As a Vietnam era veteran, my Memorial Day reflections center more on the civilian reaction to me than on my experiences in the US Air Force as a Systems Analyst Officer.
First, let me say that I found my service itself very rewarding. I learned to get along with a wide variety of people that I never would have met in any other walk of life. I’ll never forget the response of a really smart sergeant I was training to program computers. I asked him how he got into the military. He said, “Well, sir, the judge gave me a choice.” His other option was jail.
The officers I served under were generally very professional, but did not behave in the manner civilians imagine that military officers behave. I had been working on a project which included a lot of late night and weekend testing as well as quite a few 60 hour weeks. The Lt. Colonel I worked for was concerned I had pushed myself too hard. So he explained to me that he wanted me to take two weeks off. He told me he would let me do this with something called “basket leave.” The way it worked was they would prepare leave papers but not submit them, instead leaving them in the OUT basket. If something happened, like a recall that required my presence or if I was in a car accident that had to be reported, they would submit the leave paperwork. If I came back on time and nothing happened, they would throw out the leave papers and I wouldn’t be charged with leave.
There were other incidents that were unexpected. I was working for another Lt. Colonel when I found a written official order on my desk, signed by the Lt. Colonel. It said that while our sergeant was on leave, I was appointed second alternate coffee maker. I found out that the sergeant had been typing it up as a joke when the boss walked in. The boss saw it and told the sergeant he would sign it himself, instead of having the sergeant signing it “For the Commander.” This same officer heard that I played Avalon Hill war games. He told me his son also played them and thought he was invincible. He asked me to come over to his house some weekend to teach the kid a lesson. After I did, he thanked me and said that his son had needed to be taken down a peg.
Reactions from the civilian community to me in uniform, in any place except the Deep South, were almost uniformly hostile. I was called a “trained killer” so many times that I developed a routine for it. I would ask, “Do you really believe I’m a trained killer?” They would say yes. Then I would ask, “Why are you pissing me off?”
The irony of this belief in my killer status was really impressive. I fired a weapon in the military on exactly one occasion.. I was given a 38 caliber revolver and shot 72 rounds at a target. This qualified me on the official Air Force side arm, which was a requirement for any officer. I never handled another gun on active duty. I shot more with the Boy Scouts than I did with the Air Force.
Due to the televised Congressional testimony of John Kerry, who said war crimes by US troops in Vietnam were common, most people assumed every military person was a murderous psychopath. In addition, it was thought that participation in the military indicated a deep character flaw in any individual. A popular slogan at the time was, “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” Since everyone was “Anti War,” the best way to stop the war was to harass the troops so they wouldn’t go to war. While wearing my ROTC uniform on campus, I had a lot of people spit at me.
As a side note, did you ever wondered what the motivation of the Swift Boat Veterans was for bad mouthing Kerry? His testimony about how common war crimes were in Vietnam is the reason they did it. I’m sure a lot of Nam Era veterans gladly contributed for the ads. I don’t remember if I did, but I sure thought about it.
Sometimes this irrational fear worked in my favor. My wife flipped somebody off in traffic in Phoenix, Arizona. He followed us into the parking lot where we were going. When I got out of the car, he started to yell at me. He was much bigger than I was, but I was a military officer in uniform. As he yelled, I quietly said “Uh huh” a couple of times while giving him what was called in the Air Force the “40 mission stare.” I was about 15 feet from the guy. He stopped yelling once he noticed the uniform and it dawned on him who I was. He visibly shrank back from me, got back into his car and drove off.
Even as recently as 5 years ago, the remains of the negative view of Nam vets was still around. I transferred into a new unit at work. One of the guys in my new unit had a chat with me at the end of the day. He gingerly asked me if I was a Vietnam veteran. I told him I was a Vietnam Era veteran, a programmer in the Air Force who had never left the Continental US. He told me that a fellow employee, who had been drafted into the Soviet Army, was a little nervous about me. I told him that I had no problem with Russian Army veterans. It seemed to be a relief for all concerned.
To be fair, there were a few occasions when my veteran status was the source of merely reasonable curiosity. In the mid to late 70’s there was a big scandal about the over classification of secret documents. At a party, a guy I just met, who had overheard I was a veteran, asked me if I had handled any classified documents. I said yes. He asked if I thought they were correctly classified. I told him they were the exercise results for air defense units in the US, essentially how prepared they were to do the job for real. He said he was glad they were classified as Secret.
I am glad that the view of veterans is so great now days. Even people who were not happy we invaded Iraq took it out on President Bush and not the guys who did the fighting. This is the way it should have been for Vietnam veterans. This is the way it ought to be for veterans from now on.