Here we are, almost forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, reminiscing on Facebook and other social websites about those experiences we endured in a war so long ago. As we age, many of those memories have faded away, others, were purposely buried, destined to remain that way. However, some of these traumatic experiences continue creeping up to the surface, the details, clear as day and as if the incident occurred just yesterday. What if I told you that my reoccurring nightmare isn’t about encounters with enemy soldiers on foreign soil, but of a single incident that took place right here in the United States with my own countrymen? That’s right, it’s about my homecoming after serving honorably for a year in the Vietnam War.
The goal of every serviceman in Vietnam was to survive the brutality of war and return to the safety of “The World”. I was happy, proud and thankful I survived – finally on my way home. Our Pan Am jet landed at McChord AFB in Washington State and after disembarking, we had to walk across the tarmac to a large hanger almost a quarter of a mile away. Unlike other wars, Vietnam Veterans did not come home as a unit, instead, they came home as individuals with 250 other strangers on a jet plane; a long single file line of veterans snaked toward their destination. Large posters greeted us, announcing “Welcome Home”, “Thank you for your service”and “Our Country is Proud of you” among others. Once inside, we were served steak dinners, completed a short physical examination and then issued new dress uniforms; all are shocked and comment at their new measurements as this is something none of us paid attention to while overseas. Every one of us lost an average of six inches around the waist. There is a feel of excitement in the air! All are anxious to complete this process and leave for Tacoma International Airport to coordinate the final leg of their journey home.
Dressed in my new uniform; all ribbons, badges and sergeant stripes in place, I was ready to be welcomed home by the local populace, who had gathered in a large group outside the airbase; every one of us were looking forward to sharing the love.
Instead of finding love, we were bombarded with hate! People stood on the side of the road holding signs condemning the war and us returning veterans. They chanted slogans as a group and yelled insults to us as we passed. Once the bus began pulling away, tomatoes and eggs fell from the sky, splattering against the windows. All of us on the bus sat quietly, shocked, jaws agape, unable to believe what had just happened. Welcome to the new “World”!
We were treated like outcasts, blamed for a war we didn’t start, accused of killing innocent women and children, called dope heads, spit at and ridiculed by citizens most of the way to Michigan. Don’t get me wrong, I did meet some very generous and friendly people on the way, but they were solely the minority and far and few in between. Some uniformed soldiers with missing limbs were jeered at and told that they deserved their fate…
These actions, similar to the Westboro Baptist Church group that demonstrates at soldier’s funerals today, were not well accepted. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a Patriot Guard to run interference for us and had to face the demons head on.
When arriving home, I was dumbfounded, ashamed, and depressed about our treatment – so this is the thanks for putting our lives on the line and for sacrificing what we did during the past year! I began questioning myself – was I right in going to fight in Vietnam or did I make the wrong decision? I soon discovered that it was better to not advertise and just keep quiet!
The news media had continued to flame the public opposition to the Vietnam War by broadcasting distorted and biased accounts from the battlefield. Reporting that the use of drugs in Vietnam was escalating, increased incidents of soldiers refusing direct orders to go out on patrols, and the military inflating body counts and misleading the public on the war – so the warriors were blamed for losing the war!
Clearly, it was unpopular for someone to be a Vietnam Veteran or even a member of the military. In the 1970’s, Vietnam Veterans were discriminated against for jobs, publishing books of their war experiences and were referred to as the social delinquents in our society – even the VFW refused to allow us membership. It seems like every movie about Vietnam to that point portrayed the veteran as a killing machine with mental problems, bad marriages, hooked on drugs or alcoholics.
They were considered an unstable and dangerous lot – a group that citizens should be wary of and avoid. Vets clamped up, refrained from wearing military uniforms in public, grew beards and long hair to fit it with his peers, keeping primarily to themselves. The truth was that our country just wanted to forget about Vietnam and didn’t want any reminders circulating. In my opinion, November, 1982 was the start of a new era for Vietnam Veterans – the wall in Washington DC was dedicated and the healing began.
Then, after Vietnam Veterans of America is founded in the mid-eighties, former combat veterans came out of their closets in droves, growing the organization by establishing local chapters throughout the country. Finally, there is an outlet for veterans to talk about their tours and others who understood and listened intently. The camaraderie is unsurpassed to this day! The time had finally arrived for them to be recognized and appreciated.
Not long afterwards Chicago and New York City both hosted “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans” parades in attempts to recognize veterans and change public opinion. I personally marched in that parade and have nothing but the greatest admiration for the Chicago residents – they went out of their way to sincerely make us feel wanted.
How many of you are aware that in 1998, sociologist Jerry Lembeke published a book: The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the legacy of Vietnam, which completely discredits the claims that American Soldiers were spit on when they returned home and that it was a common urban myth, constructed to ruin anti war protesters.
