I spent almost 21 years in the military so it should be no surprise when I tell you that I still spend a lot of time thinking about it. What is surprising however, is that I generally have a negative view of the military, from the time I spent in it, and all that has happened since I left. It is really hard for me to adequately express my opinions about the military to people that have never served in the military and it is just as difficult to express my views to someone that did serve.
Why would I want to write about it then? It is probably because the military has been such a large part of my life, and because it is an exceptional reflection of our nation's dysfunctional political system and also our morally bankrupt foreign policy. I would like to start by examining the American people's view of the military.
When I enlisted in January 1968, one day after the Tet Offensive began, I was seventeen and the nation was in turmoil. The Vietnam War was in full swing and the country was becoming more divided by the day. I was fully aware of the danger I was putting myself into, but I felt at the time that if I didn't enlist, I would have been drafted and I would have ended up in Vietnam as an infantryman. I thought that by enlisting, I could avoid the prospect of being a ground-pounder in the jungle. I also wanted the GI Bill so that I could attend college if I survived my enlistment. I'm still here... I guess it worked.
While I didn't experience a tour of duty in Southeast Asia (I went to Korea three times), I didn't escape the effects of the war. The Army was not the most socially acceptable occupation during the late sixties and early 70's. Many of my friends either got drafted or were in the streets protesting the war. Many of those that returned from the war were among the most politically radical. It was difficult to find anyone without an opinion. The worst part of that for me, was that those who supported the war (in my opinion) were usually right wing ideologues that didn't have a clue as to what was really happening. Many people that were opposed to the war wanted nothing to do with me.
I was OK with that, mainly because I was also against US policy in Vietnam. The people who understood me best were my fellow soldiers. Still, even in the army, problems existed. There was a huge disconnect between the younger soldiers who were usually either draftee's or on their first enlistment and, for the most part, against the war. The older, career soldiers that were NCO's and field grade Officers, were for the war. The army was a microcosm of the society at large. This made life difficult for everyone. Just as in the society we were spawned from, the young people and the older people were at odds.
For many soldiers, returning to civilian life after a tour of duty in Vietnam was exceedingly difficult. The usual tour of duty in Vietnam was thirteen months. The experience of being in the jungle or out on some firebase, hours away from any large military installations, and then suddenly, almost as if by magic, being transported back to the US and mustered out of the military. Within 24 to 48 hours, they walked through their front door. It was surreal.
Compounding this transition was the reality of going through it alone because most soldiers didn't arrive and leave with a unit. There were no "band of brothers" as portrayed in World War II. Every soldier had his DERO's date (Date Estimated Return from Overseas). A soldier arrived in Vietnam individually and left individually. How they processed that... was up to them.
The result of the thirteen month "combat tour", was that it usually took a solid month to train a green soldier and when a soldier got close to his DEROS date (or "got short"), they were loath to take any chances. This, along with a mid-tour leave which was usually thirty days, gave commanders 10 months of time to use a soldier. It was also hard to give a man a reason to defeat the enemy. Performing well in combat and gaining victories that did not result in the war's end and a great homecoming. It was a thirteen month tour, whether or not battles were won or lost. This was not the best method of fighting a war. Being there "for the duration" was a thing of the past.
Homecoming wasn't exactly a hero's welcome either. I remember hitch-hiking from Fort Lewis to the Seattle-Tacoma airport on a fine Summer day in 1970. Someone leaned out of a car window and threw a half full beer can at me and then, getting struck in the head to the words "baby-killer" and having my khaki shirt covered in beer and blood. I'm sure I didn't experience anything unique for that period.
People were also very suspicious of Vietnam vets. The anti-war movement rhetoric and news reports of atrocities from places like My Lai didn't elevate veterans to celebrity status. This was one reason why many Vietnam era veterans didn't talk much about the war they had suffered through. Most Americans didn't want to hear about their experiences and if a vet insisted on sharing what he went through, the welcome mat was nowhere to be seen.
This isn't the case today. Now people go out of their way to shake the hand of a returning Vet and thank them for their service. "I support out troops" and "Army Mom (or Dad)" stickers grace the bumpers of SUV's. Yellow ribbons are everywhere... on everything. What has changed? Why are today's Vets being adored while Vietnam's Vets were vilified? What has changed and who are the hero worshipers?
One thing I find disturbing is this "Wounded Warrior Program". Why do we have celebrities asking American taxpayers to send $19.00 a month to this project that is providing assistance to Veterans to recover from physical and psychological wounds? Why are these celebrities asking us to pay at all? I'm not complaining about to helping them, but the fact is, they should already be receiving help. The government sent these people into harm's way and it should be the government that supplies care for their wounds. What I find outrageous is that these Veterans have to ask for anything! If the government can't or won't provide for the people they have asked to sacrifice for the nation, they should never again put them in harm's way!
First of all, one of the reasons why our Veterans are once again heroes is because there are very few people in the United States with any "skin in the game", so to speak. In the years during the Vietnam War, almost everyone had or knew, someone participating. Sons were being drafted and everyone had a lottery number dancing around in their heads. Everyone couldn't just soil their boxers like Ted Nugent ...and get a deferment. Dick Cheney had hemorrhoids, but everyone didn't get so lucky. There were only so many potential Army Dads and Moms with a Senate or Congressional seat. It was cold in Canada and Sweden, and to be there without a guaranteed income could make for some mighty cold winters.
Today, some of the same people that protested the "imperialism" that America practiced in Vietnam now have "I support our troops" bumper stickers. It is quite possible that the person that threw that beer can at me outside of Seattle is now thanking veterans "for their service". Do I sound bitter? You're damn right I am! I'm also disgusted and revolted. Where are all of the people that "couldn't live with the war on their conscience" during Vietnam? I could go on, but I won't. I've already said enough. The people I'm talking about know who they are and if they don't... if amnesia has fully engulfed them, no amount of shame will reach them anyway.
Still, after watching history unfold in my lifetime, and my knowledge of the military, I have come to some conclusions about how we as a nation could rectify some of the harm that American Presidents, Congress critters and foreign policy "experts" as well as some military people have wrought. Maybe rectify is the wrong word. Maybe I should use the word "prevent".