National Vietnam Veterans Day

March 29th, Welcome Home to all Vietnam Veterans

On March 28, 2017, President Donald J. Trump, signed into law The Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017, designating every March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day.

National Vietnam War Veterans Day joins six other military-centric national observances codified in Title 4 of the United States Code (i.e., Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day, Navy Day, Veterans Day).
March 29 was chosen to be celebrated in perpetuity as March 29, 1973 was the day Military Assistance Command Vietnam was deactivated.

The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration honors all United States veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces from November 1, 1955 to May 15, 1975, regardless of location.

November 1, 1955 was selected to coincide with the official designation of Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam (MAAG-V); May 15, 1975 marks the end of the battle precipitated by the seizure of the SS Mayaguez.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that today there are 6.4 million living Vietnam veterans and 9 million families of those who served during this time frame. We make no distinction between veterans who served in-country, in-theater, or who were stationed elsewhere during the Vietnam War period. All were called to serve and none could self-determine where they would serve.

Additional Background: U.S. involvement in Vietnam started slowly with an initial deployment of advisors in the early 1950s, grew incrementally through the early 1960s and expanded with the deployment of full combat units in July 1965. The last U.S. personnel were evacuated from Vietnam in April 1975.

This national commemoration was authorized by Congress, established under the Secretary of Defense, and launched by the President to thank and honor our Nation’s Vietnam veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice. In 2007, the 110th Congress incorporated language in House of Representatives (H.R.) 4986 authorizing the Secretary of Defense to conduct a program commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

H.R. 4986 was signed into law as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2008 by President George W. Bush on January 28, 2008.

44th U.S. President Barack Obama officially inaugurated this Commemoration at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Memorial Day, May 28, 2012.

Section 598 (Public Law 110-181) of the 2008 NDAA specifically addresses Commemoration activities.

Congress outlined a total of five objectives for this U.S.A. Vietnam War Commemoration, with the primary objective being to thank and honor Vietnam veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the Nation, with distinct recognition of former prisoners of war and families of those still listed as missing in action. The four remaining objectives highlight the service of our Armed Forces and support organizations during the war; pay tribute to wartime contributions at home by American citizens; highlight technology, science and medical advances made during the war; and recognize contributions by our Allies.

By Presidential Proclamation, The U.S.A Vietnam War Commemoration will continue through Veterans Day, November 11, 2025.


I had two homecoming experiences, and they were as different as night and day.

LTC Roger D. Shiley
18th Signal Detachment (TI), U.S. Army
AVEL Central, 520th Transportation Bn.

I joined the Florida National Guard in 1956 while I was a junior in high school. I had taken JROTC the year before, and the new high school did not offer the program. The main reason I joined was that I needed spending money and the Guard paid about $90 per quarter, which paid my car insurance. (And I kind of liked wearing a uniform !!!!)

In 1960, my company commander convinced me to attend OCS at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I graduated and returned to the National Guard as a 2nd Lieutenant. In March 1965, I applied for active duty. I received a form letter stating that the “Army had all the company grade officers they needed.” In October of 1965, I received a letter from the Army stating that if I wanted to come on active duty my application, which was “on file” would be used and I would receive orders in 30 days.

I reported to Ft Gordon Georgia to attend the Signal Corps Officer Basic Course and from there I was on my way to “Southeast Asia,” better known as “The Republic of Vietnam.” I understood that when I volunteered for active duty that I was going to Vietnam and I looked forward to it as an adventure. My second tour came in 1970, and I had mixed emotions about it because I had just graduated from flight school. My family now included five children, and I realized that the life insurance would be a “drop in the bucket” compared to the real needs would be.

I had just been promoted to Captain when I went to Vietnam, and I was assigned to the 18th Signal Detachment (TI). The TI stood for Technical Intelligence, and my detachment processed all captured communication equipment. We wrote several studies and backed up our work by translations of captured documents and interrogation of over 40 NVA/VC POWs.

I was stationed in Saigon in 1966, and I lived a sheltered life. The 18th was the largest intelligence HQ in Vietnam and had a pretty easy life until I started going out to interrogate POWs. I learned real early that if you were a Captain, you were expected to look out for yourself and any soldiers around you. I was demonstrating how to use a CHICOM radio, to some fellow officers, one day and we started receiving fire from a sniper. Some of the officers were not even armed, and my driver, and I returned fire while the twelve officers attending the demonstration headed for cover.

During this tour, I went to the First CAV headquarters to interrogate two prisoners. When I reported to the Colonel, in charge of the POW camp, he informed me that there was only one POW for me to interview. I was told that he would answer any questions I had. This POW (LT Van Ty) was captured with his radio operator, and he had decided not to answer any questions. On the flight from the point of capture to the POW camp, someone decided that Lt Van Ty would be more willing to talk to us if he didn’t have his radio operator with him so he “jumped” out of the helicopter at 3,000 ft. AGL. Lt Van Ty provided me with over forty pages of ORDER OF BATTLE information. For his help, I gave him two cans of SPAM.

I interrogated a POW at the 4th ID HQ, and he was terrified. I told him that he was alive because I needed some answers about a special radio that he was using and would he “help” me. He stated that he would answer questions if I would give him a canteen cup so he could drink water in the camp. I gave him a canteen cup, and a package of Lucky Strike cigarettes after he responded to 30 questions I had prepared for him. I never heard what happened to him, but I mentioned him in a special report that was sent to the Vietnamese Army POW commander.

When I received orders for my second tour in Vietnam, I asked my Signal Assignment Officer if I could go to a specialty school before returning and stated that the only school that he had allocations for was helicopter school. He also stated that he had six slots for the school, and he was required to turn the slots over to the Infantry branch if he couldn’t fill them in eight days. I was the class leader at the Signal Advanced Officers Class and I ask the class if anyone wanted to go to flight school…..Five days later I hand carried six applications for flight school to Signal Branch in Washington. All six of us graduated from flight school, and we all came back from Vietnam and retired after 20 – 30 years service.

At the time I went to Vietnam everyone was going and the ones that didn’t go were draft dodgers …
While serving my second tour in Vietnam, I had a company that had one soldier with a master’s degree, six that had a bachelor’s degree, and seven that had, at least, one year of college. Can you imagine what it was like being the commanding officer of a unit with these soldiers and you only had about two years of college credit?????

Coming Home
I had two homecoming experiences, and they were as different as night and day. In 1967, I arrived at Travis Air Force Base, and there were people waving “Welcome Home” signs. There was a two-night stay in the processing center and three other Captains, and I went into San Francisco to see the big city. We all wore our uniforms and people would come up to us and shake hands and talk “happy talk.” We had a big meal in a night club, and the head waiter came over and informed us that our tab was being paid by the owner.

My second homecoming was a lot different. After landing at Travis AFB we were bussed over to the processing center and about two miles out of the airport, our bus picked up an “escort” of about twenty bikers. The long-haired riders “escorted” the bus and we were subjected to catcalls and hand signals.
I had been appointed as the “bus commander” and several of us decided that we ought to stop the bus and meet these nice hippies. When I ask the bus driver to pull over for a few minutes, he refused and informed me that he had worked for the bus company for 24 years and if he stopped the bus he would be fired.

When we arrived at Travis AFB, we were processed in. As before we would be spending two nights before flying home. We were told, by the commanding officer of the center, that we could have a two-hour pass to go into town IF WE HAD CIVILIAN CLOTHES. No one would be allowed off base in uniform. Since none of us had civilian clothes we were stuck on base. One Major had civilian clothing, but he tried to get out wearing Army issue low quarter shoes, and he was not permitted to go.

I was comfortable to be home after both tours. After the first tour, I was assigned to Ft Gordon and my family lived “on post”. We did not feel the tension that was building up.

After the second tour I was assigned to a college to finish my college degree, and I wore civilian clothes for two years. I did have some high school friends that I would meet from time to time and sometimes I would feel that they were avoiding me but no one ever “got in my face” about my service in Vietnam.

In 1975, when Saigon fell, I was in Germany and watched the event on TV in the Stuttgart BOQ. I feel that I wasted two years of my life on a war that was a big political experiment, led by people that had no idea what they were doing.

