“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!)

Afterward
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.

Afterward
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.”

THEY TRIED TO KILL ME

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.

Afterward
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!

 

Here’s my story about my recurring nightmare…..

Sgt. John Folk
1st Marine Radio Battalion
USMC

My unit was 1st Marine Radio Battalion. We were the electronic intelligence arm of MAF III. I was in country from July 1969 to August 1970. I served at many different sites, as we had platoons all over the place; all in I Corps; we operated anywhere between Danang and Dong Ha We were COMINT/SIGNIT units supporting 3rd Marine Division as well as 1st Marine Division; my role was Radio Intercept (Morse and voice), RDF (Radio Direction Finding) and cryptology.

Towards the end of my 13-month tour, things got interesting with a story that still haunts me to this day. The way I was initially treated at home, and some reminders pop up this memory that is embedded in my life; reluctantly, there are triggers that make me relive this story time and time again. I can’t shake it, and it has scarred me for life.

In a war, you meet all kinds of people, in all kinds of situations. But some of the meetings you have, you’re never really prepared to handle the emotion of the situation. It is in these heart touching moments that sometimes we cry, and hopefully, sometimes we’re able to answer – why. But, this one can’t be reconciled. I’ve spent 50 years trying, and I give up. The event I’m writing about here indeed hurt. In the end, I cried; and I still ask WHY, even to this day…. why this did happen….

It was a hot, humid day just after the monsoon season in Vietnam. My squad was returning from an intelligence patrol near Quang Tri-City. We were still in the bush, but it was a peaceful, uneventful mission. The area was very quiet, and all was tranquil. We were sitting and waiting to hear the familiar sound of the helicopters rotors as they would approach to take us home.

We were tired, sweaty and thirsty, but were enjoying the peace and quiet. Suddenly, there was a quiet explosion, a painful scream and the wretched smell of burning flesh just yards away from me. I threw the safety off my rifle and spun towards the noise ready to shoot and ready to kill. I held the rifle in my shoulder aiming at the screaming figure as it slowly came towards me.

I lowered my rifle when I saw the dirty, blood-stained, pale brown skin of a child, covered only by a pair of shredded blue shorts, and heard his whimpering as he collapsed. His long jet-black hair was uncut, filthy, and his teeth were blackened with rot. His hands and his only remaining foot showed signed of hard labor and work, as he was plagued with calluses and blisters. His other foot, the cause of his pain, was completely severed at the ankle. The ground around the stump of his leg had already become blood-soaked, I went running to his side, I used a bandoleer as a tourniquet and twisted it tightly just inches above the stump. I covered the wound and hoped it would stop spilling his blood.

In the distance, I finally heard the thump, thump, thump of the choppers as they approached. Seconds later, it landed, and we were away. It only took minutes to fly to a hospital for the small child who was no older than seven years old.

Corpsmen rushed to the chopper and took him away, and in a matter of minutes, the doctors were in surgery with him. In the next few hours, I had filled out the reports, debriefed the patrol, relaxed, ate and took a bath in a polluted river. A few days later, I returned to the hospital to see how the child was doing. The doctors had finished with him, and he was talking, but obviously in Vietnamese.

I found a translator, a Dancer, we used in field ops, to visit with the child and I. We talked for quite a while, and I learned that he was an orphan, having never really known his parents. He did know that his dad was taken away, and his mom was dead. He knew only his first name, Nguyen. He couldn’t remember his age, or whether he had any brothers or sisters, or anyone in his life. His life had always been the same, stealing food off dead soldiers, whether they be American, South, or North Vietnamese, it didn’t matter – if they had food, he’d take it.

In his short life, he’s had Malaria, snake bites, and mountains of other challenges, and he faced them alone. Never getting help from anyone. He remembered stepping on the cartridge trap where he lost his foot. He didn’t really know that the war around was about and knew it had nothing to do with him, but it was the only life he knew, and it had little consequence for him – just another saga in how he had to adjust and live. But, while he was here, in the hospital, he was smiling, and he was happy. For the time being, he knew he could be happy because he was being cared for, and knew he’d be fed while he was here.

I told him that if he’s lucky, we’ll get him into an orphanage where he may have a better chance, but that was too far in the future he said, and so, who knows…. Anyway, I left him, and, even though he was in such pain, he was smiling – what a welcome vision that was.

Later that night, we got the usual rockets and mortars which seemed to plague us from time to time. The bombs exploded everywhere, spreading their torn twisted bits of metal at everything and everyone. At half-past two in the morning, it stopped, and it was over. The damage was everywhere. I saw the burned and broken bodies of several people – Marines mostly. But then when I went by the hospital tent where Nguyen was, I saw it too had been hit. I went in, and I carried Nguyen ‘s lifeless body to the street, and I cried.

