May 1, 2000
Good morning Jan.
Ah, Vietnam. I will give you some of my thoughts and emotions (you can't have one without the other), and truly hope they will be handled with respect, as these truly come from deep inside.
Jan, I can't just give a quote, without a little of my story as a back ground.
My memories and emotions are that of an 18-year-old team player. They have been tempered of course by 31 years of debate and input.
Before I left for Vietnam, I really didn't even know where it was. When I received my orders out of bootcamp, I wasn't even officially told where I was going, but I had suspicions. My orders simply stated, "Report for duty, U.S.S. Comstock, L.S.D. 19." I was flown to Hawaii to pick up my ship. I was told onboard that we were en route for operations in Vietnam.
My ship was a key part of an amphibious assault squadron operating out of Danang. We alternated on operations with the Navy Seals, Green Beret, 101st Airborne and other units, and had our own assault units assigned to our ship. We were designated as a "Ready Group" and our job was to instantly respond to hot situations within our operational sector.
We were on operations for 60 days at a time, usually working day and night, often drawing enemy fire. We were never allowed to return fire. We had to call in air strikes, or Navy destroyers and just "sit back and watch".
Several times we drew small arms fire, and called in riverboats to respond. One morning I watched as a sampan fishing boat fired at us with machine gun fire, and was then sank by a river boat just off our starboard side. I saw the Viet Cong and the boat disintegrate as we steamed off. I can not understand what these people hoped to accomplish against us and the odds that day. Perhaps they were just frustrated to the breaking point against us.
The overwhelming emotion that began to build in me was frustration. In December and January of 1967-68, we were heavily involved in the TET Offensive, and were later awarded the Meritorious Unit Citation. Behind all of our operations were the antiwar protests back home. We received mail at this time about every 2-3 weeks, and of course, updated information about the protests.
About a month later I volunteered for riverboat duty to operate on the Perfume River that flows out of Saigon. (I was informed that at that time there was a 54% mortality rate, but that didn't matter).
Months later, back in San Diego, at the age of 19, I was handed approved orders for my transfer to San Francisco and riverboat training. I had forgotten my request. As it was strictly voluntary and I had just gotten married, I turned the orders down. I was subsequently transferred to third division and became a gunner, in charge of the ship's armory. I was also mount captain on a quad 40mm antiaircraft gun mount on the ship.
In overseas training for our return to Vietnam we won all awards for gunnery.
Several more months passed, and we returned to Vietnam. On one of our operations we went up the Perfume River to Saigon. We picked up a special unit and equipment on a reinforced and heavily armed barge for an operation at Vietnam's southern tip, on the Cau Mau Pennensula. The barge was nothing more than a manned target to be tied up in the middle of a river. We were to see what type of fire we would draw so that an assessment could be made of the area's resistance.
We were forced to break off the operation early due to heavy resistance, but again, we were not allowed to return fire.
When we headed for home, the other conflict took over. The press was getting rich on their coverage of Vietnam. My peers partied and protested.
Family and friends greeted me at the dock in San Diego. Mother and Dad had a welcoming home party at their house. All I remember of the party was one of Marks friends mother's loud denouncement of our presence in Vietnam, and how the baby killers should be ashamed.
I received an honorable discharge from the Navy in November 1969, several years before the Vietnam conflict ended.
For years, the frustration I carried with me over Vietnam continued. Even to this day, I wished I would have taken those orders for riverboat duty -- outcome be damned. I feel that frustration would have been quenched, though I know new sores would have been opened. When people talk to me about being in Vietnam, they invariably say, "Oh, you were lucky you weren't in combat on the ground." Many of those on the ground never earned their extra hazardous duty and combat pay. We did.
I was watching a documentary a year or so ago that was done from the perspective of the "Underground Army" and the North Vietnam Army soldiers. The film also showed in great detail the extensive tunnel systems that were a major part of the whole war.
The Vietnamese have opened up the tunnels for tourism, and interviewed people that lived and worked in the tunnels. The filmmakers talked to Americans that fought in the war, and that had just recently gone on the tours. This show really was amazing and touched me deeply. It makes me feel good, I guess somewhat at peace inside, to see a true normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam.
The Gulf War conclusion and the warm response to the troops from the American public also did a lot to actually give me closure. I never understood until then that I was lacking closure on Vietnam.
All this I guess leads up to my quote...
Last summer Beth and I went to dinner with some friends from England and several other couples. Vietnam came up and we talked for quite a while about being 18 years old, idealistic, patriotic, a team player, and truly overwhelmed. I talked about my involvement.
One of the men in our group that night asked me a very profound and insightful question; "What was the most traumatic experience I had experienced in the Vietnam War?"
I actually burst into tears and immediately told our shocked group, "Coming Home".
This is really very personal to me, and I don't remember you and I ever talking about Vietnam.
To this day I don't question our need to be there. I have talked to Vietnamese friends of mine that bless our involvement.
I am appalled however, at our rules of engagement, the condemnation of the BOYS that were there, and the lack of national will to commit. The day Nixon announced Peace with Honor still sticks in my throat, along with the memories of the assholes at the Oakland Airport that greeted me home from my second tour with jeers and condemnations. These people were idealistic children playing with passions like a hobby, and not caring that they had made us the enemy.
Today, Vietnam remains to me a mixture of misunderstanding, conflicting emotions and tragedy. Many people that take the strongest stands base their information on a textbook or fiction.
I remain patriotic, and am proud to have served my country. I feel that my experience has enhanced my sense of God and country. I refuse to debate the right or wrong of it, because there are truly too many sides and issues. Only those that were there can talk of the pain, the frustration, and the loss with true compassion and insight. Most Vietnam Veterans like me will tell stories, but admit they don't understand it. Many others not there have all the answers.
So again, "My most traumatic experience of Vietnam, was coming home".
Vietnam: A Retrospective
Introduction - by Gilles d'Aymery
Prism And Touchstone - by Rick Rozoff
The Road to Wisdom - by Aleksandra Priestfield
Through the Eyes of a Child - by Jan Baughman
Reflections on the War in Vietnam - by Mac Lawrence
Making Sense out of Senselessness - by Eileen Rinde
An Uneasy Peace - by Margaret Wyles
Myths and Reality - by Antony Black
Stay Under the Radar Screen - by Milo Clark
Conclusion - by Gilles d'Aymery