Welcome Home

March 13, 2011 at 7:08 pm (Uncategorized)

It hardly seems possible that so many years have elapsed since I returned home from Vietnam in the spring of 1965. The public attitude toward veterans of that growing war was not yet hostile then, as it was soon destined to become. People still tended to react with apathy rather than with anger toward our military. It was more a case of, “So you’re back from Vietnam, huh? That’s good. Say, did you see the Yankee game last night?” But that changed quickly, and not for the better.

Truthfully, no one ever spat on me or called me a “baby-killer” while I was in uniform, something many returning soldiers experienced later. In fact, the only “baby-killers” I ever saw were on the other side, and they were devastatingly efficient at it, as I was to repeatedly learn for myself. But when it comes to wars, some people can become quite irrational and deeply mean-spirited in their misguided opposition to those who must fight them.

Going off to the military is something of a tradition in our family. I was born while my father served in the Army Air Corps during World War II. My father-in-law flew 50 missions as a B-17 tail gunner over Europe and North Africa. One of my uncles fought at the “Battle of the Bulge”, and another in Korea. My son Jimmy Jr. was in the Army Military Police during “Operation Desert Storm”. In fact, most of my male relatives served “Uncle Sam” at one time or another in various corners of the globe.

We weren’t always good soldiers, either. I learned that during World War I another of my uncles was slapped into a ball and chain for desertion from the Navy. But the unspoken rule was that we had to show up. So when the growing conflict in Southeast Asia drew me in during the mid-sixties, I grudgingly shouldered my share of the burden in keeping with the family custom.

I arrived in the Republic of Vietnam in the spring of 1964 as an apprehensive 20 year old Army private. There were just 16,000 Americans in-country at the time, and I was not particularly enthusiastic about being one of them. That May, a one year tour of duty seemed like an eternity, with the end a lifetime away.

The Army immediately assigned me to an advisory team located in the I Corps tactical area, which comprised the provinces lying directly below the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam. I was based in the peaceful and beautiful city of Hue, but spent relatively little time there. My primary duty was to serve as a radio operator at the remote outposts along the Laotian border manned by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). Most of them had little-known and exotic names. But vicious conflict in the coming years would soon make Khe Sanh, Lang Vei, and the A Shau Valley practically household words.

I was fortunate to have missed most of the heaviest fighting. Much of my combat experience consisted of brief sniping engagements or small unit actions. However, I was part of the relief force sent to secure the shattered Special Forces camp at Nam Dong after an eerie night attack by 1000 Viet Cong. It was at the battle for Nam Dong that Captain Roger Donlon won the first Medal of Honor awarded in Vietnam.

I also helped to build sandbag emplacements after North Vietnamese patrol boats attacked American destroyers at sea, precipitating the now-controversial Tonkin Gulf incident that led to a widened war. I saw the first Allied aircraft fly low overhead on their way to bomb North Vietnam. And I watched the initial U.S. Marine combat units come ashore, blissfully unaware of the fate awaiting them in the bloody days ahead.

Many have questioned the value of what we did in Vietnam. For me, there was never any doubt. I saw the relief etched on the faces of simple people who appreciated the security our presence provided. I delighted in the laughing children who followed the Americans everywhere, begging for money, food and cigarettes. I watched groups of primitive montagnards wait patiently in remote villages to be examined by teams of Green Beret medics. For most of them this was the first and only medical treatment they would ever receive. As a result, I’ve always taken special pride in my Vietnam service, even when it wasn’t fashionable to do so.

But during the late 1960s, public opinion of the military plummeted to such a shameful level that returning soldiers were cautioned to travel in civilian clothes instead of uniforms rather than risk ugly confrontations with protesters. The generally-accepted image of the Vietnam vet back then was one of a psychopathic drug addict. That bothers me to this day. I served for a year in one of the most prolific drug-producing areas on the planet, yet never once saw an American soldier using narcotics. Oh, I recognize that drug use became somewhat widespread later on as both the war and society deteriorated. Sadly, that left an indelible stain on the legacy of our fighting men in Southeast Asia. But it wasn’t everyone, and I still fiercely resent the commonly-accepted stereotype of the American Vietnam veteran as a drug abuser.

For 25 years after I left the Army, not one person outside my immediate circle of family and friends ever thanked me for having served in Vietnam. Then, appropriately enough on Memorial Day, 1990, I was shopping at the Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island while wearing my “Proud Vietnam Veteran” cap. A young female clerk behind the counter glanced at the inscription on my hat and said rather shyly, “We’re proud of you, too.”

I was so taken aback that I choked up and left the store without even thanking that lovely girl. When I got home and told Maureen what had happened, all the pent-up emotions came pouring out and I burst into tears. That was a legitimate watershed moment in my life. It also marked the approximate point when America’s attitude toward our military began to undergo a dramatic improvement.

Several years ago, one of my clients who had been an avid protester during the Vietnam years approached me. “You know,” he said, “I owe you an apology for the way I behaved back then.”

I was touched. “You should never apologize for doing what you thought was right,” I replied. We remain good friends to this day, which in my view is a wonderful tribute to the concept of human understanding. And my own hostility toward war protesters is long gone now, with one or two notable exceptions.

Today, there’s rarely a day when I wear my “Vietnam Veteran” hat that someone doesn’t stop me to offer a warm “Thank you”. Maureen always laughs when that happens because I never fail to become a bit emotional. But I don’t mind. And it never gets old, I can assure you.

I’m so pleased to see how well our Afghanistan and Iraq veterans are now treated. Yes, I’ll confess to having a twinge of jealousy now and then. But gratitude, though offered late, is much better than none at all. Whenever I encounter active-duty members of the military, I always make it a point to thank them for their service. Sometimes I’ll buy them coffee or cigarettes, or even pick up their lunch tabs. That’s my way of showing appreciation for their sacrifices, which I understand only too well. The look of surprise and gratitude on their faces is the best reward I could ever hope to receive. God willing, we can all do something to ensure that our troops will never again experience the scorn or outright hatred the Vietnam veterans endured for so many years.

As the expression goes, “Freedom isn’t free”. In fact, it can be very costly indeed. We Americans today enjoy a way of life and countless privileges that were paid for with the lives of our soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. So when you encounter a veteran, I urge you to offer a sincere word of thanks for his or her service. Or, as we Vietnam vets prefer, simply say, “Welcome home!”

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4 Comments

  1. John said,

    Great perspective, it was a shame how are soldiers were treated back then. You make the reader feel like they were with you.

    • yeeditor said,

      Thanks John. I can always count on you for an ego-booster!

  2. Tom Smith said,

    Like you, Jim, I was never harassed after returning from the Vietnam conflict. I spent three years of the war flying C-130s in and out of every landing strip in-country then another two years aboard the USS Hornet operating on Yankee Station (two 7 month periods). From the Hornet I flew mostly coastal patrol searches. To me now, the war was a stupid war which gained nothing but costs the lives on many on both sides.

  3. John T. Mustian said,

    I came back in 68 and it very unpleasant. We were not allowed off base or to travel in uniform. I was on riot duty in California when I got back from my return home leave, however once I hit the Dallas / Fort Worth airport it was a different world and Good Old Shreveport was even better. I was treated with the utmost respect and decency. The Delta Airline Flight Attendants moved me up to first class when they saw my ticket and I was feeling no pain by the time we landed in Shreveport!! 🙂 !!

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