Every year between 1962 and 1975, I was in Vietnam at least four months. That meant I was making multiple trips each year between Nam and the world (what we called the U.S.). I usually travelled with the troops. Starting in 1968, when I landed in San Francisco with returning troops, we were often met by crowds who called us “butchers” and “baby killers” and spat on us. The experience sickened my already damaged soul.
I reacted with searing shame. I was proud of my work in Vietnam, as were my compatriot soldiers and Marines. But the behavior of my country’s people shamed me. For years after the fall of Saigon, I never mentioned Vietnam. I sweated through my flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, and irrational rages alone. We didn’t have a name for my condition back then. Now it’s called Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). I didn’t know that other veterans were afflicted with it, too.
As I wrote earlier in this blog, several years ago, I was invited to a gathering that honored Vietnam veterans. The words I had so longed to hear were spoken to me that night, accompanied by smiles and hugs: “Thank you. And welcome home.” I cried.
I’ve come a long way since that night. I’ve learned that I’m part of a large brotherhood of Vietnam vets with PTSI. The world has changed. Now people want to know what happened in Vietnam. I’ve given my presentation on the fall of Saigon more than forty times and I’m scheduled to do it more than a dozen times before the end of the year. Now audience members often say to me, “Thank you. And welcome home.” I still get tears in my eyes when I hear those words.
It’s clear that I’m going to be all right. The PTSI will never go away, but I’ve learned to live with it. And I can be publicly proud of my service to my country.
But what about other vets who died before the American people changed their view? They were never thanked or honored. They died alone in their shame. I grieve for them.