A Conversation with a Vietnam Veteran.

Katherine Grace / Unsplash

Fifty years have passed and the trauma and memories of a 12-month hitch in Vietnam have not faded a bit.

John volunteered for the Army in 1969 when he was 19 years old. The war in Vietnam was raging and he knew it. Joining the Army was not something a kid did if he wanted to avoid combat. John knew he was signing up for trouble but did it anyway out of a sense of blind patriotism. There was no way a 19-year-old New York boy understood the politics or rationale for the war. Like so many of us he felt it was the right thing to do.

I wonder what he’d have done if he realized that although he’d survive the war, he’d carry the trauma with him for the rest of a long life. Would he still have signed up? Probably.

He was trained as a Combat Engineer, that is he drove a bulldozer, which served as a primitive method to remove landmines and clear roads.

John, now 71, enlisted in the army just before the Woodstock music festival and then requested a deferral until he could attend the event. The good old Army assented, affording him the opportunity to precede one life altering event with another. After seeing his favorite performer, Janis Joplin, on the stage he headed off to boot camp.

Woodstock to Saigon

Three months after Woodstock, shorn of his hair and his individuality, he was one of many young Americans about to be transported out of the world they had known to a violent, unfamiliar and bewildering world that would never leave them. Nothing that happened to John in the years prior to his tour in Vietnam or the decades after — including the loss of his son to a fentanyl overdose — would mark him more than 12 months in Southeast Asia — risking his life for unknown reasons, fighting people who were unknown to him in a place that was unknown to him.

Dozing for Mines

One of his duties was using the dozer to plow up potential landmines. He sat on two flak jackets to do this job. There was no specialized equipment to do this job on an industrial scale. He improvised and stuck a couple of bullet proof jackets under his ass. Then he headed into the field with his shotgun riding partner.

It was on one of those “routine” mine clearing days that John and his shotgun partner started taking small arms fire. They both jumped off the dozer and scrunched down behind it to avoid the bullets. John expected his shotgun driver to start firing back using his M16 only to find that in his haste to get behind the bulldozer, he left the M16 on the seat. An almost comical (easy to say 50 years on) back and forth dialogue occurred about who would go back and get the M16. In the end, neither did. John emptied his .45 and the shooting stopped on both sides — allowing each to return to base alive.

On another occasion, the dozer, with John on top, did its job and hit a mine. The mine blew up, John went over the side of the dozer — thrown by the explosion. Physically he was ok — but as he got up, he related that he felt as though he was walking through mud. He gradually became aware of the men with mine detection gear (essentially metal detectors) yelling at him to not move until they could sweep the area around him.

His ears ringing, his vision blurred, he stayed put. They cleared the area. Again, John made it back to base with no physical injuries — but these are the experiences that never leave. Fifty years later, this event is still burned into John’s psyche. The uncertainty. The potential that a slight movement may have killed him or resulted in the loss of a limb.

Road Building

John was assigned to bulldoze a road through the jungle. Seven miles of jungle to be exact. He was using the same, damaged, but thus far reliable dozer that had taken out mines and kept him alive. This assignment required John to live in some ‘rustic’ housing — or hooch’s pretty far forward in the operating area and literally right under the barrels of U.S. artillery. Which would be fired at all hours, without warning, destroying any possibility of relaxation for the men living inside the hooch’s. And the hearing of the men living in the hooch’s…and the minds of the men living in the hooch’s. And in the case of the mine dog John cared for — it’s sanity.

One night, or more appropriately early one morning, the deafening artillery let loose.

Everyone including John ran out of their hooch’s and began firing into the jungle. John looked to one of the other guys and says “I’m not sure what I am shooting at.” His fellow soldier responds:

“Nothing. We do this to keep them [the NVA / Viet Cong] on their toes.”

“Nothing?” thinks John. “Seriously? I’m thrown out of my cot at 4AM by the pressure wave of artillery shooting at nothing?”

Yep. Nothing.

Intoxicating

Anyone who has watched a movie about Vietnam comes away with a sense that drug use among American military members was common. My knowledge had been limited to movies and books. Now I add anecdote. John’s experience confirmed what I have viewed and read. Drugs were available if not ubiquitous, and soldiers used them to deal with both the boredom and the uncertainty of life in Vietnam.

John referred to the “Head” hooch — not his but nearby. He was in the “Drinking” hooch, where the guys drank heavily, but avoided what they perceived as the more dangerous drugs (pot, cocaine, heroin). He visited one night. He was offered a line from a “huge pile of white powder” on a table. “What is it?” asked John. “Coke” was the reply. John snorted what he called “perhaps too much” cocaine. He instantly realized it was not cocaine, but heroin. The first and last time he tried the drug. He hated it. Probably because he was expecting the opposite effect. He realized he had to get back to his hooch and his cot before he was totally incapacitated. He almost made it — but had to crawl up the steps to his hooch — where his hard drinking hooch-mates realized immediately where he had been and dumped him in his cot.

Now John doesn’t drink, smoke or take anything he doesn’t need to take.

Evil

One of his most interesting observations was about human nature. Even as a 20-year-old, he was shocked at how ugly and depraved human beings could be. His peers. Other young Americans, thrust into this environment with little life experience, completely unprepared for what faced them.

Hell, the experience of Vietnam would test a much older, more mature human being — so take a 19-year-old from the United States of the 1960s, give them an insufficient amount of weapons training and drop them into Vietnam, with its free fire zones, relative lawlessness, an unclear mission and lots of cynical soldiers trying to survive their 12 months in the country without being killed or maimed. Then send them back to the United States where there was only a surface understand of the psychological toll these 12 months would take on young people.

John was appalled at how his peers — people who had never held a firearm prior to their time in the Armed Services, would delight in firing their M16s on automatic — on one occasion destroying every light on John’s bulldozer.

How they’d resolve boredom by shooting the livestock of the local Vietnamese farmers.

How they’d do much worse, because they could get away with it.

These were people like John. People his age, with similar backgrounds and experience. While John didn’t partake in these activities, he was shocked and I think terrified by the fact that these were people like him. Doing abhorrent things. Fifty years later, he remains unsettled by what a seemingly “normal” human being can do to another human being.

Ghosts

Fifty years later he carries it with him as if it were yesterday. He is 70 now. The 12 months he spent in Vietnam carry more weight than anything that happened in the 828 months he was not in Vietnam. He quietly said to me that, marriage, career, children — even the traumatic death of his son due to a fentanyl overdose — did not impact him the way his time in Vietnam did.

I have noticed this with other Veterans. My father served in Korea several years after the armistice. He wasn’t in combat — but he was a young man from Boston who was suddenly dropped into a (for him) exotic world where uncertainty about what lay ahead for him during his 15 months left a deep psychological scar.

World War II veterans I met felt similar emotions. A few years deployed to a combat theater in the Marines, Army or Navy during the war — were the emotional flash points of their long lives.

Although a Veteran of the Coast Guard myself, I have no comparable experience. I dealt with some very real human tragedies during my career, but was never in imminent personal danger. I never experienced combat or the uncertainty that someone may try to kill me. As a result, it is hard for me to understand what these Veterans are experiencing. Yet I am fascinated by the fact that there seems to be a universal appreciation for events and experiences that occurred during these relatively short but intense periods of their lives that exceeds anything that happens before or after.

In a previous essay I recommended that we begin talking to Vietnam veterans now. Before they are gone. Moreover, as a country we’ve been at war in Afghanistan since 2001 and Iraq since 2003. These veterans have stories too. They are worth listening to — IF they want to share.

A 25 year Coast Guard officer — and currently a full-time Airstream nomad.

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