - this is truly the right way - and my son has been spared the empty feeling of returning alone, without anyone besides his parents being glad to welcome him back.
It's unbelievably great to have my son back from that hell over there, but the whole experience forces a bad sort of deja vu on me. I didn't ask for this, but it's been imposed on me - hence, I'm "inspired" to share this.
I'll spare you all the long version. That is available here. Anyway, I was drafted out of graduate school, after completing 9 semester hours toward my Ph.D. I went to boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (we called it Fort Lost-in-the-Woods or "Little Korea"!). I was 24 years old, whereas most of my fellow recruits were about 18 or 19. The main issue in boot camp was dealing with the apparently psychotic drill sergeants, who took great delight in messing with us for no obvious reason, short of their personal delight at our misery.
I survived boot camp, but I'd been talked into signing up for 3-year enlistment during the first week of boot camp (called "reception station" - but they never served us any cake and punch during our "reception"). This first week was designed take care of all the stuff like paperwork, physicals, issuing uniforms, etc. to make sure the drill sergeants could mess with us full time when we got to the real thing. Anyway, the recruiters at reception station said if I stuck with the standard 2-year draftee enlistment, with my college degree(s), I surely would go directly from boot camp to infantry school and then on to Vietnam. This was probably the only true thing they said - it happened just that way to people I know. Anyway, I signed up to be a "Communications Center Specialist (MOS 72B)," which guaranteed I would go to Signal School in Fort Gordon, GA directly after basic training.
Thus, it was at Fort Gordon early in my "Advanced Individual Training" (AIT) that I found out what my draft lottery number was. It was over 300, so had they passed the lottery law for the draft a few months earlier, I never would have been drafted. Wow! What inspirational news to hear, standing in morning formation at Ft. Gordon - or Fort Garbage, as we called it - with nearly three years to go in my enlistment . Anyway, I finished AIT and found out I was headed directly to Vietnam - do not pass Go, do not collect $200!
I left the US for Vietnam from Travis Air Force Base on a chartered civilian plane in January of 1970, after Christmas leave at home. I had no idea where I was going. I was being shipped to a "transit" company in Long Binh (famous for its military jail), which was near Saigon. I spent about a week there, wating to be put on a plane (a C-141 Starlifter) to another transit company, this time in Danang, much farther north. Still no clue where I was going to wind up. I spent about a week there, too, before finally being shipped on a plane (a C-130 Hercules) to Phu Bai, near the city of Hue - again even farther north, and not far from the boundary between North and South Vietnam, which turned out to be my final assignment. I was destined to be a clerk in a message center with the Headquarters Company of the 26th General Support Group, a supply outfit, associated with the 1st Logistical Command, USARV. We were basically the supply support for northern I Corps - the northernmost command in Vietnam. XXIV Corps (real combat troops) were headquartered in Phu Bai, as well, but they soon moved their operational headquarters to Danang. We were across the Highway 1 from Camp Eagle, of the 101st Airborne. I had about 20 min of work in the course of a typical day. Real challenging stuff.
After a few months, through an intervention by the woman in charge of Special Services, I became the Art Director (!) at the new Phu Bai Craft Shop for several months, pulling me out of the message center, which had already become monumentally boring. It was during my stint in the Craft Shop that I bought my first good camera (a Canon FTb) and learned 35 mm B&W photography with the help of one of the soldiers in my platoon, a guy named Weatherholt. Unfortunately, my cushy job in the Craft Shop came to an end when the Special Services person who got me that position moved on and my company cadre sucked me back into the Signal business. However, I soon managed to convince them that the Message Center needed to be a 24-h operation and being the senior guy (out of two) in the Message Center, I got dibs on the graveyard shift. For the duration of my operational time there, I saw no one above the rank of E-5. I was a ghost, and I liked it that way, obviously.
When I had first arrived in Vietnam, I was basically still in shock over what had happened to me. I was sleepwalking through the experience - as a defense mechanism, I suppose, I'd withdrawn from this unacceptable reality and was watching what was happening to me as if I was outside of myself. I was rescued from this odd purgatory by a total stranger, Max, who worked in S-1 (Personnel) and had seen my personal files. He decided to investigate just what sort of person I was. Thank heavens! He literally rescued me and rekindled my sense of being able to control my life. He's been a friend of mine ever since. We went on R&R together to Bangkok - a fantastic experience! We only knew each other for a few months, and he lives in Oregon, now. We've seen each other exactly once since we were in Vietnam, but we stay in touch often. He's someone I consider one of my best friends and I owe him far more that I can ever repay.
