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.