Vietnam vet remembers
I got drafted into the Army in the late ’60s, after CU. I sensed it coming, as the draft board (Grand Junction) had been shrill and threatening for some time. I saw my draft card for that period a while back and noted my classification was I-A, draft-able at any moment. It should have been II-A while in college, but the system was so corrupt and poorly run that such detail didn’t seem to matter. If you were poor or a street Negro, you were very vulnerable, and as I fell into one of those categories of the day my fate was sealed. It was clear that my name was on their list and that I was going. (Woody Allen, incidentally, said his classification was IV-P – that in event of war he would be a hostage.)Having been drafted in the war bothers me much more now than it did then. I was such a chump to believe in the government. It’s later that you learn of the Clintons and Quayles; Cheney (whose poor wife somehow got pregnant and he really shouldn’t have to go, right?); and of course, the new Bush, who hid out in the Texas National Guard along with a disproportionate number of Dallas Cowboys. I have never voted for any of the above and I never will. Certainly, I thought that those involved with such influence-peddling and under-the-table corruption would never amount to much in life, and that the American people would see to it.The best way to avoid Vietnam was to flunk your draft physical. Eating soap at the appropriate moment was popular, as it made your heart jump all over the place. Shooting off your own toe might save your life later. And you could be rejected by declaring yourself a homosexual. I’m told of one potential draftee who prior to his physical spread peanut butter on his bottom. And after bending over during his exam, he was rejected as “too dirty” to serve in close quarters with other soldiers. Some tricks you learn just too late in life to help.And so, unaware of all the cheating, too proud to run, and believing in the government, I was another chump sent to Vietnam. It was my longest journey and my finest hour.It’s such a horrendous feeling going off to war, particularly when young. My rank as a 2nd lieutenant said “death impending,” at least statistically. And I was so dumb. You think of friends already killed. The lump in my throat became a permanent growth. But there were good aspects. You met a lot of great people in similar circumstances. And I liked the Vietnamese.Actually the first Vietnamese that I really saw was a young woman who came up to me, smiled in a sexual fashion, pulled up her dress and then urinated while standing up. I did not know that women could do this. I never saw that before in Grand Junction.While in-processing, I encountered another lieutenant processing out. His bloody arm was still wet, as it was encased in one of those braces that stick out at the shoulder at a 90-degree angle. His deep-set eyes looked at me with total contempt. My new boots, hat, fatigues and a general semblance of cleanliness told him that I was an FNG, with the NG part meaning New Guy. I don’t know if true in other wars, but in Vietnam there was a very direct correlation between been-there-done-that and peer acceptance. But after nearly two straight years there, I hoped by very faded fatigues, very old hat, and the very deep-set to my eyes were not missed by those new guys getting off the truck over there.My first engagement in Vietnam involved a female Viet Cong in a free-fire zone, meaning you are automatically dead if caught in that area. When she saw me she started to run across an open rice field, her large conical hat flapping behind her. It was such a total shock that, after all these years, my life had come to a point where a woman was desperately running for her life from me. I did not fire, but I think someone else did – no doubt muttering how that FNG had better get with the program. (A reporter once asked this soldier if he found it hard to shoot women, and he said no, it wasn’t difficult; you just don’t need to lead them as much).The first casualty of war is Innocence.I was the definition of lucky and often said that I would never complain about bad luck in life, as I had good luck when good luck was absolutely needed. (And I’ve held true to that over the decades.) The stories of the dead and dying convinced me of the transience of life. And death doesn’t distinguish between taking good people or bad people. It was never clear if all the amulets soldiers wore or if all the “P’s & P’s” (prayers and promises) expressed really saved anyone. Increasingly, I came to think that your time was up or it wasn’t. I came to object to all of the euphemisms used for death, such as “wasted away,” “bought a piece of the farm,” and the like. To describe a young soldier who has just died in the name of the American people as a “wet disposal” is just too cute.And just killing the enemy seemed enough. It was always a shock to learn that the engaging guy you just met, the All-American farm kid from Kansas, just did WHAT? “War is hell” was the rationalization, and given corruption in the White House and a void in military leadership, a lot of normally decent people did wrong things that they cannot help but regret their entire lives. And speaking up about it, at the time, at some risk, was my finest hour.The first casualty of war is Honor.My return to the United States after almost two years (including Cambodia and Laos) was clumsy. While waiting in the airport (Grand Junction) my knees started to shake. I always thought that was just an expression. And why here and why now? I clung to a railing with my face pasted to the wall, just to keep my legs under me. It was clear that I was not doing the coming home bit very well. And in my awkwardness, I envisioned a long line of Vietnam friends coming by and whispering “FNG” in my ear, followed by a smile.I help the local VFW plant flags at the local cemeteries where a few Vietnam veterans are buried. Standing over the graves, with my little flag, that lump comes to my throat again. Poor dumb chump, I think to myself, as it easily could be me. The dead didn’t realize that they could have deserted to Canada and that it really wouldn’t have mattered; that Ford and mainly Carter would let them all back in.And then there’s Jane Fonda, who did go to Vietnam, but it was North Vietnam where she broadcast propaganda for the enemy. On one occasion, while sitting in an enemy anti-aircraft position, she just wished a U.S. Air Force plane would fly over “right this minute.” You would think this woman, upon returning to America, would be imprisoned for 30 years. (The crime is sedition.) But the American people don’t seem to care too much, and have given her what $40-$50-$60 million for her ventures. Talk about chumps.And then, at the most egregious, former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara confesses he already knew the war was “tragic” and a “mistake” as early as 1966, and yet he continued to pursue it nonetheless. He liked being in power … an additional 51,000 young men died from that date. The natural patriotism of the young was used to send them to their deaths in a war he had already concluded was “unwinnable.” How abominable! And yet he begs for atonement with great crocodile tears. He is beneath contempt. It is obscene. It is unconscionable.The first casualty of war is Truth.A few years ago, in a small Texas town, a Vietnam vet was writing a check when he asked the store’s elderly proprietor what day it was. “Why, 11th month, 11th day, 11th hour … Veteran’s Day … of course.” The Vietnam vet exploded in language unprintable how it might be Veteran’s Day for you old soldiers from popular wars, but for him “Veteran’s Day” did nothing but remind him of the many forms of victimization and abuse he had suffered before, during, and after. No doubt the elderly proprietor told his friends (and the police who were called) how he had been assaulted by a Vietnam weirdo, and oh, what a crybaby. You should have heard him. And really, what should the guy have expected? (“We are the unwilling, led by the unworthy, doing the impossible, for the ungrateful.”)And then, of course, there is always that great blob of American people who know and think only of their own self-amusements … and who could not care less. It is beyond shame.Mike Mathias is a longtime resident of Vail.