We wonder at times about what happened to those Vietnam veterans who served and returned home to denigration from anti-war protestors. Did they chose to continue to communicate with those with whom they served or did they opt to close that chapter of their lives and move on? Were they able to move on after being called “baby killers” and having objects thrown at them in the U.S. airports when they returned from Southeast Asia?
The military learned to begin issuing civilian clothes and baseball caps after their aircraft landed before the soldiers went to the public tarmacs. Tom Hemmelgarn, 70, from Russia, Ohio, still remembers the eggs that were thrown at him as well as the taunts in 1966 in the Oakland Airport. With a shy smile he remarks, “About these demonstrators, our fantasy was to take a helicopter down Main Street, fire a few rounds, and that would stop the demonstrations.”
He was in Vietnam in the early days of the war, and he says, “There were no drugs. We were interested in surviving and helping the persons on either side of us survive. I figured I was going to go regardless, so I signed up for the Army, wanted to get it over with and figured two years was better than three.
“I was trained at Fort Benning, worked in air-field operations, scheduling pilots. I wasn’t working in my MOS, so I put in a 1049 to go to Vietnam. I was turned down and my commanding officer, Col. Stockton, said, ‘You have to be overly patriotic or stupid to want to go to Vietnam.’
“I loved flying in Hueys and used every opportunity to deliver documents and get to fly. Remember , I was a kid. We all were. And before I knew it, the Army was joining the Second Infantry with the Eleventh Air Assault to make up the First Air Cavalry, and we were headed to Vietnam. We flew out the first of August in 1965 on a World War II carrier that had been taken out of mothballs with 80 personnel aboard and approximately 60 Hueys. The Hueys were disassembled and we put them together on arrival.
“Our base camp was An Khe where we repaired weapons, and I flew gunner part time. I did whatever I was told to do. Everybody else was doing it, and I tried to do my share.”
Hemmelgarn learned that having spent his first 18 years listening to mass in Latin and his Vietnamese dictionary were helpful in communicating with the natives in this new country. He also learned quickly to be on alert for the Vietnamese who were friends during the days and enemies at night: “We were always watching them. If we saw them counting steps, that meant they were setting us up for a mortar attack that night. When they walked straight lines of a certain size step, we knew they were up to no good, and we grabbed them for the military police.”
He told a funny story that only people who lived in the days of Jiffy Pop will understand. At times this popcorn arrived in military care packages, and one day he was shaking a package over an open fire in a mud hut. All the Vietnamese headed for tall timber, expecting an explosion. When there was no explosion but just the smell of delicious hot popcorn, the family invited all the neighbors in to see this phenomenon. As the popcorn container swelled and popped, the neighbors ran while the old timers laughed.
Hemmelgarn opted not to attend any reunions of his unit until July of this year. At that reunion the veterans conversed about the crazy things they did as 18- and 19-year-old soldiers like shooting a caribou and attempting to eat it (The cook had no idea how to prepare the meat) and giving monkeys smoke grenades to take into officers’ tents.
They also conversed with the children of the men who died in Vietnam, small children then and adults now who wanted to know every little scrap of information that anyone could provide about their fathers.
What is most frightening is that Hemmelgarn reports of the 75 veterans at the reunion , about half were suffering: PTSD, drug addiction, alcoholism, multiple failed marriages.
Hemmelgarn says that his Catholic faith, his many activities of service in his church, his working as a volunteer in Hospice at Wilson Memorial Hospital and at the Upper Valley Medical Center emergency room have been responsible for his not being among the half who suffer, with an added declaration that “There are no atheists in a foxhole or a helicopter.”
He says it much better than I ever could in terms of lessons learned from the Vietnam War: “Never allow soldiers to return from war and be treated that way. And straighten up the Veterans Administration. Take care of these veterans.”
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or [email protected]