1. How did you feel when you realized you were drafted into the military?
A 1. I actually “pushed up” my draft, after realizing I couldn’t get out with a deferment due to a bad back. Had x-rays done, but to no avail. I was just what Uncle Sam was looking for, a 1-A Classification.
After notifying the Draft Board and getting one date to report, I asked the Board to delay my entry, so that I could go “in the draft” two weeks later along with one of my good friends from the neighborhood — someone I sang street-corner harmony with in Philly. We ended up doing basic training together, and met up more than a year and a half later in Ft. Polk, La., him as a sergeant, and me a lieutenant. He had just came back. I was about to go. To Vietnam.
2. Did you support the war or were you against it?
A 2. Did not care for war, but did not protest it. I did join Vietnam Veterans Against the War while in college later, but took no active role. Just the membership fee to help end the war, no marches, no protests, etc.
3. What did your friends and family say when you told them you had been drafted?
A 3. My oldest brother was a “Lifer,” one who made a career out of the military, and so my family was used to having a soldier in their midst. It helped him, and I know it helped to “straighten out” a lot of issues I had at age 19.
4. Were they supportive?
A 4. Mother and father did not have much to say when I went in. My brother guided me toward OCS, the officer’s candidate school, Ft. Benning, Ga., after learning that I qualified. I guess someone saw some leadership qualities. I did say one of my heroes was Alexander the Great, and that I believed that one person really could make a difference in life.
5. What was the general reaction you received from people once you returned?
A 5. I wanted to avoid people when returning home. Robert DeNiro captured my feeling in the “Deerhunter” when he returned from Vietnam, and stood in the hills of a working class Pennsylvania town, looking down at the tavern where friends were planning his “welcome home” party, wanting no part of it. No one who has not been there — in the Vietnam War — could ever understand that we did not want, worst yet, believe we warranted, any type of a “hero’s” welcoming. At least, I did not think of myself as “worthy.” Don’t know if it was due to the media, the general opposition to the war, or a sense of failure having battled so many of my own “demons” while in Southeastern Asia.
For more, see Vietnam veteran recalls war
6. Were there any particular reactions that stood out to you? If so, what were they?
A 6. My second oldest brother, John, picked me up at the Philadelphia airport just a few days out of Vietnam, and he drove the speed limit on the area highway. I wanted to shoot him, but instead yelled and screamed, demanding that he “slow down” from the 55 miles per hour he was driving, not being used to such “reckless” speeds, and having survived by being cautious the previous year while living in Vietnam.
I enrolled in a community college. Attended a “sensitivity” session at the school before classes began. Sat on a floor in a circle with guys with hair down to their shoulders and young girls who loved how the long-haired guys looked and spoke. Talk about “cultural shock!” Thank God for a vets’ club we founded on campus my first year back. It got me through it.
7. Do you think the government was supportive towards the Vietnam vets?
A 7. No. The military and the government did not understand the need for “closure” or “de-briefing.” We needed time to adjust to a civilian world we had put behind us. We lived primarily with “survivor skills” that no longer fit in. We still retained the “flight or fight” instinct, and detested running away from something that scared us off. I “got myself up” to fight. A lot. Still do. Have only recently, in the past several years, learned to contemplate my next action when facing an anxious moment, but my first reaction has been just that — an “action,” any action, and not freeze with indecision or immobility.
8. Do you think that the general population was supportive towards the vets?
A 8. People in the general population either feared the Vietnam veteran or forgot him. They did not want to dwell on something that most deemed a “failure,” the Vietnam War. The biggest losers were us, the soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen that put on the uniform, only to face near ostracism on our return. Society refused to acknowledge the pain of losing — the colossal mistake our government made — and tried to deaden the pain we represented. It intentionally pushed the veteran off its radar screen. The fear and wariness was fanned by the Media. “Crazed Vietnam Veteran,” was the headline inserted by newspaper copy editors when a reporter “dug up” a story with a vet committing a crime. Mostly all vets were seen as “killing machines,” (Think Rambo!) even though only a few served in combat.
It got to the point where veterans left their military service off their resumes. It did more harm than good in getting a job.
9. Why do you think the Vietnam War was so unpopular?
A 9. There was an orchestrated effort by the most compassionate and highly intelligent segment of our society to end our nation’s longest war. Done for the best intentions, it had disastrous results. The move to end the war was led by doctors, mental health experts, and liberal-thinking professionals who joined together to paint the war different from any in the history of the United States. Before the mental health agencies established something called “post traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD and its predecessors, “Shell Shock” and “Battle Fatigue”), they came up with a separate and unique name for the rage, anger and lack of impulse control, entitled “The Post Vietnam Syndrome.” They made this war out to be somehow “different” from all the other wars, that there was something so horribly atrocious about this conflict than any other. “Baby-killers” spewed from the mouths of only a few, but was heard by the ears of so many. Including those of us returning from war.
Lt. William Calley was convicted of doing no more than what a few of General Sherman officers condoned a little more than a hundred years earlier . “War is hell,” is what we learned about Sherman’s March through Georgia and the ugly underbelly of war.
“Hell is war” is the ugliness we had to learn from the Army’s cover-up of cold-blooded murder. And the inability of a young officer to control his troops during a “skirmish” later called, the My Lai Massacre. He was the only one convicted of war crimes out of all who fired weapons on the 350-some women, children and a handful of elderly men in the small village area. The investigation showed many of the dead were sexually abused, beaten, tortured, and some of the bodies were found mutilated. The worst offense imaginable helped to turn most Americans against the war, but some politicians wanted a “Peace with Honor” and delayed the inevitable for years to follow.
10. Do you think that people during the 1960’s had a realistic view of the war?
A 10. Americans knew only what our generals wanted them to know, and that came through the daily briefings in the safer rear areas where war correspondents were kept away from the real war events.
