THOSE LEFT BEHIND. A new book by Jack McCabe

A routine mission in Vietnam. Last flight of the day. Chinook 07999 with its crew of five picked up twenty passengers heading back to the rear. Some had finished their tour and were heading home. Others were going on R & R to see their wives. As luck would have it, an additional mission was assigned to them. They were to pick up some empty fuel blivets from navy river boats that had been refueling. A milk run. Easy peasy. But nothing was easy in Vietnam.

As they flew in the VC were waiting. Rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire impacted the ship bringing it down in a ball of fire. In the ensuing crash nine would eventually lose their life. Others horrifically burned. Their families back home had no idea when was happening thousands of miles away.

This is the story of the men involved in this crash, the wounded and the dead and the families they left behind.

The story doesn’t end with the crash, in many cases it is where it begins.

The wounded suffered a long recovery. The dead were brought home for burial. Loved ones dealt with the heartbreak and the sorrow of learning to live with loss. The life of everyone involved changed that day. We veterans of the Vietnam War never had the luxury of mourning our dead. We were forced to move on. But it never left us. For the families it lingered the rest of their lives. This is their story.

Email the author direct for a signed copy. $19.99, postage included.

Also available on Amazon

“I was criticized for going, but I stood my ground”

MSgt Arthur Roy Olson

37th Transportation Squadron, U.S. Air Force

My dad served in the Army during WWII. He was at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. One of my brothers joined the Air Force in the mid-1970s but didn’t last his whole enlistment. He couldn’t seem to get the hang of taking orders.

My dad spoke only briefly about WWII and what he went through. He did take me to see “The Longest Day” when I was a kid and expressed that the movie was very realistic. Other than that, he didn’t speak much about it.

I was drafted in 1966 and did not want to go into the Army because of what I perceived to be the lack of opportunity. I spoke to the local Air Force recruiter, and he asked me if I could leave the following week, and I said I was prepared to leave that day.

After basic, I was trained as a vehicle mechanic. I was very happy and relieved when I received my orders to Vietnam. At the time I was stationed in Grand Forks, ND, quite possibly the worst stateside assignment I could have had. I volunteered for Vietnam to get out of there. Not the best of motives but I assure you if I had stayed at Grand Forks, I would not have made the military a career.

In Vietnam I was assigned to the 37th Transportation Squadron at Phu Cat Air Base as a vehicle mechanic, serving there in 1967 and 1968. I spent most of my time there as a wrecker driver and emergency maintenance mechanic. This entailed retrieving inoperable and damaged vehicles from various locations around the base and in the local area. I usually worked at night, but any retrieval operation requiring a trip away from the base was always conducted during daylight hours. This is the very short version of my year in Vietnam.

Coming Home

My DEROS was on 5 August 1968, and I was on the edge waiting for the day. I spent time rehashing my year with the guys I was leaving behind. I felt for them because a change in supervision at my work center was making it miserable for all concerned. I had recently said goodbye to some close pals who left shortly before I did, and I already missed them. I gave a good bit of thought to being back in the states with my family and friends. Little did I know what awaited me. I just continued to think about what it was going to be like to take a hot shower, to be completely clean for the first time in a year, what it was going to be like to eat a meal that was edible, real milk, nothing canned.

I made the trip to Cam Ranh Bay and had about fourteen hours to kill before my Freedom Bird left. I ran into an old friend from a previous assignment who was stationed at Cam Ranh, and we spent quite some time reminiscing and swapping lies. A good time for both of us. Finally, the big jet was full, and I was on my way to McChord AFB. My stateside arrival was anticlimactic after all the counting of days left in Vietnam, all the “when I get home” stories and such. It wasn’t a letdown by any means, just a time to take a very deep breath and offer some thanks that I survived. Next up was arranging my flight to New York City and home.

I arrived at JFK two days after leaving McChord. Military travel in those days was via standby, and I was shuffled around a bit, hence the two-day trip from coast to coast. When I got off the plane at JFK, I was accompanied by an Army infantry officer whose mother and mine had known each other for years. We had a conversation on the plane and figured out our connection. He had a much rougher time during his tour than I did. We had both heard all the stories of returning vets being derided, insulted and even assaulted. We tossed off most of it as media hype but when we arrived in the terminal my companion was spit on, and we were definitely referred to as “baby killers.” I tried to ignore all of it since my parents were waiting. We had a brief reunion with the officer’s mother and then went our separate ways. The airport incident faded from memory pretty quickly, but it has come back to haunt me a bit over the years.

I spent a month at home renewing friendships, making new ones and just celebrating being back in civilization. A surprise was coming. While in school I hung around with a group that was not unlike myself, same values, same ethics. Most of them went on to college while I chose a different route, trade school, and a very good job. Of course, when I returned home, I sought them out. We had our reunions, and all and then I started to discover what their thoughts really were about the war. I was criticized for going, but I stood my ground and merely told them all that if they were not there, they really didn’t know what they were talking about. My parents threw me a backyard welcome home party and all of the detractors came, some even apologizing to me. Once I got to my next assignment, I put out a lot of things out of my mind. I still keep in touch with a few of my lifelong friends.


After the war, I decided to stay in the Air Force and made it a career. I had some very good assignments and jobs, not typical of someone in my career field, learned volumes not only about technical matters but also about the human condition. Economics had quite a bit to do with my decision to stay also. If I had not stayed, I would have just gone back home and stagnated rather than taken advantage of the broadening of my horizons.

I had no PTSD problems that I knew of, but family members and colleagues may have seen it differently, not sure. I do have some Agent Orange issues. I have a 20% disability from the VA, Diabetes Type II attributed to Agent Orange exposure.

I have not been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington but have seen the traveling version a time or two, and all I can think about is “What a colossal waste of life!”

Lessons learned (or not): Americans can learn volumes from Viet Nam vets. First of all, a great many of us are still alive and functioning and have come to terms with our Vietnam service. Others continue to be haunted by their memories. One thing to be learned from our years in Vietnam is to be extremely cautious of foreign entanglements. Judging by today’s events, we haven’t yet learned that lesson. Another lesson would be to be considerate of our military members. Now we have an all-volunteer military, so no member has been forced to join. At least, that’s the theory. During Vietnam, the draft was still in effect and many service members ended up in the middle of that conflict through no fault of their own. Many suffered, many died, and many are permanently disabled yet were vilified for their participation. We have learned to be more sympathetic to the military and its pitfalls and hardships, and I think that’s a great step in the right direction. Most Americans are proud of the military and support the job it does. There will always be dissenters, but that’s a good thing too. It keeps things in balance most of the time and causes us to think and discern. I see nothing wrong with dissent as long as you do it with pride and respect.

I’m glad I went, for no other reason than to be able to speak intelligently about the war. I’ve read many accounts, historical reports and books about our involvement in Vietnam and have several conclusions, most end with the opinion that our mixing in the affairs of the Vietnamese was a mistake. I am to this day proud I served over there.

In the forty-six years since I came home from Vietnam, I’ve done lots of soul searching, conducted research into the war’s causes and witnessed its aftermath, and have concluded that our involvement was a waste of resources, especially our most precious one, the lives of our military members. We are now embroiled in multiple actions in the Middle East, all of which have the potential to end badly for us. We have not learned from our past mistakes and probably never will.

Roy Olson committed Suicide On 24 January 2016. I received the following from his wife to be added to his story.

Diana’s story. (Roy’s wife,)

When I met Roy, I knew he was a Vietnam Vet. Little did I realize, until much later in our relationship, how the year that he was in Vietnam had such a deep impact on him.

His two previous marriages ended and as he talked and shared his life, the more I realized just how much his emotions were shut down, as he was told, just get on with your life.

He buried his emotions very well from those around him and then along came, Diana.

I had attended a yearly event here in Tucson, The Nam Jam, a gathering of Vets, music and sharing of their stories and a lot of healing.

I asked Roy to go with me. He was extremely resistant but agreed to go and his friend Ralph, from the Air Force, whom he had known for many years, joined us.

What a breakthrough. It was then that I saw how deeply he was affected. What a great day and a new beginning, or so I thought.

I found out from Ralph the severe flash backs that Roy had and only recently did he go into detail of how he helped him through those tough times.

During our time together, Roy would quite often, scream out in the night. There were times he would retreat into what I called “his cave”, as though he were in a coma. Shutting me and the world out.

He opened up to me more in the past 11 of our 18 years together and those times didn’t occur often.

One of the more intense issues that troubled him in the past few years was the lack of consideration from the VA for the Vietnam vets.

We are a military town here in Tucson and the attention given to recently retired Vets applying for disability far surpasses those of the Vietnam era. (Maybe hoping they would just disappear) I am very proud to be a military wife and have total understanding of military service.

We had a great life together and many happy times, but I never saw it coming the day he snapped.

January 24, 2016, he ended his life.

Who can ever know the mind of another?

