Memorial Day 2023. Families gathered for barbecues. I was in California to watch my three granddaughters take the leads in a musical play about the making of the original Peter Pan in London, a story about a young boy who could fly.
On the short drive to the improvised theater’s location, we passed a sign for the large Veterans Hospital in Palo Alto. My mind immediately focused on my high school classmate, Glenn, who I used to shoot hoops with.
He had been just a little older than my oldest granddaughter when his life ended over the skies of Laos, shot down during a bombing raid.
Poof, life was over.
I’ve spent many years wondering why. It was 1963. There was no draft then. What was Vietnam to America?
The French left Indochina in 1954. They had learned a lesson. A colonial power cannot win a war against a committed foe who would fight a hundred years to be rid of them.
The United States would sacrifice 58,000 men, including my friend in Vietnam. Did we learn anything? I don’t think so. We’ve lost young soldiers in Beirut, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. We saw vivid images of those left behind in Saigon hanging on to helicopters, only to be duplicated in Kabul 57 years later.
When will we ever learn?
I avoided being sent to Vietnam. My father called his cousin Joe Pinkert, who had political connections with a powerful congressman from Chicago.
The congressman made a call, and I got my ticket into the Illinois National Guard in late 1967, which made it unlikely I would be activated for Nam.
I went to Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, on New Year’s Day 1968. I figured I was in good physical condition and I could handle anything for five months as long as it wasn’t war in the jungle.
It wasn’t that easy. In the third week of basic, the guy in the bunk beneath me went to the infirmary. He died of meningitis, I think. They never told us.
There were 300 guys in the unit, only two were reservists. Most of the sergeants treated us decently, but one guy, a 5’3″ African-American Sergeant, despised me. Anything he could do to mock me he tried. But still, I was willing to endure almost anything for five months.
The college educated guys in my bunk constantly discussed sneaking into Canada or failing basic so they would be forced to repeat it. Most ended up in Nam except for a few who were assigned to Korea.
It was a crazy time in America. Martin Luther King was assassinated while I was at Fort Jackson. The Democratic Convention of 1968 took place in Chicago a few months after I returned home.
The Tet Offensive in Vietnam sealed our fate in the war, but the “brilliant” guys in Washington kept feeding kids to the futile struggle.
Fifteen years ago, I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. I saw my friend’s name etched in the granite on the simple but beautiful monument. I think about him surprisingly often and the many thousands of other guys who suffered PTSD after coming home.
“When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn. “
Question: What does Vietnam mean to you?