After serving in the Vietnam War I turned my back on anything having to do with the military, and so I was totally surprised years later when requesting my medals, I got one that I still don’t believe I earned.
How anti-war was I? Well, I joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, providing funds for a yearly membership. I wrote against the war in my college newspaper where I scribed as a reporter and then editor who eventually endorsed George Mc Govern for president of the United States against Richard Nixon and whatever secret plan he said he had to end the war. (My mom voted for Nixon four years earlier to keep me out of the draft and out of harm’s way. The president didn’t end the war, however, he escalated it!)
I stayed away from the Veterans’ of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the American Legion because the members reminded me of old men who fought in “good’ wars, particularly those veterans of World War II. They drank and reminisced about the glory of war, something that I found out ended with the first casualty on the battlefield. I saw no glory in fighting and only “got up for battle” when attacked and forced to come to the aid of a fellow soldier as adrenaline kicked in and I’d do anything to protect my men.
Looking back (and this gets a little painful; I don’t recommend too many combat veterans do this outside of “group”), I realized that I fought in four major engagements when members of my platoon were injured. No one was ever killed. We never captured any enemy alive, although we obtained their munitions, food and supplies. I loathed the battalion commander who pushed for a higher “body count” and he remains one of only two persons I find difficult to forgive for his life’s actions.
So when I opened the box with the medals sent to me by the army, it was surprising to see two that I was not aware of. I was proud of the combat infantry badge, the “CIB” that denotes that the wearer faced combat. I also liked the “wings” I earned for undergoing paratrooper training and jumping out of airplanes without breaking any legs.
But one of the “new” medals was given for flight into enemy territory. I earned a medal for the many times I climbed on the helicopter and took off flying into a landing zone not knowing who are what would greet us. You’ve seen those pictures from the war. Every time they’re shown on television, I remember the young man who felt no fear jumping off a chopper and making his way to a secure area before determining whether it was clear for others to move on. (You couldn’t pay me enough money to do it again.)
The real surprise was the other medal. For years I never knew what certain abbreviations on my discharge papers (DD-214) had stood for. I thought it was one of several medals everyone got for stepping foot into Vietnam, something like an individual service medal unique to the zone of Operation like the European Theatre or the Pacific Theater of World War II.
The letters were “BSA.” It could have been for getting one of the highest grades on the rifle range while in basic training. I shot with precision, earning a sharpshooter or expert badge, which were two or three rankings higher than a “marksman.” (I got the highest score in Physical Training (PT) during one extensive training session, missing a “perfect” rating by only 8 out of 500 points because I ran a mile in 6 minutes and 18 seconds, and not a flat 6 minutes.
Could “BSA” be the “best student award?”
No, it was the Bronze Star Award.
I don’t know why I got it. But it has my name engraved on the back of a metal star apparently made of bronze hung below a colorful red and blue ribbon. I don’t think I deserved it. My greatest accomplishment was to keep me and everyone who ever served with me alive.
Come to think of it, I’d gladly accept that kind of award anytime — to stay alive and flourish . . . in peacetime . . . or in war.
Michael J., you amaze me. I am writing with tears in my eyes. You are wise to be a light at the tip of the candle. Every vet I’ve known says nothing and none of it was real for me. I was touched by a Cdn vet as a little girl. A poor soul lived in an old shack in Nowhere, Alberta where he could be most protected from loud noises. As a kid, I watched him when he came into town where he spoke little to anyone. Mom had explained enough to me that my heart went out to him.
Is that what he fought for? To live like a hermit out of embarassement that he may flip out in front of peace-loving people? How the hell did we help? Probably in no way. I can only hope some of the adults said “Thank you”.
And you, Michael J. – I cannot imagine your journey from that determined young editor, writing against war, to the guy who jumped out of choppers to determine an “all clear”. Then to see your comrades wounded.
It’s one thing to have to act in a situation that is contrary to one’s belief. But the extent to which war and all its atrocities takes a human is beyond my comprehension.
I met a number of people who left the US to live in Canada to avoid the draft. I never believed they live without conscience…no matter how strongly they spoke about their actions.
On VN Vet lived up the road from me here on my island. He was a member of our Coast Guard. Women were a bit leary of him…there was something somewhat strange that no one could put a finger on. He felt the pulling away and I know it hurt.
