Looking Back

We used to have an airshow here, called High on Kalamazoo. Like similar shows elsewhere, it couldn’t sustain itself financially. For the 1986 show featured a tribute to Vietnam veterans and I was asked to contribute a piece

Vietnam: A Pesonal Reflection

Technically, I never came back from Vietnam because I never went. At least not in the this-here’s-your-home-for-the-next-13 months-sense. Which was all well and good from my personal perspective;  I had no desire to hump through rice paddies with an M-60. Alas, I was “in the area,” and part and parcel to hostilities; my domains were Thailand, the rocky green minions of Guam, Taiwan, the Philippines and Okinawa, and even Vietnam itself. More of a country club war experience: hot chow, hot showers, paved streets. No mortars or rockets at night. We lived in tents, in cement barracks with concussion baffles, and in hootches and in small narrow green construction trailers with air conditioning  and sat next to a patch  of banana grove jungle filled with reptiles of indescribable proportions and uniformly combative temperments. We drank and flew a lot — usually in close proximity to each other. Our job: Provide fighter aircraft with an airborne refueling stop. The fighters who attacked North Vietnam, Laos, South Vietnam and eventually Cambodia had the really difficult jobs. We always made it home; not so some of our receivers. Some of them died. Some fell into the ambiguous classification of Missing in Action or MIA, and some are still in this category. Others ended up in North Vietnamese POW camps. I had friends and colleagues “buy the farm” in our ten-year-long Southeast Asia adventure; in light of incompetent and inconsistent civilian leadership, and our eventual ignominious withdrawal, these were all wasted expenditures and damn poor investments of our national treasure.

Like other Vietnam vets — the vast majority, I suspect — I have my memories, some good, some less so. I was not hung up over the morality of war; I was raised in an Air Force family where duty to country — meaning time — was expected but not preached. My dad served in the military, as did my five uncles. And my two brothers as well, one of them at Phut Cat in South Vietnam,the other one in Germany. My brother-in-law served in the DMZ in Korea.

I was in and out of the war for several months every year, 1967-1970, never in one long time chunk. Unlike most vets, who went for thirteen months (including a two-week bizaree timeout for R&R — rest and relaxation) I saw the war from the perspectife of four different calendar years. I neither liked not disliked participating in the war: Uncle Sam sent, I went. We were simpler folk in those days.

Since my discharge in 1970, I’ve sometimes been amused, more often disgusted by the stereotype painted of the Vietnam vet by the media. The media’s own performance during and after the war was pitiful at best. We should have expected it; after all, in the wake of every other war, our newspapers have been filled with generic stories about dangerous vets; this genre features those who run amok, have psych problems, withdraw, you name it. But “Vet” is always in the headline and the story lead. This phenomenon occurs after every one of America’s wars.

There was a time when I was doing graduate work in English literature at Western Michigan University and sutdents and faculty alike seemed suprised to learn I had no major war scars, no nightmares, no regrets, no apologies. It was almost as if vets were obliged to be troubled and haunted. I rejected this. Still do. Most of us werent and aren’t.

There is today a sort of silent brotherhood among Vietnam Veterans. To be sure there are also formal organizations as well. But most of us don’t belong. Waht we do is quietly seek each other out in a sort of simple process of verification.  Whenever I go to a social function I expect that most of the Vietnam vets at the gathering will somehow find each other within the first thirtyminutess. The conversation will go something like this. “Nam?”

Nod. “Sixty eight, Air Force, Thailand. “

“Sixty six here, Marines, I Corps.”

That’s the sum total of the conversation. We now know who is who in the room and that’s enough.Such people are all over Kalamazoo. Your relatives, co-workers and neighbors. They don’t talk much about the war. How can they talk about such a thing to someone who wasn’t there and has no means of comparison? For those who were there, we don’t have a great deal of need to talk about it, except to each other, and then only occasionally.

I came back from my last deployment June 25, 1970. Here’s the excerpt from my diary. “Landed at Eilson AFB near Fairbanks, Alaska. Had to make a missed approach while a moose was chased off the runway. Then we hit a goose (or something with feathers  — an angel?) on final approach. A US Customs Agent climbed aboard and asked if we had contraband?

 We said, “Nope.”

He said, “Fine, have a nice trip home.”

If we had entered through California they have strip-searched us because the World knows with certainty, thanks to the media,  that all returning vets are drug-crazed psychopathic killers.

From Alaska we continued south to our home field, K.I.Sawyer AFB, 20 miles south of Marquette, Michigan. We landed just before midnight. No band, no honor guard, no saluting boy scouts, wives or girlfriends. Just a young three-striper, holding the rope to wood chocks for our tires, wearing his Mickey Mouse ears, picking his nose. The next morning I drove to Gwinn to get a haircut at Keith’s Barbershop. “How’s the war going?” he asked enthusiastically. “It ain’t,” I told him, and we left it at that. I’d done my duty. Still feel that way. There are things in our lives beyond our control and you do what you have to do, learn what you can, and move on.

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