Everyone acted as though I was home from college. No questions about the war or anything related to my service. No one wanted to hear it.

SSGT Lee Bishop
Army Security Agency

I came from a family rich in military history. My family has fought in every war the United States has waged with the exception of the Spanish-American War (no one was the right age, and it barely lasted a year). I am particularly proud of my cousin, George Waterman’s service in the Civil War. He was killed by a Copperhead in Dayton. The GAR Hall in Peninsula, OH was named for him. I had a cousin on the other side of the family (George Fisher or Fischer) who was in Texas on cattle business when the war broke out. He wrote a book, “A Confederate Conscript or Eighteen Months in Dixie” about his being conscripted and then biding his time until he could escape and make his way back to Ohio. Members of my family spoke of their military experiences but never as braggarts or whiners.

I joined the Army in 1965 because of our family’s history of wartime service. Also, I’d lost my driver’s license because I liked to speed, so it made sense at the time.

Shortly after I arrived at basic training at the age of 19, I was called in to choose an MOS. Don’t remember them saying anything about my test scores. I had no idea what I was doing. I put down intelligence research analyst first because they only took one every two years. Then I put down voice monitor; I liked the word “monitor”. Couldn’t decide on a third. The guy said go to language school. I said, “No way. I had two years of Spanish in high school and hated it!” He said put it down anyhow; you’ll get your first choice. Everybody always does.

A few weeks later they pull me back in and said, “Congratulations! You got language school! Geez. “Now pick out ten languages you’d be interested in.” Well, I was going to outfox them this time: Where would I like to be stationed? #1- Italian, #2- Japanese, etc. Do you know how hard it is to pick ten languages? Well, this was roughly March 1965, and by the time I got to choices #9 and #10 I noticed as I reviewed my list that there was a fair number of Asian languages. I’d been hearing something about Vietnam, so I listed that one. Surely I’d get one of my first three. So, comes graduation from basic and I get my orders for Monterey. Included in my orders was a long numerical designation that was something like 1653489845168543456VN0565. Well, by this time I knew a lot about Vietnam. And I was quite sure I knew the Army well enough to know that there was no way that the “VN” in that number stood for Vietnamese. I was wrong.

So, I was trained to speak Vietnamese at the Defense Language Institute, West Coast – Presidio of Monterey 1965-66. My MOS was 98G 4L80, Vietnamese Voice Intercept Operator, Cryptographer, and Traffic Analyst. Army Security Agency. I had a Top Secret/Crypto Security Clearance.

I was sent to Vietnam in May 1966 and remained until May 1967. I did low-level voice intercept work with Detachment 3 of the 3rd RRU (the Lost Detachment, 101st ABN Div.) which became the 406th Detachment of the 509th RRG, TDY’d to the 8th RRU (Phu Bai), then sent to the 330th RRC in Pleiku where I worked as trick chief. I spent my tour in Saigon, Nha Trang, Phan Rang, Dak To, Tuy Hoa, Phuc My, Hue, Phu Bai, Pleiku, Phan Thiet, Kontum, Cam Ranh Bay, and points betwixt and between.

I served with combat units of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and in support of the 25th and 4th Infantry Divisions. After my return, I was with the National Security Agency from 1967-69 with a three-month TDY to Okinawa in 1968 (Operation Purple Dragon – Top Secret/Umbra).

Coming Home
I returned home from Vietnam in a chartered Flying Tiger 707. Flights were coming out of Cam Ranh Bay constantly. In May of 1967, there were roughly 485,000 American soldiers there so, with a one-year tour of duty, you can imagine the turnaround. I smuggled back the .32 Colt my father had given me that I brought with when I first came to Vietnam. It proved helpful on several occasions. It had been given to him by a friend who retired after decades of working Vice for the Cleveland Police Department.

Like other Vietnamese linguists, I was kept over a few days beyond my normal return date; there were less than a hundred of us in-country. Anyhow, I get on the aircraft, find my seat, sit down, turn to introduce myself to the guy on my left, and its Tom Bray, one of 16 guys I graduated with from South Amherst High School! Can the world be that small?

I don’t even remember what city or airbase we flew into and processed at. I do remember steak and real milk. I also remember that I was very impatient to get back to friends and family.

I was so excited at getting home to South Amherst that around eight o’clock I jumped in my new ’67 Ford Mustang convertible and headed out to meet my friends. I went through two red lights in town, a bank parking lot to avoid another light, and was speeding like a fiend. A cop pulled me over. I explained that I was just back from Vietnam. He’d heard that story before and asked for my orders. I gave them to me. He said slow down and be careful. No ticket.

One time I was driving my new ’67 Mustang convertible with a Challenger V8 w/ a 4-barrel. My sister was in the front seat with me, and my parents were in the back. We were going to visit my grandparents. We were in the little town of Tiffin, Ohio when there was a backfire. I downshifted and punched it for all I was worth (instinct). My parents about crapped themselves.

I still remember the strange look I got when I knocked the ashes of the end of my cigarette onto the carpet while talking with my mother in her living room. Having spent so long living in hooches and tents with dirt floors, I had developed some bad habits.

Shortly after returning from Viet Nam I was on my folk’s farm in West Virginia. We heard a horn blaring and blaring, and blaring up on the State Road around dinnertime. My stepfather said it was probably a bunch of drunks from McFarland and to ignore them. Nope. It was the owner of the grocery store (complete with potbelly stove) down the road. He came tearing down our long driveway in his pickup yelling “those bastards stole my car! I cut them off with my truck, but they went high-tailing it into the woods!” I grabbed my .32 Colt Auto jumped in the cab of Mr. McCauley’s truck and said, “Let’s go!” And off we went.

Not knowing if they were armed or not, I entered the woods cautiously then just hunkered down figuring they’d make some noise. They did. I fired a shot in the air and said in a booming voice, “Gentlemen, I’m just back from Vietnam and as you heard I am armed. You can come out quietly, or I will kill you.” Out they came, hands in the air. From the looks of things, I was glad I was the only one with a weapon.

I had them squat down on the road between pickup and car and kept them at gunpoint until the state police arrived. I was enrolled at Ohio State, but I came back for the trial. Those boys were sent to prison for 3 – 5 years.

Those were the days…

Afterward
Everyone acted as though I was home from college. No questions about the war or anything related to my service. No one wanted to hear it, and in time, it became a priority to simply ignore my service in Vietnam. I put memories and photos away for thirty years and felt despised by my country for those three decades because of the way we were portrayed by the media, Hollywood, and the political left. In roughly 2002 a fellow vet managed to track me down, and I began interacting with other veterans on the Internet. That was good.

My friend, John Clark had picked up on a program at Fresno State that would pay linguists to teach English to Vietnamese engineering students of the campus. Plus John also knew about the early out program if we were accepted to a college. Through his efforts, we both were discharged in January 1969 and were offered positions. That sounded good to me. I left the Army in Maryland, drove home to Ohio for a few days with my family, then to California in 3 days. Got to about 30 miles east of St. Louis the first day, Gallup NM the second day, and Fresno the third. Slept about 5 hours each night in the car. The only place I can remember stopping was the Meteor Crater in AZ for about an hour. Now that’s a big hole.