Many years later I found out that I had prostate cancer and several other health issues related to the exposure to Agent Orange, I found out the details of Agent Orange and after a lot of hospital time, I have “recovered” from cancer. I have so many of the illnesses associated with Agent Orange that I have a 125% disability. I now spend a great deal of time working with our soldiers that have Agent Orange problems. I visit the Asheville VA hospital and encourage servicemen to file for VA benefits.

My children ask me, every once in a while, about my time in Vietnam. I once told one of them that I was sorry that I spent two years away from them just to further my career. To this, I was surprised that one of the boys said: “Dad, you did what you thought was right, and we are better off because you did serve.” Now, where is the logic of that??????

Did my service in Vietnam change my faith in God? Not so much at the time. Now that I have allowed time to take effect, I know that HE was watching over me all the time. He helped me through the tough times and prepared me for my next assignment.

I have been to the wall, and it is something that must be seen to believe. I found the names of soldiers that I had known, and it seemed that for just a few minutes they were alive again…….

In summary, I served in the Army for a total of 31 years. I served two years in Vietnam and eight years in Germany. I commanded units from the size of a 14 man detachment to a battalion that had over 1,400 soldiers. I held a top secret security clearance with special intelligence (SI) suffix. I was honored to have served with soldiers that were dedicated to their work and always made me look good.

We were young. We knew nothing.

BU3 Terry Molinari
MCB 4, Delta Co., Chu Lai

It was a strange war we fought in Vietnam. We were young. We knew nothing. Vietnam is tropical, mostly jungle with temperatures averaging ninety-five degrees in summer with high humidity. The mosquitoes were little-bitty things that could get through a pinhole.

Our battalion, U.S. Navy Seabees, MCB #4 was home based in Davisville, Rhode Island. We had just made it back from deployment in Spain. Word was out we were being transferred to the west coast Seabee Base at Port Hueneme, California. We would relieve MCB #10 in Chu Lai, Vietnam. It was November 1965. I had just turned twenty-one. It was legal to drink in California. I celebrated. It wasn’t pretty. A William Shakespeare quote comes to mind. “My Salad Days, when I was green in judgment.” As it turned out those “salad days” were more like salad years for me.

Our next stop was the U.S. Marine Base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for six weeks. There we were hosted by the Second Marine Division where additional training in combat demolitions, field communications, field medical, flamethrowers, and the M-60 machine gun. I remember Jack Lemon and I marching along a dirt road with packs, M-14’s and carrying the base plate of a .81 mm mortar. Some dropped out before we got to our “camping” destination. One such guy was a 2nd Class Builder named Sorenson. I never forgot the smirk on his face as he rode by us in the back of a deuce and a half kicking up dust in our faces. I never cared much for him after that. It was the early stages of the Vietnam War. LBJ extended all active duty enlistments for six months. Money and men where rapidly funneled into Vietnam.

The trip over was in a C-130. A rough ride with lots of stops in Hawaii, Guam, and Japan. When we landed in Chu Lai, I remember the back of the plane opening and we were greeted by a wall of heat. As I deplaned I saw one of those wagons that reminded me of the ones farmers used to load hay bales on. It was stacked with rubber body bags. “They’re going home”, an old timer informed us newcomers. “Welcome to Vietnam.”

Our camp, a tent city, was named “Camp Shields.” It was named after Navy Seabee Marvin Shields who was attached to the 5th Special Forces Group. He was mortally wounded during an ambush at Dong Xoai and died June 10, 1965. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

LBJ was President. All members of the Armed Forces had their active duty enlistments involuntarily extended for six months. I was due to get off active duty in November 1965. I got to spend my extra six months in Chu Lai, Vietnam about fifty-five miles south of Da Nang. Our main job was laying metal matting for an airfield, Butler buildings, hospitals and more.. Packing and repacking sand under runway matting. We worked 12-hour shifts and often had four-hour guard duty at night. Our C-ration meals were delivered to us. The weather was always hot or wet. Exhaustion came and went.

All villages looked the same. People, pigs, chickens and villagers squatting along the road chewing beetlenut. The one near our camp called An Tan was no different. The Vietnam Cong offered a reward for every American vehicle blown up. Every now and then a woman would pull out a grenade and toss it. Little children came up to us smiling; they could blow us and everything within two-hundred feet to hell. Little children wired by their own people, wired to explode. How could we Americans understand this culture? Their determination was beyond our comprehension.

Morale occasionally suffered from news of anti-war protests back in the states. People always supported our soldiers. It was hard to comprehend the country was against it. Our mind played tricks on us. I remember fearing I was gonna miss the freedom bird out of Chu Lai when it was time for me to leave.

The clock ticked. Those who were lucky enough to escape in one piece returned to their hometowns and civilian life. I remember landing at the Marine Base in El Toro, California. I got off the plane and kissed the ground. I transferred to Long Beach Naval Station for mustering out. It was 1966, Teresa Brewer was playing on the Jukebox “Till I Waltz Again With You.” I flew TWA from LA back to La Guardia Airport in New York. The stewardess gave me a pack of playing cards. I still have them. William Mozingo was in my Battalion in Nam. He was from Oceanside, Long Island. He had a cousin, Juanita Odom. She wanted to write to someone in Vietnam. I volunteered. My home was four hours from La Guardia in upstate New York. No one from my family came to meet me at La Guardia. Strangers did; Juanita, along with her mother and father. They took me to their home on Long Island and drove me upstate the next day. Her father was a baker and her mother was a school crossing guard. Juanita was going to college at the State University in New Paltz, New York. I never forgot their kindness. I often wonder what became of them.

Protests about the war were rampant in the states. It wasn’t popular to be a Vietnam Veteran. We thought we were doing the right thing and risking our lives for our country. When we got home we learned the country believed otherwise. It was the end of innocence.

The guys I served with were quality men. Some of us kept in touch, other lost touch and went on to live their lives. Years later I have reconnected with some. They were well on their way into geezerhood but their personalities were intact. There were a lot of guys from my hometown, Oneonta, N.Y., who served in Vietnam. Some didn’t make it back. I was one of the lucky ones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They both immediately flipped me the bird”

Ravis E. Stotts
Mobile Construction Bn. 62 (MCB-62), U.S. Navy

I joined the US Navy Seabees in June 1964. I guess I joined because I felt patriotic. My specialty was as a Construction Electrician.

I volunteered to go to Vietnam. I was eager to serve my country. I was assigned to Navy Mobile Construction Battalion 62 and was deployed to Vietnam twice. My first deployment was to Phu Bai and my second was to Da Nang.

Coming Home
Our reception in the United States was less than cordial. I didn’t expect protesters throwing feces and urine bags at us, flipping us off and calling us names. After the reception at the airport, I was uncertain and wary about going home, but I was cautiously excited.

For the most part, I was ignored by the public. I wasn’t really comfortable back home. Not at first; then it got worse since no one there had experienced what I had been through. They all thought that I was embellishing the events I talked about. I became disconnected from my old friends.

I did have some problems afterward. They began almost immediately. Heavy drinking, very jumpy and easily startled by loud noises, especially fireworks and car backfires. I never sought help professional help. My wife and kids have been a big help for me over the years.

My wartime experiences changed me. They made me much more pessimistic and untrusting of our government officials. I was lucky enough not to have been in any major firefights and trudging through the jungles like the grunts did.

My worst times were seeing people suffering the effects of war; some of those scenes haunt me at times still today. An old lady who wouldn’t shut up when the police told her to do so, so he shot her right in the face. People so hungry they dug out the pieces of meat in the hot, soapy barrels where we washed off our meal trays. Families mourning the loved ones who were killed in the villages.

When I returned stateside, I was treated the same as the rest of the returning GI’s; horribly. One thing sticks in my mind in particular: I was walking down the sidewalk in Oxnard and noticed a car passing by with a couple of pretty round-eyed girls in the back seat. I smiled and waved at them; they both immediately flipped me the bird. I thought that they must be local girls that didn’t like the military, but as the car passed, I saw it had Iowa plates on it. After I got home in Oklahoma, my friends and family treated me OK, no outright hostilities, but not a lot of them rushing up just to greet me and say welcome home. When I did tell of my experiences in Vietnam, most of them thought I was just making up war stories to play the hero. So after about two months of that, I called the local recruiter and told him that I wanted to re-enlist. At least, the Navy people understood me; my shipmates were more like family to me than actual blood kin. Turned out to be the best thing I did. I stayed in for 20 years, had a good career and raised a great family.

