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Two weeks before my return from Vietnam, someone gave me a standard, wooden "send home" box to ship personal items I could do without for the last few days. My send-home box was filled with stereo equipment, slide and movie projectors, presents for family and friends, souvenirs and mementos of Vietnam.
It was hard to decide what would go, what would accompany me and what things must be left behind. There were two paper mache' dragon heads that were damaged when I was wounded in the terrorist bombing of the Victoria hotel. Regrettably, they had to be discarded.
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For me, the tension rose higher the closer I was to leaving. Saying goodbye to American friends and colleagues was difficult. I felt almost guilty for leaving them with a war, as yet, not over. Not guilty enough to refuse to leave, however. There was always the chance we would meet again in some future assignment.
This was not the case with my many Vietnamese friends. The chances of a reunion this side of heaven were remote. They varied from Sammy, the custodian for the Provost Marshal Office, to Colonel Loan, the National Police Commander who gave me first aid when I was wounded in the terrorist bombing of the National Police Station. I also had many Vietnamese friends about whose fate I do not conjecture. It is uncomfortable to realize that some people considered that, for a Vietnamese, just being my friend was a crime worthy of execution. Fear not my old friends, I still think of you and remember all of your kindnesses and ask God to watch over you.
On my final day in country, Pete, my Vietnamese driver, took me to Ton Son Nhut Airport. Each person and every bag was carefully weighed to prevent overloading the plane. I was shuttled off to the side to wait for a "lighty", as I was a "heavy". Not me personally; I still weighed 145 pounds, but straining at every seam, my B-4 bag weighed in at a hefty 125 pounds. Finally, someone who was enough underweight to allow my bag and me to proceed to the boarding area came through the line.
I sat in my cramped seat waiting for liftoff, NOT reflecting on the past year, NOT anticipating my future, just sat and waited. And waited. And waited. Slowly, the plane taxied to the runway. With a rush, we moved faster and then started to climb as close to straight up as the plane and my overloaded B-4 bag would allow. Shortly, the pilot came on the PA system with the announcement, "We are now leaving Vietnamese airspace." All of the passengers clapped, whistled and yelled their approval. There was a little more talking now than on the way in country. But most of us were still remembering. No one should have those memories.
Back in America, the planeload of temporary comrades disbanded forever. I was scheduled to fly to Denver and then Sioux Falls, SD for a layover before going on to Grand Forks. Knowing my B-4 bag was grossly overweight, I slipped my camera bag around behind my back, hoping that the strap across my chest would look like a camera strap. Straining, I lifted the B-4 to the scale. One hundred twenty five on the nose.
The clerk started to say something, but decided that they might have a few people with light suitcases. However, as I walked away he spotted the bulging camera case. Shouts of "Sir, excuse me, sir. Hey you, soldier, wait. Come back, you have to weigh your carry on." echoed down the concourse. Wonder who he was calling to. Not me. I was going home.
A short stay in Denver and I was on the DC-3 to Sioux Falls. Someone forgot to tell me that the airport closed after the last flight and no one was permitted to stay in the terminal overnight. A cab took me to the YMCA and a small, musty, dim and dismal room, but it was in America.
I changed into a fresh uniform and ventured out. Tales of welcome home for veterans of WWII had me all prepared. My money would not be good in any bar or café, if I was in uniform. I would be receiving envious glances from admiring young boys and flirtatious smiles from pretty girls. Man! I was home and I was, oh, so wrong!
Strangely enough, the bartender took my money without comment. Obviously, he was someone who just wasn't able to recognize a returning war veteran. He must have thought I never left stateside.
Stepping up to the bar I ordered a beer. Strangely enough, the bartender took my money without comment. Obviously, he was someone who just wasn't able to recognize a returning war veteran. He must have thought I never left stateside. Finally, someone approached and asked if I was in the Army. "Yes, I am." Was I ever in Vietnam? "Yes, I just got back today." I wasn't prepared to hear him mumble something that sounded almost like, "Chump."
The flight to Grand Forks was punctuated by my shedding a few ounces while filling two of those plastic lined paper sacks. The airplane kept hitting the potholes in the sky known as mid-air turbulence.
In a letter to Margo, I had asked that just she and our children meet me at the airport. I wanted to ease back into the reality of being home. In all of the world there is no sight as beautiful as what was waiting for me in Grand Forks.
My bride, our son Justin and daughter Wendy. God has never made a rainbow or sunset or mountain or ocean as beautiful as the family he gave me. Margo was radiant. Justin was shy about this strange person called Daddy. Wendy twirled on the end of her mother's arm. Holding and kissing them drained away the desolation, fear and aloneness of the past year.
Mom lived only two doors away and was soon in our home hugging, kissing and checking me for scars - I had but a few, that showed.
Their loving touches assured me that this was reality. I was home. I was loved. I was safe.
We slipped into the home I had left a year ago. Some of the toys were different. The furniture was the same. When the telephone rang, I answered with my usual, "Harvey residence."
It was Mom calling, "Michael, where, what, when? Thank God." And I do, every day. Mom lived only two doors away and was soon in our home hugging, kissing and checking me for scars, I had but a few, that showed.
While the war continued, I was first stationed in Texas. On a street corner in San Antonio in 1967, two young men stood beside me at a stop light. They noticed my uniform and the bits of colored cloth on my chest. This prompted them to start a loud conversation about the war. Then one said, "The only bastards that went to Vietnam are the ones who were too dumb to avoid the draft." No, dear friends, I did not say anything. Nor did I lift so much as a finger in admonition. I happened to catch their eyes. Immediately, they apologized, profusely and with heartfelt regret.
Eventually, Americans came to recognize that regardless of their own attitudes about the war, we who served were also Americans. In the summer of 1983, seventeen years after my return from the war, Samantha, a co-worker, learned that I had served in Vietnam, reached across the table, shook my hand and was the first person to thank me for my service to our country.
My country called, I went, I served and now I am home. You were right Mom, "Thank God!"
Story Subject: Military Service
Military Branch: U.S. Army
Dates of Service: 1962 - 1975
Veteran Organization: American Legion Post 0062
Unit: 716th Military Police Battalion
Specialty: Military Police
Story Themes: 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 716th Military Police Battalion, Army, Coming Home, Family, Grand Forks, Michael Harvey, Military Police, North Dakota, Relationships, Saigon