Three stories of fighting on the home front
(Many Americans are too young to remember how Vietnam veterans were treated when they returned home. Many were treated badly — condemned as war criminals by the Left and blamed by the Right for “losing” the war. In today’s political climate, people are beginning to deny that vets were mistreated in the 1960s and 1970s (and beyond). Below is an August, 1999, email exchange among three CAP veterans
about their experiences after returning from Vietnam)
From Al Ryan
Roch and Bill,
Back in the late 80’s I was doing some freelance stuff for some newspapers around here — Tampa Tribune, Orlando Sentinel and others — and I submitted three essays to the St. Petersburg Times. One of the editors called me up to tell me they’d been accepted. She complimented the pieces and invited me to come in and meet the paper’s managing editor, a guy named Michael Foley. I asked her if it might be along the lines of a job interview and she said “quite possibly.”
Well, I got pretty fired up. The Times is a good paper, good rep, nice new big building and they pay pretty good dough. I went in, met a bunch of people and was finally ushered into Foley’s office. I figured since they accepted three of my pieces all at once, I might stand a pretty good chance of getting a newspaper job.
Foley was pleasant, very complimentary of my work…maybe 5 or 6 years older than me…gray hair cut kind of long, tortoise-shell specs, salt and pepper beard, neatly trimmed. We talked for quite a while. It finally came out in the course of conversation that I’d been in Vietnam…in the Marines…had JOINED…and had been in combat.
Well, gentlemen, a fucking wall came down. Right then and there between me and Mr. Foley. It was a thick and heavy wall that was almost palpable, like it had dropped from a big slot in the ceiling. Suddenly the atmosphere turned from cordial to cold. This man had gone to an Ivy League school and had been very active in the anti-war movement. And any hopes I might have entertained about a job evaporated right then. He was absolutely RUDE to me from that point on. Needless to say, the interview was quickly terminated. He ushered me out of his office as if I had some kind of contagious disease.
It really hurt me. It really bothered me. It still does. And this is just the kind of guy who trumpets equality and rails against discrimination of any kind. And that was 1989!
From Roch Thornton
One of the first things I learned in college was the need to hide my service in the Marines and Vietnam. I learned that freshman year when a girl I was dating introduced me to one of her girlfriends.
“Chris, this is my friend, Roch,” my date said. Then she added an unfortunate conversation-starter. “He just got back from Vietnam a few months ago.”
“How many babies did you kill?” Chris asked, completely serious.
I was stunned numb. I’d seen the “Baby-killer” signs held by anti-war demonstrators on television, but until that moment it never occurred to me that anyone took them seriously. Chris and many others did.
Oddly, I got to be pretty good friends with Chris over the next couple of years. I washed dishes and waited tables where she lived, so she saw me every day. Later we laughed about that introduction, and I never told her how painful her first words were.
I never endured the kind of abuse inflicted on some vets because I stayed in the closet for 25 years. I got so good at hiding my “vet-ness” that several college friends knew me for years before discovering my secret. When they found out, their reactions followed a pattern.
“You’re a Vietnam vet?” they’d protest, “But you’re so NORMAL!”
Instead of clean-cut, they expected Vietnam veterans to be bearded and dirty, alcoholic or addicted. They expected me to be full of hate and violence.
I also hid my vet status while working in the news media for a dozen years. The Marine Corps is not on my resume because newspaper decision makers tend to be consciously or subconsciously anti-military and anti-Vietnam War. Even those moderates or right-wingers who “supported” the war are often draft evaders. Like Texas Sen. Phil Gramm they’ve rationalized staying home, but feel guilty about it. They don’t want a combat vet around to remind them they might be cowards.
Ah, well, there’s part of my motivation for working on the 2-7-2 website. The academic and media elites of this country will not, I’m sure, be telling my story to the next generation.
