What you are about to read is disjointed. Maybe a better word is ragged. This is because the memories are ragged. They refuse to be condensed and organized into neat, traditional forms. Partly this is because I am writing about two things at once, a very influential documentary about Vietnam by Ken Burns and about my own blighted experiences in that war. It was watching his documentary in December of 2017 that pushed me to think about such writing. I’m a professional writer with many years of experience in Hollywood, but in all those years I never wrote directly about my time in the war. There are reasons for that. Memories of war do not like to be awakened. They prefer a long sleep.
I arrived in Vietnam as an infantry First Lieutenant in early November of 1967. A few weeks after I arrived I celebrated my 22nd birthday. The year ahead for me, for my loved ones, and for the entire country was momentous and horrible. When it was over, nothing was ever the same again. But at the start, I need to say something that you may consider very strange. As terrible as that year was, I view it as one of God’s great gifts to me. How that could be true I’ll explain at the end.
So thank you for joining me on this brief journey. When it is finished, I hope you will have gained some new understanding of things that happened a long time ago.
The Inaccuracy of War Films
No film about Vietnam can ever be made that will tell the full story of that tragedy, because there are as many stories as there are American soldiers who served in that war. No film about Vietnam will ever be truly objective. Even after all these years, so much raw emotion remains on every side. Certainly, Mr. Burns has his biases. He spends a lot more time focused on the rightness of the anti-war movement and the supposed brutality of American soldiers than he does on the murderous brutality of the communist government in North Vietnam, the NVA and the Viet Cong. He touches on it, but not deeply enough and that is a major shortcoming.
Almost all of his in-depth interviews with former combat soldiers are with men who became vocal protestors against the war. That was a tiny percentage of those of us who fought. Most of us simply came home and tried to take up our lives where we left off. Mr. Burns spends far too little time on what so many Vietnam veterans faced when they came home. That is a tragedy worthy of its own documentation. But all of this said, it is one of the best documentaries I have seen on this agonizing subject.
No matter how well done and extensive it might be, no film can ever communicate what being a combat soldier is really like. Combat is not just an assault on the body. It is an assault on the soul. Some die from it, but all are wounded and the reality of those wounds cannot be experienced secondhand. Though they may not use these words to express it and they may cover it well, every combat soldier comes home with a broken heart.
When you make a documentary, you focus on the most dramatic and compelling stories and visuals available. Burns chose to cover some of the most hideous and bloody battles of the Vietnam War. I would have done the same. But that is very far from the whole story. Also, in making a film you contract time. While this is necessary, it gives a false sense of reality. In speeding up time, you speed up the misery. Before you know it, the film is over. But the real misery is slow and grinding. It is the loneliness and utter despair of seemingly endless days and nights. And it is fear, but not simply the fear when bullets strike. It is the constant fear of not knowing what tomorrow will bring. And when you are living through it, as much you want to contract time, you can’t. In Vietnam, time was measured on calendars where you crossed off the days until you could go home.
Most of all, watching a documentary you cannot experience the endless sweat and stink of your own body and the ever-increasing vileness of your soul. After you finish watching a documentary, you can forget what you have seen and keep on believing the sweet fantasy that humans are basically good.
Let me be specific. There is something dark that Mr. Burns’ documentary doesn’t touch on at all, because I’m sure neither he nor any of his team could fathom it. With all of the agony of that terrible war, how could anyone fathom it? But it must said.
With all of its horror, men love war. The myth of the warrior runs deep within the human race. It is at the heart of every super hero film. But no film can ever communicate the sense of pride that a man feels when he has done his best and fought bravely in the face of great danger. He has stood where many others were too afraid to stand. Whether we like it or not, whether it is good or not, for thousands of years, the myth of the warrior has defined manhood. It continues to do so.
Over the decades, many times, when men have learned about my experience in war, I have seen a kind of wistfulness come over them. Though it isn’t true at all, somehow they seem to feel that they missed an important step in achieving manhood. This is beyond rationality, but to think it doesn’t exist or is unimportant is blindness. Sadly, it is part of our fallen and lost human condition. And it echoes down through history from ancient mothers who told their sons, “Come back victorious or come back on your shield,” to the ticker tape parades for armies that won. As a nation, it isn’t really war we hate. What we hate is losing.
It is an interesting question to ask, how would we feel if we had won in Vietnam with maximum enemy casualties, but a minimal number of our own? But we didn’t. And there is no acceptable alternative to victory.
Is the way we feel after Vietnam, the way untold thousands of families in the American South felt after they lost their war? Far more of their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers never came home. To their enemies, even their mourning was considered a traitorous act. And all of it for what? Why do men love war? Because there is violence inside of us. When the thin veneer of socialization is stripped away, it appears in all its lurid glory. Our love of violent films is an echo of this. Mr. Burns does not touch on that awful reality, but I think it is at the heart of so much that happened in Vietnam. Not only do we love war, also, we utterly despise it.
Opening the Letter Box
While watching the documentary, I did something else. For fifty years a large box has been sitting in our various garages. It is filled with all the letters that I wrote to my wife, Carel, while I was in Vietnam. I took out that box and read them for the first time since I wrote them. Sadly, I could not keep the hundreds of letters that Carel wrote to me. Our front-line infantry battalion was constantly moving from place to place, while our personal gear was stored in a huge base camp. I had a duffel bag stolen, also a footlocker broken into. The perpetrators (never caught) were rear-echelon American soldiers. (You think veterans are all wonderful? There are plenty of them who are despicable rats.)
What is it like when you are 72, to meet yourself when you are 22, and living through one of the most awful experiences of your life? As I read the letters, the first thing that struck me was how very much is completely gone from my conscious memory. In the letters I read about many intense experiences that I do not remember at all. Even more disturbing, in one or two cases, what I thought I remembered was not accurate.
The second thing that stood out in the letters that I wrote to the wonderful girl I had married, was how very hard it was for a young couple to live through all that we did and stay together.
When I went to Vietnam, Carel and I had been married for a little over two years. Of that time, we had actually lived together only about five months. And all of those few months were high stress periods during which I was either undergoing intense military training or training others for combat.
In the letters you meet two young people who are deeply in love, but in a constant state of low-level agony. Carel lived with many difficulties here at home, while every day fearing that when she came home from work she would see a green car waiting for her with news of my death. She wrote to me constantly, sending packages, trying to encourage me, while living in a country filled with chaos and consumed by hate, the streets of the cities burning with riots, the evening news spewing horrifying images of war with ever-increasing stories about the evils of American soldiers. And always, she was waiting, waiting, counting the days that seemed to never end, waiting for my return.
And across the world, me in Vietnam, desperately lonely, filled with despair, surrounded by men who felt exactly the same. Today you would say that we were all clinically depressed. But there was no therapy. You simply went out and did your job, while thirsting for mail from home and counting the days. As you ticked them off, you grew ever harder, tougher and angrier.
During the year in my infantry battalion, I had three assignments. The first was Assistant S4. In this capacity, I was responsible for the resupply of our rifle companies out in the field. This entailed collecting food and ammunition and delivering it by helicopter. Also, when the entire battalion moved, which we did often, the S4 department was responsible for logistics.
The captain, who was the official S4 and my superior, was a dithering, loud-mouthed incompetent. Everyone in the battalion knew this and came to me instead of to him. He would give stupid, impossible instructions. I would say, “Yes sir”, then do it my way. If I hadn’t, we would have hit disaster. Later, when that same captain took command of a rifle company, because of his incompetence, he was relieved of his command under fire. Other than death, there’s nothing worse for a career infantry officer. With the number of fools I encountered in positions of authority, I was amazed that we got anything done at all. Constantly dealing with idiots doesn’t encourage you in your depression.
My second assignment was leader of the battalion’s heavy mortar platoon. In Burns’ documentary you see some footage of mortars being fired. They are tubes. You drop an explosive round into them and it blasts into the air. The ones in the documentary are small. Mine were very large, 4.2 inches in diameter, and fired huge rounds.