The program we were hired into was terminated while I was driving west, so I supported myself as a laborer (Donald Fantz’ Solid Waste Disposal Company). But that worked out fine.

I ended up at Fresno State College (now UC-Fresno) for a semester in ’69. I was walking on the campus wearing my field jacket one morning when a female voice shouted, “Are you a Vietnam veteran?” I turned, and it was like the clouds parted, the sun shined down, the angels were singing, and I was looking at one of the most beautiful girls ever. Cat had my tongue, but I said, “Yes, I am.” She asked, “How did it feel to kill little babies?” I was stunned and abruptly turned and walked on.

When the North defeated the South in 1975, one million South Vietnamese were executed…a minor event that the American press did not bother to report. As a college dean, I had befriended a Vietnamese engineering student. She told me that ten of her closest relatives were among those who were slaughtered.

It has been my observation that Vietnam Vets who came back and got active on the left were guys who didn’t fit very well in Vietnam and who were desperate for approval back here in the States. Kent State was a terrible mistake for both sides. When I left the army, after some time at the University of California, I returned to Ohio and finished my degree at Ohio State. I was president of the OSU Veterans Assn during the riots of 1970; my friends and I took rocks away from protesters (one of whom, Michael White, became mayor of Cleveland) so that they couldn’t throw them at the Guard.

During all of this, I observed a leader of Vietnam Veterans against the War, who wore an old army blouse (shirt) with a 101st Airborne patch on the sleeve. During a lull I figured everyone has a right to his opinion, we’d still served together, so I went up and introduced myself. He told me he had served with the “Lost Detachment,” probably the smallest unit to serve in Vietnam (roughly 30 men doing radio intercept work, code breaking, and translations; the linguists and directional finding guys were going out with combat units). When I heard that, since that was the unit I had served with, I got really excited and asked if he knew Wild Bill Cody, Shaky, Buddha, Rooster, Cherry, Lt. Castleman, and some others. You should have seen the look on his face. Turned out, he was a cook in Saigon. Not that cooks weren’t important (my Dad was one in WWII), but I couldn’t believe that he would try to promote himself by stealing the reputation of heroes. I turned on my heel and left. I’m sure he understood my contempt for him.

One thing led to another, and I ended up spending an afternoon at the White House with Charles Colson discussing perceptions of the war. I was in DC originally to appear with Senator Taft (the governor’s father) on John Gardner’s Common Cause to debate the subject of amnesty for draft dodgers. Senator Taft supported me in my opinion that those who fled the country should not be allowed to return. We all had to make decisions and certainly we veterans had to live with the consequences of those decisions (death, loss of limbs, malaria, Black Water Fever, Dengue fever, dysentery, etc.). The cowards should have had to live with the consequences of their decisions. Of course, Presidents Ford and Carter let them return to the US with no consequences.

I was visiting at the Pentagon when a major protest occurred and so had access to information as it was being given to the commanding officers. There was a very impressive picture published nationally in newspapers of “veterans” in wheelchairs throwing their medals over a fence (as did Kerry, one of the most despicable people on the planet). I don’t know if they were actually handicapped, but I seriously doubt that many of them were veterans, and I’d bet money their “medals” came from pawnshops.

Agent Orange was far more insidious than the government has ever let on. I can trace my family back several hundred years on both sides, and no one ever had a heart problem except an old lady in the 1800s that had to chew digitalis for an irregular heartbeat. Ischemic Heart Disease was added to the AO list in 2010, and I was rated at 30% disabled (now 60%).

In November 1995, I went Code Blue; then suffered another heart attack a month later. The first angioplasty required my wife to refinance our home to pay the hospital $68,000 in cash; don’t know details of the second experience, but she had to refinance again. We had to pay for open heart in 2001, and then for a coronary ablation a few years later. So, the government’s decision to use us as guinea pigs cost my family and me, and I’m sure many others, hundreds of thousands of dollars just to serve.

Today they cover all expenses related to IHD. But they will cover nothing that was done before 2009 to keep me from dying because of Agent Orange exposure.

Looking back, I would have to say that I value my experiences in Vietnam as much as I value any of my experiences. I would not give it up.

“After knowing what I know now, I think the war was a waste of lives and money”

CSN Johnnie Albanese
USS Jason (AR-8)
Fleet Air Support Unit, Da Nang

I joined the Navy for four years in August 1970 and served until August 1973 taking a one-year cut in my enlistment. I enlisted in the Navy for a number of reasons. First and foremost was because my father was in the Navy and I had a sense of duty. I also loved ships (still do). My neighbor across the street was a 1st Class Boatswains Mate on the USS Coral Sea and a neighbor a few doors down was a carrier pilot on the USS Orinsky.

Out of boot camp, I was assigned to the USS Jason (AR-8) as a Boiler Technician. I worked in the “hole” (boiler room) for about three months and hated it. I was then sent to be a “mess cook” and enjoyed being above deck. We only had three cooks for a crew of 800 so I requested a change of rate to SN (Seaman) and was granted it. (While on the USS Jason, AR-8 I put in a request chit for shore duty in Vietnam. Dad had always glorified war). From that point on I was a cook.

I first went to Vietnam on the USS Jason (AR-8) in 1971 anchoring in Vung Tau Harbor servicing the “Brown Water Navy”. When we returned from WESTPAC to San Diego, the word was sent out that the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2) was shifting from the West Coast to the East Coast to be stationed out of Norfolk, VA. I asked for the transfer because my goal in the Navy was to work with aircraft. I was granted the transfer and was assigned to the flight deck. Hot Dog!

While assigned (1972) to the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2) I came off Liberty and was informed by crewmembers that I was going to be transferred to Da Nang, RVN. It seemed that most everyone knew of my orders before Personnel called me to ask if I wanted to accept. Accept? I didn’t know that I could refuse them. I should note here that a 1st & 2nd Class Petty Officer had offered me as much as $1,500 for my orders. Again, I didn’t know that could happen. I accepted the orders. This was less than a week before the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2) sailed for the Mediterranean.

When I was told by Personnel about my orders, I was a little numb and surprised that all this had come about. I was reserved because I didn’t know what my future held. Hell, I was going to a war zone, a combat zone where people get killed. But I was never afraid. I was on the USS Iwo Jima for three more days and was somewhat of a celebrity on board ship. People pointing at me and whispering or just coming up and asking me if I was “that” guy, the guy going to Vietnam.

There was so much racial tension aboard the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2) that I wanted off her. I was born and raised in Northern California and was never exposed nor did I understand the racial problem. 3 to 5 days after the Iwo Jima left Norfork, Virginia for the Med there was a race riot on board forcing the ship to return to port.