By the time Max went back home in September, I had become one of the old hands in the company. I wasn't an ideal example for newbies to emulate - in the minds of the cadre - and I created many problems for the cadre with my attitude, which tended to infect the newbies. I got out of Vietnam one month early, in December 1970 - this owing to the drawdown of American troops as part of "Vietnamization". My stay in the transit company at Cam Ranh Bay on the way out was very different from my first experiences with transit companies when I was coming in-country. I had become a wily veteran and knew how to stay out of stupid work details and the eyes of the cadre until I was on a manifest for the flight home.
We all cheered wildly on our chartered civilian flight when our aircraft wheels left the gound at Cam Ranh Bay, but we were pretty tired when we arrived at Fort Lewis, Washington at about 3 am. No one was there to greet us, but they provided us with the promised steak and eggs breakfast at 3 am anyway. Then, we did our processing, got our plane tickets for our connecting flights, and by 8 am, I was at SEATAC airport for my flight home. I arrived home, greeted my parents - and began the process of trying to understand what I was doing back home. As it turned out, like my son, I was not out of the military yet. That was yet to come, about 13 months later. But I was out of Vietnam. And with a deep-seated anger and a reluctance to talk about it to anyone not in the military. I'm sure I was a source of confusion and concern for my parents while I was on leave.
After coming back home, I was originally assigned to Fort Hood, TX to work in their comm center as a 72B. However, those orders were cancelled and I wound up being sent to White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), NM in January of 1971. This assignment was as a "science and engineering assistant" (an "S&E "with MOS 01F) - some of us who had been drafted out of graduate school wound up in such positions, working as scientists in military research labs for civilian Federal employees, but still under the command of an Army company. It was a very strange, schizophrenic kind of life. One minute, I'd be working on powerful computers doing atmospheric model development - the next minute, we'd be outside picking up cigarette butts, or off cleaning latrines. I cleaned a lot of latrines during my Army time! As luck would have it, during that time, I read Solzhenitsyn's book, The First Circle. My time at WSMR felt a lot like the life of a zek in that book. No one's written about WSMR S&Es, but if you read Solzhenitsyn's book, you get a sort-of taste of our life. Don't get me wrong - compared to most prisoners in the Soviet GULAG, we had it made - but doing what amounted to forced labor as a scientist was an interesting experience.
I made some friends in our company of zeks, and spent most of my time there living off-post in Las Cruces. I had many adventures there with my friends, one of whom was a civilian - a disc jockey named Pat at the local 'underground' radio station. My Army S&E friends and I were adept at skating out of military crapola and creating problems for the cadre, which was my goal during the remainder of my service. I wasn't a good soldier, being an unwilling one. Despite that, I was promoted to Specialist 5 and the recipient of a Good Conduct Medal! I had no Article 15s - nonjudicial punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (something of an oxymoron, that) and good conduct was basically a matter of not being court-martialed and not getting any Article 15s.
I wound up getting out of the active duty Army in February of 1972, almost six months before my active duty enlistment was up. The Army was transitioning to the all-volunteer force that it has become, and I was a disillusioned Vietnam veteran they wanted to get rid of, I suppose. I returned immediately to the University of Oklahoma and tried to return to my civilian life - see below.
Looking back, it's my belief that my time in Vietnam was strongly affected by the defeat of the North Vietnamese in the infamous Tet Offensive of 1968. Americans won most of the battles in Vietnam, and yet just as surely lost the war. The North Vietnam strategy was based on simple arithmetic: kill enough Americans and they'll eventually lose their will to go on, and leave. The Communists were willing to sustain huge losses, just to continue to kill Americans. A simple strategy that even George Washingtion would have understood for a nation striving to throw off foreign invaders with much superior military forces. Tet was a strategic victory, in spite of being a military defeat - it convinced most Americans that the war was unwinnable. Tet came hard into American living rooms, via television, showing the US embassy in Saigon overrun and attacks taking place all over Vietnam. Was this winning the war? Many Americans, including the famous TV broadcaster Walter Cronkite, sitting on the fence about the war lost their reluctance to oppose the war after Tet - it clearly was the beginning of the end.
