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.
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.”