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I was never consumed nor seriously maimed by the physical and emotional hell-fires of the Vietnam War like so many of my countrymen and woman, but I was surely scorched.  

When 3,500 U.S. Marines landed on a beach in South Vietnam March 8, 1965, I was nine years old. I later learned that President Lyndon Johnson’s (a Democrat) reason for the armed invasion, the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident where North Vietnam supposedly attacked an American ship, was a lie.

A lot of people have forgot that like Republicans during the Iraq War, Democrats too have lied to Americans to fool us into war (President George Bush’s lie about weapons of mass destruction got us into the Iraq War). And the Democrat lie was more devastating: Over 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, plus many more since from physical and mental injuries. About 4,500 have died so far in Iraq. 

My earliest memories of the war are of disbelief at the slaughter and horror, which I witnessed ever night on television network news. Vietnam was covered in graphic detail for all to see, young and old. 

Contemporary photo of a man in hunting gear, holding a rifle and some pheasants.

The daily death/wounded count on tv news was terrifying and mind-numbing. As the war dragged on and I neared draft age, the nightmare of Vietnam became increasingly real. 

I especially felt threatened when on April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon (Republican) announced the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. I was a 14-year-old high school boy, but Cambodia radicalized me. I participated in the student strikes that followed the invasion, wearing a black armband and leaving class with many fellow students. A few days later, on May 4, 29 National Guardsmen shot at Ohio college students protesting the Cambodian invasion. They killed four and wounded nine.

After Kent State, I not only felt in the crosshairs of the North Vietnamese, but also American guardsmen as well. I started relating more to the men fighting and dying in Vietnam.

Shortly after the Cambodian invasion, a fellow student, a woman, approached me in the hall at high school in my small southern Minnesota town and asked me to buy a nickel-plated POW (Prisoner of War) bracelet.

These bracelets were first sold in California in May 1970 as a way to remember prisoners and the missing. I don’t recall the soldier’s name, but I wore the bracelet for a long time. 

I always believed Vietnam War protestors saved my life by helping end the war before it could claim me and many others, American and Vietnamese alike.

My late mother’s brother saw combat and other action in Vietnam. She encouraged me several times to write him, which I did at a Saigon address. He returned a kind letter with a copy of the city’s newspaper with then President Richard Nixon in a front page headline.

Many years later while visiting him I asked if he remembered my letter. He denied I or many others ever wrote him, bitterly complaining how the country had treated the war’s vets. This from a man heralded by an earlier generation for fighting in WWII, including landing on D-Day, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and being among the first American troops to liberate the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich, Germany. 

As the war dragged on, I talked with two younger brothers about how the war was continuing and could engulf us. We agreed it was unjust and ‘unwinnable.’ I felt I should continue to resist it. We talked about what to do, including moving to Canada as some draft-age men did.

The stories of the war in the news, the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre, the violent protest, it was all very terrifying for a young boy. It’s hard to explain the fear I felt in those early years of the war when it was escalating by the week, but I have not forgot the gut twisting fear.

Terror like that does something to a person’s soul, to their view of others and the world.

The turmoil back then over the war, civil rights protests and riots, political and other assassinations, environmental and women’s movements make today, in contrast, seem peaceful. 

When the last of two million American men that were drafted for the Vietnam War put on a uniform in April 1972, I was 16. By then, I knew American involvement in the war was over, that I was safe.

The turmoil back then over the war, civil rights protests and riots, political and other assassinations, environmental and women’s movements make today, in contrast, seem peaceful.

Yet, the local Selective Service Board sent me a letter saying I was legally required to register for the draft. I didn’t. They sent me another letter threatening jail, so I registered and included a long letter protesting the war. When they mailed back my draft card, I went into the backyard and burned it.

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Around this time, I had crashed at friend’s house after a night of partying. The next morning we were awakened by my friend’s older brother who barged into the bedroom laughing and smiling in his Army dress uniform, so glad to be home from Vietnam.