However, to my personal benefit, the Communist forces were so depleted by the tactical defeat dealt them after Tet, life stayed relatively quiet in much of Vietnam for several years, until their forces were built back up and supplies laid in. I was the beneficiary of that relative lull in the battles. Phu Bai was certainly quiet during my time there. We had only two incidents of incoming rockets or artillery - not much of an issue for us. I was spared the nightmares of a real combat soldier in Vietnam - I was a REMF (Rear Echelon Mother Fucker), and damned glad of it, frankly. No one shot at me, and I didn't have to shoot anyone. None of my friends were killed. No atrocities to create nightmares. All thanks to those who defeated the North Vietnamese in the Tet Offensive of 1968. People I never knew suffered and died so that I could skate through without any post-traumatic stress disorder. I owe them, too.
I was naive enough to believe that becoming a civilian again would be simple. How wrong I was. I was angry about many things when I got back to OU. None of my friends knew anything about the Army - and clearly didn't want to. But for me, the Army was something I had lived, eaten, breathed. slept, and absorbed for 2 1/2 years, full time, 24/7. My whole world was full of Army acronyms and concepts that meant nothing to my friends. They didn't want to hear my war stories. To them, the Army was Vietnam babykillers, dope addicts, and lifers. What could they possibly know about my life as it had been for so long? How could I say anything that they would understand? How could I talk about a place they had never seen and didn't experience? So I had little to say. I was sullen, and not very talkative for at least a year.
But eventually, the Army began to wear off. Graduate school was renewed as the focus of my life, and I returned to pursuing my goal of becoming a professional meteorologist. I found my wife-to-be, and my son was born as I was completing graduate school. My life as a husband, father, and meteorologist had begun. What possible interest could there be in my experiences during the war? The war was over, Vietnam had been overrun by the Communists, and all that I had known of Phu Bai and my time there was surely erased during the passage of what we were ostensibly fighting for - the independent South Vietnamese nation.
As time has passed, I've come to the realization that I'm still angry about a lot of things associated with that relatively short 2 years, 6 months, and 7 days that I spent in the Army, and particularly the 11 months I spent in a combat zone thousands of miles from home. It's a piece of my life that has defined me and colored much of what I've become. And in spite of the lack of interest most people in the USA have shown in pondering that episode in our history, I've realized that I was a tiny pawn in what had been one of the most definitive episodes of the times. I could tell my children and grandchildren (I now have three, but they're too young yet!) that, "I fought in the BIG one!" In some strange way, I'm actually pleased to have been there and seen some part of it for myself. I'm not counting on some reporter's interpretation of what life there was like. Or some stupid movie from Hollywood. I saw it for myself.
A few of my friends had encouraged me to do my duty when they found out I had been drafted, even as they themselves were escaping without having to serve. I've never resented anyone who figured out a way to skate out of the war - provided they were and are not advocates of war being fought by someone other than themselves - such war-avoiding advocates of war are called chicken hawks. And deservedly so. I hold them in utter contempt.
Curiously, time has suggested that being drafted into that mess was a good thing. I'd lived in a very sheltered world up to the time when I was drafted in the Army. All of the people I knew were from the same social class, the same WASP world. In the Army, I'd been thrown into a kaleidescope of diversity. The Army put us together, but it was up to us to get along. We did. I found I could get along with just about anyone - if I had to. Had I stayed in grad school, and not gone through all this, who knows how my attitudes would have evolved? And my interest in photography had its real roots there. The Army widened my horizons in a way I'm now pleased about. Even though I hated it at the time.
I have many thoughts stemming from this experience. Simply dealing with being drafted was traumatic. What do I do? Should I go to Canada? Should I defy the draft and go to jail? Those alternatives obviously meant the end of everything that I'd wanted to do up to that point. How could I refuse and still have the life I wanted for myself? Easy - I couldn't refuse. So I went. It's taken me many years to forgive myself for going to "fight" in a war in which I did not believe. I retreated into a kind of shocked state - only to reawaken in Phu Bai, with the help of my friend, Max.
