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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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