For a couple of months, my platoon was given an interesting assignment. Outside of Saigon, there was a Shell Oil tank farm lined with giant tanks filled with highly combustible liquid. Almost every night, the enemy would fire mortars and rockets, trying to hit them. My platoon was right next to them. Our job was simple. When rounds were fired at the tanks, we had to track where they were coming from and fire back to stop them. This assumed that the first incoming rounds didn’t hit the tanks, which would have been very uncomfortable for us.
Thankfully, the enemy was not accurate, while my guys were very fast and accurate. It felt good the next morning to get word from ground units that blown-up bodies and equipment had been found where we had targeted. Long after we were gone, the enemy did hit that tank farm, which wasn’t pretty. But it didn’t happen on my watch.
My third assignment as rifle platoon leader, first platoon, Bravo company, was by far the most intense of the entire year. In looking back at all of it, the amount of responsibility I carried as a 22-year-old, was frightening and amazing. Of course, at the time, it seemed quite normal. One of the problems I had in adjusting to civilian life at 23 was going from all of that to being a student again and working at a regular job.
As a young officer, some of the things I had to deal with were slightly mind-bending. Let me tell you about one “management” challenge.
A Visit to the Whorehouse
Near one of our small, fire support bases there was a whore house. Each week the battalion surgeon would visit the house, check out the women, give shots and make sure they were healthy. As a reward for his efforts, he would get himself a freebie. The word came down the chain of command that it was permissible for the men to visit the house, but it was up to each platoon leader to either give permission or refuse it.
Now the entire battalion was going to the whore house, including the “Christian” chaplain. (Every chaplain I met over there disgusted me.) Well, I was (and am) a Christian. I was married and committed to being faithful to my wife. As a Christian, I refuse to abuse women. Going to a prostitute is participating in her abuse. Many of the poor women who worked as prostitutes in Vietnam didn’t want to be doing that kind of hellish work. They were trying desperately to feed their families and didn’t know any other way to do it. And what of the men? I firmly believe that going to a prostitute is not only abusing her, it is abusing you. There is no free moral lunch. You join yourself to a prostitute, it will cost you much more than the money you put on her bed. Needless to say, the men wanted to visit the whore house. But was it all just raging lust? There was plenty of that. But lust wasn’t the whole story.
How can I explain to you what it is like to live in a world that is iron-hard and filled with despair, where every day is endless exhaustion and desperate hopelessness? How can I explain what it is like to live in a world where you long for a single gentle word and touch, where you dream of a moment when soft fingers will run through your hair? To be an American combat soldier in Vietnam was to live in a world harsh beyond description, where every day and night you were haunted with the memories of loved ones that you had left behind.
And the ones left behind? What agony they could cause. There were horrible wounds that didn’t come from the enemy. Do you think that the protestors who spit on returning soldiers were despicable? They were, but that kind of rejection was nothing. Things happened over there that were infinitely worse. Just remembering them after all the years, is gut-wrenching.
Do you want to hear about true loneliness? How lonely could you get, how filled with absolute despair? Several young married officer friends of mine received letters telling them that their wives were leaving them. While their combat soldier husbands were in Vietnam, they had found someone else. One friend, who deeply loved his wife, got divorce papers in the mail. Not only had she found another man, she was pregnant with that man’s child.
In the darkness of our world in that far country, what does that do to you inside? How do you remain human? Just listening to my friend tell about it was a nightmare. He was so filled with anguish. What kind of woman would do that? I hated her though I had never met her. When friends have such experiences, suddenly, ugly questions roar in your head. Can you trust your own wife? Does she love you enough? Will she be faithful? Or are all women just whores? It is impossible to describe the darkness and rage that can descend upon you.
Heartbroken loneliness, the longing for a single, gentle touch even if you had to pay for it, can you imagine all of that? No, you can’t, unless you were there. So what about the whore house? I won’t tell you what I did. What would you have done?
I knew of only one other officer in my battalion who wasn’t sleeping with prostitutes. He was an old man, probably all of 39 or 40, and an infantry captain. He was a good man who was married with children and he was faithful to his wife. We sort of stood together. Then he was assigned to lead a rifle company and I didn’t see him again. But after a while, I heard a story.
One night he came in from a long, grueling operation. He was exhausted with the kind of exhaustion that grinds down into your soul. I know what that feels like. Well, his men had a present waiting for him. She was in his bed. Knowing him, I’m certain that the sad memory of that night is one that never left him. I’m sure that night brought a new sorrow. And I felt sorrow for him. We never had contact again.
The Dark Transformation
Over the course of many letters, a transition in me is apparent. At one point, I tell Carel that I feel myself aging inside. What is physical aging? It is slow, creeping death. The dark, spiritual aging of despair and horror is the same. One of the marks of it in war is that nothing shocks you anymore. In very matter-of-fact terms, I write about a man in our battalion who tried to commit suicide. He pulled a pin on a grenade and dropped it into one of the deep pockets in his jungle fatigues. The fool couldn’t even handle that. It didn’t work. It just blew his legs off. But it killed a man and a child who were nearby. My reaction? This place is full of weirdos.
In another letter, I mention that a friend of mine, a young lieutenant, was just killed in combat. Nothing to be said except that he “bought the farm”. And that was that.
When you are in darkness that never ends, what happens inside? Either you disintegrate or you become very, very hard. Part of the transition in me was the growth of a rock-hard resolve. Whatever might come, I could handle anything and face anything. I was a seasoned leader and nothing was going to shake me. It was a resolve built out of low-level rage. I was smart and I was tough. But also, I was heartbroken. It wasn’t like the heartbreak of romantic stories or even of bereavement. It was something deep within the soul where words could not find it. Dimly, you knew that a part of you had died and would never return. That’s why you felt yourself growing old.
Now I know that it was the young part of me that had died, the part that trusted, that could believe in hope, that viewed each day as filled with promise and possibilities. That person could not live in the world where I lived. So he died, but he didn’t die alone.
Hollywood speaks such abominable lies. One of the most evil of them is that killing is easy. You shoot, bodies fall. And you walk away. Those scripts are written and those films are made by stupid, little dilettantes who wouldn’t have the guts to kill a chicken for dinner. That includes every, single one of your pathetic “action heroes”. All they do is mouth words that were written for them and let visual effects artists make them look brave.
The truth? Even when killing is “justified”, the horror of taking a human life never leaves you. We weren’t killing machines over there. It would have been so much easier if we had been. Only a psychopath is a killing machine. We were young men who would carry the scars of killing as long as we lived.
Life is very strange. Because of my experience, I was the perfect person to write the character of The Equalizer, for television. The Equalizer, a Universal production, ran on CBS for four years in the late 80’s and continues running even to this day. I became the senior writer and Showrunner for the series. It is about a man named Robert McCall who has spent his life doing terrible things as a top-level operative in the CIA. He leaves that dark work and begins a search for redemption. In New York City, he runs a small newspaper ad looking for people facing dark forces with all odds against them. For them, he will be The Equalizer. Robert McCall was played by a wonderful, British actor, my late friend and former colleague, Edward Woodward.
Fools in Hollywood thought that The Equalizer was just a vigilante. I knew what he was. He was an angry, brokenhearted man searching for redemption, brokenhearted because he loved deeply. Our star, Edward Woodward, saw it in the first script I wrote for him and said, “This is what the series is about.”
Edward understood, because he was a brokenhearted man too. All the wonderful writers on our show agreed with this character definition and we worked hard to keep killing from being nothing but an orgasmic thrill. Real killing is messy and bloody and there is something strange and awful about a human body when the spirit has left it … especially when it’s gone because of what you did. The emptiness reaches inside of you.
