A Minnesota PBS Initiative

Stuck in the Middle

An attempt at closure and honor of our Vietnam veterans is long overdue. I want to share a little bit of my story.

Although I was never in Vietnam, I was impacted from the time I was in 6th grade (1963). To an extent we are all casualties. Because my father, uncle, and other relatives were either Army or Navy veterans, I grew up as a Baby Boomer who believed that the U.S. was a force for good in the world. I remember a news account in 1963 that said President Kennedy ordered an aircraft carrier (believe it was the Kitty Hawk) to Vietnam with a group of American advisors. I had to look up where Vietnam was.

LBJ sitting at a desk and looking at the camera, right hand holds a pen and left hand holds his reading glasses.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs "Gulf of Tonkin" resolution. Image public domain courtesy of the White House Photograph Office and Wikimedia Commons.

Being in 6th grade and knowing that America’s involvement in WWII was approximately 4-5 years, I assumed that the war – if there was one – would be over by the time I graduated from high school in 1969.

The Gulf of Tonkin attack (a/k/a “incident”) on our naval vessels seemed to provide justification for the U.S. to get more deeply involved; later on there was a lot of debate whether or not the incident ever took place. 

Being an avid reader of current events and history, especially military history, at an early age, I knew that Vietnam and China had been historical foes for centuries. However, my government didn’t seem to understand or accept that as true.

The domino theory was the foreign policy of the day. If we didn’t stop Communism in SE Asia, it would soon take over all of SE Asia and it would be just a matter of time before we would be fighting it in North America and South America.

With the Marines landing at Da Nang in 1965, the end must be near; surely things would now be brought to a quick and sudden end.

This seemed plausible but what about that history between China and Vietnam? With Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s presidency, the ramp-up of troops in Vietnam began. With the Marines landing at Da Nang in 1965, the end must be near; surely things would now be brought to a quick and sudden end.

Two middle-aged men sitting at a table, each with an old desk phone, and with an ashtray sitting between them.

Chet Huntley (left) and David Brinkley from the network news program the Huntley-Brinkley Report. Image public domain courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I remember watching nightly news, especially NBC with David Brinkley and Chet Huntley; they gave weekly body counts of killed, wounded, and missing and the enemy always had many times the casualties that we did. Everything seemed to be going well until 1968.

I had a cousin in the Army in Vietnam that year and the Tet Offensive was very real to me because of him. With the takeover of the US Embassy in Saigon and the complete takeover of provincial capital of Hue in the northern portion of South Vietnam, the war suddenly seemed less winnable. Walter Cronkite said as much. So, had the government and generals been lying to us??

Johnson’s bombing campaign of the North, downed pilots and the Hanoi Hilton, the invasion of Cambodia, “search and destroy” missions, massacres of civilians (by both sides), etc. all seemed to be saying that this was NOT going well.

My cousin made it home but he was no longer the fun loving person I had played with. He had a tough reception at the airport in California and there were no parades back home either. To this day he doesn’t talk about it. I guess he was lucky because he doesn’t suffer from any wounds or Agent Orange (not much anyway).

Kent State and Earth Day both occurred during my freshman year – tear the country apart and save the earth.

I graduated high school in 1969, went right to college, and soon had my lottery number – 71. Although I had decided to stay in college as long as possible, I would have enlisted in the Navy if my number had been called. I continued to be torn in college.

My Republican, John Wayne background was severely challenged by protestors and students flying the North Vietnamese flag from their porch. Kent State and Earth Day both occurred during my freshman year – tear the country apart and save the earth.

My friend and I wore black arm bands and were asked by older men why the armbands? When we said it was to honor the students killed at Kent State, they said that “they deserved to die.” Wow! Really?

Students walking, carrying signs that say, "Peace in Viet Nam," "End the war in Viet Nam," No more war in Vietnam," and "use your head -- not your draft card."

Student protesters marching down Langdon Street at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during the Vietnam War era. Photo public domain courtesy of UW Digital Collections and Wikimedia Commons.

An older white man in a suit, speaking into a microphone.

George McGovern, 30 June 1972. Photo public domain courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection.

I found myself working for the McGovern campaign during 1972 – I handed out leaflets door to door – and because of my support of McGovern, I lost an opportunity for a part-time job at a bank in Sioux Falls.

After meeting with several other bank employees I was told the job was probably mine but that I needed to meet the bank manager. He asked me one question: Who are you supporting for president?

While I knew what he wanted to hear, that’s not what I said. I proudly said that I was working for McGovern. That ended the interview right there but that was okay.

By the time I graduated from college in 1973, the war was effectively over or at least winding down and I went right to law school. Although that was the right thing to do at the time, years later I spoke with my Army veteran cousin and shared with him that I felt guilty for not serving. He told me that I needed to let it go. He said that he would not have wanted me to go. His words helped but it’s never entirely gone away – it still lingers today.

Recently, my wife and I went to see the 1968 exhibit at the Minnesota History Museum and I had a really hard time getting past the Huey helicopter at the entrance to the exhibit. Its presence and video clips brought this awful year back to me. 

These are the things I carry. Because I didn’t serve, I can’t share my story because it’s not worthy.

Although I never served, I and millions of other Baby Boomers were also wounded and scarred. Paraphrasing Tim O’Brien, these are the things I carry. Because I didn’t serve, I can’t share my story because it’s not worthy.

Thanks for listening.

Biographical Details

Primary Location During Vietnam: Clara City, MN, United States Vietnam location marker

Story Subject: Civilian

Story Themes: 1968, Civilian, Clara City, Coming of Age, Family, Growing Up, Kent State, Read, Shoreview, Tet Offensive, Tim O'Brien

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