Whenever he drove by, he’d honk or I’d wave. Occasionally we’d have a quick chat – he knew my sweetie worked in helicopter in Abu Dhabi.
One morning he phoned me and said, “I could really use some help. Would you stop in on your mornng walk?”
I did. He told me he’d been on a two-week drunk – blacked out most of the time – and knew he had to get to a de-tox in the city. Would I take him?
We began the asinine phone call routine with government which had a big, expensive, f’g program for quitting drinking and there was only an answering machine with a message that said they WOULD NOT LONG DISTANCE PHONE CALLS.
I left a scathing message and called the Salvation Army. They were like angels. They told us not to worry about a thing – just get him to the detox center and all would be arranged. They told me to let him clean up his home if that was necessary to him. Why? I asked. “Because most people know they want to come home to no evidence.”
They were right. He needed an hour to clean up his home.
On the trip to the city, I learned that this man managed his life with alcohol. He told me he lived largely in the black-out state! No wonder women found his conversations slightly weird.
He never hurt a soul and thankfully he somehow managed to work, save lives, and drive in this state of alcohol induced amnesia – without harming himself or others.
He left the island after treatment, went on to become an alcohol & drug counsellor, and ended up working for a group of First Nations in the North. When he finished his contract, on the morning he was to catch his transport out, he was found so enibriated he could neither talk nor move.
Is that the kind of life that vet deserved?
When I see what you have done and when I consider what you have done for others, you have earned a GOLD Star Metal on this side of war.
Congratulations for both the Bronze and the Gold Stars, My Friend.
To use an concept of Thich Nhat Hanh, I want to “hold you home”. There is no greater love. It’s what you did for your buddies.
It’s taken me a while to respond to your heart-felt comment about your experience with your country’s Vietnam veteran. It sounds like he used alcohol to deal with the war after the war.
That’s what most World War II veterans did who could not own up to having been psychologically scarred. There was too much stigma to being labeled with “shell shock” or “battle fatigue.” Still is, but not as much, thanks to the studies done and a slight change in the culture.
Less than 20 percent of veterans sought help for PTSD from the Vietnam War, The percentage is about the same for Iraqi vets — about 17 percent, but increases to 28 percent for a second deployment. There are no studies for third and fourth deployments.
What you offered that young man is all that most veterans seem to want: to understand that war claims more casualties than those left behind in the fields of combat.
I thank you for offering that some understanding for this Yankee veteran.
Thanks also for that other Thich Nhat Hahn concept to “hold you home.”
Those percentages are too low. If I knew then what I’ve come to understand from you, I would have been able to be of better support.
Fear keeps people away when it seems the vet really needs to be seen, heard and loved.
I’m so glad you have been able to seek help and be such a resource.
Thank you for serving, for keeping alive to the best of your ability those around you. Such horror and loss, pain and suffering, and yet you’ve pulled yourself out of hell and now use your genuineness, your honest look at life and to serve others. You’ve been doing service work it sounds like forever the expression if that workboat looks different. Maybe the shoulders you stand on are saying thank you. Thank you for being who you are and doing what you do. Your efforts show and are felt, I know they have affected me. Your writing touches many and helps pull us out of our own yells of the moment. Thank you!
I feel safe here to tell stories I was too afraid to look at while they were still raw and unprocessed.
I owe a great deal to people like you who open your door so wide that all feel comfort glowing from the warmth within.
I can’t recall the number of firefights we had, but I do remember each time someone was wounded. Four times in six months. Six months was the length of rotation for officers in the field (front line for those still thinking World Wars I and II). I later served in a base camp that had been over-run by the Viet Cong long before my arrival. The most devastating incident occured to an officer, another first lieutenant, with only a few days left before his DEROS (Date of Expected Return from Overseas). A bunch of kids were playing near some debris which included a shell of some size. It’s unclear if the child gave the shell to the soldier to hurt him or if the American took it away to keep harm from befalling on the kid.
The shell blew up, severing one of the arms of the lieutenant.
I never saw or heard anything more about him, leaving Vietnam just two weeks after this incident.
I often wondered, however, how and why someone so close to being safe and sound at home could suffer something like this?
Then I heard of a Vietnamese monk who counseled veterans of the war in his country, and it helped changed the way I looked at my tour of duty:
― Thich Nhat Hanh, Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change