The Vietnam War was for many baby boomers the most important event of their lives. Some 2.7 million men and women served in country, and each one had a different series of experiences. Some served in combat, while others maintained the machinery of war, which is required to keep men in combat. The goal of all the fighting, fixing and serving was to accomplish the American “mission.” While doing so, some 58,000 comrades died, several hundred thousand soldiers were wounded, and many of those carry the effects of their injuries to this day. Of the 2,700,000 who served, it has been estimated that around 850,000 are still alive.
Even though each veteran’s experiences were different, there was a commonality to the Vietnam experience. The first and most important common experience was that you put your emotions in a mental box, locked it up, and did not open it again until you left country. Some veterans still have not opened theirs. Emotions cause problems in a war zone, just as suppressed emotions do after a war.
For the most part, transportation to and from Vietnam was by airplane (the great silver bird).
When the bird left the states, the heroics of John Wayne and Rambo were front and center in many minds and voices. When the plane landed, the heroics were AWOL, and the voices silent. Upon landing in Nam, the airplane’s door was opened. Your first exposure to Nam was a wave of muggy heat and the SMELL of rotten vegetation that almost overwhelmed you. One hour later one no longer smelled the rot.
When I arrived in Vietnam, I thought I was scared. After all I was in a war zone and expected imminent attack or something; I knew this was a war zone. When you arrive in a war zone you do not know enough to know when to be scared or when to grab another beer. From the airport, we went to the replacement depot (Repo-Depot), a place that should be used only to punish child molesters.
After enduring the Purgatory of the Repo-Depot, you arrived at your unit, and if you were among the 7/8 soldiers who were in the rear, spent the next year doing your job 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Yes, there was down time, an occasional weekend in Saigon, a rest and recreation leave half way through your tour, the occasional day off. Sometimes the 12-hour day ended up being 48 hours, but you got your job done.
That was the rear, I never got to the field. From what I hear it was not as pleasant. During that year you experienced the dust, the heat of the dry season, the unbelievable rainfall of the rainy season, and the Vietnam people. Those good, bad, friendly and hostile people, who are like all other people.
Eventually, you got short and your tour ended. You then processed out and boarded the freedom bird. The noise level when the freedom bird’s wheels left the ground was awesome, and comforting; it was over. Many guys got an early out if they were going back to school or were close to the end to their enlistments. Some guys went back to duties in the states. It was a shock from what I hear. One of the few good things about Nam was that the level of chicken—- that is pervasive in the military, particularly in the states, was at a minimum.
Getting back home, after over a year in a “non-loving environment” was a big shock. I stayed home for two days, then left to visit an uncle in South Carolina, because I could not handle all the love that my family bestowed on me. It took a month at my uncle’s home to decompress, and to feel and act like a person again. Other guys did not have access to my Uncle Robert’s supportive environment.
Of my many experiences in Nam, two stand out; one funny and one tragic and bittersweet.
The one truly funny experience that stands out occurred one evening in Phu Bai when I was walking to work. As I walked to work, I heard someone, it turned out to be John Frazier, calling my name and saying unprintable words. He was giving me a friendly greeting. Small world. “Holy Gumdrops, John Frazier, what the (expletive deleted) are you doing here?”
The other is not funny. About two years before I deployed to Nam, and before I went to Germany as a tank crewman, I was home on leave from an infantry outfit that I had been shoved into. I ran into Stan Zawtocki at the old Dandee Donuts. We spent several hours talking, drinking coffee, and eating donuts. We were both headed for the Nam as grunts, Stan for his second tour with the USMC, and me as an infantryman in the 5/46th Infantry.
Luckily, I transferred out of that infantry, served my time in Germany, the states and Nam, and came home to a life, school, Kathy, my wonderful wife, and the time to write this article.
Stan will always exist for me as that happy, courageous, smiling friend with whom I drank coffee and talked, as one comrade to another. Stan’s name, but not my memories of him, can be found on Panel 38E, Line 42 on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. God damn that useless war.
Finally, there is one other common experience that all 2.7 million Vietnam Veterans have had. Everyone who served in Vietnam was exposed to toxic levels of dioxins, the effects of which vary from veteran to veteran. Today, the Vietnam veterans, their children and grandchildren are still suffering from dioxin poisoning. This is an experience, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that will not go away.
Michael J. Malavasic, Ph.D., is a resident of Sudbury, Massachusetts. He wrote this for the Little Falls Historical Society.