I was given a 30-day leave before reporting to Naval Station Coronado Island, San Diego for “training.” We also were helped to get our “affairs” in order (just in case). From there I was off to Vietnam. I flew from Travis Air Force Base California on now-defunct World Airways to Saigon. From Saigon (I was there three days because a chief petty officer would not let me leave until I got a haircut. The CPO walked me to the barbershop and sat with me until I got my haircut).

I was then sent to the Fleet Air Support Unit (FASU), Da Nang. Now FASU was a unit at the base of Marble Mountain and the Port of Da Nang Air Base operated by the USAF. We nicknamed it “Rocket City”.

I was first assigned to GSE (General Supply and Engineering) Division until they figured out what to do with me. GSE Division put me in charge of the air terminal where I met the aircraft and helicopters that flew in, mostly from the Philippines or the fleet (Yankee Station) and guided them to the air terminal. Then after they were refueled, I would lead passengers to the outbound aircraft. I would turn the names into personnel of the people that were going to be there overnight, so they had a bed for the night and explained to them what to do and where to go during an attack. I also told them where to report within five minutes after an attack.

GSE finally assigned me to the fuel farm where I learned to drive a truck and fuel aircraft and choppers. After four months I was sent to mess cooking for a month.

We were subjected to many rocket attacks during this period. I was only an E3, and if a pilot went down, I went out to the rice paddies to help clean up the mess and pick up aircraft parts.

When a B-52 was hit by a SAM missile and couldn’t make it back to Thailand or Guam, they would land on our base for repairs since we had the only runway long enough for them to land and take off. When B-52s were on base, we knew we would get rockets and mortars as the NVA tried to take out the B-52s. They moved the B-52s approximately every hour so the NVA couldn’t pinpoint the location of the aircraft.

On 8 January 1973, we had a friendly fire incident. About 08:20, five aircraft – one Air Force and 2 Marine F-4’s and 2 A-7’s from the fleet dropped 34, 500-pound bombs on us taking out three fuel tanks at the northwest fuel farm and wounding ten men. I was watching a movie at the enlisted man’s club when this happened. I remember seeing the ceiling drop about 3 feet and then pop back up again in place, there was a loud jet engine roar and then the impacting of the bombs followed by explosions. Running out of the EM club to the bunker I could see the intense fire to the north and could feel the heat from the flames. It burned over seven days.

After the cease-fire was announced many of us had to provide help with the security division in addition to our regular assignment. Prisoner swaps began at this time. We had VC and NVA prisoners returning to Hanoi. They went through the 15th Aerial Port, which was on the other side of the fence from our barracks. We had to guard the perimeter but were not allowed to take photos of the prisoners. There were thousands that went through there in the time we had left in Da Nang.

Coming Home
Because of the Peace Treaty my tour was cut short. I processed out and caught my Freedom Bird. We took off at 12:03 AM on 5 March 1973. About halfway to Japan, we lost a number three engine. We stayed in Japan about 1 1/2 to 2 hours while they fixed it so after repair, replenishment and refuel we were off again. Just past the point of no return, we lost number three engine again, and we diverted to Kobe Alaska for more repairs. After being on the ground for about three hours they announced that they could not repair the number three engine and they would be sending another aircraft from Travis Air Force Base to pick us up, but that plane would be here for five or six hours. The pilots were going to fly the United 707 back to Travis on three engines, and anyone that wanted to go with them on three engines was welcome the go. Every single man reboarded that United 707 for the flight back to Travis. I called my parents, collect of course, at about 02:15 and let them know that I was expected to land a Travis Air Force Base at about 05:00. This was the first news they had that I was coming home. Until that phone call they had no idea when I would be back.

We had an uneventful flight from Alaska. All of our excitement was building the closer to the world we got. At about 05:30 we landed at Travis Air Force Base and to my surprise ushered into customs. That leads me to a funny story. While in customs, someone kept trying to enter the customs area. One and then another and then several customs agents were yelling at the people who were trying to enter through those doors. Finally, one of the customs agents barked “If you open those doors one more time you’ll be arrested.” As it turns out, those people were my mom, dad, sister and four-year-old niece.

My family lived one and a half hours from Travis Air Force Base. The trip home was full of stories of things I missed and how happy they were that I was home safe. They were going to plan a welcome home barbecue for that upcoming Saturday. I could have whatever I wanted for lunch and dinner after we arrived home. At about 9 o’clock my dad left for work, and I was sent to relax after the 21-hour flight. Not! There were hundreds of questions most of which I didn’t answer.

After people got off work and heard that I was home, they started coming over. Everyone said I was different. Now I didn’t know what to think after that, so I kept to myself. As it turned out, they meant that I’d matured and grown up. I wasn’t the same 17-year-old that joined the Navy and went to Vietnam at 18 and back home at 19, then went back to Vietnam at 19 and finally came home at 20 years old.

My family was happy to see me. All the neighbors were also, but they were reserved. As it turned out, I’d changed from before I left for in-country service. I was talkative and outgoing then but upon my return, I was very quiet and reserved. I preferred being away from others. I didn’t realize it at the time.

The first night home I went to a place called Porky’s Pizza where we all hung out. When I got there, I ran into one of my friends, and he asked: “Where you been?” I responded somewhat proudly “I just got back from Vietnam at 05:30 this morning.” The next words out of his mouth were “Did you kill anyone?” I looked down at the ground and said: “Fuck you, Mark, what kind of question is that?” I left and never saw any of my friends from school again. To this day, I don’t want to see any of my classmates. It turned out that I was the only one for my graduating class who was in-country. These people were still hanging out doing the same things they did in high school. They had no idea what I had experienced, seen or felt. They had no respect or knowledge of how many times I had been shelled and had rockets falling. They would never understand how you felt knowing that what you did caused people to lose their lives.

After my conversation with Mark at Porky’s Pizza, I didn’t feel that I had friends in town anymore. If I ran into someone, I went the other way. I did not feel comfortable at all. I struggled for years afterward to try to fit in. I still do sometimes. I was not comfortable at home around people. I am still not comfortable.

I felt numb and unsure. I was happy I was home but was unsure how to act. I jumped or dived for cover at any loud noise. A few times I even yelled, “Down!” I was embarrassed every time I jumped. My mom went to wake me up once, and when I opened my eyes, I didn’t recognize where I was and nearly attacked her. My Mom started keeping a basket of socks outside my bedroom door to wake me. To this day, I still jump awake with a start and closed fist when someone wakes me.

The public was standoffish. I was called baby killer and spit at. There were rude comments. I lived near Berkeley and San Francisco, California where there were many hippies and antiwar protesters. For the most part, I was welcomed but at a distance. I was and still am most comfortable around other veterans. I consider it a brotherhood. But not just veterans but in-country veterans not Vietnam era veterans.