During my year in Vietnam, with good reason, I did not trust a single person with authority above me. We had four battalion commanders. Several of them were fools. One was particularly aggravating. While we were slogging in the heat and filth of the swamps and rice paddies, he would circle above us in his helicopter, yelling over the radio for us to move faster.
One day one of my men shot at his aircraft. The colonel was not pleased about that. I tried to find out who did it, I certainly did, but I never could. I had to inform my platoon that shooting at the battalion commander’s helicopter was not a good plan. (I didn’t mention that I sympathized with the effort.) From that point, he didn’t fly quite as close to us. Part of my rock-hard resolve came from the clear understanding that no one in command above me cared whether we lived or died. It was up to me to try to get these young soldiers home alive. But that wasn’t always possible.
It is clear now, looking back, that the young man who left for Vietnam in November of 1967 never came home again. The vile, black gash of a wall in Washington lists over 58,000 names, but many more died over there and afterward from unseen wounds.
The man who got off the plane in November of 1968 at O’Hare Airport in Chicago was very different. He looked mostly the same, but he was tough and cynical beyond his years. He had left home filled with traditional patriotism. He came home respecting authority, but never trusting America again, not her government nor her people. The truth was that when I came home, I was very angry, but it was easy to cover it up for a while because I was so filled with the joy of being home from that hell. But very soon, my mother saw the change in me and didn’t like it. I didn’t care.
My wife saw it too. But she had changed as well. She wasn’t the starry-eyed bride anymore. Through that awful year, she had been forced to grow tougher. What is clear in the letters is how deeply we loved each other. But at least on my part it was an insecure kind of love.
With what some of my friends were going through, when I went for a week or more without any letters from her I would get very angry. I would express it to her in a letter. Then I would get eight or ten letters from her in a bundle. The military mail was miserable. Of course, I would feel very guilty for what I had written. And on it went, so many letters and every letter filled with love, loneliness and despair.
When I got home, it’s a miracle of God that we stayed together. So many Vietnam veteran marriages didn’t make it. The transition period was rough. There were no classes or counseling sessions to help us. One day you were in the field in war and the next you were eating pizza as though the entire year hadn’t happened. But it had. And there was no way for us to talk about it. With what I had experienced there was no common ground of understanding, no language. So we just did our best to push on through. Thank God, I married a strong, dedicated woman. Ten months after I got home, our first child was born. Well, praise God, we made it. Last September we celebrated 51 years of marriage.
I didn’t write much to Carel about my combat experiences. I didn’t want her to worry. Some things are just unspeakable.
One day in late September of 1968 at our fire support base, a helicopter landed. In it was a Major General named Julian J. Ewell. He was the commander of the Ninth Infantry Division of which we were a part. A small group of us were gathered in formation and as we stood at attention, we were a ratty looking bunch.
Instead of boots, we were wearing flip-flops and our pants were rolled up above our knees. This was because our legs were covered with infected, running sores from spending weeks up to our waists in swamps and filthy rice paddies. The battalion doctor was treating me for a fascinating range of skin infections including ringworm. Medics would scrape the pus from our sores with scalpels. Let me tell you, that is an agony worthy of the name.
That morning, General Ewell walked up to me and pinned a Bronze Star on my uniform. There was a little “V” on it that stood for valor. I was surprised. I hadn’t done anything heroic, unless heroic means feeling miserable and angry all the time. If that’s what it means, I should have gotten the Congressional Medal of Honor. I decided that it was like the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. Being terrified every, single day in his war with witches, he needed a few medals from the Wizard to keep him going. I accepted the award as I have so many good things in my life, as a gift of grace, unmerited favor. It was nice of General Ewell to visit us. We all appreciated it.
Ken Burns talks about General Ewell in his documentary. Burns says that Ewell put out the word in our division that he wanted high enemy body counts and this caused many killings of innocent civilians as our units tried to give him what he wanted. All I can say is that on my level as a rifle platoon leader I never heard or was given such an order. Neither did I know anyone in our battalion who was pressured in that direction. While the entire concept of body counts came under great scrutiny and justified criticism throughout the Vietnam War, never was I prompted to bring in high body counts or inflate numbers. Were innocent civilians killed, sadly there were. But every unit I knew of made a deep effort to keep that from happening.
Also, Burns speaks about black soldiers being treated differently than white soldiers. Once again, all I can say is that I never saw it. There were both black and white officers in my battalion. In my rifle platoon, two thirds of the soldiers were white and about one third were black. I had black and white NCO’s. All were excellent soldiers.
I had only two young soldiers who gave me discipline problems. For what it’s worth, both were white. They were southern boys, 18 years old and both married. I had a simple way of dealing with discipline problems. One night when the platoon was out alone in a dangerous area, I woke up to find these two young men asleep when they were supposed to be on guard. This endangered all of us. Their punishment? The next day they walked point.
As it happened, my platoon was the lead element for our battalion on a search and destroy operation. As we entered a village and moved between the buildings, we walked into an ambush that could not be seen. Instantly, both of those young men died. I hadn’t intended that their punishment be a death sentence. But it was.
There are some memories that are so painted in fire and blood they never fade away. That morning is one of them. Six of our men died, two from my platoon and four from others. It took hours to destroy the enemy and get our soldiers’ bodies back. I can still hear the insanity, the yelling, the shooting. I can still hear the cobra gunship hovering 30 feet above my head, firing rockets at an enemy bunker 15 yards in front of me.
When it was over I remember feeling tremendous relief. I was still alive and I had been only a few feet from where our men had fallen in the initial attack. But with the relief there was a terrible emptiness as we loaded our dead onto helicopters. They were going home. I thought of their families, busy with their normal lives, unaware that this morning their husbands and sons and brothers had died. But soon a green car would arrive and they would know. Then would begin the crying time. I’ve wondered about those broken families over the years and prayed for them.
At the end of Burns’ documentary, a vet reads a poem about the weight of memory. It is true, there are some memories that are too heavy to bear. It is those memories that must be given to the One who said, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest…”
I’m sorry, I have to say this. One of the most infuriating moments in the documentary was seeing John Kerry give his testimony before Congress. That pathetic man who had experienced so little combat himself, helped to create the entire evil myth of American soldiers as baby killers.
During all of 1968 I never knew of any unit around me that perpetrated the kinds of crimes that he described. And he hadn’t seen any such crimes himself. Yes, My Lai happened. And all of those criminals who perpetrated it should have been tried and executed. That was the opinion of many soldiers I knew during that time. Did other horrors happen? I’m sure they did, but they were uncommon. After hearing John Kerry talk, Americans thought such aberrations were the rule.
Because Mr. Kerry told people what they wanted to hear about American soldiers, he was rewarded with a high position in progressive political leadership. But he built that success on the backs of untold thousands of Vietnam veterans whose reputations he smeared.
There were Vietnam veterans who supported the anti-war movement and that was their right. If they were baby killers, they should have admitted it and volunteered to be tried by a military court. I don’t remember hearing one man stand up and make such an admission. It was their right to throw away the medals they had received. Of course, the orders and citations for those medals continued to exist in their military records. They couldn’t throw those away.
What effect did their protests have? Burns seems to think it was significant. Well, it was in one way. As they appeared to agree with John Kerry’s slander that American soldiers were baby killers, their protests made everything much more difficult for all of us when we came home.
Let me be clear, I had no problem with people protesting. I had no problem with those who went to Canada. Also, I had no problem with those who tried to serve honorably and did not protest. We all live with our choices. But what America did to my generation of veterans will live in infamy as long as this country exists. As long as Vietnam veterans are alive, no other veterans will be spit on, rejected and made to feel ashamed for honorable service. For my generation of veterans, there were no parades. All we could do was try to vanish in silence back into “normal” life. To a very large extent, the so-called “Greatest Generation” that had fought in World War II, did not defend their sons when they came home. And that is to their shame. Now Vietnam veterans are old men, wearing baseball caps with bumper stickers on their cars proclaiming where they gave their youth away.
