They left Vietnam, but Vietnam never left them: Tales From the Field

IMG_6568-1333x1000.jpgExperiences of veterans during the Vietnam conflict and after

By Amanda Su

The Wildcat Tribune (San Ramon, California)

2,594,000 personnel served within the borders of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Of those who served, only approximately 850,000 veterans are still alive today. Of those who served, 97 percent were honorably discharged. Of those who served, 91 percent are proud to have served their country (Veterans of Foreign Wars Magazine).

Bill Green and Mike Martin, President and the Director of Speakers of the Vietnam Veterans of Diablo Valley (VNVDV), along with visiting veterans Joe Roberts and Kasey Warner, spoke to Dougherty Valley High School’s junior class on May 19 for the U.S. History department’s Vietnam War protests simulation.

For an hour and a half, Green and Martin recounted their wartime and postwar experiences, starting with the moment that changed their lives forever — getting drafted.

Day one: Receiving a draft notice

Martin began college — summer school —  after graduating from high school in June 1965, and received his draft notice the same week. After receiving a deferment allowing him to continue his higher education, he was informed that the next time he received a notice, he was “going whether [he] liked it or not.”

Coming from a military family, Martin knew the differences in privileges between being an enlistee and an officer and took the opportunity during this window of time to finish college, aware that being an officer required a college degree. After finishing his university work at the end of August 1968, he was on a plane to Officer Candidate School by the Friday of the same week.

From then on, he was designated to be a Navy Supply Officer, more specifically a “freight expedite officer.” He was 22 when he landed “boots on the ground” in Da Nang, where he was stationed.

After showing a photo of himself, from when he was in Vietnam, to the students, Martin joked, “This was 50 years and 50 pounds ago.”

To which Green laughed, “Ha! Just 50 pounds?”, eliciting resounding laughter.

Despite Green and Martin’s banter and close friendship, Green’s background is a bit different.

After graduating from high school in 1965, Green decided to go to college as well but dropped out by December of the same year.

Why?

Because he majored in “fast cars, pretty girls and beer.” There was only one reason he went to college: to party hearty.

In May 1967, Green attempted to enlist in the Army Special Forces, but was refused enlistment because he had asthma and was informed that “an asthmatic could not survive the war.” Ironically two months later, he received his draft notice in the mail, warranting his joke about his favorite oxymoron: military intelligence.

On Jan. 13, 1968, he landed in Vietnam and flew up to Chu Lai, where he was stationed and assigned to the 198th Light Infantry — which he claimed to be another oxymoron since the Light Infantry was anything but “light.” Soldiers had to carry 70 to 100 pounds of equipment and walk everywhere they went.

Green was a point man, which meant his responsibilities included guiding the rest of his men to their target location, clearing booby traps and “not leading people into an ambush.” After six months of doing this job, one which he loved, he rose to the rank of sergeant.

Although Green and Martin willingly reported to the draft board to accept their drafts, several other men at the time were not so compliant.

Many evaded the draft by getting braces, “blowing their toes off,” fleeing the country — often to Canada — or going underground. Some also decided to stay in school to get a deferment like Martin did, especially since their generation was historically one of the most educated.

But at the same time, many young men also took equally drastic measures just to enlist due to their determination to help in the war effort — even if they were underage. While many students today may forge parents’ signatures on permission slips, young men during the Vietnam conflict forged parents’ signatures to enlist if they were younger than 18.

It was only till these young men were killed in action that people found out they were underage, with some being as young as 15 years old.

During the war: Veterans’ experiences in Vietnam

Once soldiers and sailors were stationed, to put it lightly, serving in Vietnam required a drastic lifestyle adjustment.

“In the course of a year, I took approximately five showers and slept in a bed approximately five times,” stated Green. “There are no showers and no beds in the jungle.”

But what the jungle did have was “every living creature possible,” including some that Green absolutely detested: monkeys and snakes.

Monkeys — or as he referred to them, “stinking monkeys” — posed a bit of a problem for Green because each time he went through the dense jungle, they sat in the canopies and started “squawking”, alerting the Viet Cong that Green was there and blowing his cover.

As for snakes, many of which were venomous, Green, who was looking out for booby traps ahead of everyone else, would often be the first to unluckily encounter them.

The only creature Green admitted to having any fondness for was his buddy George, a young mongoose with whom Green had a special relationship. This was because of George’s very fitting job: he ate snakes.

But of course, friendships during the war didn’t only exist with animals. Many also developed meaningful relationships with the other men they served with.

