Sergeant Jim Markson
377th Security Police Squadron, U.S. Air Force
My Father was a World War One Veteran, infantry. He was wounded twice and discharged under general conditions for “Misrepresentation of Age.” He had run away from home, joined the Army at 16. His mother informed the Army about this and he was sent back to Virginia and discharged. I was from a second marriage; my Father was 46 years old when I was born in 1947.
My Uncle Joe on my mother’s side of the family was an infantry officer and was killed outside of Berlin during World War Two. My Uncle Ernie was with the Army Engineers, Uncle Mickey was in the Navy, and my Uncle Frank was in the Army Intelligence in World War Two.
My Uncles never spoke of the war. My Father very briefly. However I’ll never forget one day riding in the car with him, I was 16, it was a freezing morning and I was trying to make the heat come on real fast in the car, which was not going to happen until the car warmed up. He looked at what I was doing and sarcastically said, “When I was your age, I had a bayonet on my side and a rifle in my hands, and I wasn’t shitting in my pants either.”
I enlisted in the Air Force. I had a friend who was a civilian air traffic controller, it was an excellent job and he learned it in the Air Force. After he had been discharged, he went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration. It sounded like a good deal to me.
I failed the eye exam for Air Traffic Controller so they put me in Security Police. I was in tears at the time. I spent my entire four years in the Air Force as a Security Policeman.
After boot camp and Security Police School, I was assigned to a Strategic Air Command base at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It would turn out to be the strictest military environment I would ever experience in my four years in the Air Force. I guarded B-52’s carrying nuclear weapons on 24-hour alert status, day and night. The winters were brutally cold and I would be out on the flight line for 8 hours.
I knew I could not take this for four years and the only way out was to volunteer for Vietnam, which I did and to this day I don’t regret it one bit. I was fortunate only to spend six months in SAC. Many years later I would hear similar stories from other Security Policemen who did multiple tours in Vietnam rather than take a chance and be stationed at a SAC base back in the States.
I arrived in Saigon, Vietnam on 14 March 1967. I went to Vietnam alone, not with any unit as a group. I came home alone. I was assigned to Security Police Squadrons and went where I was needed.
My first base was Phu Cat in Binh Dinh Province. I was only there for one month and then I was reassigned to Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base. I was sent TDY (temporary duty) to Bien Hoa for 30 days; then I returned to Tan Son Nhut until my DEROS (Date Eligible for Return from Overseas, the date we came home) on March 14, 1968. I survived the 1968 Tet Offensive.
The 377th Security Police Squadron had a tradition when it was finally your time to go home. At what is known as Guard mount, the NCOIC would read off the post assignments and any other necessary information before we would go out to our assigned post. The security policeman who was going home would then address the flight with any words of wisdom or goodbye or whatever he wanted to say. It was going to be his last night on post. Then at exactly midnight, not a second after, the SAT (Security Alert Team) would come out to your post with your relief, take you to the armory where you would turn in your rifle forever. You would spend the next three nights alone and unarmed in the barracks, waiting to go home.
I finally made it to Travis Air Force Base outside of San Francisco on March 15, 1968, and the Tet Offensive was still sending shockwaves throughout the United States. I can remember going through Customs, the Agents didn’t check a thing but I do remember very clearly one agent gave us a big, “Welcome Home, Boys” as he just waved us through to the World.
I was determined to travel straight through to New York, no matter how many stops we made all over the Pacific, nor how long I had to wait at the airport for a flight. There would be no checking into a hotel for the night. I had only one thing on my mind ….HOME.
I can clearly remember landing in the early morning hours at New York City’s JFK airport. It was Sunday, a typical March morning, sunny and cold. I was purposely wearing my summer dress uniform and sporting my Vietnam tan. The airport was not busy and it was easy getting a taxi. The cab driver was an older, heavy-set, grisly kind of a guy and I could see him checking me out in the rearview mirror. Finally, he spoke to me, “Where you comin from man”? Vietnam, I replied. “You a lucky sumna a bitch.” New York, Ya gotta luv it.