So what are we to say about Vietnam? It was the greatest tragedy since the American Civil War. In reality it started another civil war that continues to this day and is tearing us apart. Why did men who knew such a war would fail take us into it anyway? Why did 58,000 American soldiers need to die for nothing? What answer would you like to hear?
Well, that depends on your political bent, doesn’t it? It depends on what you have been taught to believe. Would you like to hear that we did it so big corporations could become rich? There’s always a lot of money to be made in war. Would you like to hear we did it because communism is brutal and evil and had to be stopped? It is one of the most brutal evils in the history of the human race and an utter failure as an economic system.
Would it satisfy you to believe that one president after another felt trapped into making horrible decisions that each knew would fail? Does that explain their lying? Maybe they were utterly corrupt. Or maybe we should blame it all on the evil generals of the Pentagon. Isn’t it true, that all they ever want is war? Perhaps Americans and their leaders are just stupid and arrogantly idealistic, insisting on making the same mistakes over and over, demanding that democracy be implanted around the world, when we are in the process of proving that it doesn’t even work in America.
Or maybe all of our leaders were just broken men trying in their own faulty ways to do what was right and making awful decisions in the process. Which answers would satisfy you? If you don’t like any of these, I could come up with more.
In the last hour of Burns’ documentary I was glad to see my old friend, Frank Snepp interviewed. You couldn’t do a documentary about the fall of Saigon without talking to Frank. He was a high level CIA officer who worked with the Phoenix Program. I didn’t know him over there. We met years later in Hollywood.
No one knows more about the ultimate fall of Vietnam, than Frank. He was on one of the last helicopters out from the Embassy. What he didn’t talk about in the documentary was the personal price he paid and it was unspeakably tragic. When he told me of it years ago, it just took my breath away.
Frank is a brave man dedicated to truth. When it was all over, he wrote a long, carefully documented book entitled Decent Interval. In it he detailed the despicable way we abandoned our Vietnamese allies, people who had believed our lies and helped us for years. In that action, we proved that we are a nation of selfish, heartless traitors.
Frank didn’t use one classified source in writing his book. Everything he documented in it was taken from the public record. But because he told the truth and because he didn’t have CIA approval to do so, he was heavily punished. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Rarely has our government in any form wanted to hear the truth about anything. We are still a nation of fools led by liars.
Burns tells the truth about the aftermath of the fall. After the communists took control, many thousands of innocent Vietnamese people risked their lives to escape the oppression. Many thousands died in the attempt. I know two women in Fresno, California who escaped with their families when they were little girls. What their parents and so many others suffered we would prefer not to hear. For us, the war was over and that’s all that mattered. Our leaders proclaimed that it was time to heal. But it hasn’t healed. It has grown.
The God of the Broken Heart
At the start, I said that, in spite of everything, I view my experience in Vietnam as a gift from God to me. What did I mean by that? How could that be true? There are things that we can only understand as we look back from the vantage point of many years.
What was my Christian faith like in Vietnam? It was real. Often, I had the strong sense that God was protecting me. I knew that He had a plan for my life. But there were many things I didn’t understand. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that I didn’t want to understand. So in the darkness and chaos of Vietnam, you might say that I placed my faith in a kind of glass box where it could be viewed and appreciated without causing trouble. What was constantly operational was my own intelligence, toughness and will.
In Vietnam, I began the process of becoming a man, but not the right kind of man yet. I knew how to take responsibility. I knew how to lead. I knew how to set goals and achieve them. I knew how to stand, even when I stood alone. I knew what it meant to be very afraid, but to do it anyway. I was committed to defending those in need and helping everyone I could. But all of it I did out of my own pride, anger and resolve.
In the letters to my wife, that kind of raw self-confidence is very clear. I brought it home with me. Also, as I said, I came home with a broken heart. Of course, I wouldn’t have described it that way. I would never have admitted such a thing. I would have said that I was just being realistic about life, sucking it up, disdaining suffering, focusing on the future, moving forward no matter what. That’s what Christian hard-asses do. I was a Christian, but I was serving myself and my own goals, while “spiritualizing” all of it to make it sound good, especially to me.
Being a man wasn’t enough, even a creative, driven, goal-oriented man. Down deep I knew that all of it was empty and unsatisfying. I had to start becoming a man of God. And I have to say that is not something I really wanted because I was afraid it would disrupt my plans. Thank God, it did.
I didn’t want my empty, unsatisfying plans to be disrupted. Does that sound stupid? It was supremely so. It is amazing how we cling to our rags. I had to get to the place where all of that self-motivated house of cards came crashing down. God is an expert at engineering such crashes. It took almost ten years after the army to get to the crossroads where I confronted the stark reality that I was a total failure at running my own life. Then came an awful year when I faced something that was far bigger than I could ever handle on my own. It drove me to my knees. But that is another story.
What came out of that year was the clear understanding that I had to surrender my life to the absolute Kingship of Jesus Christ. I could not be in the business of serving myself and my own goals. Whatever I did, it had to be to serve Him and to serve others in His Name. At the end of that year, I entered Hollywood with my first script sale to United Artists.
Suddenly, all of the things I had learned as a young military leader in war came into focus. They were necessary for what I had to do, but the power and purpose motivating all of it no longer came simply from me. Consequently, my entire definition of what it meant to be successful went through a dramatic redefinition. It could not be measured by money in the bank, fame or awards. I came to the place where I realized that success and failure would be determined only by Jesus, the King, when I stand before Him.
In entering Hollywood, I entered what I have come to call the “Story Wars” of my life. And, yes, that is another story. All I will say is that a price had to be paid. And it was paid. Now at the end of that war, there is sadness. I don’t believe you can come out of a war without it. But, also, there is peace. I have a family that loves me, many wonderful friends and a purpose that was far beyond anything I could have fabricated for myself. So I can say in the words of the New Testament, all things, including Vietnam and all that came afterward, work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His Purpose.
Let me conclude with this. Every person goes through a war. And sooner or later, every person living in this world will have a broken heart. I have come to believe that a broken heart can be a very great gift as long as it isn’t diseased and dying from hate, rage and self-pity. Broken hearts don’t go away, but they can be made strong and beautiful through the forgiving Love of God and that’s what Jesus is all about. Getting forgiveness from Him for all the things you’ve done to break your own heart and the hearts of others is the first step. Then comes forgiving others who broke your heart and asking forgiveness from the people whose hearts you have broken.
The beauty of a broken heart that has been forgiven is that, in spite of sorrow, it is filled with gratitude. You find yourself grateful to God even for the things that broke your heart because through it all you experienced His Love. To make all of that possible is why Jesus came and gave His life to forgive your sins. Don’t try to carry a broken heart without Him.
Well, Vietnam is long ago. The letters are back in their box. I won’t read them again. But, perhaps, someday a great-grandchild will be curious about that old box. He or she will pull it out and start to read about two young lovers struggling through great darkness. That child should understand that God, in His Love, carried us through. All truly happy endings come from Him. For Carel and me, the happiest is yet to come.
In the Sierra Nevada mountains near Yosemite National Park
January 7 in the Year of Our Lord, 2018.
I have put what you have just read into short book form. I have added some photographs taken during a riverine operation and a second article that I wrote about coming home. It is available on Amazon for 99 cents. I would have charged nothing, but Amazon doesn’t allow that. However, you can loan it to others at no extra cost. Also, you can read it free in the Kindle Unlimited program. A print version is available on Amazon. If you do pick up a copy of either version, I would appreciate a review. Thanks much.
For those who enjoy audio:
Thank you for your brutal honesty. It has a cleansing effect that is hard to find.
“Broken hearts don’t go away, but they can be made strong and beautiful through the forgiving love of God.” Thank you for sharing your story – the “no bull-shit” approach certainly works for me.
