Dealing with the Vietnam War becomes a little easier each time I write about it. I “desensitize” myself. I now see my actions as separate from the emotions I felt while a young soldier, as well as the feelings of guilt many veterans like me, imposed on ourselves while readjusting to civilian life. It’s helpful when a high school student asks questions and you try to be honest and direct.
The following is a veteran’s look at the war years after he replaced his M-16 rifle with college textbooks and a world brighter than the one 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 redemption.
Hey, my name is Matan Baron and I am a senior at Tenafly high school in New Jersey. I have been asked by my teacher to interview war veterans and after reading your blog I wanted to ask you if you will be willing to answer a few questions I have about being a part of the Vietnam war. I would really appreciate it, thank you very much — Matan
Before I state my questions, I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am for you taking your time to answer my questions. I really appreciate it. Tenafly is about 15 minutes away from New York City and about 30 minutes from Newark. Here are my questions:
1) How was your life before the war?
I was lost and adrift with no real direction or purpose in life until I got drafted into the US Army.
And just as I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did!
I’m only kidding. Partially, that is. I had graduated from high school two years before I was drafted. I worked as a laborer, after leaving a better job as a printer because of the hours. I didn’t like working the second shift – 3 to 11 pm — as a printer. I wanted to socialize more. That also meant getting into more trouble by experimenting with some psychedelic stuff that I’d rather not discuss even after all these years. (For more, see a history on Dr. Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor, who introduced our generation to “trips” to places you’d not find in reading his favorite consciousness-raising book, the Tibetan Book of the Dead.)
I had dated but had no special girl, although I always thought I’d end up marrying the girl I had gone steady with on and off for three years. I was devastated when I heard that she got pregnant and was getting married while in my second year of a three-year Army hitch.
My favorite activities included singing in a doo-wop group — five guys who harmonized on the street corner and even appeared on rock & roll television show. I could dance and do a mean “split” while doing something called the “Mashed Potatoes.” I enjoyed driving my own car, a 10-year-old 1957 Chevy, which had bad brakes and even worse gas mileage. (I loved that car. I paid all of $300 to buy it from my barber.)
2) Why did you join the war? (Unless you got drafted)
I had “pushed up” my draft, and then asked to enter the military two weeks later to go to boot camp with one of my friends with whom I sang. Going to Canada was not an option, as it was for some, mostly college educated fellows, who knew more about politics than I did at age 19. I felt serving in the Army was simply doing my duty.
3) How was your experience in the training camp?
Boot camp was not difficult. It got easier once I got over the initial shock of losing all my hair and doing push-ups every time the drill sergeant looked my way and ordered: “give me 20.” He meant 20 pushups, and I always had pretty good upper-body strength. One of the most trying events was two or three days after being drafted on June 3, 1968. Presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed, and I wanted to stop marching and “playing soldier” long enough to mourn his death, but could not. The toughest thing about being away from home for the first time was learning that sometimes you have to keep your emotions in check until you can process them in private.
I was in good physical shape, despite smoking cigarettes from age 12, and I didn’t mind the two months of a structured lifestyle. The worst part, however, was the loss of privacy when using the latrine. There ain’t no stalls in the bathroom/shower room, and when you got to go, you got to go with four or five guys all going at the same time.
4) Tell me about your experience in the war, the battles and such . . .
This is something few if any combat veterans like to talk about because of the stress that recalling these events stirs up.
. . . My first day in the combat zone, I saw a member of my new platoon refuse to fight anymore and then “decking” our company commander with a roundhouse blow to the chin when the captain ordered him to “man up” and go into the field.
. . . The first person killed in my company was an officer, a lieutenant, one of only three in the company. There was a story, an “urban legend,” that the life expectancy of a second lieutenant dropped off by a helicopter into a “hot LZ,” that is, a landing zone under fire by the enemy, was “16 minutes.”
I didn’t know this when my oldest brother had convinced me to go to OCS and earn a commission as a lieutenant; I got sent to Vietnam less than a year after graduating from Officers’ Candidate School (Thank you, brother George!)
