It’s Time to Start Talking to Veterans of Vietnam

Wait and it will be too late.

Photo by Stephen Walker on Unsplash

We had gone swimming at the same beach in Guam (Gab-Gab) 50 years apart. One of several shards of fun facts I picked up while working with World War II veterans in the early 1990s. Yet I blew my opportunity to learn more.

These veterans are mostly gone now. I could have learned so much more — but I was naive, and just not interested. So, I didn’t ask. I didn’t engage.

Despite the reputation the “Greatest Generation” has for being closed lipped about their wartime experiences, if they found your experiences relatable (and with me they did — merely by dint of our shared exposure to the Marianas Islands) they’d talk. A lot. Yet I squandered my opportunity.

The same age as the WWII veterans I knew in the early 1990s. If you know one, and if you are comfortable asking about their experiences, I strongly recommend you do it. Now. Or you will blow it the way I blew it.

Although my Coast Guard career spanned 25 years, from the early 1990s until 2015 and had lots of ups and downs, my most significant miss was whiffing on my opportunity to learn directly from the people who experienced this most significant of human events.

In the mid 1990s I was assigned to a Coast Guard unit on the Great Lakes — specifically in the city of Milwaukee, WI. I frequently interacted with a volunteer component of the Coast Guard, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, which to this day is populated primarily by women and men over the age of 65.

The Coast Guard Auxiliary was formed during WWII as a volunteer organization, under the authority of the USCG, and charged with monitoring the coastal areas of the United States for enemy vessels and operatives. The organization still exists, but its missions have evolved. Today the Auxiliary is primarily a boating safety and lifesaving component of the CG. Auxiliarists have an excellent boating safety inspection program and they assist active-duty members with Search and Rescue.

It’s fascinating that the organization has lasted this long — but therein lies the rub. The veterans I met in the 1990s joined for the fellowship, camaraderie, structure and sense of purpose that the Auxiliary provided — albeit in doses far lower than the doses they received during their 2-to-4-year hitches in the Armed Services during WWII.

Although I was too inexperienced (and uncurious) to probe — I had served a tour in Guam just prior to my Milwaukee time and many of the local Auxiliarists had served in the Marines or Navy during WWII. Several were familiar with the killing grounds and R&R locations in Guam, Saipan, Tinian, Palau and The Philippines where I had recently spent 2 years. This opened them up whether I probed or not. They’d ask me about (as mentioned) beaches and battle sites.

I had seen rotting WWII guns in the jungles of Palau, surplus US equipment that had been pushed into the water around Guam and crashed Japanese Zero fighters and Betty bombers in the shallows around the islands.

I had seen the untended atomic bomb pits at the decaying airfield on Tinian. As a result I was relatable to these men if merely by a shared geographical experience and the oddity that despite the brutal climate in the Western Pacific, so many raw and rotting relics of the war lay exactly where they did in 1945.

Unfortunately I failed to press their spontaneous offers to talk with any questions of significance. Now I regret it. Now they are gone.

What was most notable, and remarkably, and one of the few things not lost on me, was the intensity of their memories. These men had lived full lives. Their experiences in WWII were 50 years prior (at the time of our conversations). They generally had served for a couple of years — no more. They had banked six decades of other experiences — the war a mere sliver of their time on earth.

Yet these short stints generated the apex memories of their entire existence.

Even then I was curious about that. How a person could have a career, raise a family, enter old age and their crowning memories are of an experience that lasted 12 to 48 months 50 years ago.

“Not a wife, not kids, not a job…nothing. Nothing, burns into your psyche like a 12-month combat experience in Nam.” — John, my Vietnam Veteran neighbor in an RV park in Florida

His wife was nearby — so he whispered that to me. It was the first time I thought back to the old WWII guys in Milwaukee in years. He confirmed what I had thought then.

The sheer intensity, the camaraderie, the adrenaline, the long periods of boredom tinged with constant uncertainty, the exoticism, the fellowship, the fear, the homesickness…all of it bundled into a couple of years — during or immediately following late adolescence marks people who experience combat in a way that nothing else can.

My neighbor John spent four years in the Army. One of those years in Vietnam. It is clear he still carries that one year with him every day.

How many of us who have not experienced combat or war have a year like that? The Covid year? Well, it’s different. We all share the Covid year and none of us will forget it — but I suspect 50 years from now (or for older guys like me 30) we will not carry it the way John carries Vietnam.

It’s time to start talking to the remaining Veterans of Vietnam. It’s time to ask questions that you will not be able to ask even 10 years from now. Then, it will be too late.

In fact it is never too early to start talking to war veterans.

As a nation we’ve been at war in Afghanistan for more than 20 years.

We recently fought a brutal war in Iraq.

There are many combat veterans in the US who are carrying burdens that they can never put down. If you have the opportunity and if the veteran is comfortable with the topic, talk to them about the burden.

Do it now. Do it respectfully. Do it compassionately. Do it genuinely. But do it.

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

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