My tour of duty in the United States Army occurred during the final five years of the Vietnam War. While I was fortunate enough not to have had to serve directly in this conflict, the experiences I had continue to haunt me. I have come to understand that the true cost of this war has yet to be fully realized and that the toll in human suffering will perhaps never be fully understood.
Prior to 1971, I was active in the anti-war movement. I started participating in rallies and demonstrations when I entered college in 1967. During the "Black Spring" of 1970, when Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia and four students were shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State University, I was a leader in the Student Strike that closed the University of Massachusetts.
In the spring of 1971, however, I received notification from the Selective Service to report for my Pre-Induction Physical. Despite my best efforts, I passed the physical and rather than spend two years in the Army as an Infantryman, or an eternity in Canada, I enlisted for three years to secure a guaranteed position as a Medic.
The spring and summer of 1971 produced other events that proved to be fateful for the American public's perception of the war. In March, Lt. William Calley was convicted of premeditated murder for his role in the Mylai Massacre. In June, The New York Times began publishing The Pentagon Papers a series of confidential and secret reports leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg, which provided proof that top level government officials were lying about American involvement in the war. Despite the fact that Nixon had, by this time, reduced American troop strength from over 500,000 to 140,000, protests to end the war continued unabated. By the time I reported to Fort Dix, New Jersey for Basic Training in December, I was convinced that I was placing my life in the hands of a government that could not be trusted. I was twenty-two years old.
From the time I entered Basic Training until I left eight weeks later, all outside communication was carefully controlled Newspapers, magazines, radios, and television were all off limits; our civilian clothes had been shipped home. However, the war was not forgotten. We were trained in mock Vietnamese villages, and bombarded with training films detailing the official version of the mission in Southeast Asia. Special emphasis was placed on what to do when confronted by an NCO or Officer who was issuing an illegal order. The training film used as an example a situation very similar to the Mylai incident. This is not to say that we were told to disobey a superior who ordered us to execute an entire village. On the contrary, we were to advise our superior that we believed his order was illegal, and hope that he changed his mind. We were also reminded, by the Drill Instructors and in no uncertain terms, that the penalty for disobeying a superior's direct order on the battlefield was death. We were not allowed to scream the traditional "Kill" cheer at bayonet practice. The Department of Defense was becoming very image conscious.
As Basic Training drew to a close, our instructors began to loosen up a bit on the harsh and rigid discipline and began to talk of their own experiences in The 'Nam. The underlying theme of these conversations was always the unreliability of the South Vietnamese forces, and that the war was being directed by incompetents who could get you killed. We were constantly reminded to place our reliance on our immediate buddies, which, we were assured, could greatly increase our chances of survival. We graduated from Basic in February of 1972. From Fort Dix, we were to be scattered to various Advanced Individual Training Centers across the United States. Of the approximately three hundred trainees in my company, two-thirds were to go on to Infantry School, the first stop on the road to Vietnam. The remaining third, myself included, were to go on to other specialty schools. I was grateful that I had enlisted and had qualified for Medic School. The majority of those heading for Infantry Training were draftees, and we all felt that they were doomed. We had little faith in our government's ability to protect us. There were very few "gung-ho" types who wanted to go to war. We were all painfully aware of the civilian attitude towards the war; some of us even agreed with that attitude. Over the course of the next few years, I was to be constantly reminded of that attitude, as I tried to understand what was happening around me.
I was to report to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas for Medic Training. I arrived there around the 18th of February 1972, after thirty-six hours of military transportation. I was a Private (E-1), the lowest rank on the military command structure. The climatic change from freezing winter New Jersey to almost balmy San Antonio was a shock to my system. Within a week, I was rushed to Brooke Army Medical Center, the hospital located at Fort Sam Houston, with a fever of 104. The diagnosis was lumbar pneumonia, and I was admitted to Ward 43N/S for treatment and observation.
After several days of antibiotic treatment, I felt well enough to walk around. Brooke Army Medical Center, at that time, was as big and as prestigious as its East Coast cousin. Walter Reed Army Medical Center. On my first outing from the ward, (and several occasions after that) I found myself lost in the labyrinth of hallways that made up my wing of the hospital. Instead of the mess hall, I found myself in the Orthopedic Ward and saw my first glimpse of the tragedy of this war. Young men, some my age, some younger, were missing arms and legs. Some confined to wheelchairs, some to crutches. Some pushing poles holding I.V. bottles with tubes that led to an arm, if they were lucky, their groin or neck if they were not. Some laughing and joking with buddies. Some were staring at something far distant. All were wandering within the confines of the hallway in which I found myself. These battered and mutilated men were the "baby killers" I had been protesting in college. Now I felt one with them, comrades-in-arms, and I was ashamed of my protests. I could not meet their gaze; I was an outsider, uninitiated in their collective horror. I asked a nurse for directions to the mess hall and left as quickly as I could. I never went back there again.