. . . Friendly fire took its toll on two soldiers from the second platoon. They put out a trip wire to a claymore mine and forgot where it was, getting killed as they walked into it.
. . . My medic wrapped his foot with bandages, laced up his boot, and shot himself with a .45 to get out of the field.
. . . Five guys in my platoon were wounded when a mortar shell from our side fell on them.
. . . A lieutenant who had chased Vietnamese kids away from playing with a shell along the perimeter of a base camp lost an arm when it exploded, this only two days left before he was to leaveVietnam.
. . . We used no fixed bayonets. There was no hand-to-hand combat. The only time we saw the enemy was when we glimpsed him in triple-canopy jungle or walked up to his encampment, and he fled with us firing in his direction. We would not know if we hit anyone until we came across a body.
. . . I still loathe the battalion commander who wanted a higher “body count” for his promotion from lieutenant colonel to a higher rank as a “full bird” colonel.
. . . Lt. Col. Salucci was the only officer I knew whose own men fragged him, but survived when the hand grenade couldn’t penetrate the sandbags covering his bunker.
5) How did the war affect your life? How was it to come back home?
I tried to put Vietnam behind me and never talk about it, even with veterans who formed a vets club at the community college I attended right out of the service.
Going to school less than 30 days after leaving Vietnam was “cultural shock” for me. I was not used to guys with such long hair and the girls who swooned over them; hugging everyone at sensitivity meetings in college introductory sessions. (I was afraid I’d hit someone if they tried to hug me, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but my head was “Still in Saigon,” as the song by the Charlie Daniels Band said. I wasn’t ready for any “touchy feelie” contacts.)
I slept in no underwear my first year back. We wore none so our uniforms could dry more quickly from the rainy season, streams we forged, and rice paddies we sometimes got soaked in. I was quick to awake and take action when someone roused me from sleep.
I had nightmares. I’d get flashbacks whenever I heard a helicopter fly above me. I mistrusted authority figures and knew I’d suffer trauma the rest of my life while voting for the Democratic Party. (I’m only joking; joking about my mistrust of authority, not the Democrats! [Please see: Contoveros, a Democrat])
I used reverse psychology on myself in that I felt that the war was a failure, and I needed so badly to succeed in civilian life. I excelled at the community college, getting enough credits to transfer to University and get a B.A. in 3 years and then an M.A. a year later. That’s three degrees in four years, including the associate’s degree, as I crammed all my studies into the time the GI Bill was willing to support me – 48 months.
Military life and serving our country in time of war was invaluable to me. I wouldn’t pass it up for all the money in the world — but you couldn’t pay me enough to do it again.
6) Do you keep in touch with any of the people you fought with?
No. I’ve spoken by phone to the other lieutenant I served with during my 1970-71 tour. He found God outside Arkadelphia, Ark., and I told him that I was “still hot on His trail.” I made a promise to visit the Virginia town that gave us the third member of our “lieutenants’ club,” the one that was killed by sniper fire, but I have yet to cross it off my bucket list of things to do.
Who knows? Maybe this exercise will inspire me to take action.
7) What are your best and worst memories from the war?
A mortar platoon honored me with a 21-gun salute when I left the base camp my last day in the combat zone of Vietnam. I had to hold in my emotions and have only recently been able to cherish that moment after years of deep reflections.
The deep reflections, however, dealt mostly with the negative side of war, when soldiers were injured or killed and you realized decades later that we might have been on the wrong side of history. The Vietnamese people wanted independence of all foreign countries – the French and the USA – but our leaders did not understand that until we agreed to be trading partners with them 30 years after the fall of Saigon and the end of the war.
My worst day was when I called for mortar fire to fall on the enemy and the fire fell on the platoon I was leading, injuring five men, one of whom was seeing combat for the first time that day. I’ll never forget the pain and anguish my mistake put him and the others through. I’ll live with it the rest of my life and hope we never have to go to war like this again.