It’s not possible that it has been 50 years since our first official troops landed in Vietnam. The memory of it is so vivid; it feels like only a few years ago. Perhaps because that war was the first to ever be played out in our living rooms on televisions. Or maybe it was because of the controversy that swirled around the war and how it polarized the country with each side claiming the high ground. Or maybe it was the first time this country had ever fought in a non-traditional war with guerilla tactics. Or perhaps it was the first time our generation saw anything like a draft. Or maybe it’s because our veterans were so badly received when they returned home.
No matter how you felt about the Vietnam War, or conflict if I am to be correct, the country was wrong. We were dead wrong the way we greeted the men who were denied their innocence, some denied their lives, others their mental health and still others their physicality. Many of those drafted didn’t agree with the war either. Can you imagine what it must have been like to serve in that situation? To be in a jungle, fighting ghost warriors and not having any idea why or having any ethical commitment? Many, however, did believe it was right to be there to stop the spread of communism, even if they were drafted. And the ones who enlisted and volunteered certainly believed in the mission. Somehow, despite all the disparate positions, most all of them returned feeling as if they fought side by side with their new brothers. Still, they were met with disdain when they returned home from their tours of duty. My older brother graduated from the Naval Academy and after some tours on a destroyer in the Mediterranean, he decided to volunteer to be captain on a Swift Boat in the rivers of Vietnam. I was the only member of my family that had doubts about the war and its intention and having it play out every night on the news didn’t help. But that didn’t stop me from sending my brother care packages every week, including one time sending him a giant stuffed Snoopy to put on the bow of the boat. I was young. What did I know? I worried myself sick about my brother and watched my parents tense every time they turned on the news. My mom called Hawaii the second he was on R&R and I can’t tell you how relieved everyone was to hear his voice. He too was greeted with disdain when he returned home safely. The thing is, like my mother recalled about my dad when he returned after World War II, my brother didn’t laugh as easily. He wasn’t as comfortable with people the way he had been. Something had changed him. He never discussed it; we never asked. But I knew he was having a hard time. Who wouldn’t? He was in dreadful circumstances searching junks along the rivers that would open fire with no notice or put a blanket over starved, huge snapping turtles that would lunge at whoever lifted the cover. Upon his return, he was challenged at parties, verbally assaulted when in uniform.
He was stationed at Earle and served as the ordnance officer until he left the Navy to return to graduate school at Columbia University. He became a successful man with a lovely wife, three wonderful children and now two adorable granddaughters. But he and all the other returning veterans deserved more respect when they returned from a horrific conflict.
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