I don’t have any Agent Orange issues that I am aware of.

As far as the war goes, I think the war was lost by government bureaucracy. I have a few fond memories of good times with my fellow Seabees; for the most part, I have been able to put the bad times behind me.

My girlfriend was pregnant when I got home. I was totally upset, it wrecked me, it wrecked my homecoming, it wrecked everything – I didn’t know what to do.

Sergeant Tom Newton
A Company, 228th Aviation Bn., 1st Cavalry Division

I was drafted in the Army on 30 August 1966. I didn’t think about the war much. I was a 19-year-old brainless kid, who thought I was invincible. My father was a World War II Vet, all my buddy’s fathers were World War II vets too and nobody in my neighborhood was running for deferments. A couple of guys were going part-time to the junior college, but not many, and most of us were just in the pool for the draft. Two buddies and I were drafted on the same day, and we were the very first to go. We weren’t college material back then so we were grabbed first. One year and one month out of high school and we were gone. I was just kind of neutral about it; I said: “Well I guess if I get drafted, I get drafted.” If it’s meant to be then it’s meant to be, I’ll do what they want me to do, and I’ll give them two good years. I didn’t fight it, I didn’t think of running, I didn’t think of doing anything. I just went in and told my mother you’re going to have some more room here for two years. I was ambivalent about it. I was in the printing industry at that time and going nowhere. I needed a change or something different in my life, and it certainly gave me that.

I took Basic Training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and my AIT at Fort Dix, New Jersey where we lived in the old WW2 wooden barracks. The old, wooden, drafty, burn to the ground in two minutes type. My MOS was 05B20, Radio Operator. I don’t know how I got that. I must have tested well for that, but I’d say about 85%-95% of the graduates from Basic were going Infantry and the rest were combat support, and I was one of them. The rest were combat support MOS’s including linemen, cooks and office workers, many other combat support MOS’s.

I caught the tail end of the old-fashioned Korean War method of radio school. It was horrible and relentless, and all we did was practice Morse Code all the time. There was some radio voice procedure, but they concentrated on Morse Code. Of course, we never used it once when we got to Vietnam, so it was a total waste.

I wasn’t surprised when I received my orders for Vietnam. I was expecting it. I had a 30-day leave before heading to Vietnam. After my leave, I flew to Fort Lewis, Washington and reported in. I spent a day or two getting ready for Vietnam and then I flew to Kadena, Japan where I spent about 3 hours while the plane was refueled. Then it was on to Cam Ranh Bay. I spent about a day there waiting for my orders. I was assigned to the First Cavalry Division at An Khe. From there I was assigned to the 228 Aviation Battalion. I was lucky. Had I been assigned to an Infantry unit I would have been carrying a PRC25 radio.

I initially spent time getting acclimated to the country. I had an M14 in training, and I never saw an M16 in my life. When I got to Nam, they gave me an M16. They sent me to a three-day challenge school and taught me all I needed to know about Vietnam. I zeroed my M16 and received training about booby traps.

I also pulled guard duty. There was a starlight scope, and we learned how to work that. I wasn’t fond of it. Then I went on a patrol outside the wire of An Khe, and that was novel too. I don’t think it was a very dangerous area. But then again there was my invincibility playing a part.

I was then assigned to Alpha Company, 228th Aviation Bn. We had three companies of Chinooks in our battalion, and there were about 8 Chinooks in each company. We moved around all the time. 2 or 3 Chinooks from our Company would go out to one LZ and work there for eight weeks. Then 2 or 3 from our company would work in another LZ and every eight weeks we would hopscotch around to different LZ’s. So we kept Charlie guessing as to our habits. I picked up the pattern – every eight weeks we had to bag everything up, load up the helicopters and go to a new area. Once or twice I came back to An Khe, but I didn’t like that because it was a bit more boring. I usually just watched the overnight radio net and the perimeter radios of the guards. I would sleep in the morning if it wasn’t too hot and noisy. Then I had the day off.

I was there for TET of ’68. I was up at Phu Bai, near Hue. We watched Hue burn for the whole month. It seemed to burn in different colors almost every day – black, gray, brown and go back to black. I had been volunteering to fly door gunner and decided to stop. I figured I pushed my luck. I guess I was beginning to get smart. We didn’t know that they were making history back then. The history of it all wasn’t broadcast to us then just like the anti-war movement wasn’t broadcast to us.

I didn’t know what the feelings were back in the world, and that’s what really got to me when I got home. The indifference I was shown. People didn’t even look at you. You came home in your khakis and people just didn’t even care. That’s what I think hurt me more than being over in Vietnam.

Coming Home
By the time I left, I was a hard 5, a Sergeant E-5 and I had about four guys working below me. I was still only 20 at that time and they really looked up to me. I didn’t feel worthy of that kind of respect. I didn’t know how to handle this, and I felt bad leaving them there up north in Phu Bai. I didn’t know where they would be going from there. They couldn’t go much further north; the DMZ was right up there. They finally went down south to Bearcat but I didn’t know it at the time.

I just felt bad that I left them, I really did. I tried to get in contact with some of them after I came home. One guy did call me; he came home about two months later. He was flying home to Michigan and had a layover in Chicago. He stopped by or called me, I can’t remember which. He is the one who told me the Company went down to Bearcat after I left.

He told me that one fellow we knew was killed when his helicopter went down. It went down, crashed and burned. They never found his body. That was another bad feeling. He was a nice guy. You don’t hear anything about the guys and unit once you leave. Everybody just wants to get away, get apart, and forget about it. You just could not maintain contact with anybody.

I felt bad about leaving, but I wasn’t willing to extend my tour or go back. I still had five months left to serve on my enlistment, so I had to go back to Fort Knox and teach radio school for five more months. They asked me to reenlist and I said “No thanks.”

I came home the exact same route I followed going there. I went to Cam Ranh Bay to catch my flight home. I spent about a day, a day and a half there, got new khakis and chevrons, and they put the medals on us we had earned and we left. We flew to Kadena, Japan and back to Fort Lewis, then to O’Hare and quietly slipped back into society.

I had no problems when I came home. No protesters, nothing. Again I was so early; this was March of ‘68, and it wasn’t really cranked up by then. We had no rebellious colleges around here yet. It might have been going on at the University of Wisconsin, but I don’t know.

We flew into O’Hare, and there were 3 or 4 of us who lived on the north side of Chicago. We shared a cab from the airport. We got out of the car one by one at their houses and walked into the house that was it. My folks knew that I was coming home but not exactly when. I didn’t want to give anybody heart attacks, so I had written them a letter and called them when I landed on the west coast.

People didn’t notice me. They didn’t say anything. A lot of people didn’t know I was gone except that I had shorter hair and a tan face. Being that it was March, everybody was white, and I was the only one that had a tan. There were no other Vietnam vets around, anywhere. I was the first and only one around. There was nobody to talk to or commiserate with and relate to.

Everything had changed. My friends had moved on. Many of them got married to get a deferment. I didn’t see many of them, maybe one or two and that was it. I felt out of place because a couple of them were smoking pot and taking drugs and I wouldn’t go in that direction. They had long hair and were thinking differently than me.

I only had 30 days leave, and I spent a lot of time with my girlfriend, and that was another story. My girlfriend was pregnant when I got home. I was totally upset, it wrecked me, it wrecked my homecoming, it wrecked everything – I didn’t know what to do. I got through that on my own, no counseling, nothing like that. It ended in disaster so I just went on to Fort Knox and that got me away from the neighborhood. I finished up my last five months at Fort Knox. So that was a nice welcome home for me. That didn’t help either. From there I just continued on – doing the best I could on my own. I was finally discharged in August of ’68.

