Read part 2
"I donít understand the fascination with war video games. Video games are not the real thing. Kids think that once you get shot, all you have to do is hit a button and you go on. In real war, when you get shot, you go down and it hurts... and you may never get up again. War in not fun, war is pure hell... a terrible thing."
By the time I got my orders to return home, the Tet Offensive of 1968 was over. What began as a major communist push to take over South Vietnam had turned into one of the greatest military victories for the US in the war. But that victory came at a bitter price. From the start of the offensive on Jan 27th to May 30th, 7,040 US
soldiers lost their lives and over 45,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had been killed.
The battle for Hue which I spoke about in last monthís article was the last major engagement of the offensive, which saw communist attacks on all of South Vietnam's major cities. While the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies failed in their attempt to capture the South, they did succeed in swaying public opinion in the
United States decisively turned against the Vietnam War. From then on, Vietnam, in the publicís eye, was a lost war. Sadly the blame for that loss was placed on the shoulders of the soldiers, whose only "crime" was answering their countryís call to duty.
Like everyone else, I keep track of what time I had left "In Country." "How short are you?" was the phrase one would use when asking someone how many days they had left. But I tried not to think about it, there was no time to take a breath, or let your guard down. If you did, thatís when you died, or worse, got someone else
killed. My buddies depended upon me being at my best every day, just like I depended upon them.
I got word I was headed home while driving back from a supply run to Khe Sanh. My sergeant simply told me I was going home that day. When the convoy pulled into the base at Dong Ho, I drove the truck over to the airstrip, got out, and boarded a waiting C-130. I didnít stop by the barracks to pack any bags Ė there was no need
to. All my "personal belongings" could fit in my pocket, and outside of an extra set of fatigues, which I had with me all the time, all I had was the clothes on my back. I climbed onboard the plane and never looked back.
It was a short hop to Ph Bye where I was to catch my flight out of Vietnam. The plane was a Constellation, one of the first commercial jet airliners. It was affectionately called the ĎFreedom Bird,í for obvious reason Ė it was taking you home. The plane was packed with other service men, all headed home. While we were on the
airstrip no one spoke a word, everyone was holding their breath and hoping that the plane would not be hit while sitting on the ground or during takeoff. When the plane finally lifted off, a loud cheer filled the cabin, but it wasnít until the plane reached about 3,000 feet I put my head back and let out a deep breath Ė "Itís all over for me," was
all I could think.
The first stop on the way home was Okinawa, where I was assigned to what was called a "casual company." I guess someone in the higher brass truly believed that idle minds were the devilís playground, so they found ways to keep us busy. In my case, I was assigned, with several others, to "trim" the lawn between barracks, not
with lawn mowers mind you, but with our hands. We had to get down on our knees and pull each blade. All I could think about was how humiliating it was after all I had been through.
My next stop was the US Air Force base at El Segundo, California, just outside of Los Angeles. It was a long ride across the Pacific. I donít remember much of the flight, as I slept most of the way. Once at El Segundo, the Marines made arrangements for me to hop on a flight to Washington National. Less then a week had passed
since I had been told I was headed home. I had traveled half way around the world physically, but mentally, I was still in Vietnam.
While I was in Vietnam I wrote to my parents two or three times a month. My mother wrote to me religiously, as if to remind me that I was always on her mind. She kept all my letters, and it was only years later that she gave them all back to me. I wish I had kept hers, but the constant fighting didnít allow that.
My family knew I was due to head home soon, but like me, never knew the exact date, so I had left Vietnam without being able to tell them. I could have written, but as it was, I would have beaten the letter home. So the first time they knew I was home was when arrived at National and called home. My brother Charles answered
"You home?" He said.
"Yep," I answered.
"Where are you at?" He replied.
"National Airport." I answered.
"OK, Iím on my way." And with that, I sat down and awaited the reunion that I had dared not think about for a year.
A few hours later, Charlie pulled into the airport, along with his wife and my wife. It was a joyous ride back to Emmitsburg.
While it was good to be home again, it was only a temporary stay. I still had a year to serve in my "hitch," and was only on leave for 30 days before I had to report to Camp Lejeune.
I retuned home at the height of the Vietnam War protest movement. While I was accepted back by locals who knew me prior to going to Vietnam, I was looked on with disdain anytime I left the community. The news accounts of the war had become so slanted, that to most anti-war protestors, I was a nothing more then a "baby killer."
To say it was disheartening would be an understatement.
To make matters worse, as I was still only 18, I found myself in the surreal world of being old enough to fight for my country, but not old enough to vote, or for that matter even drink! My only solace was the fact that the old timers in the area, especially the veterans, did not join in the public condemnation of those who
had severed in Vietnam and welcomed me with open arms. They ignored the law and invited me into the VFW and local clubs to drink with them. Yet in spite of the fellowship I found in their company, the stresses that had built up as a result of my tour in Vietnam began to bubble to the surface inÖ lets just say, less than productive ways.
I not afraid to admit that I was, and continue to be patriotic. Being patriotic I found it frustrating to watch the news and see how Vietnam veterans were being treated across the country. I resented all the anti-war protests, not because the protestors were against the war, but because they were vilifying the soldiers,
soldiers who were good men, soldiers who had been faithful to their country, soldiers like Denny Webbert, Tim Hair, Richard Sanders, Richard Russell, Billy Wilson and Forest Nipple, who like me, called Emmitsburg home.
When my leave ended, I headed to Camp Lejeune, glad to return to my other family, the Marines. In spite of all my efforts to forget, Vietnam was always on my mind. I was unable to acclimate myself to the "luxuries" of life back in the states. Sure it was nice to sleep in the same cot every night, have regular meals, and the
liberty to go off the base without worry of being killed, but those luxuries had long since lost their appeal to me. What people valued as important, I now saw as trivial.
The country I had come home to, the country I had fought for, didnít want me. I no longer fit into society. Even worse, I no longer understood society. I found myself drifting. I needed an anchor to root myself, and increasingly, as time went on, I realized that anchor was Vietnam.
As the stresses built to a boiling point, I approached my sergeant and told him that I wanted to return for a second tour of duty, not an infrequent request for those who found life after their first tour difficult to bear.
The sergeant told me I was slated to be assigned to an amphibious naval ship in the Mediterranean. Had I taken it, I could have spent the remainder of my time sitting on my butt basking under the sun, but that wasnít me. That would have been a life without purpose. I joined the Marines to make a difference, and as long as I
wore the uniform, I was going to earn the right to wear it.
There were still guys like me fighting and dying everyday in Vietnam. I just wanted to return to my friends and the certainty that comes to oneís life when every day could very well be your last. In Vietnam, I learned to make the most out of every moment. I wanted that again.