With all my Love

 In memory of

 Arthur “Roy” Olson


Home for Christmas

In July 1971 I had been in Vietnam for nine months and had requested to extend my tour for another six. My hope was for an early out when my tour was up. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the Army. I was just ready to move on.  I did not know it at the time, but things wouldn’t work out that way.

One of the benefits about extending was a free 30-day leave.  With careful planning using my finely honed math skills I figured I could be home for Christmas. But the Army had other ideas. It seems I could only delay my leave for a month past my normal DEROS which was on October 22nd. That would leave me short a couple days. 

I would be 19 when I left for my leave and would turn 20 while at home. I decided to try a fast one. I walked over to battalion headquarters and asked to see the personnel sergeant. I explained to him that I lost my I.D. card and needed another for my leave. He took my photo and started to type a new card when I subtly asked him to change my birth date one year to 1950 so I could buy a drink when home. He looked at me for a moment and then said, “Nice try.” At least I had a new photo on my I.D. I destroyed the old card.

My orders finally came through on 19 October with the leave to begin on 21 November and reporting to Ft. Dix for my return to Vietnam on December 21st. December 21st? Four days before Christmas? You must be kidding me. I sat on my bunk dismayed that I was slated to return to Vietnam just four days before Christmas. What the hell was I thinking when I extended?

On Friday, the 19th of November I was driven to Long Binh by one of our Staff Sergeants, I cannot recall his name, but I remember him as being in a perpetually crabby mood. The trip was uneventful and, there was not a lot of conversation. It was a typical sunny day, hot and dry. We passed through small villages and rice paddies in complete silence. Finally, I was unceremoniously dropped off at the 90th Replacement Bn. for my trip home. No “good luck” or “have fun on leave.” He just stopped the jeep and sat there while I grabbed my gear and jumped out. I wasn’t out of that jeep for 5 seconds before he sped off in a cloud of dust. “Asshole” I quietly said.

I processed through and was assigned a barracks to wait for my flight. But first I had to visit the Pee House of the August Moon. This was where I would have to submit a urine sample to check my system for drugs. This was the final humiliation the Army put you through before you went home. I entered the room to get my sample and was surprised to find about five or six urinals surrounded by mirrors. A very miserable soldier was sitting on an elevated perch watching you take out your johnson and fill the container with pee.

My bladder doesn’t like to work when I am being closely watched to make sure I don’t fill my jar from a hidden container with someone else’s drug-free urine. Of course, I couldn’t give the sample. I was instructed by the pervert on the perch to go have a beer and try again. Well after three or four beers my bladder was ready to explode. I went back in and tried again. I strained and squeezed and moaned. It was a long time coming but I did fill the cup. Proud of myself I took it into the next room to be tested. I handed it to the sergeant who held it up and examined it like he was checking the quality of a diamond. “Too light” he said. “What? What? What do you mean too light?” “It’s too light, you need to do it over.” “Come on sarge, you have to be shitting me!” “Nope, has to be darker for an accurate test. Go get a burger and beer and try again. You can’t go home until you pass this test.”

Two burgers and three or four more beers later I staggered back in to see if I could get a better sample. The pee perv was still there on his perch staring at everyone’s penis as they peed. I wonder to this day what he told his family he did in the war. This time I was able to get an acceptable sample. I found my barracks and passed out.

There was excitement in the air early on Sunday, the 21st. Buses had pulled up in front of the barracks and we all eagerly boarded them for the short ride to Tan Son Nhut and the flight back to the World. Typical of the Army or maybe Air Force for that matter we sat around on those unforgettable blue chairs for several hours waiting. It took me ten minutes to smoke a cigarette and ten minutes until the next one marked the time. Finally, it came my time board the beautiful Flying Tiger Airline for the flight out of here.  Once again, I asked myself why the hell I extended.

Beautiful round-eyed stewardesses greeted us as we boarded the plane. God they were beautiful! At last we all belted in and we began to taxi toward our runway. We all sat silently in anticipation for our departure. Then, we began to speed down the runway and soon we were in the air looking down at Vietnam. Sun glistening off the rice paddies below, lush green jungle then the blue waters of the South China Sea. There was no cheering as we left. It was dead quiet as if it was a dream. Then, slowly quiet chatter filled the plane.

It was a long flight, but it seemed to fly by. We stopped at Yakota, Japan and Anchorage, Alaska for fuel then on to Travis Air Force Base. After countless hours in the air we touched down and gathered our gear to deplane. As the door opened a blast of cold 55-degree air hit us! Fortunately, I had brought my field jacked and threw it on over my khaki’s. I froze my ass off! We were herded on to waiting buses for the ride to Oakland. As our buses arrived at Oakland, we were met by protestors carrying signs calling us baby killers, murderers, and various other niceties.  It wasn’t a shock as we were familiar with the protests back home, but it was very disconcerting and unsettling. WTF?

When my dad came through Oakland at the end of World War Two, he was given a steak dinner and a beer. I never was offered that, but I was offered a new set of dress greens. In my rush to get home I passed on that, processed, and caught a bus to San Francisco airport for the flight home. I figured that when I came home the final time, I would get new greens but that didn’t work out either.

I called home, told my folks I was on the way and caught a flight to Chicago. The plane had a lounge in the rear. An actual bar. Holy crap, I was still 19 but they served me whatever I wanted. I sat back, sipped my scotch and relaxed, kind of in a daze that all of this happened too fast, still jet lagged and over- tired. It was confusing and disorienting. I was approached by two men, one white and one black who asked me if I was coming home from Vietnam. I guess the tan and ribbons gave me away.  I told them that yes, I was coming home. They never asked me about what was happening there but tried to drag me into a conversation about race relations in Vietnam.  I avoided their questions and had a few more scotches.

We landed at about 10:00PM. The night was clear and as we approached the city, I could see the lights of small towns dotting the landscape. We came in over the western suburbs and then there was the city! The sight took my breath away. The lights were spectacular. It looked like magic to me. I could see the clearly laid out grid of Chicago streets. It was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen.

I left the plane and entered the terminal. There was my brother, mom, and dad. I do not remember a lot of hugging. We did not show a lot of affection in my family. Handshakes and a brief hug from my mom. We went out to the car for the short ride home. It was cold as hell. Snow everywhere. I was freezing! It was all so alien. So many cars, snow, and lights. I was beside myself. Tired, confused and feeling out of place.

I could not sleep for a couple days. My timing and the shock of change were too much for me, I guess. But I was home for Thanksgiving and that was spent at my grandmothers which was our family tradition. It was good to see everyone and they seemed happy to see me. I never wore the uniform when home and no one ever asked me about Vietnam. It was like it never happened and I had just been out of town a couple weeks.

I reconnected with my old high school friends who had sporadically written to me over the last year. My most fond memory of that is of a buddy’s mother whose husband had served in the Marines during World War Two. We were sitting at her kitchen table and she took my hands in hers. She looked me in the eyes and sincerely asked me “Are you OK, Jack?”  I told her I was fine. God bless her.

But the connection with my high school friends was gone. I was never comfortable with them. They were just like they were in high school. Nothing changed. No one and I mean no one ever asked me about Vietnam.

My sister, Judy was engaged to be married and decided to delay the wedding until I came home. The big day was on the 11th of December. It was a cool, crisp, clear day, perfect for a wedding. Her husband Tom was a great guy, and they would spend 30 wonderful years together until her death in 2002.

Christmas with the family was great but I was getting restless. I was already a couple days AWOL but that wasn’t it.  I knew my time at home was short and I felt ready to go back. Go back to my buddies. It was time for me to move on.

On December 26th, my dad drove me to the airport for the flight to Ft. Dix, New Jersey and then back to Vietnam. Fort Dix?  Why in the hell would they send me to Fort Dix for transport back to Vietnam? Flying from Dix to Anchorage we probably flew right over Chicago and Ft Lewis! I guess the Army, in its infinite wisdom thought that was best.

As I flew east to New Jersey I looked out the window at the frozen snow-covered terrain below knowing how drastically the scene would change in a few short days. Both had their own beauty but 180 degrees different. The thought of going back was both depressing and exhilarating.

Upon my arrival I caught a bus to Ft. Dix and the in-processing center for movement overseas. There were very few people there, probably because of the Christmas holiday. I proceeded to the Captain in charge to check in. He looked at my orders and said, “You’re AWOL son.”  I looked him square in the eye and said “So, what are you going to do, Captain? Send me to Vietnam?”

The Captain sat back in his chair with a sigh studying me. “You have an attitude problem, soldier.”  “Captain” I said, “I spent last Christmas in Vietnam and I am going back. There is no way I was going back four days before Christmas.”

He continued to silently study me and then he slowly picked up my orders and read them again. He reached across the desk and picked up his stamp to check me in. He looked up and gave me one long look then changed the date on the stamp to December 21st. He stamped my orders and said “I spent a Christmas over there too. Your flight leaves here on January 1st. You better be on it.”  “Yes sir, Captain” I said. I smartly saluted him then left his office, grabbed a cab, went back to the airport, and flew home. It was like a reprieve or a stay of execution. I don’t know which.

