Aug. 25, 1967, 52 years since I first set foot in Cam Ranh Bay. Every year I experience the same thing: the memories, the bitterness of futility, the guilt that I lived and others died, the love of comrades that we shared.
On that day, the plane taxied to a stop, the door was opened, a furnace-hot blast of air blew in, redolent with the powerful odors that I will always associate with Vietnam: diesel fuel, ripe garbage, open air latrines, rice paddies, and others which I never did identify. A man bounded up the stairs into the plane, stood in front and intoned, “Let us pray!” It was the chaplain, and it seemed to me that he was giving us the last rites. Fitting enough.
I didn’t think I was going to survive this tour of duty. I fully expected the Viet Cong to be waiting on the other side of the dilapidated buildings that housed the terminal.
Since my initiation, I have searched for answers, questioned myself and other veterans about the motives that made us war veterans. For years, I have conducted sessions of the Veterans Community Dialogues and heard many war stories. The dialogues, with veterans, friends, family members, and community people engaged in conversation are healing sessions, a response to the inherent human need to tell stories and unburden the soul. Telling stories of war, and coming home from war, is good for the soul.
And I talk with other men. I engage in dialogues with the voices that speak in books. Veterans of our many wars speak in autobiographical accounts, and I listen to them and speak back. I urge everyone to start reading the many excellent books written by war veterans.
Nam vet Charley Trujillo compiled first-person narratives, “Soldados: Chicanos in Vietnam”. One man says, “It’s hard to be the same person you were before you left for the war. Everything changes...I don’t regret anything. It’s an experience I’m beginning to understand.” I can say the same thing, and I know that many others feel the same way.
James Webb, a Marine company commander in Vietnam, in his novel, “Fields of Fire”, says this: “What does a man do when his war is over? He keeps fighting it.” Webb doesn’t mean that veterans are unable to forget war. He means that stories are a way to make sense of the senseless, something which every combat veteran is always trying to do.
Karl Marlantes, another ex-Marine, wrote a book called “What It Is Like to Go to War”. He renounced his Rhodes Scholarship, his love of the Greek and Roman classics and left Oxford to rejoin his Marine reserve unit and head to Vietnam. Why did he leave paradise to go to hell? He did it out of loyalty. He could not live in luxury while his comrades were risking their lives.
It was clear to him that Vietnam was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he had to go. Loyalty was too strong, duty called and he answered. He was young and believed that no American president would send him to a war that would confront him with stark moral choices. Like no other war, Vietnam forced soldiers to choose between good and blatant evil. Marlantes had an inkling that it was the wrong war but yet felt that somehow it was still right. I felt the same way. And that’s why we went. How quickly we were disabused of the notion that good would come out of evil.
I have mentioned love of comrades. WWII veteran William Manchester in his book “Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War”, describes the revelation he experienced during the battle of Guam. “And then, in one of those great thundering jolts in which a man’s real motives are revealed to him...I understand...why in violation of orders I returned to the front and almost certain death ... It was an act of love. Those men on the line were my family, my home ... they were closer to me than I can say ... they had never let me down and I couldn’t do it to them.”
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.