The Vietnam War was the war of my generation as I vividly recall all of the struggles at that time.
Of course, the image of the war is less than flattering, especially for the soldiers that fought in it. Did that mean that these men did not have a place in the long standing tradition of the United States military and were not part of their own Greatest Generation?
I have long thought that the media and Hollywood was largely responsible for the inaccuracies that painted our troops and the military in a very bad light in Vietnam. Throughout the 1970’s America embarked on a constant apology tour that only worsened the burden our troops and our country have to endure and try to live down. Here is one solder’s account that shows a different reality in South East Asia, during the Vietnam War.
In June of 1967, Dan Cox of Pennsylvania was struggling to find his way after high school, attempting to craft a future in accounting at Pennsylvania State University.
After about a year, Dan realized that college was not for him, but instead a career as a mechanic was more likely the way forward. At 19, all was good as Dan thought he had found his calling – that is until Uncle Sam had a different idea for his future.
Dan was drafted into the United State Army, but before he was forced into a situation not of his choosing, he enlisted on June 17, 1968. From the recruiting station to the jungles of Vietnam took all of about eight months. Dan flew from Pittsburgh, PA to Fort Jackson, SC. From there he was assigned to Fort Knox, KT where his technical skills afforded him the opportunity to become a helicopter mechanic.
He was to be part of the 11th Armored Cavalry, so it was off to Fort Eustis, VA for helicopter school and a chance to let his passion for choppers really take flight (pun intended). Once he was finished with his training in the states, Dan prepared to depart for South East Asia. He recalled leaving from Pittsburgh in a very emotional moment with his parents crying and despondent at the thought of their son never returning.
For Dan, not only was the time difficult for him and his family, but protesters were everywhere shouting him down. His response was simply: “Why were they protesting me?” I didn’t ask to do this, my country called me and they trained me to be a soldier.” Five days later, Dan found himself in Cam Rhan Bay, Vietnam.
The monsoons had just ended and the heat was unbearable. Dan noted everything was happening fast and the military, in its haste to shuttle men to the front, appeared almost indifferent. Nevertheless, once at his base camp, Dan met the man he was replacing. They spent the next 2 weeks orientating and understanding how to stay alive. For his tour, Dan was assigned to a Huey helicopter crew as a mechanic and a door gunner with a life expectancy of two weeks.
He was stationed at a forward base in the northern area of the country and was paid just $277 dollars per month (worth about $1,200 today). While relying on the man he replaced to explain what to expect, Dan recalled how his comrade refused to tell him of the horrors that may wait. Instead, he told the young private that he would see things for himself and make his own memories – good and bad! While in Vietnam, Dan received two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. In both cases when he was wounded in battle, Dan returned to duty even though his injuries were relatively severe including being knocked unconscious when his chopper was taken down by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG). He carries a few reminders with him till today in the form of shrapnel lodged in his head and arm.
His bronze star was conferred from events that took place during the country-wide “Tet” offensive in 1968, so named for the Vietnamese New Year. A Viet Cong “sapper” (suicide bomber) was attempting to break through to Dan’s unit. Without regard for his own safety, Dan jumped up and began engaging the enemy with his M-60 machine gun, so much so that he almost burned out the barrel. He was credited with preventing disaster by providing suppressing fire that not only stopped the advance of the enemy, but gave cover to his fellow soldiers in the compound. So how is the soldier’s story different from the disparaging image portrayed by the media (at that time) and all of the movies made about Vietnam since the end of the war?
To start with, the number of soldiers using drugs and binge drinking was greatly exaggerated, at least from what Dan saw during his time in country. The reason was simple: everyone needed to remain sober and in control to cover their buddies back. It was the most important unwritten rule for survival. He continued to say that most of the men he knew believed in the war and believed in their mission – clearly at odds with what was reported at the time.
Furthermore, movie after movie depicted how soldiers would inflict wounds on themselves to get out early when in fact the only ticket home was a wound severe enough so you could no longer fight. That generally meant the loss of a limb or some other catastrophic injury. The media was great at embellishing the war for ratings and to boost the war correspondent’s careers.
Dan recalled one episode where his outfit engaged a group of Viet Cong head on which resulted in twelve of the enemy dead and no American casualties. The media, while on site, had reported 150 of the enemy killed and 100 Americans dead as well. Dan’s family wrote him and asked if the media accounts were correct. Obviously they were not - so much for truth in journalism…..
Perhaps the most telling inaccuracy was the popular “Rambo” type soldier. Dan was clear about the fact that he was scared from the moment he arrived until the moment he left. Throughout his tour he never became indifferent to death; on the contrary, he remembers the exact date he first saw the body of a dead Viet Cong and how it made him sick to his stomach. He never lost that feeling regardless of the amount of death that surrounded him.
Moreover, his description of what it takes to shoot another human being is quite different from the bravado we often see from Hollywood: “You see the enemy, your mind tells you to shoot, but your heart has to agree.” When asked about his time in Vietnam, he solemnly said he does not know if he ever killed anyone, but his fervent hope is that he never did. Dan was discharged in June of 1971 and upon returning home, he and his fellow veterans experienced the protests, the anger, and the scorn of the American public. He still does not understand it, but he holds no malice for his experience; instead, Dan takes every opportunity to help fellow veterans adjust to life after combat.
The real message of Vietnam, in fact of all wars since 1776 is that the label of the “Greatest Generation” may apply to more than the just WWII Veterans. Certainly the numbers from that war were on a scale never seen before or since and those men deserve all the respect they have received, but the fundamental truth is this:
The “Greatest Generation” is not about a period in history. It is actually more about the character of men willing to risk their lives to answer the call to serve. All of the controversy and dark political objectives of any war fade in comparison to the resolve soldiers have when asked to do their duty. For me, when I hear soldiers tell their stories, it is clear that the “Greatest Generation” is alive and well for all of our veterans!