New Year’s Eve was spent on an airplane flying back to Fort Dix. At midnight, the pilot came over the intercom and wished us a Happy New Year! A cheer went up throughout the plane. 1972. What would the year hold? Who knows? Fate would direct it where it would.

As I was getting ready to board the flight back to beautiful Phu Loi I happened to see the Captain. I walked over to him, saluted, and told him “Thank you, sir.” He returned my salute and held out his hand. We shook hands and he simply said: “Good luck.”

As the plane full of GI’s made its way across the country and then the Pacific I thought about Christmas and the next five months I would spend in Vietnam.

We landed at Tan Son Nhut and all the new guys nervously queued up to leave the plane. I found it amusing, having been in there shoes back in 1970. It may sound weird but I felt glad to be back.

I slowly walked down the stairs to the tarmac taking it all in. The heat, familiar smells and sound of helicopters hovering and flying overhead. I stopped, closed my eyes and felt “I am home.”

by Jack McCabe

The Zippo Lighter: An Icon Of The Vietnam War

After an American M1 combat helmet with an ace of spades tucked into the strap, probably the next most iconic cultural image associated with the Vietnam War is a Zippo lighter engraved with a tragic, humorous, aggressive, patriotic, or rebellious slogan.

Many such engraved Zippos have survived the war’s end and often trade hands between collectors for large sums of money. The images and slogans engraved onto these instantly recognizable lighters can give one a poignant look inside the minds and lives of the young men who served, fought, and died so far from home.

Zippo lighters have a long history of being associated with the American military. When America entered the Second World War after Pearl Harbor, the Zippo company stopped selling their lighters to the consumer market and instead dedicated the entirety of their lighter production to the United States military.

The Zippo method of manufacture was also affected by the United States’ entry into WWII. Because of the need to divert raw materials to wartime production of armaments, Zippo lighters manufactured for US military personnel during the war were made with steel covered with a black crackle finish.

However, Zippo lighters attained a uniquely iconic status among US troops during the Vietnam War.

These lighters were carried by almost every American serviceman involved in the conflict, and it was during this time that some of the most interesting and sometimes sentimental customizations of these lighters emerged. Many of the slogans and images emblazoned on them have themselves become quintessential images of the war.

Many of the slogans reflect the views of career servicemen, who had already been serving in the military prior to the conflict and would continue to do so after it ended. They were men who were proud to serve and believed strongly in the cause they were fighting for.

For such servicemen, slogans were kept to a minimum; if they got their Zippo lighters engraved, it would usually be with their unit’s name, badge, or motto, or else something patriotic.

These engraved Zippo lighters from the Vietnam War have become such popular collectors’ items that a number of books have been written about them. A booming market in fake Zippos purporting to be genuine items used by US servicemen exploded in Vietnam in the decades following the war.

On my honor, I will do my best…to do my duty …to God and my country….

Captain Willis

Going home
On March 17, 1967, after 642 missions, I closed out my combat flight log. With only 10 short days remaining on a 13-month tour—“12 and 20,” as it was known throughout the ranks—it was understood that a soldier wasn’t as likely to make his best decisions, so they cut him some slack and sent him to the rear where he wouldn’t hurt anybody. Relegated to the role of wizened warrior, I wasn’t expected to do any more “heavy lifting,” and at last, I could start thinking seriously about going home.

You may remember the VMO-2 ball cap that Tom Selleck wore in Magnum PI. VMO-2 was my Marine Observation Squadron at Marble Mountain, four miles east of Da Nang, where I piloted my first combat mission on March 1, 1966. Our small band of rookie Huey drivers, operating so close to North Vietnam, found itself on the bleeding edge of a war unlike any other in history. This was a helicopter war where we shuttled grunts directly into live action practically on an hourly basis.

I knew I would never experience another bond like the one I shared with these men…

Most of the young pilots in my squadron were completely naive about death and combat when they were sent to Vietnam, and they certainly had no desire to kill anyone, which made the sheer volume of medevacs we witnessed even more heartbreaking. Some of us, especially medevac pilots, who were exposed to live combat nearly every day, almost expected not to make it out alive. It seemed arrogant to think that you would return home to lead a normal life when so many good people, some of them your friends, did not. Sleepless nights dogged by thoughts of bullets ripping through various parts of my body had kept me “entertained” for over a year. But I had somehow managed to dodge those bullets in the real world and could return home.

My orders home were slow to come in, so I spent a couple of weeks in a lonely twilight zone. The young lieutenants who were in my hooch when I moved in had one by one rotated home. Charlie Plunkett, Steve Waltrip and Poop Ashbaugh, who had entertained me with their antics for months, became quiet and reclusive during their end days. Together, we had experienced a coming of age in that little hooch on the South China Sea.

One night when our poker game was interrupted by a mortar attack, we sat in a dark bunker, trying to guess where the mortars were landing. When Waltrip courageously suggested that we put on flight suits and run down to the flight line to evacuate the Hueys, it only took a few seconds to conclude we weren’t doing that, not in a million years. We had all acquired leather holsters and were wearing nothing but our dyed-green underwear with our pistols on our hips like half-naked cowboys, wondering if it might come down to hand-to-hand combat. I knew I would never experience another bond like the one I shared with these men, the same way I knew I would never see them again when all this was over.

Each of my hoochmates entered into his own private transition for going home, though they prepared themselves in a similar fashion—writing home, reflecting and talking quietly with each other. There was no fanfare for their departure, nor did they want any. They just sort of dissolved. One day their duffel bags sat on the floor, the next day they were gone. New officers took their places and rearranged their spaces to suit themselves.

One of them, a senior captain named Jack Owens, asked to be put into a hooch with a “seasoned pilot,” and they put him in Waltrip’s old spot, next to me. He snored so loudly that we accused him of blistering the plywood on the ceiling. There was an unwritten rule that experience trumped rank, and one night Owens sat at the end of my cot and told me that I was one of the most respected pilots in the squadron. After that, I told him everything I knew about flying into hot zones and how to protect himself with common sense. Each pilot had to develop his own version of survival. Mine was to fly as often as possible and to not waste a bit of time, effort, energy, fuel, words, ammo or emotion.

Owens was an all-American guy and a good pilot. He reminded me of one of my best childhood friends who was killed by a drunk driver when he was 14—the first time I’d experienced the death of a close friend. I had felt overwhelming sorrow for my friend and for his grieving dad, who could barely stand at the funeral, but also for the poor fellow who hit him. That’s when I decided that no matter how complicated life is, death should be the easiest part. A couple of years after that, when I lost another teenage friend in a train accident, I felt I was being sent a message that I should prepare myself with a special set of survival skills.

One night, Owens asked me if I had a relationship with Jesus Christ and if I had ever accepted him as my personal savior. I told him that I had screamed his name a few times on some of my missions. He chuckled uncomfortably, but I could tell he had a lot on his mind. I told him I was a Christian, if that’s what he meant. I think he just wanted to know where my calmness came from.

Seeing these new guys like Jack Owens come into the squadron just as I was preparing to leave robbed me of some of the excitement of going home. They were experienced pilots, but green to combat, and there was too much for them to process without practical advice and mentoring. In my early days in Vietnam, I flew copilot with some people who would spend 10 or 15 minutes circling the landing zone like a buzzard. Then they would make a conventional, into-the-wind approach, as though they were on a training hop. We learned to refine this “sitting duck” approach, and as I told Owens, “I don’t think it matters which way you approach, as long as you turn into the wind and have everything under control at the last second. The point is, don’t telegraph your plan. It’s like the old joke about never calling your wife from a bar. You’ll be yelled at on the phone and ambushed again when you come home. Sneak in with your shoes off.”

I also shared with Owens how important it was on a medevac mission to never look back, and told him about a wounded Marine, in shock, who jumped off his stretcher with no legs. The bones in his stumps stuck in the dirt as he hung helplessly by his elbows while his two terrified stretcher-bearers scrambled to help him back on the stretcher. The last thing I saw out of the corner of my eye, and the image I will never forget, was the red cloud of dirt and dust that our Huey stirred up around them as we lifted off the hospital pad. Jesus Christ!

When my orders to go home finally arrived, I visited the VMO-2 squadron line shack, where the crew chiefs and corpsmen hung out, and made my goodbyes, thanking everyone and shaking hands. Then they cranked up the medevac slick for our short ride to Da Nang. A few of us who had come over to Vietnam together sat in the back of the Huey on a stretcher that was stained brown with dried blood.

In Da Nang, we could see the long white Pan Am 707 waiting to take us home, but none of this seemed to be sinking in. It felt as if my mind were on a dimmer switch set to its lowest setting. Major Bob Plamondon and Captain Harold “Gus” Plum, on the other hand, were practically giddy with anticipation, taking snapshots with a new Polaroid camera and peeling off the developed pictures instantly. Amazing!

