Still in Saigon – Charlie Daniels Band

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Got on a plane in Fresco and got off in Vietnam.
I walked into a different world, the past forever gone.
I could have gone to Canada or I could have stayed in school.
But I was brought up differently. I couldn’t break the rules.

Thirteen months and fifteen days, the last ones were the worst.
One minute I kneel down and pray And the next I stand and curse.
No place to run to where I did not feel that war.
When I got home I stayed alone and checked behind each door.

Still in Saigon
Still in Saigon
I am Still in Saigon in my mind!

The ground at home was covered with snow. And I was covered in sweat.
My younger brother calls me a killer and My daddy calls me a vet.
Everybody says that I’m someone else That I’m sick and there’s no cure.
Damned if I know who I am. There was only one place I was sure
When I was

Still in Saigon
Still in Saigon.
I am still in Saigon in my mind!

Every summer when it rains, I smell the jungle, I hear the planes.
I can’t tell no one I feel ashamed. Afraid someday I’ll go insane.

That’s been ten long years ago and time has gone on by.
But now and then I catch myself
Eyes searchin’ through the sky.
All the sounds of long ago will be forever in my head.
Mingled with the wounded’s cries and the silence of the dead

‘Cause I’m
Still in Saigon
Still in Saigon
I am still in Saigon in my mind

Buckle up folks…I’m going to write about my Vietnam experience, both in country and at home, and this will not be kind to some of you who might find yourselves on the left side of history and philosophy.

First of all, lets get one thing straight right away…I was not a combat soldier so some of the words in the song do not directly apply to me. I never “fired a shot in anger” as the saying goes during my tour in Vietnam. Did do some firing of a variety of weapons but never in a combat situation. Got very close to that only once on perimeter guard duty. That said, I was profoundly effected by the experience, something that has reverberated in my life since then and which continues to influence my life and thinking to this day.

I could have gone to Canada or I could have stayed in school.

The first stanza speaks to how I ended up in Vietnam and the events that led up to that.

After dropping out of college…not entirely of my own choice, I had the opportunity to do a variety of things that might have kept me out of the draft. These I did not choose to do, altho it is also true that it would have been rather difficult to do so, given that I had no money, was engaged to be married and kinda stuck in Cleveland as a result. I looked at the men who were leaving the country for Canada as cowards…and still do. There was no way I was going down that road. Yes…I’ll repeat that…I thought of them as cowards and still do to this day.

There was a lot of talk then and later about the “moral” aspects of the resistance and objections to the war. Pure bullshit in my opinion. I recall any number of conversations with other men while still in college and all that moralizing amounted to just one thing…fear…fear of dying in a war and a desire to live. That was no moral basis for the objections in my opinion, just an elitist attitude that they were too good, too important, and in many instances, too white, to fight or die for a bunch of people who were non-white.

All of that was an essential part of the rules and regulations associated with the draft and especially all the “exemptions” that were available. Available only to those with money and the means to take a path that others less fortunate could not. I knew men who failed out of as many as 5 different schools and whose parents kept them in school as a means of avoiding the draft. These rules were fundamentally racist in their purpose, impact and effect. I know this because it was part of my job in Nam to keep the official records of the support command that took care of half of the country. That included details as to the racial makeup of the various combat and non-combat units. Black men and poor whites made up the vast majority of the enlisted ranks, especially in the combat units. The design and effect of the rules was to protect the precious white and rich folks from sending their sons to the war and to send the poor, and especially the blacks in their place.

I have read elsewhere that the percentage of Black was more in line with their representation in the general population and these numbers clash with what I recall from the actual numbers that I routinely worked with. I trust my own experience over the work of the “political correct” crowd.

The claims of a belief in “pacifism” were pure balony. I was educated in a Catholic Benedictine Monastery High School by real pacifists…I know the philosophy and have a high degree of respect for it and those that practice it. I thought long and hard about my own position related to pacifism and decided that it was not my way of life. I respect those few who truly lived that life and are prepared to  deal with the consequences. But, that is a way of life accepted by a very few. It was a rather simple task to unmask the pretenders from the true believers; one had only to ask about their attitude toward events like Pearl Harbor or the Civil War to see that this “moral” business was entirely “situational” and not at all based upon a real belief in pacifism. Cowards and liars all.