“…As terrible as that year was, I view it as one of God’s great gifts to my life. How that could be true I’ll explain at the end…”
You explained it well, but even before I got to that, I knew what you meant, because I have been that broken heart and know the very odd sensation of horrible memory, but gratitude to have seen where only Christ could have been the thing to carry me through it without descending into complete madness.
A “Footsteps” kind of thing.
A broken and contrite heart. That is our gift from our Maker. Without the contrite, their is only regret and escapism. And that always leads to worse darkness.
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This is such a poignant account. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories.
It will sit with me for some time.
Once you start reading it is hard to stop. The personal experience of each soldier is hard to imagine. The redemption through one’s faith is paramount. Not being there but witnessing the disdain, by our ignorant populace, of our returning soldiers was hard to take. God bless our soldiers for what they had to endure for us. In that particular war, “Mine is not to question why, but to do or die”. That is hard to swallow.
Coleman; Very well written, I was 9Th Infantry 11-B, 6/31st arrived in Sept 1968, it was real hard for me to watch or read any thing about Viet Nam for probably 20+ years, Then the show of Forrest Gump came out, I went to it unaware of the combat scenes that I’d see that were so realistic and of the 9th, I’d been a mean, tough, Ornery SOB till then, but reading your story makes me understand more why it changed us all… A lot.. Thank You
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Thanks for reading, DeVon, and for your comments. Much appreciated. I was in 4/39th.
Thank you for your sacrifice and service. As the nephew and namesake of a Lance Col USMC died in 68′, I have spent my adult life wondering and trying to understand his experience. My Father-inLaw was also SF guns and my father was brown water navy and destroyers. My Dad cannot talk about my Uncle, so I had to.fend for myself.
I have not read a more poignant account (yours) since the Karl Marlantes’ pieces. Any chance you two can team up on a project to tell the real story? I realize the whole story cannot be told.
God Bless you, Sir and my thanks also extends to your wife for her sacrifices.
Paul, so sorry for the terrible loss that your family suffered. Though it was long ago, memories of the ones we lost do not fade. I’m afraid I’ve never heard of Karl Marlantes. I don’t think the “real” story can ever be told, because there is no “real” story that could ever capture it all. Instead, there are millions of individual “real” stories. For Vietnam, you can’t even establish a time-line of military operations that means anything, such as you can do with WWII and previous wars with great troop movements, etc. For previous wars, this gives a skeletal structure for telling a Great Story in which individual stories can find their places. Nothing meaningful like that exists with Vietnam, which is why Burns and everyone else trying to tell a “Great Story” is stuck with going year by year, wallowing through the mess to the ultimate fall, all the while focusing constantly on what was happening at home in America. You have never heard a story told like that about WWII. I’m afraid we’re left with what we have, torn pieces and ragged fragments that make a poor, shabby tapestry. Thanks for reading and for your comments. And blessings on your family.
If inclined, try Matterhorn and What It’s Like to Go to War. Mr. Marlantes (a decorated vet) does an excellent job creating for the reader the grind you describe.
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Thank you and you are so right, everyone had their individual experience. I enjoyed the background history in the documentary but could not identify with most of the experiences/stories told by the people interviewed. I spent 69 and 70 as a platoon leader and Company Commander in I Corps, 196th LIB Americal Division. It was a tough year in the bush but i didnt have to worry about prostitutes so that was good. 26 years of service and I never served with a better group of soldiers, the pride I feel for that will never leave me and neither will the sorrow and feelings of guilt for the soldiers I could not bring home. God bless.
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Michael, thanks so much for writing. To my knowledge, you are the first former combat infantry officer who has commented. It means a lot. I am retired and I have taken this on as a kind of mission. I am paying to sponsor the ad as a small gift to my fellow vets. It ran in California and Texas and right now it is running in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia. Don’t know where I will go from here. The article seems to be filling a need and for this I am thankful. It makes the work worthwhile. Blessings on you.
Your insights are astounding. Our experiences in Vietnam were apparently similar in many respects. I was initially assigned as Battalion Heavy Mortar platoon leader, but there was a major blow-up when I saw our company commander abuse the platoon’s mascot. Because of my unrepentant insubordination, I was then transferred to a line company for the final 6 1/2 months of my tour. This turned out to be a reward, rather than the intended punishment. Leading an Infantry rifle platoon in ground combat was a very difficult but extraordinary experience, which few men from our generation were privileged to share. I eventually wrote a book about my experiences, “The Mad Fragger and Me”, but your essay captured my feelings far more honestly and succinctly. You let Ken Burns off much too easily, though. I was unable to watch all of his pseudo-documentary because of his blatant propagandizing. Thanks very much for writing this commentary. I will be sending your link to 23 former comrades in B Company, 1/20th Infantry, 11th LIB, Americal Division, 1970-1971.
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Thank you, my friend. Truly, we are brothers-in-arms. Far too many of our leaders over there were absolute fools. I have stories to tell that I just didn’t have time and space to tell in the piece. One of our battalion commanders got himself killed because of his sheer stupidity. Thanks so much for your comments. I hope your life has been blessed through all these years.
Mr Luck ,
Thank you for writing this….it was refreshing to read and echoed closely the stories I have heard from other men who fought in Vietnam.. I grew up watching the war on the news every night at dinner time . As the son of a career naval officer( who served but did not fight in Vietnam) I remember the turmoil that engulfed this country in the late 60’s and how the media portrayals of the “ baby killers” tainted forever the experience of the infantry soldier. I think it would be of great value if you would write more of your experiences in Vietnam. It would be a shame if the burns documentary were to be the only portrayal of the Vietnam experience. Thanks again for sharing your experience
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You could susbsititute “Vietnam” for Iraq or Afghanistan and not much would be different.
Thanks for sharing your very well written thoughts. We had a nearly parallel tour as I arrived in Tan Tru in Nov 67 and assigned as Weapons Platoon leader in C Co 2/60th Infantry, (other duties as assigned included being XO as the mortors only were out of base camp on Company size operations) By the end of Dec my begging for a “leg” Platoon paid off just before Tet started. In B Co we spent a lot of time on Eagle flights west of Ben Luc, in the Plain of Reeds south to Ben Tre and nearly four months Cai Lay at FSB called the Pink Palace to defend the whole western portion of the AO. By April 29 when I was WIA we had only 13 men available for ambush patrol each evening. I remember the 9ID CG flying in to give most of Air Medals ( I mailed mine home but the orders never did follow but they did for the CIB, Silver Star, Soldiers Medal, BS/ V & OLC, Purple Heart etc in the DD 214) These helped me in my career which followed after I returned to college in 1969. In June I assumed Command of E Company until I was Dusted Off to Japan for medical rehab and then home. I rarely spoke to anyone about my experiences like many others for over twenty years. I now go to a reunion with my 2/60 brothers every two years with the 9th ID and the Navy via the Mobile Riverine Association, what great fun we have. Do you ever go Gene Richardson in Port Angeles Wahington.
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Gene, thanks so much for your comments. We were in some the same places such as Tan Tru and the Pink Palace. What a wonderful FSB that was. I can still see that crumbling, rotten, rat-infested slum in my mind. Congratulations on your decorations. Well-deserved. Glad you made it home. Thank God, I was never wounded though it came really close. Came home with the Bronze Star I mentioned, also Bronze S for meritorious service, three Army Commendations Medals – valor, the Air Medal, and, of course, the CIB. Like you, I went back to college in 69. and all of that background was surprisingly useful to me in my career. And that was in Hollywood of all places. As you might imagine, during the 80’s and 90’s there were so few combat veterans in the entertainment industry that I was an interesting oddity and could speak with some authority in areas where no one around me knew anything. God used all of it. I hope your life has been a rewarding one, my friend. BTW, I’ve never have been to any reunions and am not involved with any vet organizations. Don’t know why. For some reason that I can’t quite pinpoint, I’ve always been reluctant. Anyway, blessings on your life and thanks for making contact.