I traded an 18 month early out for my choice of duty station. I chose NAS Alameda, California. I wanted to make the Navy my career. Big mistake. After another 30 days of free leave, I reported to my duty station. All my gear was shipped via a MAC flight and had not arrived as of yet, so I reported for duty in combat fatigues, the only uniform I had. I was informed that the uniform of the day was whites. I was assigned to the galley, what a surprise. I asked to be assigned to the flight line. I had taken the test for CS4 (Commissaryman 3rd Class) and passed but hadn’t been awarded it as of yet. They promptly change my rate to CSSN (Rated Commissary Seaman). Anyway, in the galley, others I worked with saw how easily it was to make me jump and dive for cover. They kept dropping pots and pans and laughed at my reaction. They did it one too many times, and I attacked a guy which cost me my E4 chevrons. At that time, they had no idea what PTSD was. After a few weeks at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, I decided it was time to get out. I asked for and received a 12 month cut in my enlistment

I considered these questions for a few days before answering. My girlfriend Kathleen kept asking me if I was mad. When I dream about the past or remember something or smell something that reminds me of the past I guess I get this “look” and get quiet. I’m not mad, my mind is just drifting back to a bad time. Vietnam is the single most dominating part of my life. It has defined my life and who I am. I know who I am and what I am. I am Johnny Albanese, and I’m not afraid of anything or anyone. Before Vietnam, I was shy and embarrassed easy. Now I speak up my mind. I stand up for myself and others. I am defined not just by the way I was raised but by my life experiences.

After mom passed away, I became somewhat distant from my family. Today I am estranged from my only sibling and rarely speak with my children. I am closer to my girlfriend’s daughter than my own kids. Sad, before Vietnam I was very close to my family. Sometimes they treated me like I was king

Afterward
I became disconnected with my friends the day I got back to the World. Today I have two close friends that I still keep at arm’s length my girlfriend/other half Kathleen and my friend Mario. I have become disconnected with my family for various reasons. I will do about anything for my kids. My sister married a deserter. We didn’t know it at the time, and although he takes good care of her, it is still part of my issue with her. I don’t want her to dump him. I want him to apologize.

When Saigon fell, I had just bought my first house with my first wife and my newborn son. I felt angry that they couldn’t hang on and sad for the people. I thought the deal was that we as a nation would go back and help. President Ford refused them. At that point, I knew that we wasted over 58,000 lives. I was embarrassed for our nation.

I guess I started having problems from the first day I got home. I had changed. People didn’t. Looking back, I guess I didn’t know how to handle what I experienced. I saw the napalm scarred people and the poverty. I had been shot at, mortared, bombed by my own people and had a rocket land yards from me. They were trying to kill me. I was 17 when I joined, served a WESTPAC Tour, an in-country tour and finally came home at the age of 20. Hell, I grew up, matured and became a man in Vietnam. My problem is now called PTSD. It cost me a career. I am mostly sad about that.

I have not gone for help for PTSD although my doctor advised me to. I always felt that if my father could tough it out so could I. My closest golf friend, a Purple Heart veteran, sees it in me and has asked me a few times to go in. I don’t think so. Dad didn’t.

My experiences in Vietnam have defined me and who I am today. Before Nam, I was not always tough and backed down. Today I don’t back down from anything. I discovered how tough I really am. I want to be respected but for some reason, some people are afraid of me. I don’t know why. I try to be friendly and outgoing however to coin a phrase I’m the meanest son of a bitch in the valley. I don’t put up with much. I am only 5’7″ 195 pounds but all tough. Now I don’t back down from a challenge.

After knowing what I know now, I think the war was a waste of lives and money. I learned that Johnson didn’t want to give other countries the impression that the US turned tail and ran from a fight. I’ve learned that it wasn’t our fight. It was only supposed to be advisory troops only.

I do not trust our government. When the war ended, I thought about all the people that worked on the base and what would happen to them. It wouldn’t be good. I also thought about all the employees that saw possible targets and sold the information to the VC. They deserved what they got. It was a beautiful country with good people, but I will never go there again.

As far as Agent Orange goes, so far I seem to be clear the symptoms however I had a heart attack at 52. My right hand has begun to have tremors which is another possible symptom. I may have had a second and third unreported heart attack.

“We knew we were back then and we were safe”

Vietnam War: 50 years on for Bruce Irvine
February 25, 2018, Digger News Daily

The wheels screeched along the tarmac, lifted off slightly and then screeched again. And that’s when they knew they were home. The stony silence was broken as the war-weary passengers erupted with applause. It is 1968 and the plane has just touched down in Sydney after arriving from Vietnam. Lance Bombardier Bruce Irvine takes the last step down from the plane and looks ahead, seeing his family lined up, waiting. “We knew we were back then and we were safe,” he said.

Irvine was among the 15,381 National Service conscripts who served in the Vietnam War, and it has been 50 years since he returned from duty. His memories of the day he left Vietnam – February 20, 1968 – to fly back to Australia remain as vivid as ever.

It was the end of his nine-month deployment and just 48 hours after his good mate James Leslie Menz was killed in a mortar attack. James and Bruce were both in the 131 Divisional Locating Battery, a detachment of artillery surveyors in the Royal Australian Artillery.

Irvine spent most of his time in Nui Dat based in the Australian Task Force Base. His home was a hut with sandbag walls and a canvas fly roof, while the floor foundation was brass artillery shells with floorboards made out of the shell boxes.

“You were busy all the time and you were probably held together by all the communications from here, all the letters,” Irvine said. Despite the hardships, Irvine also remembers good times. Laughs with mates and recording songs like Paint it Black by the Rolling Stones onto a tape recorder.

But suddenly the war changed for Irvine when a mortar clipped a tree above his sleeping battery and showered down leaving the man next to him severely injured. “That changed things for me. You just block things out and do what you’ve got to do,” Irvine said of the horrors around him and how he coped with them.

Fifty years later, “bit by bit” the memories he blocked out have started to return and he said last week’s commemoration service for his friend James Leslie Menz helped. There, he and other members of his battery, shared stories of the war and how they have coped with the memories ever since.

“It closes things and shuts the doors and puts everything in the right place,” Irvine said of the group’s shared experiences.

Name drawn out of the hat
June 7 was Bruce Irvine’s unlucky date, while it was his birthday, it was also one of the dates that was drawn out by the Australian Government for conscription. “Every three months they drew different dates out and then you got a letter telling you where to report for medicals,” he said.

“I got my letter when I was 20 years old. “Back in those days, if your government told you do to it, you did it. “I remember when I was told I was going I was a bit nervous, but when you knew your mates were going, you just did it.” After training was completed, he was serving in Vietnam by May, 1967.

Opposition to the Vietnam War
While opposition to the Vietnam War grew as time went on, Irvine said it was not too bad when he was deployed. “I’d been and gone and come back before the opposition really started,” he said.

However, Irvine does recall that he felt ashamed to wear his uniform when returning to Australia.