A few days later, and my tour ended. I flew home. But Nguyen’s story didn’t end there, at least for me. It’s not even his fate and death that plagues me; it’s what happened when I got home that still haunts me, and hurts.

There is yet another story, part two if you will, I feel I must share…. if only to sensitize you to where my mind was at the time. By now, you should have learned that during the 60’s, the Vietnam war was extremely unpopular. This wasn’t just a political thing; it was also a “60’s” thing – where “peace, freedom, and free love” were all part of the culture and lifestyle. Dodging the draft, refusing to go off to war, running off to Canada (to avoid the draft) were pretty common things going on in society. To “enlist” into the service (which is what I did) was not a cool thing to do – according to ‘society’, but I did.

To further appreciate this story, you also need to know that as a child (basically from age 7 to 16), I was actually very much into the church, and going to Sunday school. My brothers and I did this every Sunday. Our parents seldom went, but they did pack us off to church. We went to a Baptist church in Birmingham, Michigan, and walked across the park to get there. The minister was Reverend Whitfield, and he guided us through the church for all those years. He baptized us (Baptists dunk the whole body!) and I (because of Reverend Whitfield) held the church in pretty high “awe”. I enjoyed it and participated in quite a few things (I even sang a solo at church one evening!). I felt pretty close to the minister and the church, and I even hung out with his daughter.

So, it didn’t seem unusual, at least to me, that when I came back from Vietnam, to put on my dress blue uniform (all Marines are proud of this uniform!), all my ribbons and awards, and go to church. At the time, I was home only 3 days, and the incident I mentioned above, with Nguyen was less than 2 weeks in the past. I even had it in the back of my mind to corner the reverend and tell him the story to seek his solace. I will tell you that that going that day was the worst mistake I made in my life. Reverend Whitfield, saw me in the audience, with the Marine Corps dress blue’s, and with obvious reference to my recent Vietnam service, launched and shifted his sermon into one of slamming people who served in the immoral and unjust war, stared me in the face, and actually called me a baby killer in front of his congregation.

I kept my mouth shut. My wife, was with me with a shocked look, and showing concern that I’d blow a gasket. At the end of the sermon, I quickly left; and I left the church in such utter disgust, and shame. I never returned to that church again. I never talked with him again, and in fact, have been rather leery of any church since then. I used to treat the church with importance and key to life, but I haven’t taken church serious since this man I held in such high regard, Reverend Whitfield, destroyed, in such simple words, what faith I had.

I know, now in hindsight, he was unfair in his judgment, but the embarrassment he put on through tainted my view of not only him, but the church overall. Sorry, but that event in the church is one where I lost my pride and my soul. I sacrificed the church I once appreciated; and it’s a long road back, I still haven’t found it – and even if I do, at best, it’ll only be at a distance – I cannot commit to more; not again. To this day, I can’t go into a church without that dreadful comment haunting me. It caused a wound so deep; it still bleeds on my mind today.

I cannot remember one Vietnam War protest going on in San Diego.

OS2 Arthur Ellingson
USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG-7), U.S. Navy

I served in the Navy Reserve from 1969 to 1975. I was on active duty from September 1’st of 1970 until June 15th of 1972. I joined a Navy Reserve program at Great Lakes which was called the 2×6 program. The 2 stands for two years of full-time active duty, six years total Reserve commitment.

I failed several times to get into an ROTC unit in college. They bounced me out because of my vision. They were not taking people who were as blind as I was without glasses. I was always 20 / 20 correctible but, when he showed me the chart and said: “Read the top line of the chart” I said, “What chart?”—I couldn’t even find the chart half of the time.

I figured that I would do the service first and let the military pay for my college education, which is basically what happened. I graduated from high school in June of ’68, joined in October of ’69. I had one year of college. I went to Reserves meetings one night a week and did all the paperwork associated with boot camp. In the summer between 4 and ten months after I joined, they sent me to boot camp at Great Lakes for two weeks. I reported on June 28th of ’70. After two weeks at boot camp, they sent me to Norfolk for two weeks of workship. During those two weeks of workship, I was on the USS Henley DD 762. Which is a destroyer, and we made a cruise during the middle weekend up from Norfolk to Baltimore. I spent the weekend having Liberty in Baltimore, then Monday morning we came back to Norfolk.

I spent four weeks in the summer of ’70 on active duty then I was back to Reserves for maybe a month give or take. They gave me orders on a Tuesday night to report to Great Lakes on Friday, September 1st. So I had three days’ notice that I would be on active duty. This was Labor Day Weekend.” I reported in at 11 o’clock- 11:15 and they said: “You’re on liberty till 08:00 Tuesday morning.” So I didn’t even unpack, I just turned around and drove back home and came back Monday evening.

