My earliest memory of anything having to do with the Vietnam War was when my high school boyfriend’s slightly older cousin was getting ready to deploy. I remember the cousin’s mother saying that they remembered when U.S. troops had become involved there years earlier, but figured that it would all be over by the time their sons were grown. Then there were the draft years from 1969-1972. My two brothers’ (twins) number was 179. Except for the first draft, the succeeding service lotteries were held in the summers, so the news at the community pool and upon returning to school was who had enlisted to some other service branch instead of waiting for the Army’s draft notice.
Of course, the anti-war movement was just gaining momentum in those years – and living in Chicago in ’68 was a trip (a referral to an acid-induced experience rather than mass transportation). I wrote letters to a soldier in Vietnam and he wrote back. I don’t recall the content of any of those letters. My friends and I all wore POW/MIA bracelets.
I have three personal connections to the casualties of the War. One of my sisters was married to a ‘nam vet. He was one of those punk kids that wound up in front of the judge with his cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve of his t-shirt… the one the judge tells, “Juvee Hall or the Corps. Your choice.” That’s how he got there. Turns out he was a good soldier and a better leader. Then came the day he and his platoon approached a riverbank, towels and bars of soap in hand. Of the 20+ men, my brother-in-law and two others survived the NVA snipers – my BIL with a bullet in the knee. He left the active Corps after his rehab, but remained in the Reserve for many years after that. He had an exceptionally successful career in a state police force, becoming the youngest District Commander in the history of that state and leading the Governor’s security detail for many years. The knee healed, but the spirit did not. He would never swim in a body of water if he couldn’t see the bottom. He would not eat Asian food unless he cooked it. With the exception of the story of how he was injured, he refused to speak of his experience. He would not acknowledge on his clothing or his memberships that he was a VV. He became more and more emotionally withdrawn over the years, and eventually he and my sister divorced. A casualty of the war.
Next is the story of the twin brother of one of my closest high school friends. We are still friends today. They are the children of a Marine colonel that did four or five tours, shot down twice and briefly a POW. This young man was a smart, funny guy who worked really hard to always be on his father’s wrong side. He joined the Army after high school. Didn’t join the Marines so that dad’s rank couldn’t influence their service and, in large measure, to piss his dad off. In one of his letters from Vietnam, the brother told me they “loaded bombs for 8 hours, smoked dope for 8 hours, and slept 8 hours.” Said it was how they coped. His sister and I shared an apartment in early 1973 when word came that a peace agreement had been reached and the war was over (although we didn’t leave until 1975.) Since both her father and brother were there, I ran into her bedroom shaking her and yelling, “The war is over! The war is over!” Her brother eventually came home, but could neither cope nor assimilate back into society. Dependent on drugs, dealing drugs, in and out of jail for the next 25 years; last his sister knows he is living on the streets of a large western city and has no contact with his family. He was in jail when his father died. No one knows whether he knows his mother died two years ago. She died without having spoken with her child in more than 10 years and not knowing whether he was alive or dead. Another casualty of the war.
Finally, there is my dear husband who served two tours. He was a 21-year-old year old kid fresh from Arctic survival training his first tour… flying helicopters off a carrier. He was 24 his second tour. He saw a lot. Heard a lot. Did a lot. Got his butt shot at. He hauled gear in and hauled guys out of the jungle. Got some of his birds shot up and a few nearly shot out from under him. He had a real hard landing on a carrier deck and the resulting hip compression bothers him more as he gets older. The fair, blond, blue-eyed Swede got more sunburns than he can count (nobody talked about sunblocks 40 years ago!) and has had 22 cancers removed from his skin in the past 10 years. He was spit on and yelled at upon his return. The minister of his Baptist church declared him and other members of the military murderers while he worshipped with his parents. His experience in Vietnam colored his world forever. It’s what makes his worry about his son in the Box different than my worry. Not more, not less. Different.
I imagine that the soldiers of OIF I, II, and III (and IV??) will be the next generation to tell such war stories. I hope that some day there will be no war stories to tell and that there are no more casualties of war.