Dr. Curtis Richard “Doc” Baker, our flight surgeon, had given me a couple of pills so I could sleep on the plane. A stop in Okinawa would add an extra day to our 10,000-mile journey. Once we were inside the aircraft and the stewardess closed the door, it finally hit me that I would not be coming back to Marble Mountain. Images of my hooch entertained me for a few minutes: the “patio” deck made of wooden pallets where we shared so many stories and warm beers; our poor little fake Christmas tree still sitting there in March flocked in red dirt and sand; and the squadron’s adopted pet monkey, Justin Case, whose lack of house training epitomized the chaos that surrounded us.

When the pilot taxied for takeoff, my thoughts began cascading irrationally; rather than feeling relieved to be going home, apprehension and guilt began to chew my insides. My mind played tricks on me. Was this part of a cruel joke, and everybody on the plane was going to die in a spectacular crash? Time stood so still that I tapped on my watch to wake up the sweep hand. I leaned forward in my seat, unwilling to become too attached to it. As on my medevac missions, I needed to focus in front of me and not look back.

An Army officer sitting next to me was reading Senator William Fulbright’s new book, The Arrogance of Power, in which Fulbright strongly criticized the war. His book attacked the justification of it, as well as Congress’ failure to set limits on it. I read along with him for a while as he turned the pages. Fulbright blamed our involvement on Cold War geopolitics, claiming that the United States is cursed with a Puritan spirit that leads us to look at the world through a distorted prism of angry moralism. According to the senator, we have a glorified image of our nation, believing that it’s our duty to do God’s work. It made me wonder if the people who create wars actually know why we fight them.

The nagging premonition of tragedy would not leave me alone. I could feel Doc Baker’s two sleeping pills lying loose in my left front pocket, but I’d waited too long to take them. I felt like a feral cat that had been forced into a strange domestic environment, hovering on the edge of anxiety. When we finally landed in Okinawa, I spent the rest of the day standing in line, being processed. After dinner that night, Major Plamondon brought me some very bad news.

Just hours after saying farewell that morning at Marble Mountain, my former hoochmate, Jack Owens, was killed on a routine recon mission out of Dong Ha. His plane was riddled with heavy-caliber and small-arms fire, and he was killed instantly. Doc Baker also perished in the crash, along with a 22-year-old door gunner, Corporal Paul Albano, and a 19-year-old crew chief, George Stevenson, both of whom I visited in the line shack before leaving. This horrific incident had coincided with my irrational anxiety attack on the plane. Doc Baker died before I could swallow his sleeping pills. I felt an urgent need to keep pressing on toward home.

By the time we boarded our flight to San Francisco the next morning, I began to feel as if my entire tour had been nothing more than a dream, similar to a long novel, and it would be up to me to write the ending. As soon as the stewardess handed me a Coke, I swallowed one of Doc Baker’s pills. As I struggled to relax, those images of bullets ripping through various parts of my body paid me another short visit. It’s simply not possible to process the weight of everything that a war can throw at you.

When the second pill didn’t calm me down, I began to suspect that Doc had actually given me amphetamines as a practical joke, but by the time we landed in San Francisco, I was so subdued that I barely remember the walk to the terminal. I said goodbye to Gus Plum and promised to stay in touch—a promise I couldn’t keep. Plum would be dead two weeks later when the helicopter he was riding on crashed into a mountain during an orientation flight at El Toro Marine Base, killing everyone on board.

I still had another long flight to Tennessee ahead of me. In the terminal, the shapely legs of women clicking their high heels as they walked past perked up my spirits. A man came over to shake my hand and thank me for my service, something I wasn’t expecting from reading the newspapers. I ordered a beer and watched the frost melt on the bottle; the bartender wouldn’t take my money.

Somewhere between the Golden Gate Bridge and the St. Louis Arch, my brain fog lifted. I stared out the window like a child on his first airplane ride. The closer we came to my home state of Tennessee, the more I began to realize I just might be out of the woods. It dawned on me that people wouldn’t be shooting at me anymore, and whatever challenges might be thrown my way, instant death wasn’t a likely outcome of a wrong decision. I promised myself that I would never worry about anything else because the worst was surely behind me.

I pondered how my experiences had changed me, knowing that I wasn’t the same person who left 13 months ago. That guy was never coming home. I’d picked up a few idiosyncrasies I’d have to work through. I could no longer tolerate whining and selfish behavior. And I seemed to have developed a hyper-awareness of everything around me. In my peripheral vision, I could see the stewardess with her cherry-red fingernail polish. “Sir, I need you to put your seat forward,” she said, every word carefully crafted from her corporate training. Her beverage smile was gone now as she collected empty cups and checked passengers for loose seat belts.

Through the open cockpit door, I could see the pilots going through prelanding procedures and talking to the air traffic controller. Books and magazines were being stowed. Several reading lights remained on. A sergeant coming back from the lavatory pulled on the back of my seat as he went by. He had a window seat in row 16. The men at the windows were staring intently down to earth. Those on the aisle looked straight ahead, watching the pilots. The seat belt light came on, accompanied by three soft tones.

I dug out my ballpoint pen to see if I could remember the oath I’d recited as a 12-year-old Tenderfoot Scout. On my honor, I will do my best…to do my duty …to God and my country….

I had no idea what would be waiting for me in the world that I left behind so many lives ago, but those simple words seemed to be as good a place as any to start my life over again. I knew that this landing would not mean the end of Vietnam for me. This war would never end. But my seat belt and tray table were once more in the full upright and locked position, and I was ready for landing.

(I spoke with Mr Willis some time ago, 2018 perhaps? This story was lost in the shuffle on my computer. I lost all contact info including his first name. If you see this Mr Willis please contact me at

“My wartime experiences have changed me. I don’t laugh as much or the same way I did before Vietnam.”

SW2 Mark Reed
Naval Support Activity, Da Nang, U.S. Navy

I joined the Navy in 1967 for several reasons. First of all, I felt that it was my duty to serve my country. Second, I was disturbed by the draft dodgers and the civil unrest around the war.

Finally, I was trying to work my way through college with no support from home. To avoid the draft I had to be a full-time student. To pay for the expenses of being a full-time student, I had to work a full-time job – not an easy undertaking for a 17/18-year-old. Life at home was not good due to the issues my father was dealing with. So I made the decision to volunteer and get Vietnam “behind me.”

I became a Steelworker and Electrician with the Navy Seabees. I was told that if I signed up for the Seabees that it was a “ticket to Vietnam.” I then asked: “Where do I sign?”

I was assigned to Naval Support Activities and was in a small group of Seabees, who were assigned to the First Marine Division. Our unit was based at Hill 327 in Quang Nam Province west of Da Nang. We worked on job assignments in a large geographic area, often in small groups in remote locations. My unit maintained the roads, bridges, power lines, and bases for the Marines in I Corps.

We were classified as a “combat” unit and were divided into eight-man fire squads. I was the automatic rifleman on my eight-man fire squad. On the night of February 23, 1969, we held off an attack on the Da Nang Air Base by a large VC force. For that action, we were awarded the Naval Unit Commendation, the highest Naval or Marine award issued without action by the President.

I served until 1970. I was in Vietnam from November 3, 1968, through November 7, 1969. I was 19 years old when I got my orders to go to Vietnam.

Coming Home
About six months into my year in Vietnam I started losing hope that I would make it out alive. With each day, I became more certain that I wouldn’t survive the year. My year (369 days) went by (so slowly!), and on the day, before I was to leave, I hitched a ride headed to Camp Tien Sha on the east side of Da Nang where I was to be processed out. I felt sorry for the other guys in the truck with me – they would probably die in that truck with me – I was certain that I wouldn’t make it home alive. But we made it to Tien Sha without getting ambushed. So at that point, I was convinced that, after spending most of a year out in the field, I would be killed in a mortar attack on Camp Tien Sha.

The day of my departure finally came, and all of the guys who were leaving that day were loaded onto a bus bound for the Da Nang airbase. Well, I was now convinced that it would be on that bus that I would die. On the short ride to the airport, all I could think about was how many of the other guys on the bus would die with me. But we made it to the airport and onto the plane without incident. Oh no! I’m going to die in a plane crash! We landed in Juno Alaska to refuel. Everyone had to get off the plane during the refueling. We had to walk outside to the terminal building. It was November 1969 in Alaska and I had just come from 369 days in tropical Vietnam with no AC or ice. Yikes! I’m going to freeze to death!! But I made it to the terminal building without freezing.

The next leg of the flight took us to Norton Air Force base. When I stepped off that plane and smelled the California air, it suddenly occurred to me – I’m home! It was suggested that we change into civilian clothes before leaving Norton to avoid being a target of anti-war protestors. My trip home was a mixture of deep sadness, worry, and joy. I had lost several friends and had witnessed many “men” (today they seem like kids) who didn’t make it back. I was worried about my friends who I left behind – especially my partner that I worked with the most. I was still on edge because my premonitions of death hadn’t gone away yet. But all I was thinking about was getting to see my “girl.”

