Vietnam. As occasional BoomerCafé contributor Larry Checco writes from his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, it helped to define our generation. And also left some scars.
Within three minutes after first meeting Bob at a rec center, he told me he was 77-years-old and a Vietnam vet, obviously two important milestone characteristics of which he is extremely proud.
“I was a medic in a mobile unit in Vietnam in ‘68. We saved a lot of lives,” Bob said proudly. Yet I could sense a bit of Bob’s pain by the ever-so-slight squint in his eyes as he evoked shadows of the horrible memories he’s lived with for decades.
I mumbled more than stated, “I was in Vietnam in 1968, as well.”
Only I was a 20-year-old college kid who somehow that summer finagled working on a merchant ship delivering war materiel to Saigon, a longer tale than can be told here.
My all-too-brief conversation with Bob served to bring back conflicted feelings I’ve long harbored about not actually having served in the war that largely defined my generation. For me, the summer of ’68 was more a daring sea adventure, as well as a means to earn money towards my college tuition. It wasn’t because I wanted to support the war effort.
In full disclosure, I was vehemently opposed to what was happening in Vietnam in the ‘60s. The politics, the deceptive military buildup and body counts, the bombing of innocent Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian civilians, the photos each week in Life Magazine of the scores, if not hundreds of GIs killed sometimes in a single week in that faraway land of mystery and misery. None of it made sense to me — or to millions of other Americans.
So, along with many of them, I protested against the war on my college campus, as well as in Washington, DC.
As for my draft status, I got lucky. Despite having drawn a low lottery number (37), I received a 4-F medical deferment from my local draft board, prompted by a sports injury that tore up one of my knees. For me, the day I received the deferment notification was one of great relief and celebration.
But that didn’t ease the fact that the war cleaved my generation apart. It divided us from each other— some in my age cohort felt the war was worth fighting, and many still believe so— as well as from our nation, even our families.
During World War II, my father served in the U.S. Army as a forward observer and was awarded the Bronze Star for scaling a mountain in the Philippines with a radio on his back under heavy enemy fire. My wife’s father served as a lieutenant in the Army medical corps in France. Her step-father captained a B-24 Liberator and brought his entire crew back to base, alive, after each of the 49 mission he flew in the South Pacific.
Guilt would be too strong a word, but today, when I meet vets like Bob, I’m pinged with a perverse sense of regret that I did not fully share in one of the seminal events of my generation. Working in the sweltering bowels of a tramp steamer delivering supplies to Vietnam does not come close to what they experienced in the then deep, dark, dirty place they still refer to as ‘Nam.
I deeply respect each and every one of them who served, voluntarily or otherwise. Like me, the majority were naïve, innocent kids. One way or another, we were all used as dispensable pawns in an old men’s game of political chess. Vietnam vets deserved far better than what they received when they returned home.
The scars and pain brought on by war last a lifetime, and are felt not only by those like Bob, deployed to war-torn areas, but by all of us who care about them and the service they provide our country.
I say this as a father whose oldest son is currently — and proudly — serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.