Like you, I went back to finish college, did not join any of the organizations like the VFW, American Legion, VVA but did find a small group where I fit in in Durango, Colorado where we first retired to. No dues, no rules, no politics just plain honest Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors good men all. Even though we had to move away from the altitude my heart is still there with those real combatants that made a difference in the sixties and still do today for each other, their families and the comminity. I stayed in federal service twenty seven years in law enforcement ending my careen in the U S Agency for International Development ( USAID) as the director of investigations in Washington, DC My boss was Lt General Herbert L Beckington, USMC retired who was the Inspector General of USAID. The only intence that I was really sure that my time after Infantry OCS, time as a combat Platoon Leader and Company Commander really paid off for my career happened about five years into my career in the Senior Executive Service in Washington, DC. Each year General Beckington and I would treck over to the Senate Oversight Committee to justify our budget by reporting what we had accomplished the prior year and lay out what we would plan to do the next physical year to justify our existance. ( How many convictions, how much in fines recoveries and restitution etc) So to make a very long story short as we walked thru the halls of congress toward the subway back to his office in the State Department, I asked him why he hired me over many candidates that seemed to me much more qualified for the SES level way beyond anything I ever imagined. His resporce was quick and to the point. “Well Lt Richardson, I think you know why I picked you.” He had never called me LT Richardson before but I said please General tell me. He said ” they told me I was required to interview six or seven of the highest qualified candidates for the job” . Everybody was very even in formal education ( all of had advanced degrees and years of experience in criminal investigations and managerial expertice. “Only three had any military experience any you were the only one with actual combat experience” . ” I picked you because In the third world places across the developing world where we have regional offices that you supervise the atmosphere is very much combat.” (Those offices were in Cairo, Egypt, Karachi, Packistan, Dakar, Senegal, Manila, Phillipines, Tegucigalpa, Honduras.) Sure enough, over the ten years I spent with USAID, the number of Foreign Service Officers killed and wounded began to rival our losses in Vietnam in an Infantry Battalion. As you now know, you just never could expect what suprises life will throw at you. Glad you made it back, we will never forget those who did not return and always wonder why we did.
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That sounds like a fascinating career and a life well-spent. Yes, when I came back from Vietnam I could never have imagined going to Hollywood. You might as well have told me I should go to Mars. I went through ten years of school and another career before that fell apart. Finishing a degree, I took a history of film course. That led to my first script. Only desperate people who don’t fit anywhere else go to Hollywood. But God was leading.
Wow. That was a powerful read,and it brought back a lot of memories for me. I enlisted in 68,went to helicopter school,and when I turned 18,I volunteered for the nam. I ended up flying two voluntary tours,my last up on the dmz. I went back over because I realized that it took me most of my first year to learn my job as a crewchief/gunner. That is to say what to look for from the air etc. My previous experience paid off and soon I was the senior scout in my new unit.We flew the loh,the OH-6A Cayuse treetop level to draw fire and mark the target/return fire/and di di so our snakes could work out.While there,my fiance left me with a ‘dear John’ letter. I then really threw myself into my job,tried to forget about going back to the world and to concentrate on fighting. It ate me up,but I just didn’t see it.I never really came home,not completely. To this day I still feel out of place here,and I’m tired. My Lord looked out for me,that I do know. I also know he spared me many times where I should have been killed,but wasn’t. I’m an old man now,and still as confused as I was when I finally came home. Which btw,I was spit on while waiting for my flt to take me home. A couple of hippies went to spit on me and I decked them both before they could. As it turned out,I did it right in front of two Chicago cops. They laughed and walked away,the hippies were on the floor,and I moved to a different seat. As soon as I got home it didn’t take me long to figure out that the almost 4 years I did on active duty,didn’t belong on any job application if I wanted a job. So to account for my military time,I just put down that I was a self employed mechanic,and left it at that. All my uniforms and orders and all of my A & D went into the burning barrel.
Thanks so much for your comments. I remember so well you LOH guys, steel balls nine feet tall. We depended on you and you saved a lot of lives. As far as coming home, more and more I understand that I’m not home yet. Because of Jesus and what He did for me I know that my true home is not in this world and never has been. Because of Him, my true home is in a city not made with hands. Blessings on you, brother-in-arms. I hope to meet you over there.
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I was an 18 yr old navy corpsman with 2/5 -1st mar div. most of the marines I tried to save were followers of Jesus’s. So many times I blessed them, catholic doc smith even San amazing grace with them and the doc did the same thing when I got my 3rd Purple Heart In huecity 1968. Thank God for Christian in the midst of chaos.
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“As far as coming home, more and more I understand that I’m not home yet. Because of Jesus and what He did for me I know that my true home is not in this world and never has been. ”
Jesus is my Lord and Savior,so I guess that’s why I feel the way I do. Thank you for the clarity. I’ll meet you at Fiddlers Green,along with our other brothers that got there before us. I’ll buy the first round.
your brother in arms
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Thank Mr. Luck and to all your brothers and sister veterans. I was just a kid during that war. Born in 1965, I knew about Vietnam from my returning uncle who served in 82nd and 101st Airborne and 1st air Calv. And of course from Walter Conkrite on the nightly news. Thank you sir for the sacrifices you made overseas and the ones at home. I thank God you have Jesus in your life! As my favorite Uncle was dying in his hospital bed, he accepted Christ. I know I will see him and meet you one day in the presence of the Lord. Thank you!
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I enjoyed reading this tome – – I’ll admit to having not finished it, yet, but wanted to comment, anyway. Although you observe that it’s disjointed and not properly organized, that’s exactly what makes it such compelling reading – – we went through a totally disjointed, unorganized experience, during our Vietnam tours (I was 11B, Co. “C,” 1st Bn, 7th Reg, 3rd Bge, 1st Cav Div, III Corps, Jul’69-Sep’70). What we experienced was a series of random thoughts, feelings and raw emotional reactions to the events surrounding us – – nothing was in sync the way we thought it would/should be. It was FUBAR, indeed. Your observation on men going to war and loving it rings true – – although few, if any, want to die, I do agree that there is a desire to be challenged and tested, as a young man (which is why so many young people do take up arms and go off to fight wars, perversely) to see if one has the inner strength, courage and fortitude to accomplish the greatest task, in life – – to face the worst of your fears and survive them. As for war movies, I recommend to anyone who asks, “We Were Soldiers Once…And Young” and “Hamburger Hill.” The former was about my predecessors, in Co “C,” 1st Bn., 7th Reg of the 1st Cav – – we always joked about being in Custer’s 7th Regiment, as a reflection of the black humor that was part and parcel of our combat infantry experience. Continue the good work.
Thanks so much for your comments. I read the book “We Were Soldiers once…” Loved it and loved the film. There are some great war films, but it’s just not like actually being there. Last summer I toured the beaches of Normandy. I’d seen a number of war films about that attack, but being there, seeing where the enemy was situated and with what armament, seeing the hundreds of yards of beach at low tide, brought a whole new understanding that no film could ever give. Anyway, thanks for reading.
101st abn, 1967. This is the best description of the personal feelings of a man in combat i have ever read. The isolation, despair during the year, and the disorientation when it suddenly ends, overwhelming your mind in the midst of your attempt at education as a college freshman again. Thank you for wonderful words. I would shout it out that everyone read this. I believe God kept me alive, may i always be grateful
Thanks, Steve. There is no question that God kept me alive. So now the task is to finish well.
