In one of the Vietnam era’s most enduring images, Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of Kent State student Jeffrey Miller in a parking lot at Taylor Hall. (Copyright John Filo photo)
I watched with more than normal avidness the 1970-73 Ken Burns installment of the “Undeclared War” (as the Veterans of Foreign Wars characterized it) several days ago. Unlike the newer generation of Video game players, I choose not to digest such a vast quantity of death and mayhem on a nightly basis.
The Kent State massacre-and let’s be frank in calling it a massacre- occurred May 4th. That was eleven days before I boarded my Pan Am World Airways flight for points west from Travis Air Force Base. It was the sole source of discussion among us as we wended our way to Hawaii, Guam and finally Saigon. The tenor of our conversations was varied from rednecks saying they had it coming to pacifists asking who, in their right minds, would open fire on unarmed students.
As a FNG, my sentiments were pro-American in my assessment of why I was doing this. Hell, yes I was patriotic. Hell, yes I was doing it to combat communism. And most assuredly I was gung ho but a niggling doubt had begun to fester about five minutes after I heard about the “four dead in Ohio”. It would be a while before Neil Young penned his famous song but the sentiment and the seeds of doubt were planted and germinating as I flew over the Pacific.
I spent two years over there voluntarily. I could have signed up for a third without even thinking about it but something inside me had begun to rot. It was evident materiel support was drying up. The seeds of hope for my making a difference had withered and died in the first year. The second was filled with the dread of eventually having to return to the World and the anger afoot there. Most of us in-theatre had come to the rude conclusion that if this “conflict” was destined for failure, dying for it was an equal waste of time.
WHO WANTED TO BE THE LAST TO DIE?
I am no fan of John Kerry but his congressional speech asked a blunt question-who wanted to be remembered as the last one to die for a cause few in America believed in? In spite of the fact that none of us heard that contemporary testimony, our sentiments were virtually identical. It was not for lack of patriotism but that our beliefs mimicked that of the majority of Americans (or so said Kerry). In reality, our fervor for warfare had not abated one bit. We just chose to be more careful and less assuming that we were bulletproof. I’m sure the level of Medal of Honor winners took a nosedive about that time. Valor in combat unsupported by public opinion generally garners few takers.
Does anyone notice the absolute dearth of research and discussion of the CIA, USAID, or my alma mater Air America so far? Seems like a pretty significant oversight until you realize a lot of them have 50 or 70-year Nondisclosure agreements.
Jumping ahead to 1972- I apologize- and my return home, I have to admit I wasn’t spit on. I arrived at 0200 at Travis dressed in camo fatigues, jungle boots and a boony hat to an empty terminal and no customs agents. I took the bus to SF International and a flight back to DC for 30 days leave. The only demonstrators were the Hari Krishna folks who desired money and no fealty to a cause. I was certainly not anti-war but neither was I anti-American or anti-military. My belief system in what I had done for the last two years was shaken but not eviscerated.
Over the next eight months I discovered the depth of the hatred for the military, its members and any who wore the uniform publicly. Several friends who came home behind me told tales of being awarded the Saliva medal with several oak leaf clusters at the Frisco Airpatch. Truthfully, I’m glad I missed that. In retrospect, it is immaterial as a defining moment. The next twenty years or so were a constant daily reminder that what I (we) had done was evil and we’d burn in a special kind of Hell reserved for people like us who had fallen under the spell of the Military Industrial complex. Then America forgot. Few of us, myself included, would even admit to military service let alone service in country to our kids. It was not a conversation starter in polite circles. An example…eleven years later
In 1987, I remodeled a house in an upscale, tony part of Bellevue, Washington for some friends. My clients asked me to attend the housewarming to meet possible clients. Virtually everyone in Meydenbauer Bay was well-heeled. Many were decidedly progressive thinkers with a strong liberal tilt. About halfway through the evening, a well-oiled doyen rolled up in front of me with a martini and rudely insinuated herself between me and the folks I was talking to. Mrs. Vermouth loudly announced
Doyen: “Our host informs me you are a Vietnam Veteran and fought in that war. ”
Me: “Well, yessss. I rarely discuss that now. It brings back bad memories.”
Doyen: (Smiling to her left and right) “So tell me- how could you kill all those poor women and children? Did it give you great pleasure? Exactly how mentally deranged are you?”
Having watch Full Metal Jacket recently, and being fairly well lubricated myself, the only thought that came to mind was to bogart the similar rejoinder I heard in the movie:
“Why, actually, it’s quite easy ma’m. Allow me to explain. First, we use tracers to see where we’re shooting. and secondly, it’s speed. You don’t have to lead them as much because they can’t run as fast with the kids in tow.”
