My first real understanding that there was a war going on was when my girlfriend, Janelle Bevel, showed up at junior high school with a silver I.D. bracelet on her arm. She told me it had the name of a soldier on it and it was to remind her to pray for him. She also had an address so she could send him letters. It was a cool bracelet! I went home and asked my parents if I could get one and my dad's unequivocable response was, "Absolutely not!!" I was sure, even then, that his was a response of a former navy man who knew what those men might think.
Skip to high school. There was a draft going on. Young men were needed to fight this war. Women did not fight in Vietnam combat. They were doctors, nurses and office support, but did not fight in combat. So they began drafting young men into the military. They had to register as soon as they turned 18 and then numbers were drawn. If your number was drawn, you had no choice---you went to Vietnam. Well, unless of course, you defected to Canada and hid out from going to the war. There was palpable fear about your number being drawn...or great pride for those families who were very patriotic. I was terrified that my brother would be drafted! Thankfully, he never was. But the thing you have to understand is that there were a lot of people who did not believe in it--at all. It was a horrible time. I'm sure there were many things that led to a great rebellion among young people: the music we listened to, the advent of illicit drugs, and the whole "peace, love, and free sex" culture. But it was a wave of rebellion hitting our generation. You didn't have to be a part of those things for it to affect you. In high school, kids began to stage sit-ins. They would walk out of class and move to the front yard of the school and sit down together as a form of protest. It was an epidemic across our nation. I can remember feeling fearful when a group of kids had a sit-in at Pampa High School. I had a fear of repercussions and what was happening to us as a school. It was something I heard on the news--not something I thought I'd see at my own school. At graduation ceremonies, guys would walk across the stage and burn their draft cards in front of everyone. And of course, there was rebellion that was just for rebellion's sake--people began to streak for no reason at all. It became a game to see if they could do it without getting caught. I remember being at college and having a fire alarm at our dorm one night and being out on the lawn when a bunch of guys came streaking in front of us. (If you don't know, streaking is just running naked.) It was fun and games until there was a shooting at a college--aimed at streakers. Then that caught on and even WTSU had a lock-down because of a threat of a shooter. There were celebrities like Jane Fonda who were protesting the war loudly. Not only did they protest the war themselves, but they also tried to work young people up into a frenzy with them. They thought if young people got riled up and banded together, they could walk on Washington D.C. and get the war stopped. But these protests were presented as peace-seeking.
So imagine that whole scene going on and some brave men fighting a thankless war in Vietnam. Some went willingly. Some were drafted. But they were all there fighting for the freedom of us--our country--for those people protesting the war which they were fighting to win. It was a horrible war. The Viet Cong ignored any humane rules of warfare. Many men who came back from the war wouldn't talk about what happened. It was atrocious. I've heard of stories of U.S. military found dismembered and in humiliating poses. It was insanely hot in Vietnam, the terrain was full of bamboo trees, and thick vegetation that had to be hacked through as they walked and waged hand-to-hand combat. Many men came back addicted to drugs. I know some would be on the front lines of war without food or water for terrible lengths of time. One man told me they were given C-rations (food) from War World II. They fought hard...and many fell. It was the longest war in American history and over 60,000 Americans died. Local newspapers would have a daily list of local heroes who had died that day. We all hated opening the newspaper.
And then they began coming home. There was no victory. There was no heroes' welcome. No flags waving. No pats on the back. There were some yellow ribbons tied around oak trees--because Tony Orlando's song became famous then. But the men and women who fought in that war came home in confusion and anger and shame. The anger was theirs. The shame was ours. We were all confused.
It was after this war that "Posttraumatic Stress Disorder" was given a name. I knew men who were seeking psychiatric care because of that war. I know all wars are stressful; but I'm convinced the reason this war was more stressful on our military was because they came home to a country who didn't support them. They were never thanked. We didn't call them our heroes. And it affected our generation in a terrible way. It was a funk some men could never climb out of--they gave themselves over to drugs or alcohol. But there were also some men who were proud of the job they did and came home with their heads held high regardless of how they were treated. And some were treated horribly--people even spit on them in airports as they came home.
I believe we have a responsibility to redeem ourselves. If you know a Vietnam Veteran, thank them. You can't imagine the sacrifice they've made!!
I know there are people who could tell you so much more about this war and understand what was going on politically that I didn't understand at that age. But this is what I remember and it's my perspective. To all the Vietnam Vets I know, I stand proudly and salute you and tell you how much I appreciate you and how much I thank you for the war you waged and for how proudly you fought. You are my heroes!