“I did not settle down for at least ten years”

Specialist 5 Kirk Cooke
125th Air Traffic Control Bn., USARV

I joined the U.S. Army in 1968, mainly because I had girl problems. I was 17 years old and my parents had to sign for me. I turned 18 during basic training. I felt we had to win in Vietnam, as in World War II. That was my attitude.

My basic training was at Fort Campbell Kentucky. After basic, I was then sent to Fort Rucker for additional training. Shortly after arriving they pulled me out of formation and said, “You did good enough on the tests, we want you in air traffic control.” So I signed up for that.

I was sent right away to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi Mississippi for AIT as an air traffic controller. My M.O.S. was 93H20 Air Traffic Controller. After the training was complete, I was sent back to Fort Rucker as my first duty station. While at Fort Rucker I worked at various staging fields where they trained pilots and door gunners.

A buddy from Ohio and I got tired of all the lifer crap, and so we put in a 1049, (a request to go to Vietnam) and one of the questions on the form was, “Why do you want to go?” And we both said “Because we want to kill gooks!” and they said, “We’ve got two live ones here.” So the requests were approved and away we went.

Before Vietnam, I was given a month leave. I went to my native Canada, where I was born, to visit family. My uncle wanted me to stay in Canada and avoid Vietnam. He was going to set me up in business, get my name changed help me find a place to live. But I said “No.” So, I went back to Michigan and prepared to ship out to Vietnam. While I was in Michigan I got married.

I flew to Vietnam on a T.W.A. charter flight. I arrived in Vietnam in December 1969 and was assigned to Castle Tower northeast of Bien Hoa Airbase. Castle Tower was near Bearcat. I also was stationed for short periods of time at Tra Vĩnh and Tây Ninh. I went on what you call a “Convoy to Cu Chi” once as well. During my tour I also was sent to Malaysia for three days for disaster relief. They wanted some controllers in case they needed help with the tower.

The Army had a program where you could get discharged early if you had less than six months left on your enlistment when you returned from Vietnam. So, I extended my tour to take advantage of this program. I had spent a total of 13 1/2 months in Vietnam when I left there in March 1971.

Coming Home
I flew out of Tan Son Nhut for the trip home. I guess I felt apprehensive and confused when I left Vietnam. As I recall, we were pretty much cheering when we took off. We were dressed in khakis for the trip home. When we arrived at Oakland airbase, I kissed the ground when I got off the plane. I remember they gave us a steak dinner and beer. That is still my favorite meal today.

I was discharged there at Oakland. Here I was, an E-5, 13 ½ months in Vietnam, I am only 20 years old. I can’t even buy a beer in the United States. So I grabbed my gear and caught a cab to the airport where I caught a plane to Detroit. I guess I was just feeling kind of numb at this point. I landed at Detroit Metro, wearing my dress greens and was met with rude stares. No one said anything to me or spit at me; they just glared at me. I had an immense feeling of being let down. I thought “Why do you hate me? What did I do to you?” I didn’t expect that. I grew up with John Wayne and World War II. We were the good guys you know.

I came back to an unappreciative nation. I was treated pretty much like dirt. I wore my uniform home, and people said, “Don’t put it on again, they’ll spit on you.” That was the last time I wore my uniform. You are supposed to be proud coming home. You served your country; you did your duty. I did what the country asked of me, and I mean, it still affects me.

My wife’s family picked me up at the airport. I stayed with my wife and her family in their home in Sterling Heights. I didn’t see my parents right away. Finally, after about three days my wife’s mom says, “You’ve got to see them and tell them you are home.” I don’t know why I stayed away. I just didn’t feel comfortable. Maybe because I changed and they changed too. I worried, “Were they part of the rest of the world that was against me?” I didn’t know who was on my side. I was totally, totally confused.

My relationships were strained at best. Everything was cordial but not comfortable. One day I was at dinner with my parents and my Dad said “We want to have it just like it was.” but see it never was just like it was. It couldn’t be.

Afterward
I did not settle down for at least ten years. I got divorced pretty quick and then it was you know, drinking. Then it seemed like I wandered, and then I got married again, then another divorce. I was just too angry, and there was no help. There also wasn’t any thrill; there wasn’t anything dangerous anymore. No adrenalin.

I finally met my 3rd wife. We stuck together, and we had kids. It worked out well since then. We were married 27 years when she died of cancer in 2009. I don’t wish that on anybody; that’s the devil’s disease.

Looking back on the war I would say that it is nothing that should be repeated. The waste. I look at these Vietnam websites, and I see how young we were. Now when people say “Well where did you go to college?” I say, “I went to the University of South Vietnam.” That’s where I went– so, that’s the answer I give to them.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about it and every time you hear a chopper you are right back there. But, I would do it again. Absolutely. Every freaking day.

Author: Jack McCabe

Jack McCabe was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated from high school in 1969 at the age of 17 and two days after he turned 18 he joined the Army. He was sent to Vietnam less than a year later in October of 1970. He extended for a second tour and finally came home for good at the end of May 1972. He finished his three-year enlistment at Fort Huachuca, Arizona and returned home to Chicago. After his return from Vietnam, he pursued his education using the G.I. Bill, receiving an associate degree in electronics engineering from DeVry Institute. He eventually continued his education by attending night school and received his bachelor’s degree in business and management from Northeastern Illinois University in 1981, at the age of 30. He owned his own business for 20 years and then sold real estate for 20 more before retiring to North Carolina, where he became a certified Peer Support Specialist with a veteran designation. He has a deep passion for helping veterans doing volunteer work with the YMCA Resource Gateway in Gaston County, NC where he handles all the calls from those with past military service. He helped veterans with PTSD, financial crisis’s, substance abuse, homelessness, and veteran benefits. He received the North Carolina Governors Award for Volunteer Work. Jack believes that the most important thing he can do is to give Vietnam and all veterans a voice. By sharing their stories veterans understand that they are not alone. There are many going through the same struggles as they are. For non-veterans, he hopes they will understand the struggles veterans face when they return home from war. He has since retired and is in the process of writing another book.

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