I was drafted into the Army in October of 1967. At that time, the war in Vietnam was escalating in both numbers of soldiers sent to fight and the number killed. In fact, because of the growing resentment to the war, most of the branches of the service needed more recruits. I was nearly selected for the Marines as they were picking every other draftee in line to be assigned to the Marine Corps.
At 19 years old, I was young and naïve. Many of my friends were joining the reserves or signing up for a college deferment. I neither had the money to go to college nor the sense to sign up for a six-month reserve assignment. I assumed that because I had graduated high school in the business curriculum and could type 75 words per minute on a manual typewriter, the Army would naturally put me in administration … my first big mistake.
A few days after induction and a very general physical at Fort Holibird, Maryland, I was sent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. There I took a battery of tests and scored well enough to be offered an additional year and my selection of a number of jobs. I refused, even after the recruiter told me I was likely to end up dodging bullets in Vietnam. I was naive enough to think they would see that I had great administrative skills and would surely give me a job in some office where I could sit out my two years of service. Wrong!
I received my infantry MOS (job designation) at the end of basic training in December and had to report to Fort Polk (or Fort Puke as we called it) in Louisiana on the first of January 1968. After three months of training, it was home for two weeks and then on to Vietnam in April. I landed at Cam Rahn Bay and stayed there for a few days before being assigned to Company C of the 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands. I was “fresh meat” for my company, which had been decimated during the battle for Hill 1338 in the mountains west of Dak To in late 1967. The battle for Dak To was the third deadliest Vietnam War battle with 192 fatalities. I was told that of the 120 men in C Company, there were approximately 20 that had not been killed or wounded. During the year of 1968, there were approximately 350 deaths per week … the highest rate of the war.
To tell you my experiences in C Company would take far more space than I want to use on this web page. However, I have written my story (a diary of sorts) and I might post it one day. Suffice it to say my experiences in Vietnam forced me to grow up very quickly, and my attitude about life in general changed dramatically. Until that point, I was somewhat of a lost soul with no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was a product of the radical 60’s, wondering about the meaning of life … in other words, aimless and confuse like most teenagers at the time. Less than a year later, after facing the prospect of death literally every day, I knew one thing for sure … I would never again take life or freedom for granted.
In 1968, as most everyone knows, America went crazy. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated, the Chicago Seven were arrested for inciting riots at the Democratic convention, there were riots in most major cities, and the anti-war protests were growing increasingly violent. I missed most of the craziness since I only had letters from home and an occasional copy of The Stars and Stripes newspaper to keep me informed. That lack of information left me totally unprepared for what I experienced when I came home.
Let me give you some comparison of the difference in attitude from the beginning of 1968 to the end. In January of 1968, before training for Vietnam, I spent one inebriated night on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. While wearing my uniform, people bought me drinks and patted me on the back. It was a good feeling, and I felt proud to have the uniform on. After my tour, the world as I knew it changed. I noticed it immediately upon returning. In the airport in Seattle, an entire row of seats on both sides of me were left open with people preferring to stand rather than sit next to the “baby killer” (my interpretation). In fact, one woman almost violently pulled her four-year-old son away from me when he became curious about my uniform. After that, I couldn’t wait to get my uniform off.
I spent my last nine months at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, with the 526th Military Police, working at the stockade with 600 military prisoners. I still have no idea why I was assigned to a military police unit when I was in the infantry in Vietnam. The US Army works in strange ways. My experiences at the stockade were almost worse than Vietnam. In Vietnam, I served with the best America had to offer, at Fort Meade I dealt with the worst.
When my two-year commitment was over, it felt as though the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. It was like purging my soul. At the time, I was proud to have served my country, but I was almost embarrassed to tell anyone. It was a difficult time to be in the military.
Today, when I am in an airport and see a soldier returning from Iraq, with his family and friends waving flags and banners, and the media taking pictures, I find myself holding back tears. The tears are of pride and joy that the soldiers have served proudly, and are being welcomed home with open arms. But there are also tears of sadness for the way Vietnam Veterans were treated. For me, and hundreds of thousands of other soldiers, there were no parades, there was no one waiting at the airport, and there were no flags waving. On the contrary, Vietnam-era soldiers were more likely to see protestors burning flags than cheering. The only recognition I received was when my father put up a sign next to the driveway of our house, saying: “Welcome Home”.
To this day, I do not know if what our government sent us to do in Vietnam was right or wrong (although I lean toward it being the beginning of the end for Communism). Nor do I pretend to know whether we are doing the right thing in Iraq today. What I do know is that we cannot blame the soldiers for doing the job their government sends them to do. In Vietnam we were young men doing our job, in an incredibly difficult environment, with little support from our country.
Were there atrocities committed in Vietnam? Surely, but it happens in every war. Just ask a World War II infantry veteran. Did I witness any? No! I believe the incidents of atrocities were a rare exception. The guys I served with were scared kids just wanting to make it home. But we all knew right from wrong. If you listened to what the media was saying during the war, it would seem that American soldiers were drug-crazed killers. It was just one of the many myths about the American soldier and Vietnam. In Iraq, our soldiers are again fighting an unpopular war. We cannot let history repeat itself. Our soldiers just want to do their job and come home in one piece. I have included a link to a short photo collage taken of our troops in Iraq.
Turn up the volume of your speakers and prepare for a powerful three minutes and thirty seconds.