I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. I had the cab driver let me out on the corner and I walked home and slowly let myself in as I had the key to our house. My folks didn’t know when I was coming, I wanted it to be a surprise. I saw my Father with his back to me just as he was leaving his bedroom, headed for the bathroom.
“Dad,” he turned and looked at me and yelled back into his bedroom, “Mother, Jimmy’s home.” I can re-live that moment as if it is happening right now. Then in my Father’s inimitable way, he said to me “Why didn’t you tell us you were coming home, there’s nothing to eat in the house.” That would be the day; we were fortunate to have always eaten well, and today would be no different.
I wasn’t spat on or treated poorly. People that knew me well gave me a big smile and were glad to see I made it home safe. Others were not so kind and for the most part uninterested and I was just ignored. After maybe one or two forced questions of concern, no one really cared. I had two more years to serve in the Air Force and after my leave I would be going to Holland. There was a mistake on my reporting date. I was originally going to take six weeks leave in Brooklyn but they made a mistake and I was supposed to report back in four. But I felt so sickened in my hometown that I cut my leave short after three weeks.
What sickened me was the unconcern for the War, no one was paying any attention and could care less that I had just returned. I could not relate to my friends who had not served, they just had no clue to what it was like and lost interest very fast in what I had to say, so I stopped saying anything except to friends that had been in Vietnam. We kept it very private amongst ourselves and when a non-vet friend would walk in on our conversation we would quickly dummy up and change the subject. My Mother was in tears when I left but I just couldn’t take it here anymore.
I did not feel disconnected with my family. They were great. I come from a family with a large veteran involvement, World War One, and Two.
My friends were another story. It didn’t take me long to find out that I could not discuss Vietnam with them at all. When I was with a friend that also returned from Vietnam we would kind of look around before we spoke about Vietnam to see if any civilians were within earshot. Imagine; we had to kind of keep it a secret, we didn’t want anyone to know we were Vietnam veterans. Sad.
April 30th, 1975, the day Saigon fell. I remember that day vividly. And it has affected me for the rest of my life. I was living in Miami Florida at the time. The Miami Dolphins were all the talk of the town and they had won a game of some sort. People came out in the streets, set off fireworks and drove through the streets blowing their horns. I was home April 30th, 1975 and heard briefly that the war in Vietnam was officially over! I went outside to listen and see what kind of a reaction there would be to this. There was absolutely nothing! To this day, I look at all the emphasis and adulation given to sports figures with scorn. Since when did being able to catch a ball or run fast equate with moral integrity and role models for our youth. Something is wrong with this picture, and more and more I can’t stand professional sports of any kind.
My problems followed me from Vietnam to this very day. The biggest hurdle was to seek out help from the Veterans Administration, which I did not do until 2007. This was after the suicides of 2 neighborhood friends, who I was most fortunate enough to be stationed with for a month in Bien Hoa in 1967. I was diagnosed with PTSD in December 2007, 39 years after I left Vietnam. It is an insidious situation; there is no ”cure”, yet you can learn why you do the things that you do and be aware of what is going on.
Agent Orange issues? The jury is still out on that. Maybe, maybe not. Nothing specific at this time.
Looking back, 45 years, I can now say I have NEVER been prouder to be a Vietnam Veteran, I have a Vietnam Veterans of America license plate on my car and I kind of look down on that 99%, that never served.
In my travels, I meet a lot of people and always try to strike up a conversation when I come across a stranger who looks like he or she may have been in the military. This kind of sums it up as to how I feel now. If I meet a guy, and he tells me he was an Army Chopper pilot, of course, my immediate response is “Vietnam?” He says, “No I was lucky, I went to Germany.”
“Lucky” I don’t know about that. I believe that other Vietnam vets and I truly know the meaning of that word. We are the “Lucky” ones who have returned home alive, who witnessed the unfairness and horror of life in a war zone, survived and have weathered the ridicule, harassment, and disdain of our own countrymen, with a dignity and honor that no other generation of Veterans has ever displayed. And to finally be treated with the respect we so sorely deserve 50 years later!