The man, who has since died, told me he was a forward artillery spotter, calling in coordinates of the enemy. He said they mostly hid out in the jungle, lied low, partied and smoked pot. He told me of one unit which ‘fragged,’ that is killed, a gung-ho commanding officer who was allegedly getting too many soldiers killed. They put a grenade under his cot as he slept. He told of calling in a jet fighter to kill a sniper that was shooting at them, which the pilot did. 

Soon, I was off to college instead of war. After watching years of war and protest coverage, I thought when I started college at the University of Minnesota-Duluth the fall of 1974 there would be protests or at least some anti-war organizing, buttons and banners. I was surprised to see none of this. 

A peace agreement between the United States and North Vietnam had been inked in January 1973, all our fighting troops pulled out later that spring, with South Vietnam falling to the North by spring 1975. Later, the leaders who had justified and supported the Vietnam War, repudiated it. This further justified my war resistance. 

I’ve spoken with quite a few Vietnam veterans over the years and most said they were glad I was not drafted and didn’t have to go to Vietnam. I always believed Vietnam War protestors saved my life by helping end the war before it could claim me and many others, American and Vietnamese alike. 

As a member of a 12-step alcohol and drug recovery program (sober 29 years), I have met quite a few Vietnam and other veterans. I tried to help one Vietnam combat vet here in the Twin Cities, but a few years ago they found him dead in a hotel room. He had drank himself to death. 

I’ve recently made friends with a fellow writer in Massachusetts. He told me his father was a Vietnam War combat vet. “How did he handle it after the war,” I asked him. “He drank himself to death,” my friend said matter of fact. 

Another Vietnam vet I knew in Denver in the 1980s used to call me on the phone crying, needing to talk after watching the tv show China Beach, a Vietnam War drama. The show stirred up bad memories, for example when he once sat a naked North Vietnamese soldier on a wood chair and hit his testicles with a pistol butt to make him give up information. This was a huge man who had been in the special forces, a sober man I admired. The guilt and pain in this man’s eyes when he told me this story again and again is burned in my memory. His story has even kept me up at night. But, this man’s experience in war and recovery helped me get sober in the critical early months of my recovery from substance abuse. 


A few years ago, a 40-something, right wing acquaintance chided me for opposing the Vietnam War. His criticism stung, but he later backed off after I explained to him how the government lied to get us into Vietnam and later these same liars repudiated the war as a mistake. 



Two years ago at a local classic car show in the Twin Cities I came across a Vietnam War veteran who had set up a Vietnam War memorabilia table. I looked over the photos and other items closely. The man came up to me and said he noticed how intently I was looking things over and asked if I had fought in the war. “No,” I told him, “but I registered for the draft and had a draft card.” “Good,” he said, “you did your duty.” 

I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was a war resistor. But, he was right, I did do my duty, just not as he thought. 

Giving Back 

I have always been inspired by admired the sacrifices and accomplishments made by America’s soldiers for our own freedom and that of the world’s.

After Vietnam, I felt a need to do some service for the nation too. So, after watching Ken Burns’ WWII series The War on PBS a few years ago I heeded the show’s plea to contribute to the Library of Congress’ Veteran’s History Project. WWII was a war worth fighting, an honest war, a noble war, one well worth the sacrifice of our nation’s blood and treasure. These men and women helped save the world from madmen and a grim future. I have videotaped four interviews with WWII vets in order to thank them for their service and to preserve their sacrifice and stories for future generations. It has been a great joy to play a role in this, the final episode of our WWII veterans.

I’m making plans to someday interview some Vietnam War vets before they, too, are all gone and with them their harrowing stories of courage, sacrifice and service.

Biographical Details

Primary Location During Vietnam: Albert Lea, Minnesota, United States Vietnam location marker

Story Subject: Activist

This story is part of Stories About The Tet OffensiveGo to the collection.

Story Themes: Activist, Albert Lea, Alcoholics Anonymous, Conscientious Objection, Death and Loss, Dissent, Draft, Drugs and Alcohol, Giving Back, Mark Herwig, My Lai Massacre, Protest, PTSD, Read, Relationships, Tet Offensive, White Bear Lake

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