After the war, I harbored it all inside. I didn’t even share much of it with my wife. She couldn’t relate to it. I mean she was sympathetic to the war and the veterans. Her father was a veteran, and her brother was in the Reserves and all that. Her family was very veteran positive, but I never shared much with her. I had a problem with anger control and wanting to be alone a lot. I now know that those were post-traumatic stress symptoms. I never sought treatment; I never thought I had any problems with that.

Well, that helped to destroy my marriage on a low burn. And this was my second marriage. My first marriage only lasted a year because I was trying to make up for lost time but that was bad from the beginning and hardly counted. A year or two later after I was married the first time, I met my second wife, and I was totally different. I had a lot of faith in that, but that marriage broke up too. I would say 11, 12 years ago after 27 years of marriage and that was partly my fault too. I was out in left field for the last 20, 25 years and just couldn’t get over thinking about Vietnam and what went down and what went wrong and it was just no good. I can’t get it out of my mind – just totally sent my life off in a different direction. She told me “You’re not the man I married, and you got to get some help!” and I did. I said “Okay, I’m gonna do it. If you say so, I’ll do anything to try to save the marriage” and we were in big trouble by then and I went into private therapy for a year – one day a week for a whole year and then my therapist said you’re post-traumatic, and I said “How did you know I’m post-traumatic?” I don’t think I even told her I was a Vietnam vet; I don’t even think I told her I was a veteran. And she said, “You’re post-traumatic because I was trained by the VA and you are a post-traumatic gentleman,” I say “Oh great!” and then it started to come to me at that time. She saw me for a whole year, and she said I can’t help you anymore you’re going to have to go to the VA. So I went to a psychiatrist down at West Side Hospital – this was about 13 years ago, waited in line, waited in the lobby there for about an hour and a half, and I sat down with this guy. He was a foreign Romanian gentleman and as soon as I stepped down, he said “I’m diagnosing you with post-traumatic stress disorder” – I said “But I haven’t even said a thing.” he said “You don’t have to say much more, I’ll listen to you a bit, but we’ll be in touch with you shortly.”

About eight days later I got a call from Hines, and they asked me to come in and see a doctor Chimmas, he was a psychologist, and he headed up a group therapy for Vietnam vets with P.T.S.D., and that was very helpful for me. It was a group of about 14 guys, all my age and we all had the same crap. It was amazing because up till then I thought I was the only guy in the world that thought like me, and everybody else was wrong. I got a lot off my chest there and listened to a lot of other people and it was good, it was very good for me. I did that for two and a half years and then it became monotonous and repetitious and there were a couple of guys there who started to get on my nerves. I know some of these guys were sort of retired and not working, and I told the doctor, I said “Listen, it’s time for me to move on.” and he said okay.

When Saigon fell in ’75, I kept saying all this for nothing. I did all of that for nothing and I was unhappy about it that we pulled out and I just couldn’t stand to watch it happen. I was just unhappy, and I began my lifetime of depression over it, wasting all that for two years – all that for nothing and I couldn’t believe it. I think we should have put up more of a fight, but I guess we chose not to, politically.

I have never been to the Wall in Washington. I don’t think I’m avoiding it. I’ve been to the movable Wall and that’s been no problem. I don’t have a lot of deceased friends on the wall. Being combat support, we were lucky.

I have no interest in going back to Vietnam and visiting. And I think it’s so changed that I wouldn’t recognize anything. I don’t have any fond memories of going back there. I guess we did our best, I did anyhow, and I don’t have any regrets about that. It was a learning experience for me; it taught me how to survive on my own and learn about myself and others. I have to look at the positive side of that. I wish it hadn’t changed me so much for the negative because I don’t trust a lot of people today and even when I talk to my two brothers who were not in the service – they are similar to me as anybody in the world as can be. My brother was drafted right after me but went to Okinawa in the Army, and my older brother was never drafted, he had children, and he was five years older than. So I was the only bitter one among the three brothers. I think that’s made a negative change in me. But other than that, I don’t regret going into the service, it was a great experience for me all the way around including now. Those are my final thoughts; I just wish the ending would have turned out differently. As far as the World War II, guys, you’ll never see me at an honor flight. I am bitter about the way they treated us and abandoned us. Korean guys too. I don’t see anywhere in history where they’ve rallied to our assistance. Say, “Hey, let’s go support the Vietnam vets” You know, I’ll be okay with them I will shake hands with them, and be nice to everybody but I’ll never exonerate them. I’m not a forgetting type of guy I guess.

“What sickened me was the unconcern for the War”

Sergeant Jim Markson
377th Security Police Squadron, U.S. Air Force

My Father was a World War One Veteran, infantry. He was wounded twice and discharged under general conditions for “Misrepresentation of Age.” He had run away from home, joined the Army at 16. His mother informed the Army about this and he was sent back to Virginia and discharged. I was from a second marriage; my Father was 46 years old when I was born in 1947.

My Uncle Joe on my mother’s side of the family was an infantry officer and was killed outside of Berlin during World War Two. My Uncle Ernie was with the Army Engineers, Uncle Mickey was in the Navy, and my Uncle Frank was in the Army Intelligence in World War Two.

My Uncles never spoke of the war. My Father very briefly. However I’ll never forget one day riding in the car with him, I was 16, it was a freezing morning and I was trying to make the heat come on real fast in the car, which was not going to happen until the car warmed up. He looked at what I was doing and sarcastically said, “When I was your age, I had a bayonet on my side and a rifle in my hands, and I wasn’t shitting in my pants either.”

I enlisted in the Air Force. I had a friend who was a civilian air traffic controller, it was an excellent job and he learned it in the Air Force. After he had been discharged, he went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration. It sounded like a good deal to me.

I failed the eye exam for Air Traffic Controller so they put me in Security Police. I was in tears at the time. I spent my entire four years in the Air Force as a Security Policeman.

After boot camp and Security Police School, I was assigned to a Strategic Air Command base at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It would turn out to be the strictest military environment I would ever experience in my four years in the Air Force. I guarded B-52’s carrying nuclear weapons on 24-hour alert status, day and night. The winters were brutally cold and I would be out on the flight line for 8 hours.

I knew I could not take this for four years and the only way out was to volunteer for Vietnam, which I did and to this day I don’t regret it one bit. I was fortunate only to spend six months in SAC. Many years later I would hear similar stories from other Security Policemen who did multiple tours in Vietnam rather than take a chance and be stationed at a SAC base back in the States.

I arrived in Saigon, Vietnam on 14 March 1967. I went to Vietnam alone, not with any unit as a group. I came home alone. I was assigned to Security Police Squadrons and went where I was needed.

My first base was Phu Cat in Binh Dinh Province. I was only there for one month and then I was reassigned to Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base. I was sent TDY (temporary duty) to Bien Hoa for 30 days; then I returned to Tan Son Nhut until my DEROS (Date Eligible for Return from Overseas, the date we came home) on March 14, 1968. I survived the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Coming Home
The 377th Security Police Squadron had a tradition when it was finally your time to go home. At what is known as Guard mount, the NCOIC would read off the post assignments and any other necessary information before we would go out to our assigned post. The security policeman who was going home would then address the flight with any words of wisdom or goodbye or whatever he wanted to say. It was going to be his last night on post. Then at exactly midnight, not a second after, the SAT (Security Alert Team) would come out to your post with your relief, take you to the armory where you would turn in your rifle forever. You would spend the next three nights alone and unarmed in the barracks, waiting to go home.

I finally made it to Travis Air Force Base outside of San Francisco on March 15, 1968, and the Tet Offensive was still sending shockwaves throughout the United States. I can remember going through Customs, the Agents didn’t check a thing but I do remember very clearly one agent gave us a big, “Welcome Home, Boys” as he just waved us through to the World.

I was determined to travel straight through to New York, no matter how many stops we made all over the Pacific, nor how long I had to wait at the airport for a flight. There would be no checking into a hotel for the night. I had only one thing on my mind ….HOME.

I can clearly remember landing in the early morning hours at New York City’s JFK airport. It was Sunday, a typical March morning, sunny and cold. I was purposely wearing my summer dress uniform and sporting my Vietnam tan. The airport was not busy and it was easy getting a taxi. The cab driver was an older, heavy-set, grisly kind of a guy and I could see him checking me out in the rearview mirror. Finally, he spoke to me, “Where you comin from man”? Vietnam, I replied. “You a lucky sumna a bitch.” New York, Ya gotta luv it.

