I've often been asked what the Vietnam War was like. Even more often I'm
asked what it was like growing up during that long war. I think of all the truths I could offer about growing up during Vietnam it was that the long Vietnam War was like a dark cloud, hovering over every young man in America.
At that time America still had the draft. Unlike today's volunteer force we had no choice on whether to serve or not; it was a given that at some point we'd be in uniform. Yes, you could buy a little time by attending college, but Vietnam promised to linger and endure, and surely be there when all of your youthful options had expired.
Back then you might be at a football game, or at a spring dance, or attending a school play...and the prospect of Vietnam, and far away rice paddies, and the thunder of guns, would come roaring into the forefront of your thoughts. It always clouded our future...you couldn't just lay plans for an education and then assume a transition into a career and having a family. That angry war was always there to intervene, a massive obstacle to overcome before you could hope to begin your life. The Vietnam War machine, 550,000 men strong, required a steady influx of 18 and 19 year old bodies to man the bunkers and fill the unending flow of coffins, brought home to be buried forever, a young life snuffed out before life really began.
As I recall, the first casualty in my little California town was a quiet fellow, a Hispanic boy named Santos Santos. I remember him as a quiet little guy who was good in track and who always had a shy quick smile when spoken to. When his obituary appeared in our local paper the accompanying picture was of Santos in Marine Uniform. He died on some forlorn hill known only by an assigned number and located in a village with a foreign name.
Seeing that first casualty, I mourned for a young man and I mourned for my own future. Soon our little town got around to mounting a ten feet by ten feet board and inscribing the names of those serving in Vietnam. Soon there were so many young men serving there that they had to take the board down, paint it clean, then began to list only those who had died there. Even then the board space became precious as our little town gave more than our share of young men to that long and costly war.
Soon it was my turn to go. I arrived in Vietnam three days before Christmas in 1968. I would not leave Vietnam for good until three years later on 2 November 1971. During those many months our home town paper sent all of us serving in Vietnam a free copy. It promised to keep us up to date on what was happening in our town in our absence. And of course the paper listed the obituaries of those who died in Vietnam during the past week. I was not in Vietnam a month when I opened my home town paper and learned that one of my high school friends had been killed just 24 days after my own arrival. I would read more of those tragedies in the months and years ahead.
When we finally did come home we came back to an America transformed. Those who demanded peace had only the visible presence of the war, us, to inflict their anger upon. We were spit upon, screamed at, labelled "baby killers", any honor of service buried by the praise for those who burned their draft cards or fled to Canada.
So, as before the war, when the storm clouds of war marred our youthful dreams for the future, we came home in the aftermath of war under even darker clouds; the disdain and persecution of those Americans we sought to serve and protect.
Many of us survive with hearts scarred. Many of us never survived that awful war; many of those that somehow have survived still sleep on park benches and under highway overpasses and have now begun to die in shelters and grubby rooms in the coldest and loneliest part of the city...their dreams finally surrendered for the grave.