“In a nutshell, I would do it again”

Specialist 5th Class Joe Kline
101st Aviation Bn, 101st Airborne Division

I “volunteered for the draft.” By that I mean, that I had two years of college under my belt and was carrying a 2S student deferment. Crazy as it sounds, I wanted to go into the Army, and go to Vietnam. I was the oldest of three boys, my dad and uncles had served in WWII, and I felt it was my duty to serve. Also, I had friends who had served in, or were still in Vietnam, so I wanted to do my thing also. I was pretty politically astute and aware of and interested in current events, so I had a fairly good concept of the big picture, the geopolitics, etc. I was going with a girl at the time and had other things I wanted to do also, so I opted for a two-year enlistment as opposed to three or more years. I wanted to do my duty but be quick about doing it.

I canceled my student deferment with all that in mind, and sure enough, several weeks later I got my draft notice. All through basic, I was mentally prepared for and expecting to be assigned an infantry MOS. However, I guess I did pretty good on my mechanical aptitude testing and got the MOS I chose on my dream sheet, 67N20, Huey helicopter repairman. I was sent to Ft. Eustis, VA for AIT. I received my orders for Vietnam during the latter part of AIT. It was totally expected, almost everyone else was going there, so it was not a surprise. I do, however, recall a sense of feeling “this shit is getting real.”

I shipped off to Vietnam in February 1970. I was initially assigned to an aircraft maintenance unit in Qui Nhon where I learned a lot about Hueys but was bored stiff. I put in a transfer request to the 101st Airborne Division because I wanted to be a crew chief assigned to my own aircraft on flight status. I got my wish, and the rest is history. In retrospect, that was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I was assigned as a Huey crew chief with B Co. “Kingsmen”, 101st Avn. Bn., 101st Airborne Div. This is where I spent the remainder of my tour in Vietnam. I was heavily involved in the ARVN Offensive into Laos called Lam Son 719.

I left Vietnam in early March 1971, having extended for three weeks so I could ETS on my return to the States. My unit was still extensively involved in Lam Son 719. Although I wanted to go home, part of me felt odd about leaving while my unit and others were so actively involved in that operation. There was a strong sense that I would never see my buddies ever again. I would be leaving something which had become very familiar, and which I had gotten proficient at, for something that had become unfamiliar.

I hitched a ride on one of our Hueys from Camp Eagle to Camp Campbell in Phu Bai, just several miles away, to begin my processing from the Division. The plan was then to hop a flight from Phu Bai to Cam Ranh Bay to catch my Freedom Bird. The only problem was that the flight schedules had been severely impacted by the Lam Son 719 operation, so we were not able to get a ride out of Phu Bai. Several hours later, me and the handful of guys I was with decided to catch a ride on a C-130 headed to Tan Son Nhut in Saigon. It had just returned from the Khe Sanh area, didn’t even have seats installed, and the cargo deck was coated with the familiar red dirt from Khe Sanh. Our thinking was that if we could get to Tan Son Nhut, which was then the busiest airport in the World, we could easily catch a flight from there to Cam Ranh Bay.

Well, those plans didn’t work out as we had hoped. We ended up being stuck at Tan Son Nhut for a day or two. I remember trying to sleep on the floor at the terminal and constantly being hassled by some sergeant saying we couldn’t sleep on the floor. I also remember seeing urinals and tile bathrooms there for the first time in about a year.

Somehow I was able to catch a hop on a Royal Australian Air Force C-7 Caribou for the flight to Cam Ranh Bay. By this time, I was totally exhausted, and everything seemed to be a blurred memory. I vaguely remember going throughout processing at Cam Ranh Bay. I just remember lots of troops whom I did not know, inspections for contraband and lots of sand. I also remember hearing sirens the night I was there signaling incoming rockets, and I remember thinking that Cam Ranh was supposed to be safe where this sort of thing did not happen.

At some point, we were loaded on buses in the middle of the night to go to the airstrip. I fell asleep on the bus and was (luckily) awakened when we got there. When I opened my eyes, I saw that we were parked right next to our Freedom Bird. A beautiful Universal Airlines DC-8 with a white fuselage with bold black stripe and the word UNIVERSAL above it. I was too exhausted to be excited; I just wanted to get on that plane.

Coming Home
The last thing I remember as we took off was the pilot saying “As the sheepherder said, let’s get the flock out of here” as we climbed away from Cam Ranh Bay. I slept all the way to Yokota Japan, and probably most of the way to SeaTac airport in Washington State. We arrived there late at night, and it was snowing outside. The out processing from the Army at Ft. Lewis was also a blur. I do remember that some pipsqueak stateside PFC was ordering us around, and he about got the crap beat out of him. I also remember that I was too nervous to eat much of the long awaited steak dinner that we all got.

I was still in uniform when I took a plane from SeaTac to San Jose. I was met at the airport by my dad, a WWII vet who drove me home about 30 miles south. Although I was in uniform, it was like I was invisible to everyone but family and friends.

I was happy and relieved to be home but mostly numb for several days. I was pretty much ignored by everyone except family, friends, and veteran I knew. I was expecting nothing from my hometown and that’s what I got. There was a nice write-up in the local paper about my return now that I think of it.

I was very comfortable at home around my family. It was the strangest thing; it took about a month for me to get my geographic bearings back. For instance, to me, at least subconsciously, the DMZ was 30 miles north of home, the A Shau Valley and Laos about 30 miles west, etc. Strange.

My family treated me great! My dad and uncles were WWII and Korea vets. My younger brother had just been drafted and was heading off to basic training about a month after I got home. Most of my friends were polite but couldn’t understand, or could care less, not that I would expect them to. I felt closest among veteran friends.

Surprisingly, I took hundreds of photos during my tour, even Super 8mm movies. For some reason that I can’t explain, I took only a handful of pictures on the trip home. I wish I would have documented the trips over and back more than I did.

In a nutshell, for me, the return trip to the World was exhausting, disorienting and anxious. I almost felt like I was leaving one familiar home and very close friends for another less familiar one.

Afterward
I did not feel any disconnect with my family. I did with some friends, but I expected that. How does a college experience compare to combat?

In 1975 when Saigon fell I was married three years by then. I felt utterly betrayed and still do. That was one of the lowest points in my life emotionally. (Everything else in my life was going well, but that was a pisser.)

Now I am doing fine. No Agent Orange issues and no problems needing help from the VA. But, my wartime experiences did change me. I became a much stronger and more self-confident, self-assured person. I made lifelong friends that I still keep in contact with. I am thankful that I survived without injury and was assigned to a great unit. I can’t imagine what life would be like without having gone through that experience. I have always been much more appreciative of life and freedom than I would have been had I not served. I have always been extremely proud of my service and the people that I served with.

My experience in Vietnam did not change my faith in God. I was raised a Catholic. Sort of fell out of the flock when I was a teenager. I did not pray ONCE in Vietnam because I felt it would have been hypocritical. I consider myself a Christian, believe in God, but not so much in organized religion or going to church.

I have been to the Wall 5 or 10 times. The most memorable were with several guys from my unit at night. Visiting it has always been a powerful experience for me, but I do not get overly emotional or shy away from going.