My orders were to go to Radar A School at Great Lakes. I was there about four months attending that school. Then on January 22nd, 1971 I graduated. I graduated 2nd in my class, the guy that beat me had a Master’s Degree in Physics from Purdue. He only beat me by a tenth of a point.

I had orders to my 2’nd choice of assignment which was a destroyer out of San Diego. I was assigned to the USS Henry B. Wilson (DDG-7). They were in intensive training to go overseas so they would go out to sea from 7 o’clock on Monday morning until 7 o’clock on Friday. They would tie up to a buoy and then take boats ashore. That would save them 2 hours of going completely into the harbor. It also got the crew used to living on the ship.

I had heard about Vietnam when I was in grade school. My parents were saying “I’m glad that the Vietnam War is going on now because it will be over before our kids are out of high school.” Wrong. Okay. I was aware of what was going on in the news. I remember watching Johnson on the news during the first year I was in college, I didn’t have a TV, but I typically would knock off studying at 5 to 10 and go upstairs to the TV lounge and, at least, watch the news to know what was going on in the world.

When I graduated from Radar School, I anticipated that I would be on a ship that would take a West Pack Cruise and the ultimate destination was Vietnam. But I also knew that from my Reserve time that the Navy’s side of the war was relatively friendly at that time. Now guys who were in the Army and Marines do not like to hear this, but we knew the shore batteries had the range of about 3 miles, so we stayed 3 ½ miles off the coast. Our guns had a 13-mile range so we could shoot anything within 10 miles of the beach and still not be in danger.

From the time I left San Diego until I returned to San Diego was six months, one week and one day. We were off North Korea and off Russian waters during July and August. On September 12th, we left Yokosuka and went down to Vietnam. Then we spent about five weeks off the coast of Vietnam, went to Hong Kong for a week of R&R, spent another five weeks off the coast of Vietnam and spent another week of R&R in Singapore. At that point, we had a vote to see whether we were going to go home, which was the original schedule, or whether we were going to go back to the gun line for a month. Well, if we went back to the gun line for a month, then the deal was we could spend two weeks in Sydney for Christmas. And the single guys all said, “Yeah, let’s go to Sydney for Christmas,” and the married guys said, “Let’s all go home.” So we ended up going home. I voted to go to Sydney. I would love to have seen it.

We left Subic Bay the evening of December 1st, and we were running a typhoon coming back, so very few people ate much during that first 13 days. We pulled into Hawaii on December 13th for Customs, food and mail call. We left at five o’ clock in the evening and were off the coast of San Diego at seven o’ clock Friday night. We could have easily been at the pier by eight thirty, but no, we had a band waiting for us at ten o’ clock in the morning. So we had to sit off the coast and wait. We putzed up the coast at five knots, but we were close enough we could turn the TV on and point our TV antennae at San Diego.

When I came back I had 30 days of leave coming so I went home. I came back after about two weeks. I came back early because I knew the ship wasn’t going to be doing much for the next six months. You have a very relaxed day for the first three months you’re back from overseas. You didn’t do much of anything. One of my jobs was to update a couple of technical manuals. So I would get classified mail every day, and I’d have to update these manuals which would take typically 15 minutes a day. And when that was done, I was on liberty at ten o’clock in the morning.

We began to do a little bit of training, but they also knew that I was going to get out. My discharge date was September 1st. We weren’t scheduled to go back overseas ‘til September 15th. So there was no reason for me to train with them. So they sent me to temporary duty on shore often.

I cannot remember one Vietnam War protest going on in San Diego. I spent a bit of time at San Diego, but I never saw any protest when I was there.

Getting out was a two-step process for me. First, there was a weeklong process of checking off the ship, and that went maybe the week before Memorial Day Weekend. I had liberty Memorial Day Weekend, and then Tuesday morning they handed me my orders to transfer me to the 32nd Street Naval Station to be mustered out. I spent about a week there, where they would go through all their process including physical exams and so forth.

They told me, “Tomorrow you’re going to get your papers,” and they said there’s nothing special about it. I got my package of papers, which they said, “Take this package of papers, this is your stuff to keep. Once you check in at a Reserve Center, bring this package with you, but then we’ll send your records, our set of your records to the Reserve Center, but you’ll get to keep these forever.” I called a friend of mine who had a car. He came and picked me up. I was packed and ready to go. I had five bags, which of course two bags were free in those days, with five bags, you had to pay for three. But when I got to the airport, they’re like, “Five bags!” “Well, I just got out of the Navy today.” As soon as I said that, they said, “Okay, we’ll fly those home for free.” They never charged me extra.

Coming Home
I boarded a United flight. Now at this point, I’m in my dress blues. The night before they gave us all of our ribbons. So I had ribbons on for the first time. I’ve been wearing one what was called the GeeDuck Ribbon, which was officially the National Defense Ribbon. Now I’ve got three or four ribbons on my chest. And so, I get to the airport, and I got five bags with me, and they fly all this stuff home for free. But United Airlines is where I bought the ticket, and it was standby. They had me board one plane, and then they bounced me, and then they boarded me on the second plane, and they bounced me. Then they put me across the hall at American. American put me in the back row, in the middle with the seats that don’t recline, and I thought, “Well, this is better than not getting home at all.”