It stated, “that spitting on returning soldiers started somewhere around 1980 when Stallone mentioned it in ‘First Blood’. Anyone who thinks that a number of U.S. soldiers were spit on and did not retaliate by whipping someone’s ass is admitting that they think U.S. Soldiers are wussies. There is no way that you could spit on more than a select few soldiers and not get into a fist fight requiring someone to write a report about the incident.” Since no reports or evidence was available, it never happened. The truth is that these returning soldiers were still numb from the war and confused when confronted by the protesters. They were unable to react or chose not to retaliate to further fuel the fires enveloping them.
Looking further into this, I found that shortly after the book came out, a Chicago columnist, Bob Greene, came up with an idea for a newspaper column that eventually resulted in a published book. The idea was prompted by rumors heard over the years. In a column that is syndicated in 200 newspapers nationwide, he asked the following question: “If you are a reader of this column, and you are a Vietnam Veteran, were you ever spat upon when you returned to the U.S.?” The response was overwhelming and more than 1000 soldiers wrote in. The many letters confirmed the rumors and make a poignant, genuine statement on their own. Taking excerpts from these letters, editing and verifying, Green put them together in a book called, “Homecoming”.
Here are some excerpts from his book:
“In the Seattle airport as I was arriving home after serving in Vietnam in 1968-1969, a gang of 10 to 20 total strangers clustered in the terminal and shouted insults at me as I passed by in my uniform. It never occurred to me that people could … attack individual young soldiers who walked through the airport alone in their sacred hour of homecoming.`
When J. Leonard Caldeira returned from Vietnam he was walking with his fiancée in San Francisco. A rather nondescript man, “not a hippie,” he writes, spat at his uniform. “Nothing was said but the incident saddened and confused me. I took off my uniform later that day and never put it on during the rest of my stay in San Francisco…. The only mental scar that remains with me today of Vietnam was the unwelcome display of that man in San Francisco.
“ Frederick H. Giese of Arlington Heights, Ill., was evacuated from Vietnam to a hospital in Japan. While there he met a Japanese woman, married her and adopted her son. When he returned to the United States in 1970, he was in uniform, wearing all his medals — including the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. “My family and I were standing in line, when, out of the blue, this middle-aged lady walked up to me with a bowl of potato salad in her hand. She threw the salad smack in the middle of my chest and spat what salad she had in her mouth in my face. Then she proceeded to call me a `baby killer, a `warmonger`, and a lot of other vile names. That was how I was welcomed home. That is how my family was first introduced to America.
“It is dumbfounding to read letter after letter of such utter, personal viciousness Americans directed at Americans. These disquieting testimonies plumb depths of meaning on the war that volumes of analysis cannot”, said Greene. “I have no doubt that many returning veterans truly were spat upon,” Greene writes in his preface. “There were too many letters, going into too fine a detail to deny the fact. I was profoundly moved by how, all these years later, so many men remembered exactly where and when they were spat upon, and how the pain has stayed with them.”
Bob Boughton, of Fredericktown, Ohio, recovering from injuries received in Vietnam was waiting for a bus home: “An elderly woman came up to me, looked me square in the face and called me a hired killer. But then, a young lady dressed in bell-bottoms, love beads and a peace symbol came up to me as the elderly woman walked away. She looked me in the face and told me she was sorry for the way the returning vets were being treated. I could never forget her face and those few kind words.”
Greene writes, “I did indeed include the invitation for anyone who had spat upon a returning soldier to write in and explain his or her motives, and to reflect on how he or she feels about it now.“
“There were no responses.”
Many others, while not spat on, were called baby killers and war criminals by strangers, and occasionally by people they knew and friends from the neighborhood. A number were welcomed back and thanked for the sacrifices they had made by citizens in public. However, the vast majority of well wishes were from immediate family members.
Most of the spitting and jeering incidents in the book happened in San Francisco, where a large number of returning veterans stopped on the way home. Nevertheless, they also happened in the southwest and midwest. The veterans felt that the American people had turned against them. From the soldiers I have known the common theme was they experienced this in some other areas of the country but it was virtually unheard of in the south. This is only word of mouth and nothing is documented.
President Obama told a crowd gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, “You came home and sometimes were denigrated, when you should have been celebrated and commended for serving your country with valor. It was a national shame, a disgrace that should have never happened. And that’s why here today we resolve that it will not happen again,” he said to applause.
Many Vietnam vets remain embittered by the treatment they experienced following the war. The social alienation of Vietnam veterans, ostracized by the community instead of being welcomed home, has contributed to the problems of PTSD.
Today, the American psyche is ingrained with greater respect for the military, in large part, because people recognize that past treatment of Vietnam vets was a mistake.
So does this mean we should forgive and forget? Some scars are too deep to glaze over, and I, for one, will carry mine until I die. What about you?
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