Looking back, I think we got involved for the right reasons, but the politicians and later the media would not let us win. I despise hippies and some former protestors. I would be honored to sit down and have a beer with a former NVA. Hippies and protestors, not so much.

In a nutshell, I would do it again.

“Me, anxiety? I don’t get anxiety!?”

Specialist 4th Class Charles (Pete) Christy
161st Assault Helicopter Company

I was married in June of 1966 at the tender age of 19. After I was married I decided to attend college at night school and work days. Two months later I was drafted. I fought with the draft board and appealed my draft notice because I was attending college under a 2S deferment. The requirement was to carry 12 units to be considered full time. I had my classes lined up for the fall semester which was turned in to the draft board. When I received my notice, I immediately went to the draft board to contest it. They told me “night school was considered part-time.” I told them “12 units is 12 units, day school or night school.” My appeal was turned down. I was gone. I felt like I was going to prison.

After basic training at Ft. Lewis I received orders for Fort Polk Louisiana. All through training and basic, the word was you didn’t want Fort Polk as an AIT station. If you went there you had a 99% chance of going to Vietnam with an infantry MOS. There was no doubt in my mind where I was going. I was trained as an infantryman and soon thereafter I was on my way.

I arrived in Vietnam February 26, 1967, two days before my 20th birthday. I was assigned to the 14th Aviation Battalion where I volunteered to fly as a door gunner. I was assigned to 161st Assault Helicopter Company. We supported the 101st Airborne, the 196th Light Infantry, and the 198th Light Infantry. I also flew TDY with the 5th Special Forces Group out of Da Nang. While there I flew to Khe Sanh, Lang Vei and various areas around the Ho Chi Minh trail doing SOG (Special Operations Group) missions.

My DEROS (Date Eligible For Return From Overseas) date was Feb 26, 1968. January 31st, 1968 was the beginning of the Tet offensive. There was supposed to be a ceasefire but none of us at my platoon believed it would really happen. At about 1:30 in the morning the 1st mortar rounds came in. All of us yelled “incoming!” I remember diving for our bunker right outside of the hooch when the 2nd one hit right next to me. We took a direct hit on our hooch. One of my buddies was killed and another was wounded. Shortly after that, the Marine ammo dump which was a half a mile from our company area was hit. They had a bunch of five hundred pound bombs along with other ordnance that went off. A concussion went off through our area that rocked the earth. The sky lit up brighter than day-light, we thought an atomic bomb had been dropped on us. I was shaking uncontrollably and telling myself “I’m too short for this shit.” Our company was located on the very south perimeter of Chu Lai. We were an easy target for mortar and rocket attacks. I was 25 days and a wake up from getting out of there. The next morning after we crawled out of our bunkers we were told to pack-up. “We’re moving up to the north end of Chu Lai.” A Marine unit had moved out and we were moving to their area.

Over the next couple of weeks, I was flying mostly as a fill-in door gunner. We had quite a few new replacements come in, so I was now considered a true short timer. When I wasn’t flying I stayed very scarce in the company area. There seemed to be a lot of disorganization after we moved and I took full advantage of it.

On February 25, 1968, I processed out of the 161st. My freedom bird was waiting for me in Cam Ranh Bay so I hopped a C130 from Chu Lai to begin my trip home. While in Cam Ranh I hooked up with some of my old buddies from AIT. We were at Fort Polk, Louisiana together for infantry training. A bunch of us flew to Vietnam together and then to the 90th replacement battalion in Bien Hoa. We started comparing notes of what happened to our buddies. One person I was concerned about had ended up as a grunt with an infantry unit on the Cambodian border. He was in his mid to late twenties, older than most of us, from a farming family in North Dakota. He had a wife and three children, smoked a pipe and I remember telling him in AIT that he had no business being in the army and should try to get a hardship discharge. He was killed after only two weeks in-country in a firefight. What a waste. When I was in D.C. at the wall years ago, I etched his name along with many of the others I knew.

Coming Home
Getting on that freedom bird was a great feeling. When she lifted off and flew out of Vietnam air-space a big yell erupted. I don’t remember much after that until we landed in Washington. From there we were bussed to Fort Lewis for processing. We arrived early in the morning of February 26, 1968. We took showers, we’re given new uniforms for traveling, paid and fed a steak dinner. After processing we were bussed to SeaTac airport. I was still with some of my buddies from AIT. We decided to find a bar at the airport and have some last final beers together. When in the airport, there was a sea of GI’s from one end to the other all in transit. My buddies and I found a bar and went in. There was a bouncer at the door checking ID’s for age, my buddies got in but I was two days from turning twenty-one and they would not let me in. I was pissed. We said our goodbyes and I never saw them again.

After trying all day to get a flight standby, I was getting frustrated. I was married only two and half months when I was drafted and I wanted to get home. I called my wife to let her know I was unsuccessful and that there was one flight left to San Francisco at about 8 o’clock that evening. I went to the desk to find out if I could get on standby and they told me It was booked but there was one seat left in first class. I asked “How much?” If I remember correctly, I think it was over $200. It took a good chunk out of me but I paid it. My mother, brother, mother-in-law and wife all met me in San Francisco. We had an hour and a half to drive home. What a great feeling.

I still had six months left to serve before I would be discharged. I had a 30-day leave and was due to report to Camp Pickett, Virginia by April 1st. Just like the army, I live in California and they send me to Virginia. I am an E4 with very limited funds. I had planned on flying to Virginia but my wife wouldn’t have it. She said she was going with me. We had a 66 Volkswagen and we packed it up after two weeks of my leave and headed for Virginia. After arriving I reported to the orderly room on the base. Camp Pickett in those days, had been deactivated after the Korean War. It had only about 150 permanent party and had the Reserve and National Guard units coming in for summer training. The company clerk told me to report to the commanding officer who was a Colonel. The Colonel went through my file and discovered that I had been a lifeguard and gave swimming lessons. He told me that they were getting ready to open their pool on base for the summer and wanted to know if I was interested in running it. I told him without hesitation “Absolutely.” He informed me his kids needed swimming lessons and asked if I would teach them. “Absolutely.” He also informed me there would be two college kids from last summer that would be returning as lifeguards and that I would be scheduling them. The Colonel then exempted me from all duty and I never wore a uniform again. I taught his kids how to swim as well as any others that wanted to learn. I could not have asked for a better duty.