If all the above sounds uncompromising and more than a bit harsh, it is intended to be so. Men (and women) died because of these rules and practices and of all things, death is perhaps the most uncompromising of all. Ask the 58,307 (as of May 2015) whose names (includes 8 women) are on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. There has been forgiveness for these actions but I will never forget them.

Thirteen months and fifteen days, the last ones were the worst.

Myself – on Perimeter Guard Duty

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My tour in Vietnam lasted 10 months and 22 days. It was a bit shorter than the usual 1 year tour for 2 reasons. I was stationed stateside at Fort Benjamin Harrison as an instructor in the Army Finance School for 8 months and when I was levied out to Nam, all I had left in the Army was about 11 months. A couple more months and I might not have gone at all. At the tail end, I had my DEROS (Date Estimated Return Over Seas) date adjusted by almost 2 weeks courtesy of the intervention of a number of the high ranking officers I served with. I never asked for that, it was their parting gift to me. Perhaps the fact that I had been U.S. Army’s Soldier of the Month and awarded the Bronze Star had something to do with it…I’ll never know.

Those last days were in fact tough. There were too many stories floating about related to the men who were lost in their final days. I saw that first hand.

On the day before I was to get on my “Freedom Bird” home, I cleared Long Binh post and shipped over to a Replacement Battalion at Binh Hoa Air Base. As we drove into the compound, all I can recall is the view of a 2-story barracks which had suffered a direct hit by a VC rocket…left a gaping hole in the center of the roof and almost certainly killed anyone in the center of the top floor. Maybe it happened when noone was there but most likely not. The records indicate that 1,448 men dies on their LAST day in Nam. Think on that a bit.

When I got home I stayed alone and checked behind each door.

My younger brother calls me a killer and My daddy calls me a vet.
Everybody says that I’m someone else That I’m sick and there’s no cure.

These lines all go together and speak to me of the way in which myself and countless other Vets were treated when we returned.

As I’ve said in other parts of this site, I’ve been a bit of a “political junkie” all of my life, reaching back to High School days when I founded a political group called “The Federalists”. To that end, I maintained a connection to the news at home thru a variety of means, including a subscription to the Chicago Tribune. It came in the form of a weekly synopsis in small form delivered by mail, which meant it was generally a week or more delayed. It was a wonderful benefit the newspaper provided to the troops. So I was more than a little aware of the attitudes and activities that were current back in the states. Some time, perhaps a month or so before I left Nam, I wrote myself a letter, which I still have, which related my feelings at the time. It was sent to my “girlfriend” (sorta) at the time and I made a copy on the thermofax device that served as a copy machine. Today it is a fragile and hard to read document. But, it spoke at length of my fears of returning home and the reception I could anticipate. Fears that were to be confirmed in time.

I was discharged from the Army in the Oakland facility…a 36-hour ordeal during which I got no sleep to speak of…just the standard Army drill…hurry up and wait. I don’t recall much of the process…getting my last pay and sitting for hours on a set of bleachers waiting to be called for whatever was next. I had previously sent all my personal belongings home in a crate so all I had on me were my clothes, a camera and assorted paperwork. I traded in my jungle outfit for a shiny new uniform, complete with a couple of the standard medals and my rank. I still have that outfit in the attic…not that I could fit into it now…LOL.

From the discharge center I took a bus to the Oakland International Airport…I even took some pictures on the way that are in the scrap book and at least a couple are elsewhere on this site. (See the bottom of the page http://grandpakewl.com/wordpress/?page_id=4210 for a couple of them). As I was walking thru the airport on the way to catch a plane ride back to Miami, Florida, I encountered a group of protesters, 3-4 in number with some kind of stand in one of the hallways. I don’t recall the details of the encounter except that one of them spat on me, hitting the left side of my face. I don’t recall any of the conversation or if there even was one…just being spat on because I was a returning Soldier from Vietnam.