“[The original 10 men of my squad] were my family. I ate with them, I slept with them, I fought with them. I tried to keep them alive, they tried to keep me alive,” Green said. “I could tell you the first name, the last name, the nickname of every single one of [them]. I could tell you what state they were from, what town they were born in. I could tell you how many brothers and sisters they had. I could even tell you what each of their girlfriend’s looked like, because God knows they told me enough times.”

Unfortunately, many of the men who built inseparable bonds were not able to stay together for an entire year due to injuries, wounds and fatalities.

Of the 10 men that “started [their] journey” with Green in January 1968, nine were wounded. Of those nine, two were amputees, five were wounded multiple times on multiple occasions, including Green, and seven never completed their tour in Vietnam due to the severity of their wounds.

“Every time I lost one of these men, I got a replacement troop. We called them NFGs — New Effing Guys.”

“My attitude changed by the time I made sergeant. At some point I realized I didn’t want people’s personal information. I didn’t care what state you were from, what town you were born in. I didn’t care about how many brothers or sisters you had, I didn’t care about what school what you went. Now you can always tell me what your girlfriend looked like because for that I’m all ears,” Green joked.

“But all the rest of that information, I didn’t want to know. Because I didn’t want to get close to you. Because I was close to the guy that you replaced. And it hurt when I lost him. I was under the stupid impression that if I don’t get to know you, then when I lost you, there’ll just be another NFG to replace you. But it didn’t work that way. Because that NFG kept me alive and I kept him alive and we ate together and we slept together and we fought together. And when I did lose that young soldier, it hurt… As bad as the man that he replaced.”

Until today, Green still remembers every detail about each of the men he served with and unhesitatingly recounted the fact that only one man in his squad, from New Jersey, was an only child.

The memories and pain never dissipated.

But in spite of these difficult experiences, there were some admittedly happier moments during the war.

An R&R — Rest and Recuperation — is a period of time during which every sailor or soldier is allowed to take a  trip of their choice.

Martin did his research as a 23-year-old at the time and chose Sydney, Australia after reading about its beautiful beaches and equally “beautiful women.” But most of all, it was the allure of the “three main drinking establishments in the King’s Cross area” — and their staggered happy hours — that sealed the deal.

After getting on a plane with 250 other men to Sydney, the rest of the trip was a blur. At the end of his R&R, Martin stated, “the other guys had to pour me back into the airplane. But they told me that I had a very, very good time.”

About 15 years later, Martin came across a little cannister with a roll of film inside, to which he exclaimed “Oh my sweet Jesus.” He then locked it away in his safety deposit, stating, “I don’t want my daughter to EVER see it.”

After that, he divulged no more.

R&R’s provided brief periods of relaxation and fun amid the ongoing war. Martin was actually lucky enough to get a second one, during which he went to Bangkok. But the joy that resulted from R&R’s was incomparable to the joy of finally returning home from the war.

Coming home: Veterans’ post-war experiences

While Martin was on his way to the Los Angeles International Airport after being discharged, he remembered the other men cheering and rejoicing on the plane, happy to be home.

But as they walked into the airport concourse, the excitement immediately died as they were greeted by an anti-war protest. Around 200 young people were dressed in tie dye shirts, sandals and peace medals. Hippies.

One of these young people was a woman who saw Martin’s officer insignia and proceeded to confront and violently yell at him.

She was only 17 or 18 years old.

“She called me a baby killer and spit in my face,” Martin said. “But here’s the cool part of the story. While I was in Vietnam for 366 days, I never pulled the trigger on anything. And she called me a baby killer… It’s fine to protest against a war.But don’t protest against the warriors who are just doing their jobs for their country and are proud of doing them.”

Roberts, an Army veteran, recounted a similar impactful experience.

“As I walked off the plane on my flight home to San Francisco in my dress green [uniform], the first thing I ran into was this young girl who slapped me in the face. I then went home, after finishing my service to my country… And I took my uniform off.”

“Our fathers came home from World War II as national heroes. We didn’t get that welcome and greeting,” said Green, who echoed all these sentiments.

After Green was discharged, he returned to the same college he dropped out of, but didn’t tell any of his peers that he was a veteran, hoping to protect himself from persecution. He was just there to “get grades, get a diploma and get out.”

But despite his attempts to keep his head down, while most of the other students — according to Green — looked like “refugees from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’,” he obviously stood out with his extremely short hair — a military cut — and very little facial hair.

“It’s difficult when you see some of your peers demonstrating in anti-war protests. I could never demonstrate against the war because my brothers were still there fighting in that war and I could never turn my back on them. But nobody hates war more than someone who has fought in one because we understand it.”