I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. I had the cab driver let me out on the corner and I walked home and slowly let myself in as I had the key to our house. My folks didn’t know when I was coming, I wanted it to be a surprise. I saw my Father with his back to me just as he was leaving his bedroom, headed for the bathroom.

“Dad,” he turned and looked at me and yelled back into his bedroom, “Mother, Jimmy’s home.” I can re-live that moment as if it is happening right now. Then in my Father’s inimitable way, he said to me “Why didn’t you tell us you were coming home, there’s nothing to eat in the house.” That would be the day; we were fortunate to have always eaten well, and today would be no different.

I wasn’t spat on or treated poorly. People that knew me well gave me a big smile and were glad to see I made it home safe. Others were not so kind and for the most part uninterested and I was just ignored. After maybe one or two forced questions of concern, no one really cared. I had two more years to serve in the Air Force and after my leave I would be going to Holland. There was a mistake on my reporting date. I was originally going to take six weeks leave in Brooklyn but they made a mistake and I was supposed to report back in four. But I felt so sickened in my hometown that I cut my leave short after three weeks.

What sickened me was the unconcern for the War, no one was paying any attention and could care less that I had just returned. I could not relate to my friends who had not served, they just had no clue to what it was like and lost interest very fast in what I had to say, so I stopped saying anything except to friends that had been in Vietnam. We kept it very private amongst ourselves and when a non-vet friend would walk in on our conversation we would quickly dummy up and change the subject. My Mother was in tears when I left but I just couldn’t take it here anymore.

I did not feel disconnected with my family. They were great. I come from a family with a large veteran involvement, World War One, and Two.

My friends were another story. It didn’t take me long to find out that I could not discuss Vietnam with them at all. When I was with a friend that also returned from Vietnam we would kind of look around before we spoke about Vietnam to see if any civilians were within earshot. Imagine; we had to kind of keep it a secret, we didn’t want anyone to know we were Vietnam veterans. Sad.

April 30th, 1975, the day Saigon fell. I remember that day vividly. And it has affected me for the rest of my life. I was living in Miami Florida at the time. The Miami Dolphins were all the talk of the town and they had won a game of some sort. People came out in the streets, set off fireworks and drove through the streets blowing their horns. I was home April 30th, 1975 and heard briefly that the war in Vietnam was officially over! I went outside to listen and see what kind of a reaction there would be to this. There was absolutely nothing! To this day, I look at all the emphasis and adulation given to sports figures with scorn. Since when did being able to catch a ball or run fast equate with moral integrity and role models for our youth. Something is wrong with this picture, and more and more I can’t stand professional sports of any kind.

My problems followed me from Vietnam to this very day. The biggest hurdle was to seek out help from the Veterans Administration, which I did not do until 2007. This was after the suicides of 2 neighborhood friends, who I was most fortunate enough to be stationed with for a month in Bien Hoa in 1967. I was diagnosed with PTSD in December 2007, 39 years after I left Vietnam. It is an insidious situation; there is no ”cure”, yet you can learn why you do the things that you do and be aware of what is going on.

Agent Orange issues? The jury is still out on that. Maybe, maybe not. Nothing specific at this time.

Looking back, 45 years, I can now say I have NEVER been prouder to be a Vietnam Veteran, I have a Vietnam Veterans of America license plate on my car and I kind of look down on that 99%, that never served.

In my travels, I meet a lot of people and always try to strike up a conversation when I come across a stranger who looks like he or she may have been in the military. This kind of sums it up as to how I feel now. If I meet a guy, and he tells me he was an Army Chopper pilot, of course, my immediate response is “Vietnam?” He says, “No I was lucky, I went to Germany.”

“Lucky” I don’t know about that. I believe that other Vietnam vets and I truly know the meaning of that word. We are the “Lucky” ones who have returned home alive, who witnessed the unfairness and horror of life in a war zone, survived and have weathered the ridicule, harassment, and disdain of our own countrymen, with a dignity and honor that no other generation of Veterans has ever displayed. And to finally be treated with the respect we so sorely deserve 50 years later!

Vietnam was the fiery crucible that forged a marine rifleman into a priest.

Rev. J. Houston Matthews
Alpha Company, 1/9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division

In March 1968, Houston had lost a leg and an eye after being wounded in a rocket attack on an outpost of the big marine combat base at Khe Sanh. “I don’t hold any bitterness about it.”

For Houston Matthews, Vietnam was the fiery crucible that forged a marine rifleman into a priest. “I was intrigued by what I thought was the glamour of war, John Wayne and all that sort of thing when Vietnam was coming along in the mid­ sixties,” Houston said. “I had spent a year in a military high school in Chattanooga and knew something about discipline and teamwork. I rather liked that kind of life. Just before graduating from high school in Gastonia, I told my father that I thought going into the military might be the best thing for me. I felt I was too unsettled to go right into college.”

Like a lot of other southern families, mine has a military tradition that goes back to the Civil War. My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge with General Patton’s Third Army and was very proud of that, but he didn’t want me to join one of the services, especially the marines, with Vietnam heating up. He had suffered a nervous breakdown after the war and spent eighteen months in a hospital during his recovery. After I went down to the Marine Corps recruiting office in Charlotte and signed up, he got very upset and told me that war was serious business. He was certain that I would go to Vietnam and get killed or injured. As a man of some influence in our community, he tried to pull some strings to keep me from going into the marines. My mother was more realistic about my decision. “He’s of age now,” she told my father, “and he signed the papers. As much as I don’t want him to go do this, we’ve got to let him follow his path.”

I wanted to be in the marines because I believed they prepared their people for combat better than the army did. At least, that’s what some of the people I talked to said. They had been through marine boot camp and extensive infantry training afterward. I liked the idea of being a grunt and even thought of going into special reconnaissance units; I was just intrigued by the excitement of that sort of thing.

I had just turned twenty when I got to boot camp at Parris Island. I was a year or two older than most of the other guys, and maybe that’s why I didn’t have much trouble with boot camp except for some of the psychological games the DI’s liked to play. I never felt anybody was badgering me, though, nor did I ever see a DI hit anybody.

I got my orders to Vietnam while I was at Oceanside, California, for three weeks of advanced infantry training. I guess 85 percent of the guys in my company got orders for Vietnam as either machine gunners or riflemen. My parents were in a state of shock when I told them I was going, even though they knew the handwriting was on the wall. I went home to Gastonia for my thirty-day leave and soon began to feel something was being left unsaid among us. We all went down to Fort Lauderdale for a week, but even in that relaxed atmosphere, my father and mother couldn’t bring themselves to tell me how afraid they were that something might happen to me in Vietnam.

I landed at Da Nang in what must have been hundred-degree heat. When the tailgate of the C-130 that had brought us over from Okinawa dropped down, I couldn’t believe the heat, the smell, and the dirt of Vietnam. Most of the marines I got thrown in with at Da Nang were dirty and grungy; they were half-shaven and hadn’t had a shower in at least a week. I stayed at Da Nang for two weeks in a staging area before I got to my unit, Alpha Company, 1/9th Marines. I remember getting on an H-34 chopper with six or seven other guys and flying from Da Nang up to Dong Ha, which was almost on the DMZ. I kept all my unit locations written in an old Bible that I took with me to Vietnam.

The guys at Alpha Company kidded me a lot about being a greenhorn. Fortunately, a young buck sergeant from Puerto Rico took me aside and told me about the things to watch out for. Apparently, he had lived most of his life in Puerto Rico before moving to New York City. with his family. He knew about tropical places and how to get around in them. This guy was almost like an Indian-he had a sixth sense in the field. He could look at a bush and tell if somebody had passed that way.

I also went through a two-week training program at Dong Ha in which I and the other new guys learned how to maintain our health in Vietnam, which meant taking malaria pills and purifying water with Halazone tablets as much as anything else. But we also learned about ambushes and using our M-16s on “rock and roll,” which meant automatic fire. My marine unit apparently was one of the first to get M-16s and we soon found that it was much harder to hit a target on automatic fire than on semi­ automatic.

