My good friend and author Al Boudreau has called me a romantic, which he meant and I take as a compliment. Life does different things to people as they grow. Some turn dark from the light and others turn light from the dark. I guess my soul chose light.
Another good friend and author Zee Gorman, whom I met on a book site started me thinking about my life. One day I mentioned that I had fought in Vietnam. Zee was a child living in a small village in China near the border of Vietnam during that period. Slowly I opened wounds of my past and she talked about something I knew nothing about. As a child she stood by the roadside and cheer returning soldiers who had also fought in Vietnam. I received a much different reception.
I’m writing this introduction to my next little story in hopes that anyone who has ever protested war might think differently of the people in uniform when they pass by. Protesting against whatever a government is doing should be a right for those who disagree. I am not a proponent of war. The soldiers are not to blame.
This little story has sat for over a year waiting. It took me years to finally write it. Even though it is a simple thing it allowed me to give thought and relief from the past. I don’t look for anything from this story except possibly to give you a view of the past. Please enjoy:
A Soldier’s Return
Years have flown—not nearly as fast as they might—since the war many people don’t remember came to a sputtering conclusion. It still seems to be a dirty word for most today, but it was real and touched so many lives… for good and bad.
I played my part- although only a tiny cog in a giant wheel of governments—and my pride in serving grows stronger with the passing years. I served in Vietnam in the U.S. Army.
I was a young man looking for more… or perhaps it was only a bit of excitement. There was no fear, only a need to get away to some foreign land. I didn’t serve with the feverous intent of going to war but with a foreknowledge of how my family had done their duty in the past.
I was young and trained and naïve. I grew up in the South and from my first day of boot-camp I began to learn of how others thought of southerners. I heard words I had never heard before, but at the same time I found friends that seemed to want to protect me.
One man whose nickname was Soul was a young black man from the gangs of Philadelphia. What an odd combination we were, but no one dared say the wrong thing to Soul. I still have no idea what he saw in me but he did give me a completely different outlook on northerners, black people and what friendship was all about. We lost contact soon after training but he stays in my thoughts.
This is not a ‘war story’ and there will be no feats of valor or atrocities to convey a sense of indignation or pride. I did what I was asked to do and that, for me, was enough.
I landed in Vietnam in darkness and three men from the large group that arrived were hustled off and separated from the rest. We rode through the darkened countryside with a grunt manning an M-60 machinegun mounted to the jeep.
I spent my first two day in country at Davis Station in Saigon and I had my first encounter with the people of Vietnam. A young girl walked into the room where I sat and she captured me with her eyes and smile. I wondered if these were the people I was sent to fight– I hoped not.
The war like so many others was filled with work and sweat, massive boredom and intense actions. I don’t use the word fear because I was young and there just wasn’t any fear in me that would last. Our unit destroyed and saved lives and my part was so minor it’s not worth mentioning. I did not slug through the jungles— there actually wasn’t that much jungle and Viet Nam was a beautiful country. I worked on aircraft—the likes few people got to see. We were in contact with the real warriors: Special Forces, Navy SEALs, LRRPs and the rest.
I recently met, through the internet, a great woman writer that grew up in China not far from the border of North Vietnam and we have become friends—sharing stories of our childhood and growing up. I’m a writer now and it is so nice to be able to discuss the trials of writing with a peer. I’ll call this woman Red Child, from the translation of her name. I immediately liked her name—being a little Cherokee myself, although her name was an honorific of the struggles of China at the time. We exchanged many stories and one time I brought up the fact that I was in Vietnam during the war. I was hoping not to offend her but that part of my life had such an effect of me I wanted to share it as I never had before.
The funny part was that she too shared about her life at the time I was in the area. She told me about the many times, as a child, everyone from the village would rush out to road when soldiers were returning from doing their part in fighting. It was a happy time for the children and they were so proud of the men who did what they must to help their neighbor.
I found it to be poignant but also intriguing to hear a voice from the other side of what was going on. She spoke with no thought of the conflict or that I may have been in some small way responsible for the injured that return—I don’t think it entered her mind and to tell the truth it only niggled at mine. It was a great story of childhood and I did enjoy reading about life in a strange and wondrous place.
After that one correspondence I opened up feelings I have long held back—from myself—and told her of my return to my country—the land that I served with pride and duty.
I flew into San Francisco and was taken to a nearby base to receive my Army Greens because of the season. I was then sent off to the airport with ticket in hand, filled with the joy of returning to my family. From the time I stepped in to the civilian world of this modern airport I felt animosity coming from many of the people I passed. I wore my uniform with ribbons and strips on both sleeves showing my time of service and my time of being in a combat zone. I didn’t understand. Of course I had seen reports and TV of the protest going on at the time but why would someone be angry at me?
At one point I stopped to get a drink of water from a fountain and heard the click of heels behind me. I turned to look upon a long-haired kid giving me a hitler salute and then he spat on me. I was dumbfounded at first but then told him in no uncertain terms to get away from me—He complied but he called me names that made no sense. And what really confused me was the other people standing around seemed to agree with him. I felt completely alone.
I kept a low-profile until I was safely on the plane to take me home. On the flight, which again was at night, I was seated beside a high ranking Army officer and he bought me a drink to welcome me home. We talked little, after all I was only an E-5, an enlisted man, but at one point during the flight I looked across him out the window and saw flashes in the night sky. It looked exactly like an artillery barrage in the distances and I leaned over the officer trying to figure out what was happening. The officer chuckled, grabbed my shoulder and ease me back to my seat and said, “It’s just heat-lightening, son. Nothing to worry about.” I smiled at him and began to relax. I was home!
When I finally arrive at the Charlotte airport my family was waiting with signs and love and no one held me in judgment. Even the neighbors had put out signs and helped in my joy of returning to the place of my childhood. A child no longer.