11. How did being in the war change your perceptions of it?
A 11. I never fought for God, mom’s apple pie, or anything patriotic. Only fought for my men, the guy beside me, in front of me, and behind me. I fought even harder and wanted revenge when a “buddy” got hurt. But, I think I’d feel the same way if I was in a battle at home and not in a foreign land, whether or not I wore a uniform.
12. Did you participate in anti-war rallies once you returned? If so, did people ostracize you because you were a veteran?
A 12. Never took an active part against those still in the service. Joined and gave money for anti-war causes, but took no active role.
13. Do you think people’s views of Vietnam veterans have changed in the past forty years? How so?
A 13. People have forgiven themselves and their veterans’ for the mistakes our Country made. Wish we could admit to mistakes we are still making in the wars we wage today.
14. Do you think that the Iraq veterans can relate to the Vietnam veterans? Why?
A 14. Yes. We share the same confusion one faces in war when you don’t know who might be the enemy. Sometimes, unfortunately, it can be a villager standing in front of you. A youngster (you learn later) who is playing with a booby trap, or drawing a soldier in to a spot where an explosive devise lay.
15. What words of advice would you give to Iraq veterans?
A 15. Keep the child-like innocence with you. The world ain’t all-bad. Someday, you’ll be able to enjoy the good in Life and be free of nightmares. Most of the time, that is. That won’t come for a few years. Maybe. That’s if you seek peace both within and outside of you Self.
(Questions posed by Emily S., a sophomore at Creekview High School in Canton, Georgia, who is doing a project on the discrepancy between the treatment of Iraq and Vietnam Veterans. During her research, she said she “stumbled across” this blog. I had written about War while on Retreat at the Omega Institute “Hidden Cost of War” workshop. The words helped, she said. However, Emily had more questions. The above interview was conducted by e-mail today (April 28, 2010). And I am honored to have taken part. Thank you, Emily. — Once upon a time, Lt. Michael J Contos, combat infanty platoon leader.
Ah well, there you go.
That’s a symptom, doncha know?
Many of my Vietnam War friends were against the war when we got back home and went to school. We learned about the history and the politics and found that our government was wrong, dead wrong in the case of some 58,000 who gave their lives for the cause.
I saw the same thing happen with the Iraq War and will continue to be critical and criticize our nation’s leaders for their dishonesty.
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You don’t need to tell me about it. I was a few years to young to be conscripted but I still marched against the Vietnam war and just about every war Australia has signed up for since. I’m from an army family but most of ,my rellies supported my stance even when they disagreed. My sister is an ex-AIF medic who now works as a trauma counselor for vets.
I was ironically referring you to a Counterpunch review of a book that details the history of vets – specifically ex-POWs – who came home and joined VVAW only to have their anti-war stance pathologised as a PTSD symptom or the result of North Vietnamese brainwashing.
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I read the article and could see how those “in charge” would call dissent by POWs nothing but a form of PTSD.
Hell, I was proud of Jane Fonda going to Vietnam to oppose the war but we’re in the minority. Still, I believe we can influence people in doing the right thing when it comes to war.
I was hugely impressed by Hanoi Jane manning the AA cannon at the time but as the years have gone by I’ve stopped seeing her as a committed opponent to war and more as an opportunistic populist poseur. Far as I can tell there’s been nary an anti-war peep out of her since then. In recent years she’s repeatedly apologised for it.
As a kid I pretty much bought the Vietnam war propaganda, but by the time I was 10 the TV images of kids younger than me lined up with their hands on their heads while GIs pointed automatic weapons at them and the constant stories of Australian mine and booby-trap casualties started working on me. There’s no opportunity for John Wayne style heroics while getting your legs blown up your arse. From then on every birthday got scarier and scarier as I got closer and closer to the magic 17th and the war dragged on.
But it was the Linebacker II bombings that got me out onto the street.
Nixon and Kissinger had promised ‘peace with honour’ was at hand, Australia had elected an anti-war government. Now it looked like Nixon was going all out to keep the damned thing going. At the time I thought it was the protests that forced him to back down, but now I know it was unsustainable aircraft losses that did it. Fifty years later thinking about him still gets my back up.
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[…] he left behind. Call it the second in a series of articles on Vietnam. (See first article at: Answers to Questions about-Vietnam War) I’ll call it an exercise in atonement and […]
This is such a wonderful, and rare, personal insight into the experience you had in Vietnam, and that you continue to have. Have you thought about expanding it and getting it published somewhere? I think that it would help a lot of people to understand that time and its effects today.
Thank you (and thanks to Emily, too!).
Thank you Nancy. I have hopes that someone in my family would want to see how the “crazed vet” might have gotten that way. I try to be as honest as I can without going too far off the deep end.
Writing helps a lot, and I am compiling things for some future . . . I don’t know, maybe a book.
Can you imagine? A high school sophmore is able to bring out so much through a series of questions.
I hope Emily gets a good grade out of her project.
I hope so, too!
Yes–a book…a memoir, including all of the ways you’ve been finding these days to help yourself heal. You’ve got the experience, and the insight, and the openness–and you can write. You’d really provide something invaluable.
Thank you for posting this Michael, there were questions that I may have wanted to ask you but would have been worried to in case the answers caused you pain.
You are overflowing with compassion. I feel it all the way down here — the Middle Atlantic States — from your home in Canada.
No questions would be too tough to ask when posed by such a tender person as yourself.
Yup! war sucks. unfortunately it seems to be programmed into our genes. Literally. There’s some exciting research being done on PTS in epigenitics, it may be fixable. Check out the videos on this link. maybe you could help spread the word…walt
I’m open to any study that may be beneficial.