After my meeting with the Colonel, I went to check-in with the Lieutenant in charge of special services located at the gym across from the base. It was a couple of miles. I went into the gym and met the Lieutenant. I was there approximately 10 minutes when an MP came in. He asked, “Who’s driving the Volkswagen?” I told him “I was.” And he asked me to go outside with him. He told me that he had seen me run the stop sign and that I was speeding. I did not do any of that! I told him “If you had seen me do all this, then why did it take you 10 minutes to find me?” He wrote me a ticket and told me to appear in court the next day. I was stunned. I went back to the orderly room and talked to the orderly room clerk about this and he told me that that MP’s on base were bad and that they work closely with the circuit court judge who was hired by the government to handle cases on the base. He said, “It was a kangaroo court and the judge got a percentage of everything he fined you for.” The next day I went to court. I told the judge my side of the story and the MP told his. I confronted the MP and called him a liar. The judge fined me 65 dollars, it might as well have been a million dollars as I was broke from driving to Virginia. I told the judge I was broke from my trip, and that I did not have the money. He told me I had two hours to bring the money in or he was throwing me in jail. I was stunned. This was not right. I went back to the orderly room to see if my pay records had shown up yet, they had not. The orderly room clerk ended up loaning me the money until my pay came through. Then I went back to the courtroom to pay. As I stood in the doorway, I could overhear the judge talking to the MPs. He told them that no matter what anyone said in his courtroom, he would always believe them first. What a brainwashing, what a scam. I paid the fine and kept my distance from the MPs for the duration of my time there. The rest of my time there was good. I got a 30 day early out.

Afterward
After my discharge from the Army, I returned to school. I wanted to forget the past two years in the Army and get back to my life as I knew it before. I never talked to my wife or anyone else about my experiences in Vietnam. She asked me questions but I never volunteered anything. It was painful. I started having bad nightmares. When I slept it was only a few hours a night. My wife became pregnant in my 2nd semester of school, so I took a night job at a major food manufacturer in their warehouse. Loading and unloading boxcars and trucks. I would work swing shifts, 3 pm to 11 pm and plan my schedule at school from 8 am to 1 to 2 pm carrying 15 to 17 units when possible.

My time in school was not always good. I still had a lot of buddies over in Vietnam. The SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) were demonstrating on campus. One day on the quad area they set up a tent. A girl was handing out leaflets and a guy was on a bullhorn demonstrating against the war. I had no problem with them demonstrating but when he started calling our soldiers baby killers and war criminals and encouraging the men in the campus to burn their draft cards, I went off on them. I told them they had no Idea what they were talking about, that I had just returned from there and that those men were fighting for their lives and doing what their country had asked of them. He in-turn called me a baby-killer, big mistake. I went behind their tent, took a trash can and dumped it on their tent and lit it on fire. I went back to the front and he started to come at me. I clocked him good. That was all it took. A buddy of mine that was there with me, grabbed me by the arm and dragged me out of there. The demonstration was over. I waited for days for the authorities but never heard any more about it. I continued my schooling and worked nights until January of 1974 when I graduated with my B.A. What helped a lot was a friend of mine who was also an Army vet; he was also working nights and receiving the G.I Bill and had the same schedule, so we commuted together. We kept each other going. After graduation I started working as a sales rep for a major tractor company, selling heavy equipment to farmers and contractors in the construction industry. I Worked for two different companies until 1991. I enjoyed the work and did well but had problems with management. I had difficulty with authority figures so I started my own business and ran it until my retirement.

I started going to the VA in the late 70’s. My nightmares continued. I had problems on the bottoms of my feet from some kind of blisters that would appear and spread out until the bottoms of my feet would turn black, then it would disappear and return periodically. I was also having problems breathing to the point of hyperventilating. I had no idea what was going on. Sometimes I felt like I was having a heart attack. The VA ran all kinds of tests on me including pulmonary tests and could not find anything wrong. They said the problems on my feet were probably jungle rot that was still in my system. I also told them I had constant ringing in my ears since my return. They ran tests on my hearing and said I had 25% hearing loss and tinnitus. During this time, I also signed up for the Agent Orange assessment.

Toward the end of the 80’s the VA diagnosed me as having high blood pressure and I was put on blood pressure medication. I was 38 years old. I did not come home the same person I was before. Years after my return I was overly anxious and combative. I had a bad temper and the nightmares continued. My wife and I grew more and more apart to where there was nothing more in common. In 1983 my wife and I split up. I remarried in 1985 and my wife and I have been together since. We have 4 children between us and number 7 grandchild is on the way.

In 1993 a man came knocking at my door, he was from the VFW. I invited him in to discuss my joining. He went over the program with me and I joined on the spot and I became a life member. That was my first contact with anything military outside the VA since my return. In 1994 I was reading the VFW magazine and in the back, they had a listing of reunions. I am looking through the list and I saw my old unit there. I literally started shaking, I could not believe it. After 26 years and no contact with any of my old buddies, the thought overwhelmed me. I waited about 2 days to calm down and called the contact that was listed. I talked to the representative of the 161st Assault Helicopter Company. The 161st was having a mini-reunion in conjunction with the VHCMA (Vietnam Helicopter Crewmembers Association) in Philadelphia in June. I was very nervous. My wife and I discussed going for 2- 3 weeks and finally decided to buy the tickets. It was one of the best things I ever did. I have reconnected with buddies that were in my platoon. We have visited each other’s homes, met on vacations together and gone to buddies’ funerals that have passed since. One just a couple of years ago from Agent Orange complications. I also made a lot of new friends at the reunion.

During the reunion in Philadelphia, we went to Wall in DC. I was able to rub the names of my buddies lost including my pilot that I flew with most of the time. He was shot through the head on a shoot down. He was from Bedford Virginia. We and I had plans on getting together when we were back here in the States.

In 1998 I was having a major nightmare and woke up in a cold sweat like I normally did. Usually, I would get up, walk around the house and try not to hyperventilate and calm myself down. This time was different, I felt like I was having a heart attack. It was 3 a.m. and I told my wife I needed her to take me to the ER. When we arrived they immediately hooked me up to the EKG. After running tests on me the doctor told me I had a major anxiety attack. I was in denial. “Me, anxiety? I don’t get anxiety.” He told me what to do in the future when having attacks like this. All these years and no one, not even the VA had ever explained that to me. I continued having them and in 2000, I went to the VA and spoke to a doctor about these attacks. He then referred me to a VA psychiatrist. He in-turn did numerous interviews with me along with a battery of tests. In the end, he diagnosed me as having severe PTSD and recommend that I file a claim for PTSD and loss of hearing. My claim was eventually approved.

In 1973 when our prisoners were released, I watched with both elation on behalf of them and their families and a great sadness because I knew we didn’t even come close to getting all of our prisoners of war released. When I was flying as a door-gunner our unit had been on 2 different missions in South Vietnam to raid POW camps. Somehow the enemy had intelligence we were coming and had moved the prisoners to other locations. Years later at our reunions, I have talked to many of the other crew members who experienced the same ending in their missions. I can’t help but think we left a lot of our own brothers over there. We didn’t only leave them in South Vietnam, we also left them in Laos and Cambodia. I also believe that of all the POWs that were released from North Vietnam, none of them were amputees. What happened to all the prisoners that weren’t ambulatory? I shudder to think of all the good men that were left behind.

In 1975 the evacuation of the embassy in Saigon speaks for itself. It made me sick to watch all the death through the years and lost resources. For what?

