Back In The World

by Tom Hain

I was discharged from the Army when I arrived "Back in the World" at Oakland Army Terminal. I don't know what I expected, but there was no way that I could have been prepared for what was to be. The Army didn't give us any training on how to be Vietnam vets. Nor did they caution us about the nut cases that were waiting for us to vent their anti-war frustrations on. The news that we got through Army sources (Armed Forces Radio, Stars & Stripes) didn't give us any information about the protests or the feeling that most people had against the war. We were not told that it was fashionable to blame the war on the warriors. I was now part of a minority that was discriminated against for no better reason than I had spent the last 13 months in Vietnam. I guess what I expected was a little courtesy or maybe just a smile. What I got was hostility and disgust.

Our plane from Vietnam landed in the early evening of May 17, 1969. From the airport, we were taken to Oakland Army Terminal by bus. My thoughts during the ride were, "Why do they have all these lights on?" and "Those brightly colored clothes make a great target!" I hadn't seen that much non-bicycle traffic since I left for "the land of the open latrine" over a year earlier (except for R&R in Taiwan). We all made comments about the length of everyone's hair and a pretty girl didn't miss any one's attention. We had just gotten off a 26 hour flight and we were all kind of in la-la-land. Everything was just a little unreal.

From our plane load, about 25 of us were to be discharged and the rest were to be out-processed and given orders for their next duty station. We all wanted to get through it as fast as we could and be on our way home. We were separated from the still-in-the-Army guys and we were put on the fast track through the paperwork because there were fewer of us and there was more stuff for us to do to be discharged. We were then ushered into a class A mess hall where we were fed like kings. Thick steaks cooked anyway we wanted, baked potatoes with all the sour cream that we wanted, fresh veggies, fresh bread, fresh fruit and ice cream for desert. I ate like a pig! Later, because I wasn't used to that kind of food, I got sicker than a dog. I'd just lived on C-rats for a year and real food gave me the drizzly shits. Just a little something to make out processing more interesting.

After dinner we were fitted for our new class A uniforms. I went to Vietnam in Class A khaki uniform but it was fazed out while I was there and we had come home in jungle fatigues. They couldn't send us home like that so they tailored new uniforms for all of us. I didn't want to wait for the tailoring to be done, and they wouldn't even start on it until morning! By now it was late in the evening. There were a few more stops to make where we filled out paperwork or we turned in paperwork that we carried with us from Vietnam, and then it was midnight.

We were ushered to some bleachers in one of the block long, warehouse type buildings, and they told us that we could hang around there or we could go over to a barracks across the street and pick out a bunk, but we probably wouldn't do any more out-processing until morning. I took advantage of the showers at the barracks and, after the long flight home, a soft bed was appealing, but most of us opted for hanging around the bleachers for fear of missing something and having to wait longer. I found out where the bathrooms were and I spent the next three or four hours between there and the bleachers, with a short recon patrol to the all night PX.

While I was looking around the PX, there was a young guy there that had been detailed to sweep the floor. He was waiting to be sent to Vietnam and he made a comment to the girl that was working the register, "I wish I was that Sergeant over there!" I asked him if it was because I was so strikingly handsome, or if it was because I was a sergeant. He said it was because I had been through what he still had to look forward to. I liked that. He said that he wasn't scared, but he just didn't know what to expect. My advice to him was to get scared and don't be afraid to show it. There was nothing wrong with being scared and no one would hold it against him. Just don't be paralyzed with fear. The Gung Ho types that didn't admit to being scared were the ones that got into the most trouble. A little fear could save his life and anyone who said that they weren't scared was an idiot. We talked while he swept the floor and I think I helped him deal with the anxiety. I think that it was the first time in his military career that he had talked to a sergeant on an equal basis without him barking orders at him. I felt good about having the chance to pass along some of what I had learned.