I started going out on small patrols of five or six guys after I finished this course. A buck sergeant or a corporal was usually in charge when we went a couple of miles or so out in the hills, which resembled the Appalachians to a great extent. The company-size patrols that sometimes went out might go seven or eight miles.

The first time I went on a patrol, we were going through some woods when all of a sudden small-arms fire opened up on us. I heard a scream and looked around to see that a young guy about my age had been hit in the back. He was bleeding from three or four wounds Charlie had really nailed him good with an AK47 or a light machine gun. We all started shouting “Corpsman! Corpsman!” I ran back to the wounded grunt, but the corpsman beat me to him. He flipped the kid over and tried to put a big bandage on him, but there was nothing he could really do. The kid died within a few minutes of being hit.

While all this was going on, everybody was flat on the ground, firing wildly into the woods. We never saw the people who killed one of us. What we couldn’t see, we couldn’t hit. The kid’s death was a real shock to me. The only other dead person I had seen was at the site of an auto accident when I was a child. It really brought the seriousness of Vietnam together for me. I think my whole process of living out each day began then and there.

My outfit stayed at Dong Ha for three weeks and then moved on to the combat base at Con Thien. We took a lot of incoming rocket and mortar fire at Dong Ha, but Con Thien was much worse. I had been at Con Thien only three days when a 122mm rocket sailed over and hit a command bunker under construction. The rocket went right down the tube, instantly killing a lieutenant and a radioman because the sandbag roof hadn’t yet been put on the bunker. I vividly remember a captain, a guy from New York, being carried half alive out of all that smoking wreckage. He only lived a couple of days.

Con Thien was the first place I saw airbursts. The guys were always talking about them. One day I saw a puff of black smoke suddenly appear in the air. Somebody yelled at me, “That’s an airburst! Get down, get underneath something!” As I scrambled to find some shelter, a shower of hot metal hit me from the explosion. I was lucky that time. Marines were constantly getting killed by incoming fire at Con Thien.

I went to Khe Sanh in January of 1968 and it was like Con Thien all over again, only worse. One day we took seventeen hundred rounds of incoming fire; nobody could move without risking death. My battalion had a perimeter outside Khe Sanh proper, maybe a mile and a half from the base. We formed a kind of human tripwire, sent out there to help keep the NVA away from Khe Sanh. While I was there, another outpost on a little knoll a mile farther out was overrun by four hundred NVA. They charged a sixty-man platoon of marines and killed most of them in hand-to-hand combat. I had to go out there after it was all over to help secure the outpost and pick up the bodies.

By this time, I had seen a lot of people get killed in Vietnam. Every day to me became another day to survive, another day closer to going home.

I went to Vietnam as a spiritual person. I felt a calling to the ministry, but there were certain things about papal authority that I couldn’t buy into, so the priest steered me toward the Episcopal Church. It was there that I had a spiritual experience during communion. I believe I felt the presence of God at the altar rail. It was not an intellectual feeling, but something more physical, a feeling of warmth and security. In my mind, it was much like the times my grandmother would hold me close to her and assure me everything would be all right after I had been hurt.

And so, I looked at the things that were happening in Vietnam and I began to question the whole idea of war and why God could let these things happen. I didn’t feel that God was doing something terrible to us, but rather that we were doing something terrible to each other.

Let me give you an example. I saw the face of the first person I killed in Vietnam. We were in a village outside Cam Lo that had been infiltrated by VC and started to draw some fire from the rear of a building about forty yards away. I had an M-79 grenade launcher at the time and quickly dropped a couple of rounds in the area where the fire was coming from. When we went to check things out, a dead woman was back there. Beside her was some kind of bolt-action rifle I had never seen before, maybe a sniper rifle.

The woman was about twenty years old. She was wearing typical VC clothing, a conical straw hat, black pajamas, and sandals. I was responsible for the death of this woman, and even though I was well aware that she had been trying to kill us, what I had just done bothered me immensely. I tried to rationalize my way out of it: I didn’t really want to fight anybody, but this is war, I had to defend myself. Still, I felt a burning sense of guilt about the woman ‘s death.

I tried to talk to some of the other guys about it, but most of them were at the point where killing just didn’t really make a damn to them. They had been close to buddies who got killed, and their hearts had become hardened. I know it was difficult for a lot of the guys to avoid hating the Vietnamese but thank God there were a few exceptions. One of them was a Navy corpsman with a real sensitivity to people; he would help every­ body. But his kind of compassion seemed rare.

I got wounded on March 28, 1968, while I was on the perimeter outside Khe Sanh. My company commander had warned all of us to stay in bunkers because the NVA had a habit of sending in rockets and artillery around noontime, but this was a bright, clear day, a good day to be outside. I had just come off a patrol and was standing around talking to some new guys when somebody asked me to distribute little cans of Dole pineapple juice around the area. I scooped up a bunch of cans in my shirt and started across the red dirt road to a bunker. Suddenly-bam! I was thrown flat on the ground. I felt like a football player who makes it to the end zone and gets tackled by somebody who isn’t supposed to be there.

I heard a couple of rockets go overhead and then the voice of Henry Radcliffe, my company commander. He was kneeling beside me. “What are you doing?” he yelled. “What are you doing? I told you not to get out of that bunker!”

I think a 122mm rocket got me. The explosion didn’t blow off my leg; it just filled the front of me with shrapnel, including my right eye. I started praying almost automatically when I felt the blast, and the same warm presence that I had known two years earlier at the altar rail in Gastonia flowed through my body. I asked God to pull me through whatever had happened to me. I knew, spiritually, that he was present with me and that he would not abandon me.

People kept pushing me down every time I tried to get up because a corpsman was putting a tourniquet on my left thigh. He popped me with morphine and put a patch over my bleeding eye. All the while, rockets were whistling over us, maybe twenty or thirty in all, on their way to Khe Sanh. The one that got me probably was a short round.

The marines who were helping the corpsman put me on a mule, a little flatbed utility cart used at a lot of firebases in Vietnam. The corpsman jumped on it and rode with me down to the underground surgical hospital at Khe Sanh. The people there put IVs in me and checked the extent of my wounds. I was moving in and out of consciousness because of the morphine, but I do remember that a medevac chopper came in later with several more wounded Marines. The NVA fired mortars at the chopper when I was rushed out to it on a stretcher for a flight to the USS Repose, a big white hospital ship on station off Danang. On the ship, I saw a long line of stretchers, America ns from all over Vietnam. I was just another body waiting for help.

When I finally got to the operating room, I was taken through doors that had blood all over them. The OR was a massive room inside the ship. On the operating tables were guys moaning in pain and seeing and hearing them shook me badly.

My surgeon was a Lieutenant Commander from Atlanta. I asked him, “Are you going to amputate my leg?”

“Not unless I have to, son. Not unless I have to.” Then I asked him, “Am I going to die?”

No, he said, I wasn’t going to die. I think I needed more comfort than that. I yelled to no one in particular, “Do you have a chaplain?” Somebody said a Catholic priest was in the operating room. When he got over to me, I said: “Start praying, Father.”

The next thing I knew, I was out. I woke up five days later with a feeling of sheer terror: both my eyes had patches on them. Everything was dark. “Oh, my God,” I thought, “am I blind?” I was truly frightened. Then I ran my left hand down my leg, but there was no left leg to feel. All I could do was scream in horror at what I was learning about myself. The surgeon heard me scream and came over to my bed.

“What’s worrying you?” he said in a reassuring voice. I told him I could see nothing and that I was afraid I was blind. He said a piece of shrapnel in my left eye had caused a traumatic cataract to form. A bandage had been put over it for protection. “Your left eye is fine,” he said. “And with surgery, your right eye should be corrected.” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and I lost the right eye.

Coming Home
A lot of people who got badly wounded in Vietnam were sent to hospitals in Japan, but I went straight to the United States after five days on the Repose and a couple of nights at the Army hospital in Da Nang. The layover in Da Nang was very uncomfortable for me. In the bed next to me was a South Vietnamese soldier who had been hit by a flamethrower. He was burned over much of his body and screamed all night long in pain. The nurses gave him sedatives and put wet sheets over him, but there seemed to be little else they could do.

