Every Memorial Day brings my mind back to the Vietnam era and memories of the hundreds of young soldiers I knew.
I was the luckiest man in the Army, with opportunities to meet and talk with so many different kinds of troops. As an Army journalist in Hawaii, where thousands of soldiers received training before deploying to the war, I met young guys from everywhere in the US, and from a few other countries.
Contrary to the common belief that most draftees were poorly educated southerners or disadvantaged young men from urban ghettos, many were educated people from mainstream America. Though politicians in Washington created a foolish program to draft some mentally disadvantaged people, ordinary draftees were often smarter than the political leaders who had sent them.
I met soldiers in several different environments. Many were returning from Vietnam, while others were undergoing training before deploying. I met many enlisted men at the lowest ranks, as well as prominent generals. I even had the honor of interviewing Admiral John S. McCain Jr., father of Senator McCain of Arizona. I later realized that the future senator, then a Navy captain, may have been in a Viet Cong prison camp when I met his father.
Some vets I encountered in my first few days after training, were already casualties of war. Serving as a parade-ground announcer during outdoor medal presentations, I would read a written citation before each honored soldier received a medal. With hundreds of soldiers in military formation, I would hear my voice echoing back at me over windy fields, as a senior officer presented each Purple Heart, Bronze or Silver Star. Many medals were posthumous, with families of each fallen soldier present to receive the medal. The sights of tearful parents, girlfriends, wives, and kids left me with indelible memories of the hardest job I ever had.
In visits to Tripler Army Medical Center, I met men who survived casualties, often with grave injuries that would trouble them for life. These brave men offered upbeat conversations as they told their stories, though I often wondered how they would survive in civilian life.
As the Eleventh Infantry Brigade deployed to Vietnam, I said goodbye to dozens of friends. Some would come home and resume life in the real world. Others would never return. Still others would come back physically, yet be forever unable to live a normal life.
All of this happened many years ago. Most of the names have faded over time. The faces remain, however. I wrote a novel based on those days, entitled “The Victory That Wasn’t.” It’s my version of how a few minor background events might have changed the entire story of America in Vietnam. Reviewers have said, “if only it had happened that way…”
Processing out of the Army with hundreds of others on our last day in the military at Oakland Army Base, I listened to final instructions, informing us that anti-war protesters might meet us with violence. I had prepared for that situation and wore civilian clothes as I walked out of the building. I wore sneakers and carried an ordinary suitcase. I had even invested in a civilian haircut before leaving Honolulu.
I was a civilian again, but my Army experience had changed me. I still knew that I had been the luckiest man in the Army. And I had shared a connection with my fellow Vietnam-era vets that exists to this day.