Perhaps this is a column written for only those who, like me, are in the “senior” category among Americans.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’d be surprised if that were so. I’d imagine there are many folks, especially those in the 65-85 age group – both men and women – who have less-than-fond memories pop up each time Vietnam is mentioned in newspapers or on television.
When one of the prizes on a daytime television show last week was a trip for two to Vietnam, memories a half-century ago came flooding back into my mind.
Before you get the wrong idea, I will tell you now that I was one of the fortunate ones – my entire time in service was spent at two Army posts in America and another in West Germany. For that, I owe a great gratitude to my late brother, Roger. You see, at the time my name was posted on a levy – a list of names of soldiers whose next duty assignments would be Vietnam – my brother intervened.
Roger was in the U.S. Navy. He’d already been in the Navy for about four years and had already served one tour of duty in Vietnam. But, during the time my name came down on the levy that would send me to Southeast Asia, there was a rule in place that siblings would not be sent into a war zone at the same time. My brother and I were what were called “sole survivors” meaning that our father had died and we were the only two sons left in the family.
“Don’t worry, Bill,” my brother wrote in a letter. “I’ve put papers in to go back to Vietnam, so you should be okay.”
That was Roger, always looking out for me and his whole family. “Besides,” he said, “I’ll be far away from the action.”
My brother’s service would be aboard a Naval vessel in the bay, away from land artillery. He not only considered that a safer place to be, but he also liked the extra money he received, called “hazardous duty pay,” given to soldiers and sailors in war zones.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t consider myself a coward. I just think that anyone who could avoid going into a war zone, no matter the military occupation, would gladly take it. It was hard to think otherwise.
Every day we’d read the military newspaper “Stars and Stripes.” Every day we’d read about this soldier, or that soldier, or entire groups of soldiers who’d lost their lives in combat. It was not a good time to be among those young Americans serving their country.
Instead of being shipped across the Pacific into a war zone, my name was taken off the Vietnam levy and I was sent to Germany. Yes, I was one of the lucky ones, as were American young men serving around the world and especially those who returned from Vietnam. So many didn’t come back home.
That hit home, even for me, although not extremely close. I knew one young man from my church, younger than I, who didn’t return home and another man whom I’d known at Waldorf College was also among those thousands of Americans killed in Vietnam.
A third young man whom I’d known in Alleman had completed his tour of duty in Vietnam and my mother wrote from home that he’d been sent to Germany to complete his service obligation. “You should get hold of him,” she wrote me in a letter.
So, I called. As a member of the 4th Armored Division Public Relations staff, it was easy for me to trace him to his new unit. So, the same day I received word from my mother that he was in Germany, I phoned his unit.
“This is Specialist Haglund with the 4th Armored Division,” I said to the clerk who’d answered my call. “I’d like to speak to (I’ll omit the name).”
There was absolute silence on the other end, a pause that prompted me to ask, “Are you there?”
“Yes,” finally came the reply. “(Name omitted) was killed last night in a car crash.”
The man I’d known in Alleman had been in Germany for less than two weeks. He’d gone out with another member of his new unit, had too much to drink and was killed in a car crash.
It was easy to conjure up all kinds of thoughts. Had he become so distraught after that service in Vietnam that he’d simply gone on a binge that ended terribly? What had caused him to get drunk and be out on the highway?
I’ll never know the answer.
My brother went to Vietnam three times. I had a cousin who went to Vietnam. Gladly they returned. I had another cousin who flew bombing missions in Vietnam. Gladly he returned, also did the husband of another cousin.
There were many others whom I knew during my time both at Fort Gordon, Ga., and at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., who were shipped into war. I don’t know the fate of those men; I suppose I really don’t want to know. I just hope all of them returned.
More than a half-century has passed since my own Army service. The war in Vietnam finally ended in 1975 after 20 years. Memories of that time in America still linger in the minds of hundreds of thousands of men and women who lived during that time.
That’s a long time ago.
For me, though, even though I never went there, I still hate it when Vietnam is the destination of a free trip for a contestant.
Just the name conjures up negative thoughts, makes me relive my time in service and makes me think of all those brave men and women who went there and never returned.
Bill Haglund is a retired writer for the Boone News Republican and Dallas County News. He can be reached at Bhaglund13@msn.com.