“A message from one who served, sacrificed —
and was forever changed by Vietnam”
Your weekend articles on the fall of Saigon 25 years ago brought out a lot of feelings for me.
I arrived in Vietnam in February 1968. I was an infantry platoon leader with the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division.
Most of what Americans know about our national experience in Vietnam has to do with war crimes like My Lai, or of gruesome depictions of civilian casualties such as the famous photo of that naked 12-year-old girl fleeing her village aflame or of that Viet Cong being executed with a bullet to the head.
People remember Agent Orange or drug abuse or post-stress syndrome. Or they still argue about how and why we got there and why we didn’t leave sooner.
Incredibly, most do not know of the honorable, hard service by most of us. Most Americans do not want to know, and most veterans do not want to talk about what it was like.
We did not always know what was going on. Sometimes we sat for hours or days waiting for orders. Sometimes it was even boring. We dreamt of home — of American girls, of cars and of hamburgers. We lived for letters from home. We counted the days until we would return. We also fought fierce battles for small amounts of ground or to tally a body count.
The food was lousy. The bugs were everywhere. Our clothes were soaked. There was nowhere to be comfortable. You had no privacy. A sound night’s sleep was impossible. Death was always close.
Some days, we would be called on to cradle a soldier in our arms, both knowing he would soon be dead. You never will forget the plaintive sound of his voice asking for morphine, or the warmth of his intestines on your hand as you tried pressing them back into his body, or his final fixed stare at you — one moment alive, the next dead.
It is impossible now to explain why you kept blowing air into the mouth of a friend, even after he threw up in yours, and even after you knew he was dead. You wanted to yell at him for dying, but you couldn’t.
We fell exhausted, unable even to cry, and, a moment later, were rocked back into fighting by a shot overhead. We experienced explosions that would cause you to lose control of your bladder, or wind. The smells made us retch. The sights made us numb. But still, like soldiers in every war, we had a job to do.
And, finally, some of us went home. But there were no parades. We had no Ernie Pyle to record our battles or “Saving Private Ryan” to tell about our heroics. We have been looked upon as kooks or crazies or, by some, as victims. But that is not who we are.
We’re your neighbors, your stockbrokers, your lawyers, your handymen, your child’s teachers. It was hard service in a difficult and unpopular war. But we served out of a sense of duty. We were forever changed: physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. We learned about sacrifice, courage, determination and the honor of duty well performed.
Most of us never asked for a hero’s welcome, as most of us were not heroes. But we want you to know what we went through and to be welcomed home like soldiers from America’s other wars. We want you to know of our fellow soldiers who “gave their tomorrows for your today.”
But most of all, we want you to appreciate the freedoms and liberties we all enjoy in this country and the part that the men and women veterans of the Vietnam War have done to ensure them.
San Diego Union-Tribune
Posted with permission from the author.