I am a Vietnam Era vet. I did not serve in Vietnam as I was sent to Korea. And that turned out to be a bit of a hot zone all by itself, though Americans had little if any knowledge of that. But I am getting ahead of myself.
When I joined the army, I was sworn in February 19, 1968, the Vietnam war had taken a dark turn for Americans. Earlier that month the Viet Cong mounted what is known as the Tet offensive. Tet is the Vietnamese New Year. Americans let their guard down figuring the Vietnamese would be busy celebrating Tet, their new year. Contrary to what people were told in America, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong were very smart and very savvy. They hoped we would let our guard down so they could spring a surprise attack of large proportions, and that is what happened. Starting on January 31 they attacked over 100 South Vietnamese cities and nearly overwhelmed many American strongholds. Hue, Danang and even Saigon were attacked. The Marines at Hue were nearly overrun and suffered nearly 700 casualties.
But who were the men who were fighting in Vietnam? All branches of the armed forces, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, and the U.S. Coast Guard too, who in those days fell under the auspices of the Treasury Department. A very large portion of those in Vietnam were draftees even though some were never formally drafted. Many guys waited for the draft notice to show up and went for induction. But others with the knowledge that they were probably next, gave in and enlisted just prior to their likely drafting. Then there were the poor. The army was filled with a disproportionate number of blacks, mostly poor, mostly poorly educated. To them, the army seemed like a good deal. Then there were the white kids like me who, lacking direction, enlisted because we did not know what else to do but also because our fathers had fought in World War 2 and it seemed like the right thing to do.
When I arrive for my basic combat training at Fort Polk Louisiana, I discovered there were four identifiable groups of men, those who had signed up known as RAs, those who were drafted known as USs, those who signed up for the reserves, ERs, and those who joined their state’s national guard, NGs. The two letter codes were the letters that preceded our soldier’s identification number, for example, I enlisted and my number was RA11625182. Some things you never forget. But had I been a draftee the RA letters would have had US substituted. And since we all had to recite our number many times in the early days, we knew what every man had chosen.
A tour in Vietnam was mandated by law to last no longer than 12 months. This meant there was a high turnover of personnel going and coming to and from Vietnam. But there was also this country called Korea which also had a maximum 12-month tour. From 1964 to 1975 over 9 million men in uniform served in Vietnam, 58,145 died there. And here is a stunning fact: over the 4 years an infantryman served in WW2, he saw about 40 days of combat. Over the 1 year an infantryman served in Vietnam, he saw about 240 days of combat. It is small wonder so many came back so screwed up.
The infantry training at Fort Polk, in those days, was rough. The drill sergeants were charged with bringing together a very disparate group of men into a single fighting force. One of their most successful ways of doing that was to pit us against each other. I was in Company B, 5 Battalion, 1st Training brigade. I was in what was called the “Yankee Platoon.” We were men from north of the Mason-Dixon line of course. Then there were two southern platoons and finally one “misfit” platoon. The misfits were from states like California which were not easily grouped. The drill sergeants showed great favoritism towards the southern platoon in large part because every one of them hailed from the south. The drill sergeant assigned to my platoon was from Texas. Our company command was from Alabama and his executive officer was from Georgia. But a funny thing happened during those 8 weeks, we all came together. Any sort of divisions which existed at the start of basic training disappeared along the dusty roads were we force marched along. Their plan worked magnificently. On graduation day a full 95% of the men of our company were loaded onto the back of cattle trucks and taken to “Tiger Land.” Tiger Land was the advanced infantry training course with an emphasis on tactics used in Vietnam with a faux Vietnamese village to boot. I had gotten myself into helicopter training school so that was not in my future. But for as much as those drill sergeants yelled at us “Charlie’s gonna get you!”, Charlie being a euphemism for the North Vietnamese army, I do not remember a single conversation regarding the possibility we could die over there.
The American forces in Korea in 1968-1969 number in excess of 50,000 troops. There were two full infantry divisions, 2nd and the 7th. And there were countless support units. I was stationed a mere 25 miles from the DMZ and had change to travel in its proximity on several occasions. Places known as Camp Humphries, Camp Casey, Camp Red Cloud and others we each an armed camp unto themselves. They were armed because there was always the very real threat of a North Korean incursion into the south which actually happened though in small numbers. Still, anything north of the Han River was considered a combat zone and many an infantryman in Korea saw his share of combat, as did some of the field artillery units. Remember, this was the time when North Korea captured the USS Pueblo and shot down a US Air Force EC-121 reconnaissance aircraft.
During my tour in Korea a fair number of American soldiers were killed in action by North Korean soldiers but most of that was never reported. Few new of that war zone. Those tasked with guarding the frontier were under the constant threat of an attack from the north. North Korea regularly lobbed artillery shells into the south. A lieutenant who was inspecting the DMZ was cut to pieces by a machete wielding North Korean soldier. America seemed to have forgotten that even 15 years after a truce was declared, it remained a truce in those days and that truce was violated by the north of many occasions. American soldiers died and no one knew.