During that long flight back, when we made our refueling stops, I avoided making eye contact with the guys in the terminals who were going the other way. The vending machines were a big-time treat! That first COLD Coke was like a treat sent from Heaven.

One of the guys on my flight had a friend meeting him at Norton AFB. He offered me a ride to the airport where I caught a flight to Cincinnati. When we left Norton Air Force Base, there was a demonstration going on outside the base, but I ignored it. When we arrived at the airport in Los Angeles, I headed straight for the food! (Known at the time as “stateside chow.”)

My girlfriend who had written to me every day was there to meet me. I didn’t feel like I was going to make it home until I hugged my girlfriend (now my wife) at the airport in Cincinnati. Above everything, I was looking forward to getting on with my life. We were married six months later. Shortly after we got married I was discharged and got a good job at Air Products and Chemicals – they gave hiring preference to Vietnam veterans!!! I never forgot their treatment of Vietnam veterans and gave them my best for 34 years. I’m now retired, enjoying life with my wife of 45 years and counting, have two beautiful daughters and five amazing grandchildren (and two great sons-in-law).

When I arrived home there was a large group of family and friends there to meet me. They had put a large “Welcome Home” banner on the garage door. My mother was completely overcome with emotion when she first saw me, and she had prepared my favorite meal which I don’t remember sharing with anyone.

My dad, brother, future father-in-law, and my girlfriend wanted to show me the new school that had been built in my town while I was gone. My dad was letting me use an old “beater” car while I was there and suggested I drive. So off we went with me at the wheel! I dodged everything on the road that might have been a mine, and I was scanning the sides of the road looking for any signs of an ambush. All of this was automatic – I wasn’t even aware that I was doing it. I felt like I was going really fast, but when my brother mentioned my speed, I checked and saw that I was going 25 mph. The speed limit was 60 mph! My future father-in-law, himself being a careful driver and knowing that I would be taking his daughter out, became an instant fan.

On my first morning at home, my high-school-age brother wanted to show me how strong he had gotten (and show off to his friends). He put a bunch of weights on a barbell and curled it. I told him that that was good, then curled the same weight with one hand. (Seabees Can Do!)

It was never the same with my family. I felt like an outsider. I didn’t want to discuss the war, and I avoided the topic.

When I was discharged and started working my civilian job, I felt like I had some catching up to do. I also had an attitude – maybe even a grudge against anyone of military age who hadn’t served their country. I was then and still am convinced that the anti-war protestors and the “bystanders” who tolerated the protests cost the lives of thousands of young American troops and Vietnamese troops and civilians and shamed our nation. So when I went to work rubbing shoulders with them (those who hadn’t served their country), I pushed myself to be the best at everything I did. I quickly rose to the top. Seven years after I started working, I was a plant manager, and eventually became a regional operations manager with responsibility for all of my division’s plants east of the Mississippi.

I also went on to earn four degrees, maintaining a 4.0 GPA in all my classes. I was on the Dean’s List every semester. I did this while putting my whole heart and all my energy into my job and into my family life.

In 1975 when Saigon fell I was fully engaged in my job, in school, and in starting my young family. It was no surprise to me when it happened. The sad part (besides the slaughter of the innocent Vietnamese by the brutal North Vietnamese leaders) was the statements that came out of the new government about doing away with the prostitution that had grown out of the U.S. presence. I was very much ashamed of how our military leadership had allowed that to happen.

I had nightmares for about five years after I left Vietnam. I frequently made my wife nervous during the night when I would start speaking Vietnamese in my sleep, saying things like: “hide, there over there.” Several times I was on my feet – while asleep – and even grabbed her and pinned her hands a few times. The nightmares gradually faded after about five years; however, I still can’t sleep soundly or for more than a few hours. The slightest thing “worries” me and keeps me up at night.

When I first started working, I worked rotating shifts. When I worked the night shift, my wife would wake me in the afternoon. Almost every time, I woke up at the sound of the doorknob turning.

After I got into management, I would frequently get phone calls in the middle of the night. Never once did the phone ring more than one time. It became a talking point among the guys at my plants.

Also at work, I never developed close friendships. My company policy was not to promote guys into management at the same plant where they had worked as an hourly employee. My first management assignment was at the plant where I had started and worked my entire career up to that point. My promotion was a rare exception to long-standing company policy against promoting from within a plant.

I didn’t know that help was available and didn’t think that anyone could help me.

Every two or three months (at first) after returning home I would get painful red blisters (the size of a pinhead) that completely covered the palms of both hands. The blisters would last for several days. Each time, when the blisters went away, the entire layer of skin would peel off the palms of both hands. It was painful and embarrassing. I tried all kinds of lotions and ointments – nothing helped. I suspected that it was caused by Agent Orange exposure. Seabees were heavily exposed to Agent Orange. I still remember the planes flying over us with the spray coming down on us. I welcomed it at the time because I knew that it would kill the brush that the enemy was hiding in. I didn’t seek help for the skin condition because I didn’t know that help was available.

Today I suffer from ischemic heart disease. I had a major heart attack in 2011, going into full cardiac arrest. I had some damage to my heart and had three ribs broken from the CPR (that didn’t revive me – it took the paddles to get me going again).

I also had cancer of the bladder and may have prostate cancer (will most likely be going in for biopsies soon).

It’s disturbing to me that I was never warned by the VA that I may be susceptible to cancer and heart disease due to my exposure to Agent Orange. The same government that fined General Motors over $1 billion for not reporting a safety problem with an ignition switch has not been pro-active at warning Vietnam Veterans about the dangers they faced due to exposure to Agent Orange.

I also suffer hearing damage from noise exposure in Vietnam. I was an automatic rifleman in my fire squad. I very frequently fired an M60 machine gun. I was never provided with hearing protection. When I asked, I was told to stick cigarette filters in my ears. When I came home from Vietnam, my ears were ringing, and they have never stopped.

My wartime experiences have changed me. On the negative side: I don’t laugh as much or the same way I did before Vietnam. I don’t have close friends (except for my wife). I don’t sleep well at night – never soundly, and never for more than a few hours at a time. I worry a lot about bad things happening to my wife, my children, and my grandchildren. I try to avoid thinking about bad things happening to them, but when I do, it’s painful. I never truly relax. I’m surprised that I’ve lived to the age of 66, but don’t expect to live many more years. I’m a Christian, and I actually look forward to my death when I’ll finally be at peace and with my Lord and Savior, Jesus.

On the positive side: My attitude about catching up, and my desire to out-do all those protesters and those who didn’t stand up for my country caused me to become a big-time over-achiever. I try to keep my mind occupied and keep myself busy. This resulted in my earning four degrees and moving up in my career. For a guy coming from a messed-up dysfunctional family, I did well in my career, surpassing guys who were served life on a silver platter. Even today, even though I’m retired, I’m keeping my mind engaged, constantly learning new things. I have more hobbies that a room full of guys my age. In addition to my hobbies, I’m the media coordinator and a deacon at my church. My wife and I go on dates almost every day.

Looking back, I’m convinced that the war in Vietnam should have ended by 1968 and all those lives – the Americans, our allies, and the Vietnamese – would have been spared if our nation had been unified and had supported our troops. I’m still saddened about the slaughter of tens of thousands of Vietnamese after the North took over.

I still get that lump in my throat when I think about those who didn’t make it back.

“Over there, we felt that we were doing something important, and then, all of a sudden it was over. Coming home – we all wanted to go, but we didn’t want to leave.”

Specialist 5 James F. Dugan
178th Repl Co, 90th Repl. Bn, USARV

I first heard of Vietnam at the age of 8 in 1954. It was still known as French Indo-China to the world at the time and Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces, the Viet-Minh, had just successfully defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. What sparked my interest was it was reported that French Foreign Legionnaires had been defeated by guerilla forces. To my mind at the time, I pictured guerilla as ‘gorilla’ and being led away by large hairy apes. The innocence of an uninformed 8-year-old!

According to the law, I had registered with Selective Service a week after my 18th birthday in February of 1964. I was a senior in high school at the time and knew there was no chance of being drafted. I was ordered to have a Selective Service classification physical in August of 1964, two months after high graduation but I still felt no danger of being called because I had registered with a radio school and would be attending it in September. I had to recertify my attendance in school every year to keep my deferment intact. I had started a career in radio broadcasting and, although news of the war was there all the time, I still felt no danger from the draft.

In August of 1967, I had finished school, and was ordered to take a second Selective Service physical. This time, I was classified as 1-A, fit for induction into military service. Three weeks later, I received my letter ordering me to report for induction. I was 21 now and had avoided it since the age of 18.

I reported for induction into the Army on September 26, 1967, at Newark, N.J. From there we were bussed to Ft. Dix where I took my basic combat training and advanced training. I was no longer James F. Dugan or Jim Dugan; I was RA 11761655, Private, U.S. Army.