Wrooooooooong answer. I was asked politely by the hostess to decamp immediately. I’m sure some one cleaned up the martini spill before it damaged the newly refinished hardwood floor. That, folks, was eleven years after the war. There weren’t a bunch of us running around wearing Vietnam Veteran hats with unit insignia. We didn’t have VIETNAM- I SERVED bumper stickers on our cars or Disabled Veteran license plates.
And then one day, we went back to war in Iraq, ditto Afstan. Suddenly, being in the military was cool beans again. Americans once more stood as one behind us. The yellow ribbon fever went up on the rocks ever so slightly when our citizens looked over their shoulder and viewed their parents’ actions re Vietnam in retrospect. Ne problemo. The Millennial repair order was simple. Welcome them home belatedly and give them a few attaboys. Have a big VA-sponored Stand Down for those less fortunate plus a couple new pairs of socks and a toothbrush. How about a job fair? Mental Health counseling, anyone? Sales of yellow ribbon and American Flags went through the roof. All of a sudden everyone was your #1 Huckleberry. You served? Why, thank yew f’ryer’ service, Bubba from the bottom of my most newly found heart. I call it wounded warrior syndrome after soooo many years of war.
Public opinion, like my daddy used to say, is like riding the 16- hand thoroughbred in a parade – Every one can see you. Everyone remembers you and what you stand for. That little Vietnam bitchslap caused four decades of America disremembering Vietnam Veterans. Far too many of “us” were divorced from America too- afraid to even discuss the subject. I guess you could say we’re riding high again. Our opinion counts for something apparently or else America isn’t as jaded as I thought (yet).
As most Americans are aware, National Football League players decided that disrespecting Trump, BLM, the symbol of our Service to our Country, the National Anthem, disrespect for folks of color by cops or (insert complaint here __________) needed to be protested now… on the job… in uniform… during the playing of the National Anthem… Okay. I get that. It’s protected by the First Amendment. I would sign up again; yea serve again to protect that right. Even though, collectively speaking as a Veteran, it feels strangely reminiscent of a bitchslap aeons ago in 1972. Age has a wonderful habit of rounding the edges off of distasteful memories. Sadly, it doesn’t erase them.
The recent Come to Jesus Meeting that occurred yesterday across the NFL Nation speaks volumes. While we and the MSM slept through the news cycle, Trump belatedly apologized to NFL players for his offensive tweets and recent, desultory comments in Alabama. In the same vein, white, racist Cops across the fruited plain mutually concurred and agreed to start “respecting” black people and other minorities from here on out. In fact, all matters of any kind in dispute were met. That having been settled, it is now once again de rigeur for NFL Players to stand and optionally permissible to cover your heart with your right hand during the playing of the National Anthem. I’d say it takes a speschull kind of stupid to buy into that. Occam’s Razor suggests it’s our old friend money. The Come to Jesus Meeting was about nothing more than $. Revenues and America on the 16 hand horse named Public Opinion reveal a decline of 9% in viewership and projected revenue from advertising. Ruh-oh, Rorge. Regardless the reason, all is well again.
And speaking of parades, throwing one specifically to honor Vietnam Vets (to the exclusion of others), is like stale champagne with a cigarette butt floating it. It’s decades way past time, too. No Vet wants to attend a Pity Party in his or her honor. I mean, how to you couch that invitation? Yo, Dude. You’ll, like, never believe this but somehow we were, like, all in the dark about this Vietnam thing. Totally, dude. It’s our parent’s fault. Nobody told us, dude. So we’d like to have this, this ya know parade kind of thing to honor you… like now, ya know, in 2017… like better late than never, huh? Get it? After that, we can all go over to the VFW bar for a few brewskis and we can sign you up for a Lifetime Membership. You get the senior discount, ya know, if you’re over 65. Cool beans huh?
Anne’s Last Chance 15 15/16 H Win 6 Place 8 Show 4
At this late date, I don’t think I could be enticed into a parade… well, unless it was a local one right here on the Key Peninsula… and if they let me drive my rare ’73 TR-6 with touring bars… and if they let me put the most hugest bodacious Tactical Air Command patch you ever saw on the hood…well, then… maybe I’d agree to do it… but only once. I’m just not much of a parade kind of guy. Jez, what am I thinking? I have a magnificent 16 hand Thoroughbred named Anne’s Last Chance…
Happy Football Season and the consequential return to sanity, folks. We, collectively, as Veterans of some war- declared or undeclared- thank everyone for this finding of fact and conclusion by the NFL players.