National Vietnam War Veterans Day recognizes veterans who served in the US military during the Vietnam War – observed annually March 29.
It’s one thing to return to a place for the sake of your own memories, quite another to go there on the pretext of someone else’s, to walk through their shadows and rekindle their nightmares. As a member of the subsequent generation, the Vietnam War is not a living memory for me, much like the East-West divide and Berlin Wall are not so much defining moments in cultural identity for today’s German teenagers as they are fodder for museum exhibits and high school history exams. Even as someone raised in part by a Vietnam War veteran, somehow, the war was something that just simply was, a small, if persistent, shadow in the background of our lives.
It’s not like I didn’t have questions. But my inquisitive inclinations never seemed to find the right moment or means to formulate the questions. By coming on this trip, the return pilgrimage of three vets 46 years after the fact, I accidentally wandered into all kinds of answers and unexpected context.
On the drives between Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, a beautiful constellation of 1,969 limestone rock island formations off Vietnam’s northern coast where we spent a peaceful night aboard a boat, Frank, Glen and Terry mused as thoughts spontaneously rose to the surface. I had heard a few of Terry’s war stories before, always cast with some sort of humorous punch line. But these stories were real and unedited, tangible in ways that the others had never been.
Both marveled at the fact that, during their overlapping tenure in the unit, they survived 121 days of absolutely constant combat, without so much as a pause for sleep at regular intervals. Both also told stories of two separate, equally awful commanders who appeared to make decisions with an utter disregard for the lives of their soldiers. One in particular, referred to with utmost disdain as “Chicken Charlie,” had a habit of ordering the troops into impossibly bad combat situations and then hiding behind the largest monument or object he could find until the shooting stopped, often managing to win commendations and awards after the fact. Terry recalled in some detail executing an attack, despite the readily apparent likelihood that he and everyone under his command would be slaughtered. In fact, many of his soldiers were killed within 30 seconds of the operation’s start. He and Glen concurred that Chicken Charlie was one of several commanders who deserved “fragging” (which I eventually realized meant death by deliberate friendly fire) but never got it.
Never was it more evident how chaotic – insane, really – the Vietnam War was than when Glen recounted his discharge from a field hospital after being wounded in combat. Having only barely recovered, his doctors told him to take a gun and go find his unit. With that, they cast Glen, a native Hawaiian of Japanese descent, acutely aware of how his appearance would affect the outcome of encounters with the enemy, out into the street, armed with a gun and seven magazines. Not HIS gun, mind you. Just A gun. He was given no further directions and had no idea where his unit had or had not moved in the intervening time. In fact, he had to hitchhike at least part of the route back. Hitchhike! Just a 19 year-old soldier, an M-16 and seven magazines. “Here’s a gun, Glen. Go find your unit.”
Eventually, the conversation circled around to the aftermath, to their shared experiences of the lingering echoes of war that would eventually be recognized as hallmarks of PTSD. They’ve all had trouble sleeping, often finding themselves punching or choking their spouses in their sleep. Glen slept on the floor for eight straight years, out of fear that he would unknowingly hurt his wife. My mother off-handedly commented that she’d “gotten pretty good at dodging.” Frank, a Marine pilot who dropped his share of bombs and Napalm during the war, dreamt every night for at least a decade that he was in flight. Looking out over a field in flames, with armed men wandering around in the thick of it, he spun into an angry panic, sure that he had somehow volunteered to descend back into hell.
As these stories surfaced, there was a distinct air of bitterness, a residual sense of helplessness at having voluntarily played party to an ideological war in which they had no actual stake, forced to commit acts of recklessness and futility, marionettes in a lethal display of political puppet theater. All of them entered the war as volunteers between the ages of 19 and 23 and recognize now that they were children then, that large swaths of the war were conducted by boys too immature to be held accountable for their own lives, no less the lives of others.
Conversation frequently turned to those killed and wounded – friends who took bullets, subordinates and superiors who stepped on landmines… and then there were those who hurt themselves, so unable to withstand the mental duress of perpetual battle that they preferred a self-inflicted wound to the odds of being wounded by the enemy. More than one used an M-16 and lost part of a foot or leg in the process. One of Glen’s subordinates even asked Glen to shoot him so he could go home. After his very first firefight, Glen adopted the policy of outright telling his subordinates that he would gladly serve as “mother, father, and priest,” but he could not be a proper friend because he had lost too many already and couldn’t bear to cry anymore.
That all of these things are true and common experiences of most men who went to Vietnam was never really a question in my mind. But there is something very different, very distinct and powerful about hearing someone bear witness to these things in person, in casual, impromptu conversation, against the backdrop of where all these things actually took place. A part of me was at least anticipating, if not entirely prepared for, this aspect of the journey, the periodic reliving of these tales as their authors worked through them in situ. What I was not prepared for was the deep and unsettling impact of listening to and watching someone you know experience his wounds anew.
Every person reacts differently to a given situation. Vietnam haunted Frank from the outset, and he found himself inexplicably enraged when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 1991. For Terry, that rage didn’t surface until the second Iraq invasion in 2003. From that point on, there was no escaping his anger, no moment with him that was not dominated in part or whole by some discussion of the war, his opposition to it, or his activism against it. His anger was so all-encompassing that it even fueled a bid for Congress in 2006 as part of a PAC effort to bring veterans into the Congressional conversation about continued fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Between them, Frank and Terry decided that their different responses to each campaign stemmed from the role each had played in Vietnam – the airman more angered over the air-focused campaign, while the Army soldier was enraged by the ground-troop-intensive war. They each also responded differently to the Russian roulette scene from the movie Deer Hunter, raised by one of the Australian passengers in the conversation. They did agree on one thing, though – the scene made both of them very, very angry. This anger, as far as Terry is concerned, is a war-honed response, an emotional motor skill developed to manage anxiety, stress, fear… all the emotions that are unhelpful in combat, when being anxious radically increases the odds of getting killed.
As witness to all of this, I found myself in what is, for me, a relatively rare condition – I was almost at a loss for words.
At roughly the same age that these guys were dropping Napalm and hauling their fellow soldiers’ remains out of rice paddies, I was chasing the trail of Communism across eastern Europe, studying abroad in Russia, dating, working… the things that 18-20-somethings are meant to do with their time. Until September 11, 2001, I barely had a notion of what it was like to live as an American in defense mode.
My adult life has been driven by a biding interest in the aftermath of ideology, what people are willing and able to do to one another in the name of a cause. Rarely, if ever, had I found myself so acutely aware of the internal toll a party will take on itself, not just in lives lost, but in lives changed, of the human costs the U.S. was willing to pay to prevent the “fall of dominoes” that never actually fell. It became obvious that every time we enter a war, we effectively ask a generation of our healthiest and most able-bodied men to risk not only death, but the emotional and physical scars that come with survival, to serve as our human currency in a game of blind speculation.
There are few things in life of which I am certain, but I am sure that I will never look at veterans, known to me or strangers, in quite the same way again.
- Honoring Vietnam War Veterans – Jenna Spain Hurley - March 20, 2020