But then they called out my seat number, I don’t think they called out me by name, they just called me by seat number, this is passenger and seat number, I didn’t know what the row number was, I was in the very back row of the plane – “Would you step up to the front of the plane please.” And I get up to the front of the plane, and there was this college hippie girl who’s sneering at me, “Haha, I’m getting your seat.” She was paying one-third off, I was paying half off, and so she, “Haha, I get your seat.” And she went back, and I thought, “Okay well, I’ll be singing when you find out where that seat’s located.” And I was getting ready to get off the plane, and they said: “Just hold on a minute.” They waited for her to get down the way, and then they were like closing the door. “We have one seat left, first class, all yours.” So I flew home on American, first class.

All my bags were on the first United plane, so I had to walk across the terminal back over to the United section to get them. I did not know what was going on at home. I didn’t know if my parents were home or not. I don’t recall if I even tried calling home. I don’t think I tried calling home. I know I had written them a letter which was mailed from Pearl Harbor that said that if all goes well, I’ll be in San Diego by noon on Saturday. I don’t know if they got that or not. So when I finally got home to Chicago about seven o’clock, I called from a payphone. First I got my bags because we lived very close to the airport. My cousin answered the phone at my dad’s house, and I’m saying, “Rich, what are you?” He says, “Oh, we’re having a big party because your brother just came home from the Marines.” He was actually in Quantico, Virginia. Going to a Marine Corps school. He finished college in March and got commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, so he went to Basic Infantry School in Quantico, Virginia. He finished that school in mid-December. So they’re having a big party to welcome him home. So I came home in the middle of that.

I told my cousin that I was at the airport. I don’t remember who picked me up, I think it was my Dad, but I don’t remember. I remember when we got to the front door, I could see that nobody had taken in the mail. So I open up the mailbox, pulled out the mail, and there was the letter I mailed them from Pearl Harbor. It was in the mailbox. They hadn’t even looked at it.

My mother was putting dinner on the table when I got there. And the whole focus of the party shifts from my brother, who is the wimpy jarhead who has just graduated from school to the hero that just came back from the war. My brother was, you know, very miffed that I stole his thunder. But our whole lives he was always miffed at something.

During my Christmas leave in ’71 or 72, I remember walking into the local VFW hall wondering what was going on. The only thing that I knew was what that the VFW hall was famous for sponsoring the Park Ridge Drum and Bugle Corps. So I remember going to the VFW hall, and asking, “What do you guys do here?” and so forth, and even before I could get those words out of my mouth somebody said, “You don’t belong here. This is for veterans of foreign wars.” And I said, “What do you call Vietnam?” And I don’t remember what they said, but I was not regarded as one of their peers. I’ve been in Vietnam, I’ve been in Korea, and I was made to feel totally unwelcome. I did not go into a VFW building again until around two years ago when I heard that there was a Vietnam veterans group, and they met at the Park Ridge VFW.

Afterward
I went to Illinois State. Whenever you saw somebody who was older than the typical college student, you sort of figure they were a veteran. My winter jacket was my Navy pea coat, but at that time everybody was wearing blue Navy pea coats, so I blended in.

In April ’75, I was in college, did not own a TV, I probably did not know Saigon fell until a couple of weeks after that. There was very little reported about the war in the Daily Gazette at Illinois State, the only newspaper I typically read in those days. By 1975, I was a part-time college student at Illinois State and a full-time pastor in Streator, Illinois. I’m preaching on Sundays; I’m not reading the newspapers. And I was at a church that had a Sunday morning service, and a Sunday evening service. Well, I’m preaching two different sermons every Sunday, so I didn’t have a lot of time to read the paper or watch TV. And I didn’t own a TV at that period.

The war was awful. The people who bore the brunt of the battle got shafted in more ways than one. But every time there was a dogfight when I was not on the radio with the pilot, I was, at least, listening to the conversation. Any time there was a dogfight between three Mig’s and one Phantom jet, the Phantom always won. If there were four, sometimes the Phantom won, sometimes the Phantom didn’t. But if there were three, two or one, the Phantoms always won. And what it did was told the Soviets, “Don’t you dare start a bigger scale war because we’re going to clean your clocks.” Because our technology was so much better and our pilots were so much better than theirs. It prevented other, larger scale wars from happening. So regarding holding back the spread of communism, regarding stopping other wars, I think it ultimately saved lives in the long run, just like the nuclear bombs in Japan. Yeah, 40,000 people died in a flash, in the long run, those bombs saved lives.