A Minnesota PBS Initiative
Recollections of One Citizen Soldier
I recall my arrival in Vietnam, Bien Hoa Airbase, at about 3 am on a hot, steamy, night or, more accurately, early morning. My departure date was April 4th, 1968.
My first sight getting off that plane on the unlit runway was the silhouette of sandbag enclosures holding gun emplacements against the distant backdrop of flickering lights leading to the In-Country Processing Center. At that moment, I wasn't sure if I needed to low crawl or could lumber along that pathway dragging my gear behind me.
I was in disbelief as I began to hear reports on Armed Forces Radio/TV of the turmoil, rioting, and destruction in many U.S. cities. It sounded as if the country was coming apart at the seams.
I was an "old" draftee, finishing college, and after that, working a while before being conscripted by the U.S. Army. When called up for assignment to Vietnam, from the mental health clinic where I worked at FT Campbell, KY, I left my wife, pregnant with our first child, living back and forth between her family and mine, as she could not afford to live on her own on my PFC's salary.
That April 4th was notable for another reason, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis while I was in transit to Vietnam.
When I learned of this some hours after my landing, I was in disbelief and in the aftermath as I began to hear reports on Armed Forces Radio/TV of the turmoil, rioting, and destruction in many U.S. cities, it sounded as if the Country was coming apart at the seams.
In Qui Nhon, at the 67th Evac Hospital, where I was first assigned, I learned upon arrival that the mental health clinic, in which I thought I would be working, was at full complement-no position open.
I was placed with the Hospital Adjutant's office, working mostly in the emergency receiving unit with soldier admissions and discharges. Typically, wounded soldiers were brought into the hospital right off the battlefield in the chaos of firefights in progress, by medivac helicopters.
Regularly, there would be 20-30 wounded soldiers arriving at once needing immediate medical attention. The rapidity and confusion with which this all took place resulted in scant information coming along about the circumstances in which they were wounded, their assigned units, and essential individual medical information. My job, I quickly learned, was to gather and assemble as much of this information as I could from wherever I could (no cell phones, computers, or fax machines).
It was here, for me, that the confrontation with war's realities took place. I had never before experienced, so directly, such carnage-blood and broken bodies- of soldiers, who, minutes before, were fit and able.
The survivors we met were often filled with guilt, feeling they had not done their part to defend their comrades and the proof was, as they saw it, they were still alive and their comrades were not.
Often, they arrived, their bodies in shock or in a state of impaired consciousness, where they had no awareness of just how profoundly their lives had been changed in just an instant. These were mostly young men, some with wives and children, all with hopes and dreams for life after war.
In that experience, it struck me to my core, that unlike the John Wayne movies I'd grown up with, war does not distinguish between the "white hats" and "black hats" or, in whatever way you wish to differentiate "good guys" and "bad guys'.
On an early June day that year, coming off overnight guard duty, something we all took a turn at, at least weekly, I heard once again on Armed Forces Radio/TV, that Robert F Kennedy had been assassinated. I thought how ironic that I would know this, half way around the world, before most of the U.S. because it took place, late at night, in Los Angeles while much of the Country was sleeping.
Afterwards, more unrest at home, difficult to gauge the magnitude when you are so far way. Once again, I found myself wondering about the plight of the Country we were presumably sent over here to defend.
Late that July I headed north to DaNang, the 95th Evac Hospital, where I had been reassigned to its' mental health unit.
The hospital was a Quonset hut type structure on the white sandy shore of the South China Sea. Where possible, evacuation hospitals were located in this manner so helicopters could fly in over the water relatively unimpeded to bring casualties to the ER landing pad.
The I Corps psychiatrist and I staffed a 14-bed neuro-psych unit along with the hospital medics and nurses assigned. In his previous life, the psychiatrist working with me was on the faculty of the Boston University Medical School until being drafted. He became my mentor and trusted friend during that time and exposed me to many invaluable insights and approaches to treatment as we worked together.
In this war, soldiers would go, often for many days out in the jungle without engaging the enemy and then suddenly find themselves in intense, ferocious, firefights, lasting for only brief periods, but leaving heavy casualties.
The survivors we met were often filled with guilt, feeling they had not done their part to defend their comrades and the proof was, as they saw it, they were still alive and their comrades were not. The "combat fatigue" of previous wars from sustained bombardment, which I expected to see, was nearly nonexistent in Vietnam. (Seems we still prepare for the last war.)
We were also just starting to see and encounter some of the things we now recognize as characteristic of "post traumatic stress disorder". The soldiers we would talk to were still living and operating in a war zone so we had very little understanding of how PTSD might manifest itself throughout a person's lifetime. There was also significant self-inflicted pain and injury in the form of substance abuse. Being present in Vietnam put soldiers in proximity and gave them cheap and easy access to drugs they would unlikely have located at home. War elevates in its' participants, the notion of "live for the moment-because you may not be alive in the next", which limits serious thinking of the future or long-term ramifications of addictive drugs.
Just weeks after receiving Red Cross notice of my daughter's healthy birth, in late August, I began hearing more unsettling Armed Forces Radio/TV reports of riots and the Chicago police response at the Democratic National Convention. Once again, I wondered if the Country would hold together and what I would find upon returning home.
As I finished out the remaining months of my 1-year tour of duty in DaNang, and took R&R with my wife the followin February in Hawaii, I became obsessed with my "short timer's" calendar denoting each day (to be crossed off) I had left in-country. There was also this fear, that I believe most soldiers have, that I've made it this far, but something is going to happen to me in the days and hours just before I reach the finish line.
After 2 sleepless nights in Cam Ranh Bay waiting for my flight to be called, I was on the plane with a stop for processing out near Seattle, at FT Lewis, and was back at MSP Airport in 24 hours where my wife and I (and the dog) embraced each other and I met my 8-month old daughter for the first time as she looked quizzically back at me wondering who on earth I was.
"Back in the world" as we would say during those times.
This story is part of
Stories of Martin Luther King Jr.
Go to the collection.
Story Themes: 1967, 1968, 1969, 44th Medical Brigade, 95th Evacuation Hospital, Addiction, AFVN, Army, Assassination, BIen Hoa, Da Nange, Dissent, Draft, Family, First Impressions, Fort Campbell, Fort Lewis, Kentucky, Medical Personnel, MLK Jr., News Coverage, Physical Wounds, PTSD, Read, Relationships, Robert Kennedy, Rogers, Survivor's Guilt, Tom Eberhart