I ended up assigned as a company training clerk with the Medical Company at Walson Army Hospital. In April of 1969, I was assigned to temporary duty (TDY) for that summer at Camp A.P. Hill in the woods of Virginia south of Richmond. Two weeks after arriving there, my company at Ft. Dix sent word that the new overseas levy had come down, and I was on it for assignment to Vietnam and that I should report back to the company the following Monday morning. My First Sergeant directed me where to report for Vietnam orientation training which lasted one week, and then I bid goodbye to Ft. Dix for a 30 day leave with orders to report to Oakland Overseas Replacement Station, California for further assignment in Vietnam.

I spent two days at Oakland and finally on the afternoon of the 3rd day my name was called to make ready for shipping out to Travis Air Force Base that night for my flight to Vietnam.

We arrived over Vietnam airspace in daylight. The TWA pilot told us to watch for certain sights as we flew over them, Cam Ranh Bay, Nha Trang and finally our destination, Bien Hoa. We arrived at Bien Hoa near 10 AM and as we came down out of the clouds, we discovered that there was a driving monsoon rain falling. I remember a soldier who was coming for his second tour in the jolly green jungle saying, “Get used to those sudden monsoons. That’s all you will see until the season is over.”

On the morning of the 5th day at Long Binh, my name, and two others were called, and we were told to report to the battalion’s headquarters orderly room to see the First Sergeant for assignment to our unit. After the normal introductions, he got right to the point. He told us that we had been held back because of what was found in our personnel file. They held something they had been looking for the previous two months. You all have fairly decent Army resumes’ and two of you are promotable to E-5…the other E-4, he told us. That’s just what they were looking for to fill holes coming up in their battalion he said. But, he added, not there at Long Binh but their company at Tan Son Nhut outside of Saigon. It was the 178th Replacement Company, and they processed troops going out of Vietnam and returning from R & R for MACV. They needed two Specialist 5’s and a Specialist 4, the last as a cook/baker, to fill the slots of three who were leaving. We filled the bill. So this is where I spent my tour.

I took my seven day R & R shortly before my tour ended. My Army enlistment was scheduled to end on September 26, 1970. When I returned to Camp Alpha, I learned that the Army had issued a new regulation for returning Vietnam veterans. It stated that any returning veteran with 90 days or less left on their enlistment would receive an early separation rather than be reassigned to stateside duty for the convenience of the Army. That meant that I not only had about two weeks left in Vietnam but two weeks left in the Army. I was ecstatic!

The final days at Camp Alpha were spent working and packing. That Tuesday, a group of us were called to a formal assembly at the new R & R Processing building. The purpose of the assembly was twofold. The first matter touched on was drug use by company cadre. Four of them were caught the previous week with some R & R transients smoking joints in one of the remote areas of the camp. The second reason for the assembly was an award ceremony. At the ceremony members of the company who were leaving or returning home received the Army Commendation Medal (ARCOM). I was one of those, and it was an unexpected honor. Also, we were each presented with an engraved lighter that featured our battalion insignia on one side, and a copy of USARV’s summer edition of ‘Tour 365,’ an in-country magazine designed to be a memory of why we were in Vietnam. This particular issue contained a brief article on the 90th Replacement Battalion and the job it was doing which made it more special to the guys who received it. I still have mine after 45 years. We were all thanked for our service and then dismissed.

Coming Home
Tom Tessman, one of the guys who had served with me from the first day at Camp Alpha was also going home that day. We were supposed to report to battalion at Long Binh for out-processing through Bien Hoa as we had arrived the year before. Our First Sergeant, who was all-knowing and wise in the ways of the Army about these things, had our orders changed allowing us to depart from Tan Son Nhut. There was a catch; we would have to wait and fly standby. We didn’t mind, we were going home and knew it would be a 24-hour flight back no matter when or how.

We arrived at the Tan Son Nhut terminal at around noon that day and spent 14 hours waiting standby for a flight out. Finally we boarded and were soon in the air. There were many others on the flight home too, and we all cheered when the plane left the ground and Vietnam forever. The flight made two stops for refueling on the way home, one in Okinawa for an hour, and one in Anchorage, Alaska also for an hour. In Anchorage, we were handed out wallet cards by the U.S. Department of Health to alert any medical people we might see in the next 180 days that we had been out of the country in the event something serious developed with our health. We walked around the terminal area looking at the mounted taxidermy there, most of which were bears of Alaska. But the main attraction for many including myself, was a large terminal picture window where you could look out at the country. It was about 4 AM in the morning and the arctic morning was a sight that I can still remember to this day. Snowcapped mountains rising to meet a brightly lighted sky, the Arctic Lights. I told myself that I had to come back there someday. I never have.

We finally got back on our flight and continued to Travis Air Force Base. When we arrived, we were loaded onto Army buses and were headed for out-processing at Oakland Army Replacement Center, the place from which many of us had come the year before. We entered the base and expected to be greeted by a crowd of anti-war protesters – there were none. We were led inside to a large auditorium and the processing began. Our personnel files were taken from us and handed over to the clerks. In the meantime, they provided a Welcome Home steak dinner for us. That completed, we had to take an exit physical. This physical moved along very quickly because, unlike the previous physicals we had going to Vietnam, no one had any problems, at least, none that was mentioned.

During this time, the clerks were preparing our separation paperwork, and tailors were doing the work on the final uniforms we would wear home.

After the physical, we reported for our new uniforms. We had returned from Vietnam wearing our cleanest jungle fatigues and boots. Now the fatigues would be replaced with, what was then, the new Summer Green Class A dress uniform. Contrary to many stories you may have heard, we were not told to ditch our uniforms and go home in civilian clothes. We were told that we could keep the patches from our fatigues and were given scissors to remove them. The fatigues, however, had to be thrown in a large bin with wheels. The Army would make a few dollars off of these by selling them to Army/Navy stores that sold militaria. I could just imagine some California hippie protesting the war in Vietnam while wearing fatigues that had actually been in Vietnam.

The final stop was a presentation from the VA. We were asked to bring up any health issues we had then. If we had an issue, we would be taken to a VA hospital to have it checked and treated if it was necessary. Everyone saw it as another delay in separating from the Army, so no one had a problem.

Finally, we were all called back to the auditorium, where an officer thanked us for our service in Vietnam, bid us farewell on behalf of the Army, and saluted us. It was over. The Army and Vietnam had become history. We were free to get on with our civilian lives.

We went outside where cabs were waiting and piled into them and headed for San Francisco International Airport. At this point, we expected to see anti-war protesters. Again, I saw none. Tom Tessman and I said goodbye to one another and parted company. He headed to get a flight to Wisconsin and me to Philadelphia and home to South Jersey.

My Vietnam Experience was over.

I arrived home a few days before July 4th of 1970. The previous year in Vietnam had passed without much notice. The only holiday that could not have been ignored there was Christmas.

The first thing I did after settling in was to get in my Ford Mustang and drive. I wanted to keep on moving as though I would freeze up if I sat too long. I was restless and bored. The excitement was gone for the first time in a year, and everything was too peaceful. I drove around my hometown and other towns in the area to see what had changed in the year I was gone. I found that there were many changes in the year 1969-1970. Some were for the better and some were not.

For those who knew that I had been to Vietnam, there was just a bare mention of it, no one wanted details. And all the protests we had heard about and spitting on the veterans did not happen to me here in suburbia. People were just quiet about it. Perhaps that’s because it was now the 70’s, a new decade, and Vietnam was old news from the 60’s, they wanted to move on and forget it. As Vietnam Veterans, we couldn’t.

I want back to the radio station where I had worked three years prior and found out that it had changed also. You expect that in the profession as people move on to better-paying jobs, but things had changed so drastically that I didn’t see my future there any longer. After giving it a lot of thought, I changed direction completely and went into the banking profession where I started at the bottom and worked up to manager positions over the years.

For three of those early years, I enrolled at Rutgers University in Camden where I majored in U.S. History. I took side courses in creative writing, political science and psychology. I was often asked if I intended to be a teacher which was not my intention. I just took the courses because they interested me. I eventually dropped out because the political beliefs of fellow students and teachers got to be too much to take any longer for someone who had been where I had. The war was winding down for U.S. troop involvement in 1971-72, but feelings were still against it and groups continued to plan protests. Sometime during these years word got out that I was a Vietnam Veteran, and that resulted in being approached to join Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). I declined because I felt to join would be a denial of everything I had done and what guys who were still there were trying to accomplish. I could not betray them by protesting against them.

All through this period, I kept inquiring with U.S. government civilian agencies about working for them and was told that they were no longer hiring for jobs in Vietnam. They were winding down also. On March 29, 1973, the last of the U.S. troops left Vietnam, and I don’t even think that I realized it at the time. For the next two years, Vietnam would fight the war without our help, but it was a futile effort – the Republic of Vietnam was defeated when Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. The war in Vietnam was totally over.

