I was sent to Vietnam (very much against my will) in September of 1967, and was there a year in the army. Yes, I saw the Battle of Dak To and the Tet offensive. We heard about the protests and social turmoil back home, the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King and Senator Bobby Kennedy, and the bloodshed in the streets of Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. I would have had fifteen months to serve after I left Vietnam, and I did not want to be assigned to stand on the steps of the Pentagon and hold a bayonet against the protestors. I chose to remain in Southeast Asia for an additional year, transferring to Thailand. I would be discharged at the end of that year, a 90-day “early out,” and Thailand was an exotic and popular tourist destination. It took a while to get used to going downtown without being threatened, but I loved Thailand. Like a scuba diver rising slowly so he doesn’t get “the bends”, my year in Thailand allowed me to gather my thoughts and prepare to get a late start on a career when I returned to civilian life. Carolynn and I were married in September of 1970. I thought I had put Vietnam in a box on the shelf, like Cub Scouts or the Junior Prom.
In 1976 we welcomed a son. Fourteen days later Carolynn found him dead in his crib. There were birth defects, but there was no history of those problems in either family so the doctors encouraged us to try again. We had two healthy daughters. It was much later that we began to learn about Agent Orange.
In 1982, with my automotive parts and service career firmly established, I happened to turn on the famous CBS TV documentary “The Uncounted Enemy” which told of General Westmoreland’s late 1967 orders to his underlings not to report hundreds of thousands of enemy troops to Washington. The result was the Tet offensive, a stunning wake-up bloodbath with disastrous political consequences in both Saigon and Washington. My box fell off the shelf and I realized I had to deal with my Vietnam memories. I began to read everything I could get my hands on about the war. The books were valid, but they didn’t show the realities of what I had seen and experienced in Southeast Asia. I began to scribble notes on a yellow legal pad, sorting out what I wanted my children to know about Vietnam. Soon I graduated to a manual typewriter. Like champagne when you pop the cork, or puss from an infected wound, my experiences were exploding out of me now. I wrote late into the night, every night, and before I left for work in the morning I handed the latest pages to Carolynn.
I had never written more than a letter in my life. Through a bizarre and cosmic set of circumstances, I was encouraged to send my stack of papers to a literary agent and in May of 1985 it became a book. …and a hard rain fell: A G.I.’s True story of the War in Vietnam is still on bookstore shelves more than thirty years and 27 printings later. I’ve done radio, TV, and print interviews and have spoken at high schools, colleges, and universities all across America. At first, my audiences had grown up with the aftermath of the Vietnam War as a very real but mysterious presence in their home. The questions often brought me to tears, but I answered them as honestly as I knew how.
My curiosity about the Vietnam era has only grown over the years. I have accumulated a library of hundreds of books about the war, the era, the assassinations, and America’s ongoing military operations. Today, young people are apt to ask, “I know the Vietnam War is important, but what was all the fuss about?” After …and a hard rain fell, I thought I had said everything I had to say about Vietnam. Now we are mired in another, even longer quagmire in the Middle East. Parents watch their children go off to war accepting that they might very well come home “changed.” There are 58,315 names of Americans killed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Today it is estimated that significantly more than 200,000 Vietnam veterans have committed suicide since returning home! Afghanistan and Iraq war vets are experiencing similar losses, and the active-duty military (a very separate statistic) has an epidemic of suicides. We have a national debt in excess of $21 trillion, the Pentagon says its operations are too complex to be audited, and Congress has chosen to increase military spending while cutting funds for education, illiteracy, health care, and repairs to our infrastructure.
In early 2019 a new book will be published. Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter will be an abbreviated history, along with a lot of in-depth analysis of the Vietnam War and the attitudes and failures that have led us to this agonizing and unnecessary point in our history. It attempts to speak to the younger generation, but I’m finding that many baby boomers are interested in it too. After decades of career and family responsibilities, they want to take a look back and reconsider the truths, travesties and tragedies that created such passions in our generation. I’m hoping Vietnam Reconsidered might stir some honest and realistic discussion about America’s militarism and wars, and the enormous costs resulting from The American Way of Waging War. My children and grandchildren will inherit the world we are making today, if it survives.