The Vietnam War as seen from the river bank

“The Vietnam War,” a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick premiered Sept. 17, 2017 on PBS. The film from our point of view was a documentary of the long history of individuals standing with both feet in the middle of the stream, and for the most part negatively affecting everyone who quietly stood on the banks.

 

President Lyndon Johnson when speaking about the Vietnam war famously said, “What the hell am I ordering (those kids) out there for?” The general public never could come up with a compelling way to answer that question.

For the most part, the generals and admirals not only had to supply the reasons for the Vietnam War but also the strategy. Generals never do good when the circumstances do not dictate the right course of action; It is difficult to win a war when there is no compelling reason.

War, like life, is colored by personal perspective. Fifty plus years after the start of the Vietnam War and there are as many stories as there were soldiers — from a Lieutenant Colonel trying desperately to become full bird to the drafted doing time.

It was a nice fall day and I was driving my latest car, a 1965 Chevrolet Impala convertible with the top down. Everything seemed right with the world, except it was 1968. And I was on my way to Bangor, Maine for a trip to New Jersey at government expense for two months of Army basic training.

Three of my traveling companions, Paul, Richard and Steven had something in common — college and repeating what the academic advisers told them about the future. Not likely the advisers suggested the Vietnam War as a career move. After basic training, Richard was assigned to advanced infantry training. Three of us were sent to Oklahoma for artillery training. A couple of months later, we were all in Vietnam.

In Vietnam I learned that Paul was on the same base, I drove over to visit. He was at the bottom of a very large bunker — told me he was doing secret work — that is where he spent his tour of duty.

I was driving a track vehicle north, defoliating potential ambush sites. We stopped outside of a base waiting for the next convoy north, when I saw Richard going in the front gate. After a handshake, we went over to his room and talked. He told me because of stress he was taken out of combat and assigned to teaching GIs how to get GEDs. For 20 minutes Richard alternated between talking about the importance of education and learning to ambushes and dying soldiers. The Army has a habit of putting the wrong person in the wrong job.

Two weeks before I left Vietnam I saw Steven. He told me while working on an artillery gun it recoiled and broke his leg. He went on to say he did not think his leg would ever heal to be the same.

The other person I remember is Carl. He was assigned to a 155 Artillery Gun. He was from Virginia. He told me that before he was drafted he got a good job working nights cleaning Greyhound buses. Carl also told me when he was young he would squeeze himself into played-out coal seams with a burlap bag collecting coal to make money. I always felt the Army experience was never going to give Carl PTSD because the Army never was going to fundamentally change Carl.

The Vietnam War changed society from the wayward hippies buying marijuana at $5 a pound to the frustrated social engineers that moved easily onto the college campus then into politics. In 1970 the common effort of dropping out and dropping in would be the seed of change in America.

After 5 days in Oakland, California filling out papers, I was officially out of the Army, April 22, 1970. I spent a week in San Francisco winding down, sleeping late and having lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf. Two weeks later I was in Maine, bought a 1965 Mustang convertible, put the top down in the early spring sun — two car classics with a war in between.


• Faith Myers and Dorrance Collins are mental health advocates who reside in Anchorage.


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