-I was discharged from the hospital and returned to my training unit on the 1st of March. I was able to convince my First Sergeant that I was capable of catching up with the rest of my classmates, thus avoiding the necessity of waiting for the next class to begin some ten weeks hence.
The training program at Fort Sam Houston was completely different from Basic Training. We attended legitimate classes and took tests, and for the most part were treated as students and not soldiers. Field exercises soon broke any illusion that we were apart from the Army's mainstream war effort. These consisted primarily of treating wounded under simulated battlefield conditions. We were, after all, in training to become 91-Alphas, combat medics, the front line practitioners of the Army Medical Corps. It was during the last week of this training when I was to encounter my second glimpse of the cost of war.
On March 30th the North Vietnamese began their Spring Offensive. Nixon responded by increasing bombing raids near Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor. By June, the provincial capital of Quangtri had fallen. The increase in enemy activity led to an increase in the stateside evacuation of wounded. It was Army policy to evacuate seriously wounded to a stateside hospital close to their home if at all possible. But the majority of patients arriving at Brooke Army Medical Center that Spring and Summer weren't being sent there to be closer to home and family. They were coming for treatment at the Burn Unit, already world famous for its pioneering work in the treatment of catastrophic burns and their related infections. New techniques in skin grafting and treatment of immunological rejection had been developed there, and we, the student Medics, were given the grand tour.
The Chief Nurse of the Burn Unit gave us a lecture on the techniques necessary to maintain absolute sterility at the burn patient's bedside. We then practiced these techniques in an empty glass-walled patient chamber. The chamber itself had a sealed anteroom where the medical staff could don sterile gowns, masks, shoe covers and gloves. The patient's room was air conditioned through special filters to maintain a constant temperature without danger of outside pollution. After the practice session we were walked past actual patient chambers.
The patients in these chambers had minimal covering to protect their modesty; the glass walls provided a fish bowl effect; there was no privacy at all. There were men, women, and children, most of whom were South Vietnamese. The burns ranged from under 10% to over 80% of their bodies. The blackened flesh, fused fingers and toes, and totally ravaged facial features were sickening. I was not alone in my feelings of nausea and dizziness. We were shown the debridement rooms. These were fully tiled rooms that had a large stainless steel tank in the center. The tank was large enough to accommodate a very large man in the prone position. The idea was to lower the patient into a sterile solution and, after allowing him to soak for several minutes, begin to peel away the dead and rotting skin from the burn areas. We were assured that all patients coming into these rooms to undergo this treatment were heavily sedated with morphine. Even so, we were able to hear screams of agony from just down the hall. The patients we had seen in the chambers were brought here daily. In ten very short weeks I had seen the consequences of the war for soldier and civilian alike. I could not imagine what being there would be like. My friends and I were frightened.
As one of the top ten graduates of my class, I was offered the opportunity to stay at Fort Sam Houston for further classes. I was, because of my college major in psychology, sent to the 91Foxtrot, or Neuropsychiatric Specialist School. Those whose training ended with 91Alpha were sent to permanent duty stations. Of my class, 25% were stationed stateside, 50% were stationed in Germany, and the remaining 25% were sent to the Philippines for jungle acclimatization and a plane ride to Vietnam.
The Neuropsychiatric School seemed even more remote from the Army than Medic School. There was no reference to combat conditions, no field exercises. The class work reminded me of college courses. We even had to complete a two-week on-the-job evaluation at local psychiatric institutions. We did not have to deal with any active duty Army patients. At this time I was allowed to live off post and commute to classes. The Army was becoming just like any other job. The only reminder we had of the war was the breaking of the Watergate scandal in June: When I graduated from the school in the early fall of 1972 I was assigned to Valley Forge General Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
Valley Forge General Hospital (now the site of a Bible College) was considered to be easy duty. The hospital itself was an Army base, usually the last stop for active duty personnel before being discharged to a V.A. hospital close to their home. All the personnel associated with it were in some medical specialty, the two biggest departments being the Orthopedic and Psychiatric sections. Everyone at the hospital reported to the Hospital Commander, who was always a Medical Doctor, and, during my tour of duty, also a surgeon. There was a nine-hole golf course, a bowling alley, Enlisted, NCO, and Officers Clubs, and a large screen movie theater. I was assigned to one of the five psychiatric wards. The majority of the patients were diagnosed as schizophrenic, usually paranoid. (Many would today be diagnosed with PTSD.) Almost all were returning from duty in Vietnam. My duties were simple enough: monitor and report on the patients' behavior, participate in group therapy sessions, escort the patients to and from appointments, assist in administering electro-convulsive therapy, and, once a month pull extended duty which consisted either of twenty-four hours of Charge of Quarters (answering the company phone) or ambulance call. Once a month an Awards Parade was held. The hospital staff would stand at attention in full dress uniform while the Purple Hearts, Distinguished Service Medals, and Bronze and Silver Stars were passed out to men who were recovering from grievous injury. In the fall of 1972 the majority of the patients were from Vietnam; the combined census over all the departments was well over three hundred.