I, like every other Vietnam Veteran, felt the heartbreak. After all the U.S. losses and work there, it was for nothing. I watched at home as the news shows showed pictures of the evacuation of Saigon. I saw places where I had stood five years earlier now under the domination of the Vietnamese communists. Probably the most finalizing scene of defeat was the helicopters landing on evacuating aircraft carriers and then being discarded by being pushed over the side into the South China Sea. It struck me as a symbol of what was happening at home to the veterans of that war…they were being discarded. The older established veteran’s organizations would not accept them as war veterans and that feeling soon spread to the VA when they filed claims. We had spent many years there but suddenly, it was not a war, it was a police action we were told. We were entitled to very little if, anything at all.

Vietnam Veterans were suddenly bitter and frustrated. They began to protest for recognition as veterans and were often shot down at every turn. They were given labels by the news media that were undeserved. The Philadelphia Inquirer in an article for its Sunday magazine called them: “The most dangerous group in America. More dangerous than The Weatherman or Black Panthers because they have combat experience and can do harm.” In essence, we were potential urban terrorists. Those early years of the 70’s were extremely hard mentally on Vietnam veterans who were developing what was called post-Vietnam Syndrome (now called PTSD). The mental anguish was unbearable for some and many committed suicide, turned to drugs and tried to drown the depression by drinking.

I managed to avoid most of this except for the feeling in the early years. In those years, I mostly stayed clear of my fellow veterans. Life seemed to be simpler to handle among those who did not know anything about Vietnam. It happened to many. We did not keep in touch, and it faded away for us.

I recently bought and rewatched the entire ‘China Beach’ series on DVD. I had forgotten most of the episodes since it left the air 24 years ago. But I always remembered that final season as it followed the main character, Colleen McMurphy on her journey around the country to find her fellow comrades. In almost every episode she discovered that they were suffering some form of PTSD. Once a good triage nurse, she had left nursing and become an alcoholic herself because she just didn’t fit in any longer. There is a line that she speaks that I think is true and applies to every Vietnam Veteran though they won’t admit it and I’ll paraphrase it here:

“Over there, we felt that we were doing something important, and then, all of a sudden it was over. Coming home – we all wanted to go, but we didn’t want to leave.”

The Vietnam Experience of the 60’s, we all lived it. As we use to say in Vietnam: “It Don’t Mean Nothing.”


by Larry Sossamon

I was 19 years old when Army drafted me.
I took basic training at Fort Bragg and then Advanced Individual training at Fort Gordon.
I arrived in Vietnam March of 1968 and had my first taste of combat in Saigon as we were attacked during the TET offensive.
I was trained in aviation electronics and served with 335th Signal Battalion, however after a couple of months I was placed on crewmember status and flew with 20th Transportation and 159th Medivac at Cu Chi, home of 25th Infantry & 12th Evacuation Hospital.
The Vietnamese tried to kill us, being scared does not describe.
The nights were hot, and you had to be quiet.
I had difficulty sleeping and since Vietnam I have difficulty staying asleep.
I am suspicious of people, I avoid people and activities.
My service in the Army and Vietnam reshaped my life.
I have a complex convincing myself and others that I am a nice guy since my service.
The VA has helped me, about 3 years ago in 2016, I was evaluated by VA that I had PTSD, 70% disabled.
The VA has provided me with anxiety and depression medicine, I feel less challenged and comfortable in myself.
I associate with veterans very well now, and I have stayed in touch with several of my buddies of my outfit.
My friend that was my hooch mate and went on R&R died last year of Agent Orange, Leon Graffeo. He was from Louisiana.
I returned home in March 1969 & then my brother, Ed DeCamp Sossamon, (11 months younger) was sent to Vietnam in June 1969. Ed was killed in action while serving with 101st Airborne in April 1970.
I know what he went thru during his 9 months of living in the jungles of the A Shau Valley.
My mom wrote me every day for 365 days during my tour and when Ed went she wrote Ed every day, she had 6 letters returned to her.
Mom and dad never got over my service and never recovered or accepted Ed’s useless death.
I believe my parents deaths in 1978 & 1979 caused by cancer by worrying and coping with a son that did what he was ordered to do by a government that made bad decisions.
My PTSD has grown.
I have a belief that no one cares about the veterans, except for family and other veterans.
Politicians, commercial businesses, benefit from Memorial Day and Veterans Day, by making speeches to enhance their political position, and businesses offer sales on these days.
Only family members and veterans show up at parades to honor.
I think being a veteran is like the demise of religion. Congregations are getting smaller and smaller.
Adjusting to life with those who did not serve is uncomfortable. I don’t blame them, I do feel that they had an advantage to life and success, but I have worked hard to make of my life.
My wife, my 3 children my older brother and my cousins and my fellow veterans have helped and comforted me during my struggles.
I thank God for the gifts he has given me and I wish to be HIS servant.
Memory of horror does not leave you, you cannot escape those events from your mind that were terrifying and the deaths and dying that we witnessed.


“I have been lucky. No Agent Orange issues”

Specialist 5th Class John Leone
151st Transportation Detachment, 71st Assault Helicopter Co.

The ’50s were days of apprehension, atomic bombs, and the Red scare. At school, we practiced air raid drills. Newspapers carried the latest casualty count from Korea. We saw short newsreels on what to do in case of a nuclear attack from Russia (“when you see the flash, hide under your desks. If you’re outdoors, hide under a piece of cardboard or any doors that may be on the ground”). We were afraid and, not to mention, curious as to where the newscasters thought we would find doors laying around on the ground.

We watched television shows like I Led Three Lives with Herb Carlson playing Herb Philbrick, citizen, counter-spy, and Communist. We watched live television with the McCarthy Communist hearings. In the ’60s, we had the Cuban missile crisis, 13 days of biting our nails, waiting for war with Russia to break out. We watched the Kennedy assassination and burial.

On August 3rd, 1964, my friends and I were working on our very important summer tans down by the pool. Louie Ciano came by to tell us we wouldn’t be around next summer. The Vietnamese had attacked one of our ships in the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam. We were all going to war. None of us had ever heard of Vietnam.

In short order, we registered for the draft, graduated high school, were drafted and had sergeants screaming in our faces. In basic training, we crawled in the mud under barbed wire while some idiot fired live machine guns over our heads.

After basic, I was sent to AIT at Fort Rucker, Alabama. I was trained as a UH-1 Helicopter Repairer, MOS 67N20. Many soldiers with this MOS became crew chiefs or door gunners. After completion of this school, I received orders to go to Vietnam.

I was part of the 187th Assault Helicopter Company and received orders to report to Sharpe Army Depot, Lathrop, California on 22 February 1967. We accompanied the helicopters and equipment onboard an ancient wooden deck aircraft carrier named the Kula Gulf. We left California on March 4th and arrived at Vung Tau on the 23rd. After a short stay at Bien Hoa, I was reassigned to the 501st Aviation Battalion, 71st Assault Helicopter Company as a crew chief. I proceeded up north to Chu Lai to join my unit. When I arrived the commanding officer told me he had more crew chiefs than he knew what to do with and assigned me to the 151st Transportation Detachment, the maintenance arm of the 71st.

When I was only a couple weeks away from my DEROS (Date Eligible for Return from Over Seas, one of the military’s thousands of acronyms), I was standing on the hood of a deuce and a half replacing a tail rotor late at night. A Huey landed not too far down the flight line, and apparently, the gunner dropped his M-60 or another gun, and it went off accidentally. It was a tracer round, and I saw the red trail near my line of vision. I hurried to get off the truck thinking it was hostile fire. My foot caught the barrier around the blinkers and made me fall headfirst to the macadam. I cut a vein over my eye and fractured my wrist. No real glory here, just my clumsiness.

The doctors gave me one day to settle my affairs and pack up my gear to be sent home. My thumb had to be immobilized to let the wrist heal. This was a three-to-four month process. So I was going home a little early. I objected at the time. I wanted to go to Hong Kong on R&R and be there for the Chinese New Year which started on January 30th, the same day as the Vietnamese New Year, called Tet. Not to mention the fact that a few GI’s in my company owed me money.

On January 24th, 1968 I was sent to another base to await orders to go home. I can’t remember exactly which one. On January 30th, my orders came through, and I was hustled onto a UH1D Huey helicopter for a quick trip to Tan Son Nhut Airport. I no sooner had gotten off the Huey than I immediately boarded a Hercules C-130 for a trip to the Philippines. I managed to get a seat under a light and started reading one of the two Ian Fleming books I brought with me. The C-130 was called the meat wagon because all the passengers were wounded. The first aboard were the stretcher cases. They resided more toward the nose of the plane. The rear section consisted of us, the ambulatory, the walking wounded.

We landed at Clark around 7:30 in the evening ate at the mess hall and retired for the night. The next morning, on the way to breakfast, I picked up the military paper, Stars and Stripes. The headline glared at me: “TET OFFENSIVE HITS CITIES IN VIETNAM.” The news about the Tet Offensive was relatively sparse as it was still early on. I found out later there were some casualties back at Chu Lai. Also, Cu Chi was hit quite hard as was Saigon, home of Tan Son Nhut Airport. I’d apparently missed the action by minutes. My stomach churned, and I worried about the friends I’d left behind. Accompanying these images was a thought that maybe, just maybe, if I hadn’t gotten injured, possibly I could have prevented one of them from getting hurt or killed. All part of the subconscious guilt that we tend to carry with us through life, justified or not.