“When someone finds out I’m a Vietnam vet, they will come up and say ‘Let me tell you about Vietnam!’” To which Green would respond, “What the hell do you know about Vietnam? When’s the last time you were in Vietnam?”

Inevitably, Green didn’t finish college the second time either because he “failed the attitude test” — meaning he didn’t get along with the other students. He instead decided to take an apprenticeship in San Francisco and became a successful electrician until he retired.

After that, he grew out his hair long and grew out his beard to blend into society. Then time went on.

Unfortunately, time never healed some of the lasting traumas and scars from Vietnam.

Veterans cope with long-lasting effects of the war

Despite attempts to adjust back into civilian life, long term effects of the war still impact the daily lives of many veterans — most notably the health detriments of Agent Orange and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Agent Orange is an herbicide widely used by the U.S. during the Vietnam War to clear out dense forests, in attempts to take away the Viet Cong’s hiding spots. But it also produced a harmful byproduct called dioxin that seeped into water systems, which people bathed and drank from.

Those who lost their lives — many lives are still being lost today — due to the long lasting effects of Agent Orange never had their names inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., which commemorates those who died in service during the Vietnam conflict. But to Green, that doesn’t matter.

As far as he’s concerned, Vietnam killed them.

Besides the physical scars left by Agent Orange, psychological scars, resulting from PTSD, continue to plague veterans as well.

Green was diagnosed with PTSD in 2002, but has been suffering from it since 1968. Martin was diagnosed in 1996 and had five PTSD episodes the same year.

Nightmares, flashbacks and paranoia are unfortunately still prevalent issues among them and other veterans.

“I fondly referred to my wife at a past speaking event as the woman with the longest arms in the world who can reach out to my bed in the deepest darkest jungles of Vietnam out of my dreams and yank me back into reality,” Green said. “I hate to be around a large crowd. I can’t go to sports games anymore. I don’t like to go to Safeway [grocery store] checkout lines or to have people standing behind me. When you see four vets walk into a restaurant, the first thing they do is go to that back table. And all four are trying to get the chair against the wall because no one wants to sit with their back to the door.”

Warner, who served in the Navy added, “Some certain smells and sounds, such as diesel fuel, make it feel like you’re back in the jungle. [After getting diagnosed with cancer, which resulted from exposure to Agent Orange], my PTSD symptoms started when I was on the radiation table.”

“When I was home for about 30 days, my wife and I had an apartment in Hayward. One night, at 3 a.m. I was walking around outside. The sheriff picked me and up and asked me what I was doing. I said ‘I couldn’t sleep.’”

Although veterans often struggle with traumatic memories from the war, Martin expressed the undeniable benefits that come with being able to speak to others about their experiences.

“One of our therapists told us that the fact that we tell and share our stories with different groups is a form of therapy as well,” he said, thanking Dougherty’s junior class for being his and Green’s therapists for the last hour and a half.

And as for what students can do to show their appreciation for veterans’ service for their country, Green stated that on Memorial Day, the VNVDV hosts a memorial service at the Oak Hill Park in remembrance of people who served.

In addition to this, Martin noted that a Veteran’s Administration hospital in Livermore — which is a geriatric and traumatic brain injury (TBI) center — cares for many veterans who do not have any family.

Many of these veterans appreciate it when somebody just “sits and talks with them,” Martin said. “Some are more cognizant and aware while some of the TBIs are not so much. But they can nod their head and to just have somebody come to visit and hold their hand is touching either way.”

Up till a certain point, Green and many other veterans mostly kept quiet about their service in Vietnam, deciding not to tell others about their experiences and publicly express pride in their service to their country due to fear of confrontation.

Years after Green was discharged, his 7 year old son, who one day after coming across a box of Green’s war keepsakes, exclaimed, “Daddy was a soldier?”

Green had never mentioned or talked about the war, let alone his service in it, to his children before.

His daughter, who is three years older, asked: “Is the reason you didn’t tell us you were a soldier because you are ashamed?”

“No, I’m extremely proud of my service. Matter of fact, if I had to do it all over again I would do it in a heartbeat,” Green responded.

“My kids bought me this box,” he stated as he held up and showed the students the said box. “And they asked me to take the awards [which included two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars] I received in service of our country and put it inside, then take it and hang it up in my favorite room in the house. Hang it up so that every day I walk past that box, I’m reminded to be proud of what I did for my country.”

“When I started talking to schools about my experiences, my daughter asked, ‘Did you bring the box?’ And I said, ‘Nah.’ She asked again, ‘Are you ashamed of it?’”

He wasn’t.

“So I guess here’s the box,” said Green.

Photo Credit: Brook Ward

Leave a Reply