Of all my duties, the most difficult were the group therapy sessions and ambulance call. During group, patients who had at best a fragile grasp on reality would try to explain what had happened to them in Vietnam. Sometimes they would scream in terror as they remembered some incident; other times they would weep uncontrollably. Many of the patients were given massive doses of Thorazine to slow them down; others became violent and had to be physically restrained. The war became part of a psychotic's delusions to me.
Ambulance call usually required spending the night sitting in the Emergency Room Lounge until a chopper call came and we would climb into the waiting ambulances and drive two blocks to the hospital heliport. On one such run, one of the stretcher bound patients we off-loaded was a quadruple traumatic amputee. He had severe facial wounds, one of which had stained a dressing with fresh blood. As we drove to the Receiving Room he refused to engage in any conversation. He kept his mouth clenched shut and his face turned from me. As I helped load him onto a gurney he looked at me and, with tears in his eyes, bitterly complained that now he couldn't even kill himself. I reported his comment to the nurse on duty who recorded it on his admission chart. When I reported to for duty on the psychiatric ward the next afternoon, I was stunned to learn that this patient had somehow managed to turn himself over and smother himself in his pillow shortly after he was placed on his ward. It was now near the end of January 1973; the Paris Cease Fire Agreement had been signed and Secretary of Defense Laird had announced the end of the Draft.
By the end of March, the last of the combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief. Now the threat of having to participate in the insanity was over.
One month later, in April, we were informed that we would receive at least eight of the newly released Prisoners of War. When the POWs arrived the orders were explicit. We were not to speak to any of the press who had surrounded the hospital compound. Those who were selected to work on the isolation ward with the POWs were to take a secrecy oath. Those who were not working directly with the POWs were to avoid conversation with them and about them. I only saw one of these men. He looked to be about fifty-five, but he could have been younger. His face was very drawn, with dark rings around his eyes. As he passed me in the hallway, he kept his eyes on the floor, his face was passive, no emotion whatsoever. His war and our war had drawn to a close. There were rumors. One concerned the Colonel who was convinced that his fellow POWs had committed treason. The only substantiation that I ever got was from a fellow NP technician who complained bitterly about the Colonel who was "crazier than batshit!"
The remainder of 1973 was marked by Vice President Agnew's resignation and increasingly damaging news for Nixon and the Watergate Scandal. With the cutbacks in military spending, Valley Forge General Hospital was to be closed. I was reassigned to Fort Dix. January of 1974 marked the beginning of the end for the South Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese were pushing farther south almost daily. By the end of 1974, Nixon had resigned and Gerald Ford had become President, and I again found myself finishing a tour at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
I was to stay at Fort Dix for one year only. In March of 1975 I was reassigned to the 33rd Field Hospital in Wurzburg, Germany. On April 29th the last Americans were evacuated from Saigon. One day later South Vietnamese General Duong Van Minh surrendered to the North Vietnamese.
The Vietnam War had officially ended. One year later I would leave the Army.
Five years in the Army, five years of the most unpopular war in the history of the United States. I had begun my involvement as a student protesting the immorality of war. I had finished as a tired man sickened by the shear horror of the waste. Vietnam had many firsts. It was the first war that was halted primarily because of public pressure. It was the first war to be fully televised on the evening news. No home with a television set could avoid the war. The American public became sick of hearing about the battles in the jungles and in the streets of their hometowns. It was the first conflict from which American soldiers did not return victorious. When the end finally came in April 1975, it was anticlimactic. Our troops had been withdrawn for two years; the war was forgotten, buried deep within the public psyche.
It took seven years from the end of the war to dedicate a memorial to those who had fallen in Vietnam. Seven years to remember that 53,000 had died in a war that no one wanted to remember.
Many of the leading radicals who led the protest movement had by then joined the hated establishment. The anti-war protesters still existed, but they seemed to be a small and lonely voice.
For me, the war has been over for a long time. But I still remember the fear I felt when I thought I might have to go to Vietnam. I remember some of the patients whom I saw in Texas and Pennsylvania. I remember the feeling of betrayal when it became painfully apparent that my government was incapable of either prosecuting the war or ending it, and hid its inability behind a curtain of half-truths, and bold-faced lies. I remember the feeling of relief when the war was over.
For a long time I felt that the American public could never fully understand the lesson of the Vietnam War without having served in the military during that period. Now I feel differently. It has become apparent to me that when properly informed, the American people will not stand for misrepresentations and falsehood. Recent polls have shown that a significant percentage of the American public still remains cynical about the motives of politicians. The small and lonely voice of the protesters and the silent voice of the fallen call to the public conscience: "Never again, never again!" On occasion, the public seems to listen.