Letters from Viet Nam
(Written in 1992)
I tried to wipe all of the memories away. I have seen a few movies like "Good Morning, Viet Nam" that are light, fun, and very unrealistic. I could never watch the heavy ones like "Full Metal Jacket" or "Born on the Fourth of July" or a series like "China Beach." Every now and then, I get unknowingly drawn into memories by a movie like "For the Boys;" it has a Viet Nam scene where the terrain looks too much like Route 9 west of the Rock Pile. It was too real, and it was painful to watch.
When I came home after my tour, no one wanted to hear about Viet Nam; people said that we were baby killers and other ugly things.
The secret of my survival was to come home, grow my hair long, and blend in. Fortunately, being a Viet Nam vet is not quite like being green or having three legs, and I could blend in. Most of the people I knew never guessed that I had been in the Marines or "over there." If the conversation ever turned to military or the war, I just told them that I had been "in the service." I rarely told anyone that I had been a Marine or that I had been to Viet Nam.
I became a closet Viet Nam veteran and refused to participate in any veteran organizations. After a while, Viet Nam veterans' groups started springing up; but they were embarrassing. Who were those scraggly, middle-aged guys trying to wear jungle uniforms that didn't fit any more? I wasn't part of that group; they were people who couldn't find real work. I had gone back to college on the G.I Bill, and I had a good job. Why couldn't they put Nam behind them and go back to work? They didn't seem like a part of my life or connected to me at all.
Desert Storm opened up new versions of the old wounds. This time the guys fought a war that lasted a couple of days, got tons of emotional support, and came home heroes. They could even tell who their enemy was. There were attempts to share the heroic adulation with the scraggly middle-aged guys from Viet Nam, but that sounded like a nation trying to salve its guilt. There was no way I would come out of the closet and admit publicly that I was a Viet Nam vet by marching in a parade for someone else's war.
Throughout the years after Viet Nam, I paid a big price for being there. I had gotten very good at drinking to forget in Nam, and it took me eighteen years to break that habit. Luckily, I was able to stop before it ruined everything. My kids still have the scars. I can never find those times I missed when my kids were young, and I was still drinking to forget. I was coping with life just like I did in Viet Nam, but they paid the price of my absence from their childhood.
I started smoking over there, too. Whenever we had incoming, we passed the time in the trenches by chain smoking. Our government also helped make smoking easy by ensuring that cigarettes were cheap and available - and even included them in our C rations. It took me twenty-one years to stop that habit. Now I hike in the mountains and am starting to recover some of the lung capacity I lost. Ironically, the only time I still crave a cigarette is after a long uphill hike when my lungs start to hurt like they did when I smoked two packs a day.
I have found that I was very angry in Viet Nam. I was angry because I was there. I was angry when people got killed because there were no answers to my questions of "Why?" When I typed the condolence letters to their mothers, I was angry that they had to be perfect; and it took so long. I was angry when the "lifers" got drunk and made us work all night because they wanted to show that they had power over us enlisted guys. I was angry at the invisible generals who lived in air conditioned houses while we were living in leaky tents and eating lousy food. I was angry at anyone who was responsible for any part of my being in that war. I was angry at the world for not ending the war.
After I came home and became a real person again, the anger didn't just go away. It continued to come out in my contempt for any authority figure who happened to be my boss. It came out in high blood pressure. It came out in my relationship with my wife and my kids. It did not go away because I did not face it. I did not have any technique to defuse the anger. I felt like the preacher at the funeral in the "Big Chill" who said, "I don't know what to do with my anger." That undefused anger has cost me emotionally and financially for a major part of my adult life.
I still have that hole. I have lost a year of my life, and I want it back. Luckily, my wife saved every letter I wrote her from Viet Nam. Those letters are my lost memories.
This book is a fragmented recollection of those memories that I have recreated a quarter of a century later. It is bits and pieces of memory gleaned from the letters and supplemented by recollections edited with the effects of time. There is no particular pattern to the fragments; memories don't fit into nice patterns. This is more like rummaging though an attic than reading a story with a beginning and an end.
For most of us, a Viet Nam tour didn't have a story line; you did your tour of duty and came home, if you were still alive and in one piece at the end of your tour. When we came the war was there; when we left it was still going on. We never knew if our being there really changed things.
This is not a tale of anything heroic or grand. It is a story of survival, boredom, fear, loneliness, hope, and personal triumph. This war was not heroic or grand or any of those things you see in old World War II movies. It was about being in a strange place, halfway around the world. It was just an exercise in making it through the day, one day at a time. It was a time for staying alive instead of dying for a cause we really didn't understand.
The Wall at the Viet Nam Memorial played a major role in my need to fill the hole. When I am in Washington, I go by the Wall. I can never stay there very long or stop to read the names; it's too overwhelming. And too real. And it's in a hole.
This book is my attempt to fill that hole and get my life back.
Preface Written in 1992. Joyner At the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington. Dear Maxie I wrote almost every day. Going to Viet Nam Training in California. The Long Trip Over. Places Dong Ha. Quang Tri. LZ Stud or Vandegrift Combat Base. DaNang. Being in Viet Nam The Vietnamese. The Weather. Heat. Rain. Birds. Mountains. The War Arc Lights and Phantoms. Hueys, Cobras, Jolly Greens and Egg Beaters. Incoming. The Dump. K Company's fight with the NVA. L Company's fight with the NVA. M16 and AK47. Work Work Parties. Work Week. Unit Diary. Fam Firing. Road Sweeps. Route 9 and Convoys. Condolence Letters. Food Weight Loss. C Rations. Cooking on C-4. Grade B Meat. Food Packages. Bad Habits Cigarettes. Beer. Drinking. Life in Viet Nam Boots. Little John. Books. Bull Shit Net. Blacks & Whites. C130s. FNG. MPC. Pay. Stealing. TV, Missing Shows. USO Shows. Jewish Services. Christmas. Emotions Anger. Boredom. Depressed. The Marine Corps How I felt about The Corps. Capt. Austin. Early Discharge to go to School. Formations and Inspections Friends. Generals. Lifers and Lieutenants. My Medal. R&R Other people's R&R. Hong Kong. Planning and Dreaming College Major. Dreams. New Year. Planning for Civilian life. Reflections Short Timer. A Conversation. Reflections. The Moon. Newlyweds Love Letters, Maxie's Pictures, Sex. Going Home Wanting to Forget. Gooks in the Line. Going Home. Get a Haircut. Arriving Home Civilian Again. Re-occurring Nightmare They won't let me out. Epilogue My Annual Hike. I Survived; we all should have.