What I could not forget was what I saw during my time there, even as protected as I was. It was clear that I couldn't reasonably stand in judgment of the actions of real combat soldiers in Vietnam. They're responsible for whatever they did - but it's not up to me to judge them. What would I have done, in their place? I'll never know, thank my lucky stars. Frankly, I doubt that I would have behaved any differently, had I been under those circumstances. I like to think I might have if I'd been asked to obey an unlawful order, but I'll never know for sure. So I make no judgments and only mourn the circumstances that forced young Americans to make such difficult choices - and sometimes take the blame for by self-righteous people who weren't there.
It was a dirty, nasty version of war - the enemy didn't wear uniforms most the time. Women and children could be Viet Cong assassins. There were no front lines, and limited battle zones. Everyone was in danger, even those of us in quiet Phu Bai. We lived in a constant low-level threat. Not the terror of pitched battles - at least not those of us in Phu Bai during my time there. But the threat was omnipresent. The atmosphere was one of casual acceptance of that threat, and the casual acceptance of other things, as well. Soldier morale in this war was terrible. Drugs were indeed rampant, and soliders killing other soldiers - often with fragmentation grenades (or "fragging"). The targets of fratricidal murder in Vietnam were usually the higher-ranking NCOs and officers and this was accepted as part of the reality of the situation. Soldiers in combat become very accepting of reality - even though it seems insane. A very confusing and frightening atmosphere. It was a disaster for the military, and they came out of it vowing not to make the same mistakes if they could prevent it.
So now, here we are - once again occupying foreign lands, through both Republican and Democratic Presidents. The neocons are apparently convinced we can advance democracy at the point of a gun, a patently absurd notion. My son has endured his own version of what I went through. I'm extremely fortunate, unlike the parents of soldiers who have come back from Afghanistan and Iraq in body bags, or horribly wounded. It seems beyond belief that the military is going along with this repetition of our Vietnam mistakes. After the so-called Gulf War for Kuwait, I thought the politicians and the military were on the same path, seeking to avoid any more Vietnams. But ... here we are ... perhaps winning the first Gulf War so easily convinced the chicken hawks to play the military card again ...
I'm haunted by my own experiences. Obviously, I've never gotten over being angry about Vietnam and being drafted out of graduate school. That anger has made me who I've become and, as I get older, I see its impact on my life in many ways. I was watching In the Shadow of the Blade on TV (a great program!) - one veteran on the show said, "You never leave Vietnam." I would say that Vietnam has never left me. That feeling of emptiness, coming "home" to Fort Lewis and having no one there to welcome us is something I can never forget. No "closure", no gratitude, nothing but empty silence - and I was supposed to just pick up and go on as if nothing at all had happened to me? How could I do that? How could anyone do that?
We're just now realizing, too late for most of them, that soliders coming back from WWII had many of the same problems readjusting, and they even got the parades and welcoming celebrations. [By the way, parades are not all that great for soldiers, especially the unwilling ones, like me.] Korean veterans, like those serving in Vietnam, also got nothing - just the same emptiness. Another dirty war. For Vietnam troops, of course, there was the public revulsion over the war that was visited on them - spitting on soldiers in airports, misguided war protesters calling them "baby killers", and so on. The growth of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War at the end was a clear indication that many soldiers who did their duty were nevertheless opposed to the war. This is a very special sort of patriot, in my opinion. The VVAW is still active and still opposes our wars of aggression. Join them!
Americans have gradually come to understand that you can hate the war without hating the warriors. That's a good thing. So when is America going to welcome us home? It's been more than 30 years and that's never taken place - not really. The Vietnam Memorial is a place I want to visit. Perhaps there I can finally let go of this anger and lose this feeling of emptiness. Perhaps ...
I love my country as much or more than most, but I hate what has been done to its own citizens in the name of "fighting for freedom." The burden for that fight falls disproportionately on the poor, for whom the military is a viable economic option. I don't consider any politicians currently holding office in my country to be equivalent to my country! I've come to cherish my Constitutional right to dispute my government's choices and still be a fervent patriot. If we can support our troops when we don't support the war, perhaps this nation is starting to grow up, a little. Now, we need to grow up even more and stop trying to export democracy by putting our sons and daughters in the line of fire without a better reason than to advance some political agenda.