I got back to the bleachers just as the group that was waiting there was being led away for more out processing. It was 3 or 4 in the morning. That seemed early even for the Army. We went from one station to the next and after a while the pace started to pick-up. One of the last things that we did was to sit down individually with an officer for the last futile re-up talk. A major told me that if I reinlisted, he would give me $2500, and a month off, before I'd be shipped back to Vietnam. I said "No thank you" and that was that. Then we got our uniforms with all the stripes and fruit salad and brass and I thought I looked pretty good. The last stop was at the paymaster where I collected $630 in separation pay. It was 11:45am and I was, although still in uniform, a civilian! It had taken about 18 hours to be out processed. I was tired but elated to be free to go. A bunch of us grabbed a cab for the San Francisco airport.

I found out that there were only two flights to Chicago that day. The first one had just left and the next one was at midnight, 12 hours later! I bought my ticket and I followed the rest of the guys that I was with to the closest bar. There was probably 10 or 12 of us and we took the place over. We drank a toast to fallen comrades and we talked about what we expected next, now that we were home. We talked about cars, music, girls and old friends, but only a little about Vietnam. It wasn't a topic any of us wanted to deal with. Too many bad memories. As the time came for one of our rank to head for his flight home, we would all drink a toast to him, and after some hand shaking and back slapping, one by one our numbers started to dwindle. I couldn't remember any names or faces but while we occupied that bar, we were brothers. While we were in that bar, there were people who cared about what we had done for ourselves and our country. Outside of that bar I was to find out different.

After sitting on a stool for a few hours, I decided to walk around the airport awhile. While I was just standing around watching people go by, I saw a woman walk directly toward me from across the lobby. She was a nice looking woman in her middle to late twenties and it was clear that she had come out of her way to talk to me. As she approached me I thought maybe she wants to ask me something about Vietnam or maybe something about the unit I was in. I had been drinking for a few hours and I guess I was grinning a bit too much for her. When she stepped in front of me she said, "I hope you're not proud of yourself. You're just a murderer!" It was a verbal kick in the nuts. It was unexpected, and I was stunned. I couldn't say anything. I didn't understand why she felt that she needed to say that to me. Was it because I was wearing infantry brass? Did I look like a murderer? What did I do to her? Was this what it was going to be like to be a Vietnam vet? The Army hadn't prepared me for this. I scooped up my pride and retreated to the bar. At least there I was with friends.
There were three of us waiting for the plane for Chicago that left San Francisco around midnight. We were the last to leave the bar and we sat together on the plane. I settled into my seat and I curled up and tried to sleep. I don't remember how long the flight was but it was non-stop and we were heading toward the rising sun so it would be getting light when we landed. I had called my parents right before we left and they said that they would meet me at the airport. I wasn't expecting my whole family to meet me but when I walked off the plane, there were my mom and dad, my grandmother, both my brothers and my new sister-in-law who I'd never met before. It was great! Hugs and kisses and pats on the back, and "Glad to have you home again!" Just the kind of homecoming that I was looking forward to. We piled into two cars for the half hour ride home.

When I got home, I took off my uniform and my dog tags and tried to feel like a civilian again. We sat and talked for a while and I answered some of the questions that my family had been waiting to ask, when the phone rang. My mother answered it. It was one of my friends from college.  He was calling from Detroit to find out exactly when I was expected home. My mother said "Oh, he's here now. Do you want to talk to him?" He said, "No. I'll be there in about 5 hours!" (Back then 5 hours from Detroit was flying!)  I took a shower and I put on some civilian clothes and I had some breakfast. I think that then is when it started to sink in that, I was home! I curled up on the couch and I fell asleep.