That was my welcome home and it did not get much better.

Spent a couple years in Miami and then relocated to the Washington DC area.

I followed the news as usual and recall all the ugly words that were thrown at us…baby killers, murders, hopeless drug addicts, immoral monsters, etc….all by those lovely folks on the left. It was one hell of a homecoming. Almost every where you turned, there were unkind words. We were druggies with no future and no morals…the list goes on and on.

My reaction was kinda typical of many….I became invisible. I hid out. I disguised myself in long hair and eventually a scruffy beard. Made me look like a hippie.  I never spoke of my service and hid my pictures and papers. I even married a woman who was anti-war and she managed to drag me to a couple of the demonstrations. In my heart and soul, it was like chewing on ground glass…but I went. Anything to keep my secret.

Years later, a decade or more, I was to find myself back in the great outdoors in Virginia. There I came to see that the old reflexes and training had not receded a bit…there was a form of “hyper vigilance” I could not shake or deny. I still automatically sensed places and environments that gave me a scare and seemed just ripe for danger. I would, without thinking, see a location as a potential ambush site. It was impossible to truly relax and just enjoy the scenery. That remains with me to this day, but, thankfully, greatly reduced.

All that might seem a bit unusual for a man who saw no combat, but not for one who did a lot of travel around the country in Vietnam. I was routinely on the road from my base to some other location for an inspection. Spent many days in a jeep driving throughout the Saigon area…riding shotgun and always on alert. I saw the country from the Mekong Delta to the Cambodian border, many of the towns and villages near Saigon, the South China Sea coast and bases up and down the coast and as far north as Danang. Too many stories of kids with grenades to be ignored. You try being scared for hours and days on end and see what it does to you. Or hiding in a bunker when the enemy sent rockets into your living room….

While I’ve never owned or carried a firearm, in the woods I did carry a weapon…known officially as a “bolo” as I recall. It was something akin to a machete only smaller in length and much more solid. here’s a picture of one I found that looks like mine:

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I had acquired it in a yard sale and found that it traced its origins back to the Marine Corps in the Pacific in the Second World war. It was the kind of blade carried by a machine gunner  and used to clear brush out of the way. I kept it sharp. It was sturdy enough to split a small log. And, I still have it hanging in my closet in the basement on a web belt.

I refused to see any of the movies related to Vietnam. They habitually preached the anti-war screed from the Left that we were all deranged. They never portrayed Vets in a positive light, much less the Vietnam War. The only exception was a John Wayne movie about the Green Berets which I saw much later than when it was released. The first I actually saw was Robin Williams in “Good Morning Vietnam”…a story I knew from experience.

Every summer when it rains, I smell the jungle, I hear the planes.

Going along with what I mentioned above about being in the woods were the memories of the helicopters. A “huey” makes a distinctive sound that one gets accustomed to hearing at any time day or night. For years and even until today, that sound will make me turn my head in the direction of the sound. In the first few years, the reaction was instantaneous and involuntary. Over time that reaction has diminished but the memory remains.

Then one day, sometime in 1984, exact date unknown, everything changed for me.

The Vietnam Veterans memorial was about 2 years old and I was both afraid of it and hated it’s design. I had this visceral reaction against a black wall without even a Flag and nothing to speak to the courage and patriotism of the men and women whose names were on it. I was working in downtown DC and drove past the memorial every day going to and from work. Then one day, as I passed by it, I had a sudden urge to finally go there and pulled a hurried U-Turn on Constitution Avenue and parked. I have no memory of what happened next or how long I was there. What I experienced was something akin to a psychotic break down. My next memory is of being in my car on I-395 driving out of town crying like a baby and pounding on the steering wheel screaming and cursing. I vaguely recall being aware that I was missing my turn off of I-395 onto the Beltway and heading south. Somewhere down I-95, I realized where I was, somewhere past a rest stop…I think, not so sure of this, that what brought me out of all this was a notice that King’s Dominion was approaching…that’s many miles south of the Beltway. I turned around and went home.

