Posted by: wordofexcellence | November 27, 2011

War is hell, and I declare it

A week or so ago, the History Channel ran a 6-part series on the Vietnam war.  I knew I wanted to see it, so I recorded it on our DVR at home.  Only today did I get the chance to watch the first part (2 hours’ worth).

I spent almost a full year in Vietnam, returning home about 5 days short and getting out of the Army on my arrival in San Francisco (or was it Oakland…I don’t recall).  My duties were easy, because the army in its infinite wisdom saw fit to train me as a stenographer. I learned shorthand, honed my typing skills and boned up on English grammar, usage, etc.  The skills I acquired have given me much more benefit than what I learned in my basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey, which was to shoot an M-16. Throughout my tour of duty, I never felt a pang of regret at not being in combat.

My jobs in-country in ‘Nam were varied. I started at the Depot in Long Binh province, working with a Warrant Officer and not quite sure what I was to do.  The job was brief, but I enjoyed the opportunity to meet a young woman, Ngo Thi Luu, who was his secretary/helper/aide or something like all that.  She was so pleasant and helpful, pretty and smart, and we developed a friendship that lasted for a while after I returned home.  What happened to Luu I don’t know; but I’ve prayed that she made it through the difficult times after the U.S. withdrawal.  She’d be about 75 years old now.

Though my time in that office was short, my next job was right down the hall in a Lieutenant Colonel’s office. There I actually did use my new-found skills as a steno and typist.  I had a delightful view out the window from my desk, and each day a young Vietnamese woman walked by after her work day, on the way home.  She was so lovely, and I was intrigued by her beauty.  There’s a poem I wrote back then that I’ll post separately here…it demonstrates my thoughts of her and of my early time in that once-and-again (apparently) beautiful country.  I never learned her name, much to my chagrin.

That job didn’t last long, and I went to work at Courts and Boards (legal office), where I met Pham Thi Nhuan…a very gentle, pleasant soul.  I drank coffee all day long,  kibitzed with her, had my palm read a few times and enjoyed my stay.  After about 3 months at the Depot, though, I learned that I was needed at Saigon Support Command – also on Long Binh Post; where I began working for the General and his staff.

The office consisted of men…all military, and no local talent.  Some of the meb I worked with were interesting and enjoyable to work with, and some were a bit less than enjoyable to know and work with.  Overall, though, it was a good gig.  I began work daily at 7 am, worked until 6 with an hour for lunch, and made my way to the EM (enlisted men’s) club every night.  There, I plied myself with beer night after night, and met some astounding beauties.  There was Thi, Thi Hanh and Stella.  Thi Hanh was stunningly beautiful and I would have been pleased to be her beau.  Thi was a young girl, very pretty and as sweet as could be.  Stella – obviously her adopted American name – was a bit stuck-up, but we got along quite well.

I drank much too much beer in Vietnam, but I enjoyed my evenings in the club, listening to some good music, lots of country music that I didn’t like (got to know all about Charlie Pride there).  I still wonder how it is that a black man sang country, but that’s how it went. I had a few friends who joined me on occasion, but my focus – quite frankly – was on the trio of lovely women I mentioned above.  There was clearly no likelihood of dating them, but it sure was a nice fantasy to have for the better part of the year I spent going to the club.

I beg forgiveness for my lengthy digression – my intent was to talk about the History Channel’s airing of this epic Vietnam history. I found it so informative, describing so much of what I (gratefully) missed in my year there.  I was blessed – never had to see any combat or any danger.  The most dangerous thing I ever did was to go to Saigon on Highway 1, a secure road yet subject to some crazy drivers – to include our military drivers.

Watching the footage of what took place throughout the country, while I was encased in my office jobs, was somewhat revelatory.  I know that thousands of American troops lost their lives, but I was unaware of what they truly went through, humping in the forests, the fields, the land of Vietnam.  I’ve read about friendly fire and its devastating effect, but it was clear from that initial watching that it was prevalent throughout the war and not just isolated.

To hear the narrators (real soldiers) talk about the guys who laid down their lives at the ages of 18, 19, etc. is hard to digest. I was 21 when they shipped me over there and 22 on my return – I actually had to shave every day.  I suspect some of those soldiers who lost their lives out in the fields might never have had to shave.

It’s 40 years later for me…I left Vietnam in June of 1971, came home and protested the war.  I actually marched at Nixon’s inauguration in January of 1973 in protest.  They gave me two medals – a Bronze Star that I didn’t earn, and an Army Commendation medal that I also didn’t earn.  All I did was take notes, type them and submit them to the officers who ran the office.  I never got shot at, never raised a gun in anger or fear, so what’s my qualification for being the recipient of medals?  I sure don’t know.

Watching the first two hours of this marvelous retelling of the Vietnam story was revelatory and enthralling.  The narrators are real soldiers who, many years later, have vivid recollection of what they went through, what they thought and how they feel about these things all these years later.

There’s a new appreciation for the military in America these days.  We who were drafted, along with those who enlisted, were scorned in America in the early 70s. Watching the history (done it before, too) is enlightening and provides a new recognition of the difficulties our soldiers faced in Vietnam.

I don’t believe that I’ll ever change my feelings that our intrusion over there was unwarranted and that we should have pulled out many years earlier, but I have to say that I’ve come to a new realization and conclusion about those who served as soldiers there.

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