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By Martin Treat
In the summer of 1970, I came home from the American War in Vietnam. I was so embarrassed to be a returning soldier that at Oakland Army Base I changed. In the bathroom, ripping off my uniform and replacing it with thongs, shorts, and tie-dye T-shirt, sunshades and dark glasses; back to my nineteenth month ago California uniform. Then, picking up my duffle bag with all the possessions I had accumulated from the Army as a draftee, dumped it in the first garbage bin I see driving off in a taxi to meet my wife in Berkeley. Even my hair was respectfully long again as if the Army understood (maybe they did).
Melody had secured a nice little room in a vintage house in the Berkeley hills where her father used to live as a loving guest while attending school. It had a view of a large backyard garden with ponderosa, blooming lilies, grass and stone steps down the hill with San Francisco bay way in the distance as a backdrop. A perfect setting for a long-sought reunion.
"Let's make that baby," I said.
Driving home to Redding in Northern California through the blazing summer of June 1970, I thought about seeing my parents, brother, and sister again, and Mel's family and wondered what I would say to them. During my time in Vietnam, I had become disillusioned by the war. Stopping communist aggression, the purpose of the war, I called into question. I now believed that my country intervened in a civil war, choosing one side over the other and that the USA was getting in the way of the Vietnamese to settle which government they wanted. The war was a terrible waste of lives.
My father had served in World War II and had volunteered with the men of his community after Pearl Harbor and Franklin Roosevelt's call to war on two fronts. Now, in our living room, he wanted to see me in uniform and take a picture.
"Dad, it's not that kind of war," I said.
"What do you mean? You fought for your country."
"I'm ashamed about what I did for my country. I threw my army uniform away in a garbage bin in Oakland."
"Threw it away!? Why I wore my uniform for weeks after I got home and every Fourth of July till it fell off."
"Different war; this one is really wrong."
"Then the news and the protests are right?"
"Yeah, time to change our thinking. I obeyed the law, and now it's over, and I survived. So, let's forget about it."
We went into dinner arm over arm, and I never talked about the war with him again.
I went back to a different graduate school on the GI bill, raised our child in special housing near campus, got fellowships and jobs. And, no one knew I had been to Vietnam except the VVAW.
I joined the protests, and they've been my war buddies ever since.
Ironic twist: I have motor neuron disease (related to ALS or Lou Gehrig's Disease), Agent Orange presumed cause according to the VA. It seems that the maintenance area that I fixed choppers (at Diem west of Ho Chi Minh City) had been a base for the use of the defoliant. Safe mechanics job my ass. I'm reconciled to my fate late in life, I've had a good one, but the Vietnamese and effects of Agent Orange? More work yet to do. HR 334, Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act, will be before House of Congress next election.
Martin Treat is a retired public school teacher and performing artist living in New York City. He is 73 and is a member of Hells Kitchen/Chelsea Community Board and Disabled In Action.