I went from Da Nang to Philadelphia Naval Hospital, where I stayed until November of 1968. The first time my parents came up to see me, they just went to pieces. It was tough on them and on me. But after that first time, they started to adjust to what had happened. They stayed a week in Philadelphia on their first visit and came to see me every day. After that, they came up once a month until I started going home on short leaves.

A lot of thoughts about my future were going through my head. I was twenty-one years old; I had lost a leg and an eye. Would a woman ever be attracted to me? Would I be able to get a job or finish college?

I was badly depressed for a month after getting to Philadelphia. The hospital had counselors who would come by and talk to patients if they wanted such help. The counselors didn’t force themselves on anybody, though I sometimes wish they had. A lot of guys there didn’t take advantage of the counselors, therapists, or ministers who were available to help them. The local Episcopal priest had a ministry in the hospital and he came to see me once a week. With his help, I started to work through my feelings and gain the strength to overcome what had happened to me.

I was really back in battle. I think I won it when the spiritual side of me allowed the emotional and physiological sides of me to be healed. I believe all of us are three-dimensional beings: mind, body, and spirit. If one of those dimensions is not in union with the others, we are out of balance. The spiritual dimension unlocked the door that allowed me to accept my disability and overcome it. That did not mean I had dealt with Vietnam in its totality or everything else that had happened. But by the time I left the hospital, I was happy with myself.

I went back to Gastonia and lived with my family for six months, doing very little. I was weak and had to get used to the prosthesis. I did nothing more strenuous than visiting friends at Wake Forest, Chapel Hill, Duke, and the University of Georgia. Although some of my friends were from families that didn’t support the war, most of them didn’t seem to hold the fact that I had fought in Vietnam against me. A couple of my friends at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest who were involved in protesting the war were very critical of the soldiers in Vietnam, however, and their attitude upset me enough to get into a fight with one of them.

I felt such comments attacked me personally. For about a year after I came back I gave talks to high school kids and civic groups about the war­ you know, the hero comes back. It seemed to me that most people in their thirties and forties supported the war, but the young people were all mixed up about it.

By late 1969, though, I had come to believe the war was a futile effort. I thought we really needed to get out of Vietnam, and I backed off from giving talks. I had begun to hope that the country would have enough sense to get the war over with.

Several events came together about a year after I returned to Gastonia. My father died in a car accident and I got married to a girl who was four years younger than me. The marriage lasted all of four months. I had intended to start college at Chapel Hill, but after my father’s death, I felt I should stay close to home so that I could help my mother. Since Belmont Abbey College was only a few miles north of Gastonia, I enrolled there and earned my degree in psychology in 1974.

I was thinking seriously about entering the ministry during this time of transition. I went to see the Episcopal bishop of western North Carolina in the fall of 1972 and talked to him about my interest in the ministry. As a result, I met with the Commission on the Ministry several times and received enough encouragement to enter the General Theological Semi­ nary in New York. I was married to my second wife when I began three years of study for the ministry there in the fall of 1974.

After my ordination, I served Episcopal parishes in Louisiana for nine years. I was in Lafayette for three years and in Opelousas for six as the rector of a small parish before coming to West Columbia.

Yes, I think about Vietnam. I can see it now as a time and a place, one that in the end was a good experience for me. Coming from an upper-middle-class white background, it brought me together with people I might not have otherwise met-people who lived different lives, who had different religions and beliefs. It let me experience life in a way that showed me people are more important than money, power, or status.

It may seem paradoxical to say this, but Vietnam put my life back together. I think I was moving in a very destructive direction when I was in high school. I was a party boy and a hell-raiser. Vietnam made me realize that the world contains a lot of suffering as well as joy.

I’ll never be able to rationalize why we were in Vietnam or why we did the things we did. But I can truly say it was an experience that enabled me to be who I am today. I thank God for that and I’m glad I went.

“A Divine Plan?”

Corporal Phil Eldridge
U.S.M.C., In-Country Calibration Complex

I would say that the reason I went over when I did was to be sure that when I got back, I would be close to finishing my 4-year enlistment. I had seen many guys come back with 3 or 6 or 9 months or so left on their enlistment and they were having issues dealing with the regular stateside life. They would say “Back in the world, it is so different” Not that they were ungrateful for getting back in one piece, but they had issues dealing with the Chicken Shit that occurs on most military bases. So I decided to wait until it was the right time to pull the trigger so to speak and take the “Westpac” orders.

When I arrived in Vietnam I was assigned to In Country Calibration Complex in Da Nang. Our area of operations included all Marine bases where they had an avionics shop. Basically Chu Lai, Marble Mountain, Phu Bai, Quang Tri, Dong Ha and of course, Da Nang.

My time in country was relatively easy, being in the Air Wing we lived pretty well compared to our “Grunt” brothers. It was because of them that we did because we were always pretty safe, in the rear with the gear.

This is a story of Phil Eldridge, written by a friend, former Marine officer and retired FBI agent.

“Guys, this is a little tale about Phil, who was a Vietnam Marine like me. I was in-country until April 1967, whereas Phil was there in 1969. We didn’t know each other until a couple of years back, but we now have a very special connection. Like me, Phil readily indicates to folks that he was not a hero in Vietnam; he was just a survivor. He says he was “in the rear with the gear” and therefore out of harm’s way, but I can assure you that in Vietnam, one’s safety was always relative to where you were and what you were doing at any particular moment, for danger seems to have no borders in a war zone. I don’t know about Phil, but I have my personal thoughts about such things, and I trust that everyone fits into God’s plan. No one knows when his life will end. Only God knows that.”

“By the grace of God, Phil was one of those who survived Vietnam. He explained to me that when not “in the rear” he was flying on CH-46 helicopters from Marble Mountain, near Da Nang, to several exotic places like Chu Lai, Phu Bai, Quang Tri or Dong Ha. I also recall spending some time in two of those “delightful” locations during my Vietnam tour, and I visited Marble Mountain and actually purchased two beautifully carved, souvenir, marble objects from a little, old sculptor who looked very much like Ho Chi Minh. “

“Phil didn’t tell me exactly what he was doing for the Corps out of Marble Mountain, but he sincerely gave the credit for his relative safety to “the grunts (the infantry)” and the combat engineers. Well, just like he did on several different occasions, Phil began making his way by motor vehicle to the Marble Mountain airstrip on December 17, 1969. However, on that day, his road trip was somewhat delayed because of a Korean military convoy that blocked his progress. Though his name was on the printed manifest for a helicopter flight to Phu Bai, Phil missed the flight. When he arrived at the flight shack on the airstrip, he was informed that the helicopter he missed boarding had crashed against some mountain to the north, and everyone aboard had been killed. The fellow in the flight shack even joked with Phil about signing his name on the manifest, like he had actually been on the fateful flight, and he could then go home early with a check for his mom. Phil told me, “I was killed on paper,” that day.”

“He took the very next flight out of Marble Mountain to do his work in Phu Bai, but because the earlier crash had taken place on December 17, Phil thoughtfully adopted “17” as his lucky number from that day forward. Of course, Phil completed his 13-month tour in Vietnam and returned to CONUS (Continental United States) unscathed and initially told nobody about that unusual day in December. After about four months as a civilian again, he was chatting with his parents and told them about his close encounter with death. Phil’s mother silently but quickly left the room, and his father asked if he was sure about the date of the chopper crash. He assured his father that the crash date was December 17, and his dad then proceeded to explain why his mom had walked out of the room after hearing his story. You see, Phil was the youngest of three children, and apparently, his mother wore a special ring that bore the birthstones of each of her three children. On December 17, 1969, the date of the helicopter crash, Phil’s birthstone fell out of the ring, and Phil’s mother was convinced that her baby had died on that day in Vietnam. Phil’s name was on the flight manifest, but he missed the flight and did not die. Some would simply say that Phil was lucky or that what occurred was just a coincidence. He may have been lucky, but my faith tells me that what happened was no coincidence. God knew it was not Phil’s destiny to die on that flight, and The Lord purposely delayed Phil’s arrival at the flight line to fit into God’s later life plan for him. “

Coming Home
Coming home was easy. I partnered up with three other guys, and we drove a motorhome from Anaheim, California to, I think Canton, Ohio dropping off the coach at the dealership from which it was purchased. We had a nice experience coming across the country, blending back into our home country over a few days. We stopped in Denver, Colorado and other places on the way. Once we arrived in Ohio, we split up and went our separate ways home. From there I flew to Boston where my parents picked me up at the airport, and off we drove to my home Lynnfield Mass.