From Bill “Doc” Donoghue
Roch & Al:
I appreciated your stories about not disclosing that you had been in the military in Viet Nam, and that when it came out “the fucking wall comes down.” I began to get used to it well before going to Viet Nam; just because I spent my first three years essentially working with Marines and Corpsmen who had returned in one way or another. I became part of their universe because so much of my work involved listening.
So on “Dirty Orthopedics” at Great Lakes Naval Hospital during Basic Corps School the casualties, held together by k-wires and traction, wounds raw, would be taken down to be anesthetized for wound debridement. And at Philadelphia Naval Hospital for almost two years, putting in heavy duty intravenous lines into guys with multiple amputations, waking them up afterwards and taking them back to their wards; and at Camp Pendleton with the Marines who made up 3/27, I would always be listening. I did it well. Corpsmen who can’t listen well are not very well received, no matter how technically proficient.
And in the listening my world became distinctly different from anything called “ordinary” whenever I would travel home for leave, or intersect with the civilian community around my duty station.
Going to Viet Nam was like going to the source, it was a complete disconnect from the World, but a disconnect that was in the making for three years before I went.
Al, don’t know if you remember, but I never talked about going home when I got short. I told myself it was because I wasn’t going to lay that on people like I had heard it all year. But the truth was I couldn’t bear the thought of saying good-bye. And when the word came from CACO that I should pack my trash and get ready to di-di on that particular day, I smiled and announced it, but I was dumbstruck.
So, I was a bit used to the indifference and hate towards me when I returned:
- When the people on the Boston subway acted like they couldn’t make room for me when I was making my way from Logan Airport in Boston to Medford, MA.
- When people in my family said, “I’m tired about hearing about Viet Nam, so don’t start.”
- When it became real clear that if I had ANY interest in an ongoing conversation with a girl, never mind a relationship, I had better not mention Viet Nam.
- When, right after getting married and moving to NH, I interviewed for a medical job at the VETERANS ADMINISTRATION HOSP. in Manchester, NH and the Medical Director insisted that I admit to my drug addiction and inclination to be violent to others.But I hated it. In my ministry it has given me understanding for those who have to keep quiet, or who suffer all their lives because of something they can do nothing about.But, I cherish the moments of understanding with those who know. At the Shriner’s Burns Institute there were six of us who did skin grafting, wound debridement and other exotic work we won’t describe right now, as Burn Technicians. Most of us were former corpsmen or medics.One guy had been a corpsmen with the 4th Marines, 68-69. Bob was, when I met him, an AAU Heavyweight Weightlifter. Man, he was huge. As you might expect, we had some understanding of certain things in common. One day, I was taking a shit in the bathroom off one of the main hallways. Bob knew this. He wrote out a note and slid it under the bathroom door.
It said, “You are directed to report from CONUS (remember that: Continental United States) to WestPac, 1st Mar Div. and I screamed while sitting on the shitter, “Ahhhhhhh!!!!” And, I could hear Bob laughing and laughing in the hallway; with no one else having a clue what he had just done to me. BUUUT: a few humorous moments do not make up for the ridiculous treatment we received from our country and some of its most distinguished citizens upon our return.
Al, I felt the old anger when you told of your interview with the St. Petersburg Times. Roch, when my wife, Karen, was my girlfriend at the Burns Institute, a friend of hers once said to me, “But it didn’t bother you to kill people, right? Cause you were trained not to let it bother you.”
Since entering ministry in 1980, in a very liberal denomination that was stridently against the war, I have basically said, f–k it, when it is appropriate to mention it as part of my life story or as a sermon illustration I will say it. All in all it has gone okay.
Roch, by the way, I really liked your pointing out that some of our militant, neoconservative brothers now were strangely reticent about their militancy when they were draftable age: our senior U.S. Senator, Judd Gregg (NH) is one. Letters I have written him on this get no response. The only difference I see in their lives is that now they have property they would like someone else to protect for them.
Like you both have said before so well, it is a privilege to talk with those who know. It helps beyond all measure.
So ends another Doc Donoghue e-mail with no attempt to be concise, but with gratitude for the readers on the other end that no words can describe.
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