That night as I lay in my bed I came to one central realization – that what I had experienced was wrong, that it was not right…and that I needed to find out what was wrong and why. There was no way I was going to seek any help from either the VA (Veterans Administration) or the therapy world….the first was (and pretty much remains) useless and the latter was full of anti-war Leftist whose opinion of Vets was anything but positive. I trusted neither. I was particularly struck by the fact that the experience had effected me so dramatically even tho I was not experienced combat personally. Something about all this made no sense, at least no sense in the generally accepted way of thinking about PTSD.

So I hit on the idea of learning what I could about what I came to term “the human experience of war”. I could not articulate it that way at first…just wanted to learn how others had been changed by a closeness to warfare.

To me, that meant doing two things: reading all I could find of the personal experiences that men and women had recorded and collecting and watching every video that was related to war. I deliberately excluded the American Civil War and the Vietnam War from that effort. The first I kept aside as it was too controversial and got too much into personal matters…my family fought on both sides of that war. I excluded Vietnam for the obvious reason that it was too close to home.

For reading, I decided to start with the oldest writings I could find that touched on warfare, which led me to Xenophon’s book “Anabasis”, better known as “The March of the 10,000”, then back (second reading) to Homer, Caesar and countless other old masters. All spoke to the feelings of individual soldiers.

Better still were the documentary films I collected. These were the days of early cable when the vendor actually published a written magazine that listed all of the programs that would be shown for the next month. Every month when the magazine landed in my mail box, I read it cover to cover with a high-lighter. Anything that looked to have anything to do with wars was marked and eventually taped off of cable. In the end, I had a collection of high-quality VCR tapes that filled a wall in my walk in closet….some 300 or so tapes. Some of the ones that stand out in my memory are:

  • The Unknown War – narrated by Burt Lancaster which told the story of the Second World War from the standpoint of the Russians. While one has to condemn the way Stalin treated his soldiers, their courage and fortitude was remarkable. The emotions they spoke of were familiar.
  • Dwight Eisenhower – This man was a soldiers General and the finest this country has had since George Washington. I recall a story of his encounter with some soldiers marching along headed into battle. As he was prone to do, he got into a conversation with one of the Privates who told Ike that he was scared. Ike’s reaction was to tell the soldier that he was also scared…”maybe if we walk along together, we’ll be OK”. After a bit, the solder told Ike that he was fine now and they parted. A stated elsewhere, Dwight Eisenhower is my favorite President and our greatest general since Washington.
  • Japanese sailors and soldiers – What’s the difference between a US marine who dives onto a grenade to save his compatriots and dies in the process and the Japanese pilot who flew his plane into a US ship? Not much difference in my book. They both sacrifice their lives knowingly for their fellow soldiers and their country. I can still see, in my minds eye, the flight of a specific pilot at the battle of Okinawa who is shot down in his attempt to hit an American battleship. I could not help cheering his effort. Bravery and patriotism know no borders.
  • Homer’s Illiad – The descriptions of the man-to-man combat and the way it left the victors feeling.
  • An unknown American – This fellow revisits the area in Germany where his unit crossed the Rhine and the melancholy feelings he related
  • An unknown Russian woman – A survivor of the siege of Leningrad where a city of 3 million was reduced over 3 years to less that 1 million. The strength of her feelings against the Germans after decades was moving.

Something else that stood out with particular meaning were the Postage Stamps that I encountered. I’ve been a collector since childhood and in the past decade or so have changed my focus from U.S. stamps (got too expensive) to a Worldwide collection of everything up to the year 1960. I could not help but notice that the stamps issued by a number of countries after the First World War had special meaning…see, these were from the countries that LOST the war and were their tributes to their returning veterans, especially the wounded ones. They spoke volumns about the difference in attitude between these people and those in the US. Some examples follow:

 

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