As for Vietnam, on April 30, 1969, there were 543,482 men station there at one time. But one thing was consistent for the soldier in Vietnam, his short-time calendar. A “short-time calendar” was the outline of a naked woman with 365 squares, or what passed for squares, within her body. You filled in one day waiting impatiently for that day you could call yourself a “short-timer.” A short-time was someone who had 99 days or less of time to serve. You got to call yourself a 2-digit-midget because you were getting so close. Sadly, stories abounded of guys who were within two weeks of rotating back to the U.S. only to be killed. Everyone knew such a story and some even knew the guy. Such things wreaked havoc on the psyche’ of the young soldier. Many came back so damaged, not just physically, that putting them back together was an impossible job. It wasn’t until either very late in the war or in the first few years following it that the term PTSD came into being. The VA and Army hospitals overflowed with men so damaged that it was felt they would never be right. I knew of at least 2 such individuals. One put a gun to his head and the other had a heart attack at the young age of 34. He had yelled at the VA that he had been sprayed with agent orange but that fell on deaf ears.
If you want a good picture of the army in those days first watch “The Boys of Company C” which will give you an excellent view of basic training during Vietnam and then watch “Good Morning Vietnam.” Each in its own way does justice to what really happened, to the tensions which existed, the horror of war, and how boys were forced to become men literally overnight.
About 90% of the men who served in Vietnam never saw any combat but it did not free them from the horrors of the war. No one was ever very far from a medivac hospital where surgery was frequently done in what would be considered unsterile conditions but the surgery being needed in such an immediate fashion, the doctors had no choice. These doctors and nurses suffered greatly as they attempted, too many times in vain, to put back together the wounded soldiers, and to provide some sort of reason and solace for those of his friends when the soldier died. The rock group, Country Joe and the Fish, came out with a song in 1968 which had a line that went “then it’s one two three four, what are we fighting for, don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.” That was the sentiment of the soldiers in those days. We don’t know why we are here but we will do the best job we can.
While in Vietnam there were phrase such as “back in the world” which meant back at home, and round eyes, which meant American girls. The soldiers had created a language peculiar to their environment which helped them deal with what they were up against. Many of those soldier had never traveled more than 100 miles from home and now they were in a country so alien to them, that fitting in was impossible so they worked hard just to get by. Soldiers received no training about the customs of Vietnam nor what to expect of the general population. It was all on the job training.
Guy did not do marijuana in Vietnam. Why would they when they could get the more potent form of cannabis known as hash, of Thai Stick. Much stronger in content it allowed many troops to escape the horror of the day. And there were those who found solace in the all too prevalent heroin. And what did the military do about those problems? Virtually nothing. They were too busy fighting a war than to consider the welfare of their men.
Soldier returned to America in large numbers from 1968 to 1972. But they found no welcome mat, no parades, no gestures of kindness. Americans knew the war was ugly and they wanted to distance themselves from it. They did this by ignoring the returning troops. They turned a blind eye to the problems the troops returned with. They did this because of their collected guilt.
It was well-known that the upper middle-class and the upper class did not serve, or if they did, they found comfy jobs in Washington or in Germany. Their service would have been good except that they took extraordinary measures to insure that the Department of Defense would not mistakenly assign them to Vietnam.
If nothing else, the War in Vietnam should have taught us what not to do, which skirmishes to stay away from, and to let people pitted against themselves the space to work out their issues. But we did not do that. Iraq 1 seemed a necessity and I have no issue with it. But Iraq 2 was a pure boondoggle. In Vietnam we said we were preventing the expansion of Communism. In Iraq we were supposedly going after weapons of mass destruction. In each case not only was the premise faulty, but our actions were and are virtually defenseless. But once again, the American soldier has been asked to do far more than is right. Our armed forces have been decimated by repeated reductions in force to where once again soldiers are being asked to do more than their psyche can handle, and it shows in the returning troops.
One thing which has changed for the better, it is common to hear the phrase, “thank you for your service.” But as nice as those words are to hear, they do not heal the injured psyche, and that remains an all too prevalent problem.
All who serve, by the nature of the oath they take, promise to put their life on the line in defense of our Constitution and our country. No other job requires this of a person. A truly grateful nation will take care of all its veterans to whatever extent is needed, but that is not happening. Too many veterans come back to no jobs and no prospects. Too many come back severely broken, are patched up and pushed back into society long before they are ready. If America wants to show how it is truly grateful for the service of all veterans, it will do whatever is necessary to insure a safe and secure future for them. It will find the reasons they turn to drugs and sometime crime and resolve those issues. It will make Veteran’s Day more than just a national holiday, it will treat it with the same respect as Christmas gets, only necessary people work that day and all others take a day to remember those who put their lives in danger so that we can live feeling safe and secure.