“My recent experience meant nothing, and no one was interested”

AN Richard (Dick) Hanover
U.S.S. Coral Sea

I received my draft notice and decided to enlist in the Navy rather than be drafted. So, in 1970 I joined. I was trained as an ASM, Aviation Support Equipment Technician, Mechanic.

I received my orders for Vietnam and felt that it was just part of the job. I supported the War but had lost faith in the Government’s ability to wage the war with the intent of winning.

I was on an Aircraft Carrier, USS Coral Sea CVA-43. We operated in the Tonkin Gulf providing Air Support and Interdiction strikes in Laos and North Vietnam. We were also tasked with mining Haiphong Harbor.

Coming Home

I made three cruises to Vietnam during my enlistment. When home I tended to lay low amongst civilians, wearing civilian clothes in public and keeping my hair on the long side of regulation to avoid attracting attention.

When we sailed back into San Francisco Bay there were two groups on the Golden Gate Bridge: One was the Coral Sea Committee from the City of San Francisco who welcomed us home with flowers dropped from the bridge and welcoming banners, the other was protestors who met us with anti-war banners and dropped garbage from the bridge. There were protestors outside the base at Alameda also. I avoided them.

The trip home was a week of sailing through the storm-tossed North Pacific via the Great Circle Route. I had a new motorcycle from Japan aboard and couldn’t wait to get back to California to ride it. The War was behind me. I knew little of the broader picture of our mission then and just wanted to be home.

I went on leave two weeks after getting home. I rode the motorcycle to Phoenix via L.A., visiting family on the way and arriving at my Dad’s house two days later. I was relatively invisible that way. I then visited my mother in Massachusetts. I flew from Arizona to Massachusetts and back to California, traveling in civvies except when necessary to fly Military Standby. While back home, my friends and Mother were just glad to have me there. My home was near Fort Devens, so Soldiers who had been in Vietnam, or were going, far outnumbered the local civilian population, so dissension was low in the area.

Both my Dad in Phoenix and my Mom in Shirley, Massachusetts were expecting me. Neither wanted to hear about where I’d been. I kept to myself.

I tried to simulate life as it had been before, but my friends had all moved on with their lives, and I was detached. There is no way they could understand how different life was for me. Our only common ground was partying. Only 2 of many friends from those days tried to stay in touch, and one of them has since died.

Basically, everyone wanted to relive the old days. My recent experience meant nothing, and no one was interested.

Afterward

I have never fully reconnected with my old life. I am in contact with far more other Vietnam Veterans than family or civilian friends

In 1973, I married a Filipina while I was TAD to Cubi Point in the Philippines. She has been my strongest supporter in all these years, and is and has always been the one person who best understands me and the emotional crises relating to my Naval Service.

I remember when Saigon fell in 1975. I had just left the Coral Sea before she went to Saigon for Operation Frequent Wind and later, the Mayaguez incident. I was working in a motorcycle shop in San Jose’, and none of my coworkers had a clue what turmoil I was feeling, having served during the desperate days of the Easter Offensive and Operation Linebacker. I felt abandonment issues that last to this day: I should have been there with my Shipmates.

I suppressed everything for years. There was no-one to talk to or share my pictures with. Reliving those days now has been good in that I finally have friends who “speak my language”, and bad in that 40+ years of suppressed emotion are often overwhelming.

I never felt that I needed help, but that may have been a mistake. Now that I have others with common experiences to talk to, I feel evermore disconnected with those who don’t share that experience with us, though having those friends has helped in other ways.

I have symptoms of half a dozen known dioxin-related issues that do not afflict anyone else in my family, but being Blue Water Navy, the Government denies that I had any exposure.

My wartime experiences profoundly changed me. I hardly know where to begin, but the preceding responses should give you an idea.

I have been to the Moving Wall twice: once on its first go-round, then again this year at the Hollister Motorcycle Rally on Independence Day. It’s moving to see the names of Shipmates (pilots and aircrew) who died on the ’71-’72 cruise. There are a lot.

Looking back, I am proud of my participation in the Vietnam War. It was not my first choice of things to do at that time in my life, but I did what was asked of me to the best of my ability.

“They wanted to know about his last days”

Corporal John Parise
3/26th Marines, U.S. Marine Corps

I wasn’t doing well in college and being a patriotic guy I joined the Marines. I served from 1966 to 1969. My MOS was 2542, teletype operator. I volunteered for Vietnam after being stationed in Okinawa for five months. I arrived in there on 7 July 1967 and was assigned to the 3/26th Marines at Khe Sanh.

A slot for my MOS, 2542 teletype operator, did not exist at Khe Sanh so, I was assigned as a message runner, convoy security duty, and perimeter guard.

I had originally extended for six months, but while it was in the works, a memo came down that they knew of an extensive buildup of NVA in the “region” of Khe Sanh and were expecting “something.” The point being they “knew” something was going to happen at Khe Sanh.

The Tet offensive was no surprise as the press reports it. I worked in the communications section of the 3/26th Marines, and we got a memo in early December, I saw the damn memo. It said basically that bad shit was coming down the road.

Because of this, I made up an excuse and canceled my extension. I know this makes me look bad, but the truth is that upper management knew Tet was coming.

Coming Home
I from San Francisco to Chicago on United Airlines first class! I was treated like royalty by the flight attendants. I did not run into any problems when I came home. No one spit on me or called me a baby killer.

My family didn’t know exactly when I was coming home. They did know that I would be home sometime at the end of December 1967. I took a cab home; no one was at the airport to meet me. When I got home, I dropped my sea bag on the sidewalk in front of my house and just stared at it for a few minutes. It seemed unreal. I guess I was a little numb at this point.

When I got home, I sat in the bathtub for almost an hour, my Dad knocked on the door to make sure I was alright. It had been a year since the last time I actually took a bath.

I had an argument with my Dad at the dinner table my first night home…I ultimately stood up and said to him…”I’ve paid my dues; I don’t need to listen to this shit now”. I walked away from the dinner table, and my Dad couldn’t believe I talked back to him. He later gave me the keys to his car, and I went out to a bar with some friends. While I was still home on leave, I read in the paper that a close friend of mine had died in Nam, just two weeks short of coming home. I went to his funeral and his parents invited me to their home afterward. They wanted to know about his last days and my thoughts of their son. That was the most difficult thing I ever had to do.

In my neighborhood, all Nam vets were treated with great respect.

Afterward
I never felt a disconnect like some vets did. When Saigon fell in 1975, I knew we would probably lose that war. The war was controlled by politicians; that never works out well.

I have heart disease from Agent Orange but otherwise, I am OK. I have no other issues, other than some bouts of survivor guilt.

My wartime experiences made me more cynical about authority. I used to believe our leaders knew what they were doing, militarily, but now I believe they didn’t have a clue as to what they were doing. We lose lives taking ground, only to abandon that ground soon after. What the hell kind of strategy is that?

I have never been to the Wall. I would probably break down and cry, and I don’t like being out of control.

Looking back, even though the outcome was bad, I was proud to have served, will always feel that way.