After breakfast we were back on another Hercules, heading to Japan this time. For two weeks I was in a hospital ward facing a wall of windows looking out at Mount Fujiyama in the distance. I was in the company of many poor GIs who lost a limb or multiple limbs. They all seemed to bear up over these losses much better than I ever could. So many of them were in good spirits, doing different exercises, learning how to cope, how to do the menial things we take for granted, keeping a positive attitude. I moped around feeling guilty that all I had was a crack in one of my bones.

To this day, many decades later, I still get uncomfortable and have terrible recurring memories whenever I see an amputee. To me, that was the real hell of war. That’s part of the nightmares I still have.

Then, on February 15th we were going to be allowed to go off base, came the news that we were to be sent home. Due to the Tet Offensive in Nam, the beds were needed, and all passes were canceled.

We boarded the plane for the flight home. A Sergeant paced back and forth as we took our seats. In a voice louder than necessary, he reeled off safety measures and instructed us to stay seated. He explained that the seats facing the rear were for our protection in case of a crash. Then the Sergeant went on to say the flight would be to Maguire Air Force Base with a brief stop in Juneau and Dover, an 18-hour flight.

Mixed feelings filled my brain. Years later there would be television shows like Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, shows talking about how great and fun those years of the ’50s and ’60s were. But that wasn’t necessarily how it was, at least not the way I remembered.

As miles sped by, I recalled reading in letters from home that many were against the war. Nothing to that effect was mentioned in our newspaper, the Stars and Stripes. That paper usually told us how we were winning against the Vietnamese and how the participants at the peace treaty in Paris continued to argue for months on end over the shape of the meeting table.

What would homecoming be like? Would people greet our plane at Maguire? A 40-piece marching band? Television newsmen shoving microphones in our faces?

Probably not. America didn’t look upon Vietnam as a war. It was similar to the previous conflict in Korea in the ’50s. No homecoming parades or kisses at Times Square, but it sure would be nice to finally get home. The entire time in Vietnam, there was a constant ache in my heart. It never went away. It was homesickness. No remedy, no amount of Ba Mi Ba 33 beer could make it go away, no pills, no girls downtown, nothing. But now, after a year of being away and the thought of being home in less than 24 hours, it started to finally subside.

The flight was long, monotonous and smooth sailing. We stopped in Alaska for refueling. Some girls came aboard in parkas bearing hot cocoa for us, even though we were relatively warm in the plane. We stared at these cocoa-carrying angels, their faces outlined by the parka fur, snowflakes melting quickly on their coats. Most of us had scarcely seen an American girl in almost a year. We all fell in love for a few brief moments. Then they were gone, and we were airborne once again. The hours passed slowly between cat naps as we all lost track of time.

There was a quick stop in Dover, then onto Maguire. We were greeted not by a marching band, but a thick, blinding snowstorm.

We were hustled onto a deuce and a half truck to go over to Walson Army Hospital at nearby Fort Dix. As most of us were still in jungle fatigues, the driver gave us a few blankets so we wouldn’t freeze en route. As snowflakes swirled in our faces on the ride, I shivered and shook and wished I was back in a country with the 100-degree plus days. The heat was uncomfortable but the cold hurts.

Coming Home
It was two days before my parents could get through the snowstorm to visit. I was allowed home the following day on a three-day pass. My sister was ten; my little brother was four. It was great to see them even though my sister complained that our little brother had a habit of peeing in her shoes in the closet. Once again, I questioned that maybe I should have stayed overseas. No one had ever peed in my boots in Nam, but we did check every day for scorpions before putting them on.

Then I was off to visit my girlfriend. I hadn’t called her purposely, planning to show up and surprise her. It certainly was a surprise, to say the least. Between calls from her boyfriend (whom I was unaware of), I was the victim of loud rants on why she hadn’t heard from me in over a month. Apparently, the mail from Japan was not as efficient as from Vietnam. I left her house confused, wondering what happened to my girlfriend of three years who had written to me regularly of her undying love and promises of waiting forever.

I then went down to the different hangouts of my youth to get re-associated with any friends who weren’t yet drafted, away at college or had run off to Canada. The few who were around greeted me friendly enough and asked me where I’d been hiding. Invariably, when I told them, they’d get that “caught in the headlights” look. Typically, they started stammering and checked their watches. Time to go!

The media and our politicians had done a fine job of turning everyone against the Vietnamese conflict. No one wanted us over there. My response, eventually, was not to even mention my involvement. When asked where I’d been my response was “Well, been around. How about you?”

The bias hung around for quite a while. Years later, in the mid-70’s, I took a course at Mercer County College. I raised my hand when the Dean asked if any Vietnam veterans were in the class. Quite noticeably, the preppy older man on my left, decked out in a black beret and matching elbow patches on his sport coat, moved his chair away from me. Not to be outdone, the lady to the right of me did the same. We vets were pariahs, social outcasts.

Years later, I talked with one of my old GI buddies. He told me he did three tours in Nam. In explanation, he said, “I came home and didn’t like what I saw. America was not the same.” I knew exactly what he meant.

When being discharged from the service, I was offered a healthy bonus to re-enlist. If done within 90 days, I’d receive $8,000 and a promotion to Specialist 6th Class. I don’t believe I slept for the next 89 nights. But I did not re-enlist. To this day, I ‘m unsure if I made the right decision.

We suffered through the fall of Vietnam when Congress pulled the plug on the war funds, the Watergate scandal and the fall of our Embassy in Iran. These were long, sad, dreary years for America. I remember feeling very sad when I watched Saigon fall in 1975. I wondered what it was all about.

I have been lucky. No Agent Orange issues. I have some dreams off and on over the years, primarily about amputees, still get them, probably more now with all the Afghan and Iraq war veterans sporting their artificial arms and legs. Reminders everywhere. But I am going to the VA about that.

I have been to the World War II Memorial but refuse to go over that mound to the Wall.

When Ronald Reagan was elected President in 1981, America seemed to bounce back. We all became Patriots again! I and millions of others became proud once more that I’d served my country. American flag sales went through the roof and the negativity of past years melted away. It just felt good.

In spite of that depressing homecoming, I am glad to have had the privilege of serving this great country. God Bless America. I did miss out on some adventure after they transferred me into maintenance from helicopter crew chief. The flip side of the coin is that possibly I would not have come back or have come back with a limb missing. I’m proud to have served but was never certain that Vietnam was a war we should have had. We certainly messed that country up and caused the deaths of untold numbers of Vietnamese.

No coffee, no doughnuts and no Susie Q!

L/Cpl, Ret’d Dave Miller
USMC Grunt
Lima 3/7 ‘68

My Homecoming story started the second I was hit, my first wound was my ticket home. However, we were just ambushed and everyone with me is dead.

Many other stories so let’s get to my funny part.

Four or five stories later, I find myself on a C-130 strapped unto a stretcher suspended by web belts from the ceiling and attached to the floor. This device holds 4 or 5 wounded, ambulatory wounded took up the lower stretchers or were seated in flight chairs. I was at the very top of one of these jungle gyms.

We landed in Alaska to refuel, Just then, a cute little blonde, round eye, sprints up the back hatch and she immediately had everyone’s attention. About 5’5”, maybe 16 or 17, wearing white Hot pants and a stretchy shirt. I think she said she was the Base Commanders Daughter. She implored, every ambulatory patient follow me to the terminal for coffee and doughnuts.

Not exactly ambulatory shot 3x, I sustained some damage. I had my ribs spread twice due to a hemorrhage, lung resection, diaphragm repaired, emergency heart bypass, splenectomy, belly wound, intestine resection and damaged kidney and missing some ulnar nerve left elbow and damaged left kidney. So I start climbing down the 15 or 20 feet from my perch. I hear a Corpsman yelling at me but I could only climb down at this point. Halfway down I fell. Five days after being hit I weighed in at a husky 116lbs, the Corpsman caught me.

He said Where Do You Think You Are Going? I said I’m Following Suzie Q, he said, Go Ahead, just don’t miss the flight. I was in Navy PJ’s and hurting from my fall, blinding light greeted me as I descend the ramp. Snow piled up around the tarmac but I wasn’t cold. I couldn’t stand up straight so I couldn’t see where I was walking. All I could do is shuffle along and every 5 or 6 steps I would stop, turn sideways so I could check my direction and then continue. I was short of breath and aching from the fall. I was about halfway to the terminal and Suzie Q when another patient grabbed my good arm and said: “Move it, we’re going to miss our flight.” I turned and looked and everyone was coming back from the terminal. So I headed back to the plane, no coffee, no doughnuts, and no Susie Q!