I had a job or two here or there and then got a job at a company called ITEK. I met my wife to be and pretty much that was it.

I went to night school for a while for computer science and eventually got into field service working on computer-related equipment and still do to this day. I think the Vietnam experience for me was pretty good. But it did change me in some small ways. I remember seeing the caskets getting loaded on a C-141 in Da Nang from time to time, and it made me feel kind of inadequate but maybe blessed might be a better word.

I had my brush with death, but most of us did from time to time. The only thing that did change in me was my interest in hunting. Just like in the movie “The Deer Hunter” I no longer had any desire to kill an animal. I surely understand the need to keep the numbers down which is why there is a hunting season in many states, but there are plenty of sportsmen who enjoy the hunt, the challenge and the pride of accomplishment. For them, I say good going, glad you’re out there. I know that if I had to feed my family, I could do it, but now I just like to shoot paper. I am locked and loaded to protect my family, but I’ll shoot animals only with my camera. So I guess the war turned me into a sort of non-hunter and by the way, I never fired a shot in Vietnam. Before the service, I had always wanted to go hunting with my dad but never did. He had nearly 80 acres of his own to hunt in, but I never did. I have fished all my life, and that’s similar but somehow to me anyway, different.

I am grateful for my ability to serve and proud of those fellow brothers and sisters who did and still do today. So for those of us who did have a really bad time over there God Bless you all and thanks for your service. I was there in the background helping out to make sure when the Medivac bird got there, it knew how to get back to base, when the cargo plane arrived it knew how to get there, and when the F4 came in to drop some ordinance it knew where it was going and when the freedom bird arrived it knew how to get us home. Radio Navigation was my field then, and it was not such a big deal, but it helped. Welcome home, everyone.

“As a Vietnam veteran I wasn’t welcome”

BM3 Alan Van Bladel
USS Saint Paul, U.S. Navy

My younger brother Ken enlisted in the Navy Reserves in 1970. After boot camp, he went to Quartermaster ‘C’ School at Pearl Harbor. On July 25, 1971, he received orders for USS Epperson DD-719 (Gearing Class Destroyer). The ship was sent to Vietnam in September 1971 returning in February 1972. The Epperson was sent back in October 1972 until March 1973. Ken was released from Active Duty Apr 24, 1973. Discharged June 2, 1976, as QM3.

My brother, Jerry, enlisted in the Navy in 1966. After basic training, he attended Radar ‘A’ School. Upon completion, he received orders for Naval Special Warfare Beach Jumpers stationed at NAB Coronado, CA. He did three tours in Vietnam, ’67, ’68 & ’69 and was discharged in 1970 with the rank of 2nd Class Radarman.

My brother, Tom, enlisted in the Navy in 1965 after graduation from Dental School. Having thought about opening his own Dental Practice, he decided to join the Navy to keep from being drafted. He was stationed at Camp Pendleton for four years as a dentist. He was then transferred to a Sub-Tender out of Point Loma, Ca. until his discharge in 1971 with the rank of Lieutenant.

Jerry and Ken talked about their experiences only with some prodding. Not much from Tom.

In 1967, I was still in High School. I was in the 5-year plan. In April of that year, I enlisted in the Navy, figuring if I didn’t graduate again, I would work on my GED while serving.

I didn’t have a job specialty at first. When I was on board my ship in Vietnam, I was studying to be a Dental Assistant. But, when I requested a transfer for duty with my brother Tom, him being an officer, they would not allow it. So, I changed my studies to be a Boatswains Mate and hoped for a transfer to Naval Special Warfare Beach Jumpers with Jerry.

It didn’t surprise me when I received my orders for Vietnam. I had been stationed at NASNI (Naval Air Station North Island) for over a year already. I figured my time was due. I received orders to the USS Saint Paul CA-73, heavy cruiser stationed at 32nd Street Naval Yard. We deployed in February of 1969 to WESTPAC. Our station was just south of the DMZ and North of the Cua Viet River, I-Corps. Our ship provided troop gunfire support. I was assigned as a Lookout.

Coming Home
On the way home, we had a bilge fire that could have sunk us. There wasn’t another ship around for 500 miles. The worse thing about it, some of the sailors who were into drugs had their stashes hidden below the bilge plates. The drugs went up in smoke but there was no major damage to the ship.

It was a very long cruise and we stopped in Hawaii overnight but no one was allowed to leave the ship. I would have to say, I was very happy to be returning state-side along with the other 1200+ enlisted and 300+ officers on board. We then sailed on to San Diego.

We returned to the base at 32nd Street in October 1969. San Diego is a very military town, so there weren’t many protesters. My fiancé was waiting for me at the pier. It was good to be home.

I got married in November and returned home for a 30 day leave over Christmas. I stayed in Naval Special Warfare for about a year, then was transferred to the Seabees until my discharge in August of 1971. I was an E-4, Boatswains Mate third class at discharge.

My father suggested that I visit the local VFW for a beer. I went in, sat down and ordered a beer, there were two older guys sitting down a few seats from me. One of them told me that I had to be a veteran to drink there. I told him that I was. The other guy said that I looked a little young to be a Korean War veteran. I told him that I wasn’t, but was a Vietnam veteran. The first guy said, as a Vietnam veteran I wasn’t welcome. I told them that my father had been Post Command for quite a few years. They said that they didn’t see him sitting next to me, and I wasn’t welcomed there. I turned my beer over on the bar and told these two guys to ‘F’ off and left. When I saw my father next, he asked how it was at the VFW. I told him that it was interesting. And, nothing more.

Coming from a military family, I felt right at home. My brother, Ken, was still serving. Thirteen days after I was discharged, I went for a job interview. It was at the local High School District. The person doing the interview was the Vice-principle of the school I graduated from. He asked me what I had been doing since graduation? I had heard that a lot of employers would not hire Vietnam Veterans. I told him, that I was in the Navy. He then asked if I was a Vietnam Veteran. I told him, yes. What he said next surprised me. He said, when can you start? I started the next day.

In 1975 when Saigon fell I was at work at Buffalo Grove High School, I was glad that it was finally over. But, not with the outcome.

I didn’t have problems afterward for the longest time. July 4th, 2007 at the end of the Rolling Meadows fireworks show, as the concussion bombs were going off, my girlfriend said that she looked at me and I looked like a deer in the headlights. After calling me a few times, she had to touch me to get my attention. Now, the airborne explosions freak me out, along with lightning at night. I went to the VA and the shrink told me to stay away from fireworks and not to drive at night.

As far as Agent Orange, up until last month, it wouldn’t have made any difference. But, there is a lawsuit against the VA to consider Da Nang Harbor as an inter-coastal waterway for any military ship. The suit was won and the VA never challenged the ruling. The Blue Water Navy was not covered for Agent Orange exposure. It was 1978 when the VA decided that we wouldn’t be covered.

My ship was 2 miles offshore. I-Corps was the heaviest sprayed area in Vietnam. We always had an easterly wind. And, when we ran out of fresh water, we desalinated the sea water. When you take out the salt, you concentrate the chemicals. We drank it, showered in it and cooked our meals in it. But, we never walked in it.

Even though we supplied gunfire support for our troops, received combat pay and were awarded medals for various types of combat we never received a Combat Action Ribbon. Therefore, according to the VA, we are NOT combat vets and, don’t receive VA medical benefits. I’m in that group that makes too much money so I have no benefits. I have to rely on my Medicare and secondary insurance.

I have been to The Wall 3 times. I always stop to talk with my friend Harry Craig. He was a good friend through many years of school and church. I still miss him.

Looking back, I’m still mad at how our government handled it. Too many rules where the troops could and couldn’t go. Take an area and then leave it, just to lose it again. The way I look at it is, what were we doing there in the first place, didn’t we learn anything from the French? And, before them, the Japanese.