In a similar vein, try this inspirational link:
Statistics and Myths about the Vietnam War
"No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now. Rarely have so many people been so wrong about so much. Never have the consequences of their misunderstanding been so tragic." [Nixon]
Myth: Most American soldiers were addicted to drugs, guilt-ridden about their role in the war, and deliberately used cruel and inhumane tactics.
Myth: Most Vietnam veterans were drafted.
2/3 of the men who served in Vietnam were volunteers. 2/3 of the men who served in World War II were drafted. (Westmoreland papers) Approximately 70% of those killed were volunteers. (McCaffrey Papers)
Myth: The media have reported that suicides among Vietnam veterans range from 50,000 to 100,000 - 6 to 11 times the non-Vietnam veteran population.
Mortality studies show that 9,000 is a better estimate. "The CDC Vietnam Experience Study Mortality Assessment showed that during the first 5 years after discharge, deaths from suicide were 1.7 times more likely among Vietnam veterans than non-Vietnam veterans. After that initial post-service period, Vietnam veterans were no more likely to die from suicide than non-Vietnam veterans. In fact, after the 5-year post-service period, the rate of suicides is less in the Vietnam veterans' group." [Houk]
Myth: A disproportionate number of blacks were killed in the Vietnam War.
86% of the men who died in Vietnam were Caucasians, 12.5% were black, 1.2% were other races. (CACF) and (Westmoreland papers)
Sociologists Charles C. Moskos and John Sibley Butler, in their recently published book "All That We Can Be," said they analyzed the claim that blacks were used like cannon fodder during Vietnam "and can report definitely that this charge is untrue. Black fatalities amounted to 12 percent of all Americans killed in Southeast Asia - a figure proportional to the number of blacks in the U.S. population at the time and slightly lower than the proportion of blacks in the Army at the close of the war." [All That We Can Be] NOTE: "All That We Can Be" by Charles C. Moskos and John Sibley Butler
Myth: The war was fought largely by the poor and uneducated.
Servicemen who went to Vietnam from well-to-do areas had a slightly elevated risk of dying because they were more likely to be pilots or infantry officers.
Vietnam Veterans were the best educated forces our nation had ever sent into combat. 79% had a high school education or better. (McCaffrey Papers)
Average age of 58,148 killed in Vietnam was 23.11 years. (Although 58,169 names are in the Nov. 93 database, only 58,148 have both event date and birth date. Event date is used instead of declared dead date for some of those who were listed as missing in action) [CACF]
Myth: The average age of an infantryman fighting in Vietnam was 19
The oldest man killed was 62 years old. [CACF]
11,465 KIAs were less than 20 years old. [CACF]
Assuming KIAs accurately represented age groups serving in Vietnam, the average age of an infantryman (MOS 11B) serving in Vietnam to be 19 years old is a myth, it is actually 22. None of the enlisted grades have an average age of less than 20. [CACF] The average man who fought in World War II was 26 years of age. (Westmoreland papers)
Myth: The domino theory was proved false.
The domino theory was accurate. The ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand stayed free of Communism because of the U.S. commitment to Vietnam. The Indonesians threw the Soviets out in 1966 because of America's commitment in Vietnam. Without that commitment, Communism would have swept all the way to the Malacca Straits that is south of Singapore and of great strategic importance to the free world. If you ask people who live in these countries that won the war in Vietnam, they have a different opinion from the American news media. The Vietnam War was the turning point for Communism. (Westmoreland papers)
Democracy Catching On - In the wake of the Cold War, democracies are flourishing, with 179 of the world's 192 sovereign states (93%) now electing their legislators, according to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union. In the last decade, 69 nations have held multi-party elections for the first time in their histories. Three of the five newest democracies are former Soviet republics: Belarus (where elections were first held in November 1995), Armenia (July 1995) and Kyrgyzstan (February 1995). And two are in Africa: Tanzania (October 1995) and Guinea (June 1995). [Parade Magazine]
Myth: The fighting in Vietnam was not as intense as in World War II.
The average infantryman in the South Pacific during World War II saw about 40 days of combat in four years. The average infantryman in Vietnam saw about 240 days of combat in one year thanks to the mobility of the helicopter. One out of every 10 Americans who served in Vietnam was a casualty. 58,169 were killed and 304,000 wounded out of 2.59 million who served. Although the percent who died is similar to other wars, amputations or crippling wounds were 300 percent higher than in World War II. 75,000 Vietnam veterans are severely disabled. (McCaffrey Papers)
MEDEVAC helicopters flew nearly 500,000 missions. Over 900,000 patients were airlifted (nearly half were American). The average time lapse between wounding to hospitalization was less than one hour. As a result, less than one percent of all Americans wounded who survived the first 24 hours died. (VHPA Databases)
The helicopter provided unprecedented mobility. Without the helicopter it would have taken three times as many troops to secure the 800 mile border with Cambodia and Laos (the politicians thought the Geneva Conventions of 1954 and the Geneva Accords or 1962 would secure the border) (Westmoreland papers)
Army AH-1G's totaled 1,038,969 flight hours in Vietnam. (VHPA Databases)
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Just in case you missed it above, here is a link to a very powerful and inspiring photo collage about our troops in Iraq:
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The following site has a very inspiring music video from country artists Big and Rich about the 173rd Airborne in 1965. Once you reach the page, click on the Videos graphic and play the video called 8th of November:
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Check out this PowerPoint slideshow entitled The 100 Greatest Military Photographs:
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Copyright 2006 - 2007 Russell G. Johnson