Coleman, You’re words struck a chord in me and are so insightful. When I came home from Vietnam I was disillusioned, angry and bitter at my Country, family, and friends, because I felt betrayed. As the years went by I internalized it and tried to forget it, but, it was always with me, like a curse. I married, had two wonderful daughters and about 20 years ago a missionary couple who had served in Danang from 1958 to 1975 spoke at our church, (Marietta Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Marietta, GA). When Jim Livingston finished speaking to our men, I stepped out and introduced my self to him and told him I was stationed at Danang in 1971-72. He paused and looked at me and said, “Usually in a group of men this large I always say something to the Vietnam Veterans, because I know there will be a few”. “For some reason I didn’t say it this time, but I’ll tell you”. He said, ” Because of America’s involvement in Vietnam, we had twenty more years than we would have had to build the Church. Because America stopped the communists, those years were critical for us to build the ‘Church’, training pastors and elders so the church could persevere through years of imprisonment and persecution.” We would not have had those years except for the sacrifice of American servicemen, and now Revival is sweeping Vietnam and over 1,000,000 have come to Christ.”. When I heard those words the ‘Peace (that passes all understanding)’ filled my wounded soul. I certainly do not believe it was God’s will that the Vietnam war happen, but when Jim said that it was a revelation to me that God’s purposes will triumph, even in the midst and aftermath of horror. May His Peace be with You…
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Thank you, brother. Jesus can bring great light even in the middle of great darkness.
Thank you so much for sharing this powerful story! Below is a snapshot of my story and how God uses it to help others find freedom from PTSD. I’d love very much to be able to connect with you on this issue. Please read this and any who are searching for answers please read this and email me at email@example.com
As Soldiers we often stood in the “foxhole” with those we never would have collaborated with on the outside. The fight isn’t over. At 22 American veteran suicides a day, plus those in the PD and FD the reality is the wire is breached! The enemy is taking us out on our own ground, but I don’t believe we have to lose this battle! So, brothers and sisters in arms share this because this testimony has saved lives!
There is no cure for PTSD or TBI. At least that’s what every professional out there told me. I was searching, I needed an answer, I needed something to change the life I was living. I was a good patient, submitting to every method of therapy, medication, and form of inner healing that was available, but the clanging sound of the well-intentioned voices still rang loudly in my head, “it won’t ever be completely better. Before it does get better it’s going to get worse. The idea is to have more good days than bad.” The failed realization of every professional that I spoke to was this, if it was going to get worse before it got better that meant there would be no “better” because I was at the point of suicide! That was the “worse” for me, bringing it all to an end. I needed something real and I needed it immediately.
I didn’t care what would work I just needed something that would be a permanent very real solution. I decided to let some people pray for me and it’s the best decision I ever made. Yes, I was scared, but I had faced armed terrorists, jumped out of planes in the middle of the night, and flown helicopters in less than ideal conditions. I wasn’t going to let fear stand in my way of the very thing I fought for-freedom. I wasn’t going to be a prisoner of my own life anymore!
To put it simply and as abbreviated as possible:
During a night of simple but purposeful prayer JESUS SET ME FREE!!! That means no more Rage, irritability, nightmares, hyper vigilance, anxiety, memory loss, lack of focus, impulsive and reckless behavior, nerve pain, migraines, couldn’t love emptiness, seclusion/agoraphobia, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and hopelessness! No more dope, no more pills, no more needing a drink, no more meds, and no more doctor appointment after doctor appointment!
It didn’t stop there! I have developed and maintained my freedom through an ever growing and personal relationship with Jesus! I have seen many others set free from the very same thing in the same simplicity of prayer! Jesus is powerful and truly does meet every need no matter how impossible the world says it is.
It’s your turn! What Jesus did for me He WILL do for you! You will experience a difference in your life and the life of your family.
I can help you!
Jesus is the answer
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Amen, brother. Just coping is not enough. But it takes humility to ask Jesus to enter in and do His work. Many are unwilling to do that. There is an old saying, “You may live in hell, but at least you know the street signs.”
Thank you for your service, sir. My sons were to young to go to war and after that war was ended, I thank God for it. I know to many young men who came home ashamed. What happened was not their fault, nor yours. I enjoyed reading your story and the comments. May God bless you and yours.
I am sitting here with an old familiar pIn in my chest.
Mr. Luck – Thank you so very much for putting your experience to words.
We need that as a nation. The truth is to be found in the combined story, the gestalt of experience from the men and women who were there.
For my part, I was still in school, watching my friends suffer as their siblings went to war. I dreaded the day my birthday would pop up in the lottery. (Thank God, it never would.) And I wore a steel band on my wrist right up until I saw my POW come off the plane.
Your story asks some excellent questions. Questions we are still wrestling with. And like you, I’ve found that I don’t have answers. The best I can do is accept the faith that God is and continues to be. And I will remember your stories.
I was in high school from 66 to 70 and i watched as the classmates ahead of me year by year were drafted and several went to Viet Nam. As we went through high school we attended the funerals of those that gave their last full measure. I remember sitting by my good friend at the cemetary as his brother was being interred. The soldier playing taps climbed upon the side of a hill and began to play. I can still hear the sound of the bugle today 50 years later. I visit his grave ever so often and just this year I visited the mobile black wall memorial and traced his name. My birthday was the 128th drawn the year I became eligible and the government drafted out of the first 125 dates drawn. I have the utmost respect for the veterans of the Viet Nam War. They fought in a war like no other war under conditions and rules of engagement like no other war and returned to an ungrateful nation like no other veterans before or since. May God bless all of you and may His face shine upon you and His peace settle and fill your hearts and souls.
Into the heart of darkness we happily ventured. I do not believe any infantry platoon leader did not/does not have many of the same emotions as you expressed. You are correct as to the attraction to combat. There is no alternative. Many can not accept this-they need to speak to other combat infantrymen. I was evacuated as part of 72% as my company dropped to 28% effective.
I considered myself a kind of walking good luck token: asked for 11b and got 71q2…Army Journalist…went Airborne, got impatient waiting for the whole 101st to go to the Nam and volunteered…wound up in the Delta, assigned to IV Corps PIO and got enough Grunt work to know just how lucky I was without that 11b mos. All of my trips to the Mud were with American Advisory Teams attached to ARVN units and my luck held. Thirteen days til DEROS and Tet happened. Same thing. I came home without one of those figurative scratches…but with a boatload of melancholy anger and what-am-I-doing-walking-around-here guilt. Back to college and finally found my dream. Forty-three years, two kids and four grandgirls later and at the urging of my family to write it down before I die…I realized that all that luck wasn’t. It was Grace, pure and simple. Of this, I am certain. My Marine brother and I were in-country simultaneously. Our mama was the quintessential Prayer Warrior and never waivered, never ceased. I wasn’t much of a follower of Jesus, at the time. Now that I am, I see that Grace granted me in that killing ground as measureless.
And our stories; the Vietnam Veterans that chose to talk and put them to paper, make me think of that old TV series, “The Naked City”…the opening narrative said some like “there are three million stories in the Naked City and this is one of them.” I’m writing mine. Thanks for writing yours.
When you get it finished, would love to read it. Blessings always in Jesus.
Well, I finished my story…if you still want to read it. I’ve got it in PDF file and Google Docs.
Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear Mr. Luck
Enjoyed reading your story. Can only be told by someone who experienced war And the disgraceful homecoming that our soldiers endured. Our country can never again experience such terrible turmoil. Having watched my own son go to war I can’t imagine how he would’ve felt if he had returned with the same welcome that you and your soldiers did.
Which brings me to the point of my email. I would like to invite you to see what our community has done for our soldiers. It was the dream of a veteran and it was sparked by a young ladys’desire that her returning brother got the welcome home he deserved, and our community gathering around that cause. It is called the Welcome Home Soldier Memoria in Albia Iowa and I would like to personally invite you to come see it and meet its creator And the community that made it happen.