Before long, my buddy from Detroit was at my door. He and another old friend were on their way up to friend's wedding at the school we all went to in Wisconsin. He was driving a cherry '57 T-Bird. They said "Pack a bag. We'll have you home by the day after tomorrow." And in quick time I was on my way to Mike & Kathy's wedding, sitting in the middle seat of a two-seat sports car. (The part that wasn't padded!) The surprise on Mike & Kathy's face made the trip worthwhile. All my friends at the wedding welcomed me back and asked only the most generic questions about Vietnam. I didn't offer any information and was much happier to talk about other things. When I was introduced as "Just back from Vietnam," I'd smile and shake their hand politely and watch the expression on their faces. Surprise was the most common reaction, followed by apathy. Mild disgust was evident too. One guy there asked me if I was too stupid to find a way to avoid the draft. Another guy's first question was "Did you kill any VC?" I told him no, just water buffalo. He was an idiot!

The next day we went to a kegger down at the park by the lake. I knew some of the people there. I drank my share of the beer and then someone threw a cherry bomb behind me. For two seconds, I flashed back! I overreacted. When I realized where I was, I had a lot of eyes on me and I felt stupid. Someone at the party yelled at the guy who lit it, "That was a rotten thing to do! He's just back from Vietnam!" Thank you for the concern but it just made me feel more stupid, and different from all the rest of them. I was different! I didn't fit in that group any more. My close friends from college would be my friends forever, but I didn't fit in with the rest of the people my age there. It was disappointing to come to that conclusion. It was time to go home. Another 6 hour ride on the transmission hump of the T-Bird.

When I got home I found out that some of my old high school friends had looked me up. I called them and we got together for a while. Things went OK. We didn't talk about Vietnam. The subject was conspicuous in its absence. When someone broke the ice with a simple question about Vietnam like "Was it hot there?" the conversation quickly came around to "Did you know that Dave was killed there in October last year?" Survivor's guilt hit me like a ton of bricks! The subject was changed right away but I could feel the tension in the conversation. I scared them! They were uneasy with me and I didn't want to be in that situation. I didn't fit in with them anymore either.

After those and a few other similar situations, I decided not to mention that I was a Vietnam vet to anyone. If the subject came up, I'd side step it somehow. I wanted to tell my story but doing so singled me out as different. I contacted the VFW to see about joining to be around other vets. The guy I talked to said that they weren't taking any Vietnam vets and it was his opinion that what was going on in Vietnam didn't qualify as a war anyway. He was a WWII vet and we didn't live up to his standards. His attitude turned me off to joining any veteran's groups. I met other WWII and Korea vets that shared his opinion, but not all did. I also met a few Vietnam vets who had a tendency toward embellishment. It bothered me that some guys needed to do that. It also made me mad that by their embellishment, they were hurting the credibility of all the rest of us. I also thought that the war movies about Vietnam hurt our credibility too. I wanted more realism. Apocalypse Now was close, Green Berets was not.

For a long time after the war ended, I noticed a tendency for the news media to hang the Vietnam vet label on every crazy person that committed a crime, as if they were doing a public service by pointing that out. "Women and Babies Killed by Vietnam Vet! Film at 11." I never heard any similar stories about veterans from other wars. We were singled out again. On one of our local Chicago stations, a news anchor asked a field reporter if the man that had just gunned down a bunch of people at a fast food restaurant was a Vietnam vet, implying that having been to Vietnam had made us all psychotic killers. I was extremely offended by that reporter and I called the station to complain. The advice I got from them was "Don't let it bother you!" No apology. Just that.

Over the years I've learned to live with the facts of being a Vietnam vet. I've held a lot in and I've let a lot of things roll off my back. By writing my stories for the web I've put a lot of my demons to rest. I'm not bitter about what happened, although I wish it could have been different. I'm thankful that I came through it in one piece. My heart goes out to the disabled vets and to the families of the guys who didn't come home. I'm proud to have served and what I went through has only served to make me stronger. I've learned a lot about human nature and about forgiveness. We are shaped by our experiences and for me, and for thousands of other guys (and ladies), Vietnam has left its mark.

Copyright © 1998 By Thomas J. Hain, All Rights Reserved