Copyright John T. Reed
I am a veteran. Vietnam.
Today, 11/11/12, I got a nice Veterans Day note from one of my West Point classmates who was in the same battalion with me in Vietnam. There are about 25 or 30 officers in a battalion.
It provoked some thoughts. Today was Veterans Day. I would have put my flag out, but I forgot. My granddaughter spent the last two nights with us, and my wife went to Canada for the weekend, so I was preoccupied with the two-year-old.
It seems to me that Veterans Day is for veterans. Not for non-veterans to tell us how wonderful we are but for vets to talk quietly with each other. I do not do that on veteran’s day, but we vets do it here and there throughout the year when we talk to each other or encounter a vet we have never met before.
A new acquaintance might say something that suggests he was in Vietnam.
You a Vietnam vet?
Where were you?
III corps Plantation Post near Long Binh and Phu Loi in the same area. Traveled around the whole corps are a lot. I was a commo officer. You?
II Corps. Dalat. It was a resort area before the war. High altitude, cool weather. Pine trees.
No shit. I didn’t know Vietnam had anything like that? Any fire fights?
We got hit a couple of times. AKs and RPG from a couple of hundred meters away. Nobody hurt. You?
Drove through an ambush once. They let me and my sergeant go, probably because they didn’t think we were worth the ammo. And hit the truck convoy we did not know was behind us. Nothing but the usual pay day rocket attacks otherwise. What was your MOS?
11 bush. You?
Radio officer, not that anyone cared. They treated me as a sort of officer-who-knows-communications warm body.
Yeah, and ranger. You?
Airborne, no ranger. You lose any buddies over there?
20 of my college classmates died over there. I knew them, but none were friends. You?
A guy I went to jump school with. Tried to visit him when I went by his home town after I got back. Turned out he got killed over there. I didn’t know til I called his house and asked for him.
Fucking bullshit war. He died to keep Saigon from becoming Ho Chi Minh City and now it’s Ho Chi Minh City. Country needs to think a little bit longer before sending us over to that shit.
Yeah. And if they’re not going to win it, don’t send us at all.
Now what are you non-vets going to add to that conversation? You did not even understand parts of it. And what do you think we need you to add? “Thank you for your service?” I cannot speak for all, but I really do not care for that statement. You have no idea what my service entailed. No clue.
You’re also about 40 years late. Yes, better late than never, but every time a Vietnam vet hears that line in thinks, “40 years too late.” Probably not the thought you were intending to trigger. So stop saying it. You weren’t there. You don’t know what our “service” means.
The truth is war is boring, dusty, hot, we lived in third-world poverty huts infested with rats and roaches. Our superiors were a bunch of inept, selfish, careerist assholes. There was no point to our being there. No one ever talked about how to win the war. We were not allowed to win it, only allowed to risk our lives in it. We were far from our loved ones as well as from McDonalds, cars, girls, going to a football game, watching TV in the family room, and so on. Unlike today’s military, we had no satellite phones on Internet.
Actually, the MARS radio unit was run by my platoon for part of my tour. That was an HF short wave radio that our soldiers used to get a U.S. based ham radio operator on the line. That U.S. guy would then call the soldier’s family or girl friend collect. Then you would talk to them—12-hour time difference, and each person had to say “over” so the two guys on the radio would know to push or let go of the push-to-talk button. I only used it once. Probably about par for the course. No privacy for one thing. And expensive for your mom.
But when I see today’s soldiers talking on Skype to their wives back home, I wonder if that’s better than what we had. The culture shock of a guy in a combat zone talking on TV to a wife in suburbia USA sounds like perhaps too much inability to comprehend the other person’s situation.
I said in my Succeeding book that veterans are one of the groups that has mystique in our society, along with FBI agents and ex-cons and doctors. In that book, I denounce people who trade on mystique, like John “did I tell you I was a POW” McCain. I am well aware that his fans say “No, he doesn’t trade in it. Just the opposite.” Bullshit. No one trades on it more.
Anyway, I do not like people who trade on it or try to attract admirers with it. And I am not trying to display any combat mystique here. I am just saying you non-vets don’t understand. You see it as some big abstract monolithic heroic epic. In reality, it was sort of like going to the DMV in Botswana for a year. Actual fire fights with shooting and wounded and all that are rare and best described as being like injury car accidents. Do you attribute superhuman abilities to car accident survivors? Do car accident survivors get a 1,000-yard stare when you ask them about the accident? Well, then what are you bothering us with that shit for?
Did we get shot at? Yeah. Believe it or not in a war that’s is not a noteworthy experience after the first time. It’s sort of like a plane going buy if you live near an airport. David Petraeus reportedly got his only bravery medal, a bronze star with a V device, because his position came under mortar attack when he was looking at some maps on the hood of a humvee. If you’re not a vet, that probably seems altogether fitting and proper to you. To a vet, “He came under mortar attack? What else? What did he get a bravery medal for?”
“Well, he could have been killed.”
Laughter. “Welcome to Vietnam, jerk. We all could have been killed. 58,000 were. If you get a medal you’re supposed to do something special. Hell, damned near everyone in Vietnam got fired on in one way or another during their tour. The medal for that is the Vietnam Service Medal, which you get for setting foot in the country. Getting fired on comes with the territory, literally. If you want to dress up in an Army uniform and get your picture taken for the folks back home holding your gun and wearing your helmet, I don’t want to hear a word of complaining or wanting a medal just because Charlie took a shot at you. Welcome to the freaking club.” (No such picture of me was ever taken even though I wore my helmet and carried my gun on many occasions.)
In many military situations, like your first parachute jump or crossing the International date line as a sailor, they have a ceremony of some sort. In combat zones, there is no marking of the first time you get shot at. Like I said, believe it or not, it is too routine of an event.
But on 11/11 you non-vets, draft-dodgers in many cases, all come out of the woodwork to make a big fuss over us for that which did not even get you a beer over there.
Being in a war is a unique experience. We who did it have a rapport with others who did it, even in different wars. If you were not in a war, you simply ought to stay out of the subject. I don’t mean to be rude or superior. You simply do not know what you are talking about so you ought not be talking about it at all. If you get a chance to hear vets talking among themselves, like at a West Point reunion that you are somehow attending, you are welcome to listen to us and maybe ask your vet friend or relative to translate it later, or to explain how we feel talking about it. But do not contribute.
The problem was not ducking enemy fire or machine-gunning gooks like some Rambo movie. It was just being being forced to live in a garbage pit for a long time for no reason.
I read today that actor “Gary Sinise salutes veterans.” He is a high school dropout, non-vet who played one in a movie. Gary Sinise doesn’t know how to salute. Saluting is something you do outdoors when wearing a uniform including a hat when an officer encounters someone of a different rank and indoors when reporting to a superior officer. Gary’s “salute” is more like waving “Hi” or giving a thumbs up.
Trace Adkins wails about “saying a prayer for peace”—as opposed to what, Trace, a war like the one you never experienced? What the hell would you know about it?—and helping our “wounded warriors”—while wearing a cowboy hat. But he’s all hat and no cattle, let alone no purple heart. He is a college dropout who was never even a cowboy let alone a soldier. Closest he came to a purple heart was cutting his own finger off while using a knife to try to open a bucket.
Why are people like Sinise and Adkins standing on stages between us vets and the public? How’s about they just quietly write a check and refrain from wrapping themselves in our “service.
I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.
John T. Reed
Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military