Thank you. It sounds wonderful. We are looking to move from our home in the CA mountains to Austin, TX. Maybe when I am in that part of the country it will be possible to visit. I still have family in the Chicago area. Some of the stories that I have heard from Vietnam soldiers are so terrible. One man came home, landed at the airport in his city. There was no one to meet him. He took a cab home. His family, who knew he was coming that day, had gone off on some excursion, after a terrible year he was still alone. Others faced rejection in their small towns from people they had known all of their lives. Far more painful than strangers spitting on you, would be rejection from your own. Thankfully, I did not experience this.; I don’t think anyone understood the impact on young men that such rejection would have. It’s still with veterans who are old men like me. Blessings on the work for vets that all of you are doing.
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Vince Laurich former OCS classmate of yours and my first platoon leader in Vietnam emailed your article. It was the most revealing and thoughtful .Many of topics hit me as I was drafted and made a combat medic .went to Nam aged 19.”Combat Soldier” Myth of the Warrior “had a captain relieved” “Battalion Co flying overhead” and “Memories that never fade away” echoed my feelings exactly. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks so much for reading, Marc. Medics were the bravest of the brave.
I read this with great interest and respect. Although I was active duty AF, 1960-68, I was never sent in that direction. For a long time I felt guilt in not having to go. Then after visiting “The Wall”, and finding a name I knew, I wondered why 58,000 Americans, and thousands more Vietnamese, died for nothing but politics. To this day I thank Vietnam era Veterans for their service, as well as Korean War Veterans. They were another group of men & women who received virtually no thanks for what they endured. Again for politics. I have been honored to have met many WWII Veterans, but that was a different time & place. That America is gone, and I fear forever, as Our Country is being sacrificed to a Socialistic wave of ignorance instilled in our young people by corrupt teachers at all levels of education. As the saying goes, “If you’re not with us you are against us”, and we face millions already in this Country, allowed by career politicians, such as John Kerry & Bill Clinton, et al., who hate us. Indeed, Our Country is in dire straights.
I am just a old country boy from Michigan. I grew up in the coutry, with my father tranining hunting dogs and horses. I got drafted after dropping out of college and getting married in March of 1968. I had a son born in July 25,1968 and was drafted in Sept. of 68. I went to Nam in March of 69 and was assiged to the 9th Infrantry Div., 2/39th, Alpha Company, 3rd Plt.I was a pointman for 5 1/2 months and fought with the braves warriors god ever put on this geen earth. I was transfered to the 9th, 2/60th, Alpha Co. where I extented my year of duty to come home to a early.out. I thought I would surprise my wife and family by coming home earlier than I had told them so they wouldn’t worry as much. Only to find out my wife was not home , see was out with another guy and wanted nothing to do with me. I had just came back from hell and was so screwed up. Friends would ask me, hey Griese where have you been? I haven seen you in awhile. You can not explain it to any one, enless you have been there. I am still trying to get right mentaly, its a full time job and I don’t know if their enough time left to ever get right. I enjoyed reading you article and your truth about what it was like for a grunt fight for his life and brother to come back home. Nam took my life and I am not sure I will ever completly come home. God bless you and the writing of this article. Sincerely, a proud grunt who served with the ist Recondos.. The 9th Inf,2/39th, Alphas Aces, 3rd Plt..Craig Griese
So sorry, brother. I decided a long time ago that my real home is not in this world. Because of what Jesus did, giving His life for my sins and yours, if we trust in Him, we have a home waiting for us where all tears and sorrows are wiped away, where going home will mean nothing but joy. I am praying for you.
Thanks for your riveting words Mr. Luck. I didn’t arrive in Vietnam until 71. I was assigned to HHC326Med101st. I was forever fortunate to not have to travel the path you and so many others have. Yet even the rear echelon had its moments. I truly appreciate you putting this out there. Far too long we’ve had many falsities reported in American media. Blessings to you and your family Sir.
I was a Corpseman from 1966 to 1970. By the grace of God I didn’t go to Vietnam. I did my sea duty at Gitmo. I was married with a daughter and was lucky to have my wife and daughter with me at Gitmo. I have always had a bit of guilt that I didn’t go and my friends did. I don’t know if that is normal or not but it was there. After reading your account of the war telling how it really was and how it affects a person I am feeling better and I can put the guilt to rest. Thank you so much. God bless you and your wife. I am glad you have a wonderful wife that stuck with you for better or worse. I also have one. We are lucky and blessed. Bill
I wouldn’t feel a moment of guilt, my friend. I am glad to have lived through it and view it as a gift, but I would have been happy not to have gone at all. It was a gift to avoid it. Blessings on you and your wife.
Thank you Mr. Luck JIm
I read your article to the end.
I was six to eight years old when all this happened; now I’m 56.
I met my first Vietnam vet in Pioneer Square in Seattle. I believe he was living on the street. He was friendly towards me.
I didn’t have much to do with soldiering other then boot camp. Later at Wounded Warrior Weekend Foundation and
with Wounded Warriors.ca I was able to interact with soldiers, sailors and airmen from Afghanistan, and Falkland wars. I saw the medals, touched the wounds and was touched emotionally by what these servicemen went through.
Thank you for your service
I was a flight attendant in the early 70’s, we had a military contract to fly the military to anyplace they needed to go. At times, we had soldiers flying back from Germany that had served in Vietnam, we were flying them to Maguire Air Force base in New Jersey. I was just a young 19 year old from Hooks, Texas who had no clue as to what was going on except that there was an awful war, my friends were being shipped off to a place where there was hatred for them and that people were going to try to kill them and that I should probably pray, but sadly I was more interested in what was playing at the local cinema or going dancing with my friends that went to bed safely at their home with lots of clean water and heat or air depending on the time of year it was. I took my own journey to airline training and flew my first flight to Rome which went very well. The next flight was to Germany where I experienced my first encounter with soldiers returning from combat in Vietnam. I didn’t notice anything very different about them but there was an awakening in me on that flight, awakening that I needed to be more aware. I had seen Kent State, I had seen protests, I had seen reports of people behaving badly towards these young men that had sacrificed so much. Do not get me wrong, I was not quite there in realization, but I was getting there. One day in 1971 or 72, can’t remember the exact year, just know it was during that time that a young man boarded one of my flights. He had what I can only suppose were shrapnel scars on his face, his eyes were like dead pools, and he was Army, I remember that distinctly. I could not keep my eyes off him, not because of the shrapnel scars but because he never looked any direction other than straight ahead. At one point, he got up and went to the restroom and was gone for what seemed an eternity. I grew very concerned for his well being, was headed back to see about him when he started down the aisle toward his seat. I had to literally turn sideways and lean into the seat to let him pass, he never looked in my direction, never said a word, just went back to his seat. I went to the bathroom for some reason I cannot explain, there on the counter was an empty whiskey bottle. I felt so awful for this young man and had no idea what he had been through but knew it was something so horrific that the only way he could medicate the torment and pain was with alcohol. I sat down for a minute and can only explain what I felt as grief. When I left the bathroom and walked down the aisle, I checked on him and he was asleep. He slept the remainder of the flight, I had a sadness that I had not had before sweep over me. I was sad for what awaited him, I was sad for what he had lost and what he had found during his time in Vietnam. When he left the plane, there was a lump in my throat. All these years, I think about that young man, I wonder what happened to him, I wonder if he made it through his journey and every time I see a documentary, see a book with photos in a book store, or see an article with a photo like this one, I always hope that it is him and that he is ok. I am no longer 19, that day on that plane I saw a sad reality, I had empathy, I had sympathy, I had a longing to say to him, it will be alright, I am so sorry. I thank you for this article and hope and pray that this young man, I refer to him as my soldier, has found Jesus Christ and can function. This article, while it will never convey to me the depths of what a soldier feels; however, it does give me a glimpse of what the dead pools in his eyes were about. I thank you and I pray for my soldier, he has no name, but he does live in my heart and perhaps he represents all of you on that lonely return to home, I don’t know. I know I will never find him, and that’s ok. I will continue to look for him every opportunity I have with the hopes he is well, or as well as one can be having gone through the horrors of war.
Beautifully written. Thank you.