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Kent State Laments
By Chuck Aswell
I returned home in early February 1969. It had been an eventful year. I arrived during Tet and was assigned to an armored unit in the 9th Division, just south of Saigon. Those early days were overwhelming…..ambush patrols at night, sweeps during the day, and firefights all the time. Lots of Vietnamese and American KIAs in those weeks! February-May passed and there I was, still OK and slugging through each day in some village on an APC somewhere south of the capital, always wondering if tomorrow would be "The Day" or if I was going to make it through this thing. I made it through.
Upon my return, I was able to finagle myself away from an assignment to Ft. Knox and armored infantry "war games" and got reassigned to Ft. Ord, much closer to home. So my last six months as a draftee were far less uncomfortable than they could have been.
In August of '69, I was out and back to San Diego, where I had been drafted during college in April of 1967. The GI Bill afforded me a great chance to continue school, and I did so, with relish. Strangely, my months of experience with south Vietnamese peasants made me want to study anthropology in the worst way. And so I did. I re-enrolled at San Diego State University this time as an anthropology major and not a business major. How refreshing that was! I plunged into my studies and found myself on the Dean's List every semester instead of "On Probation" as I usually was prior to being drafted.
In the middle of my second semester back, Nixon initiated the Cambodian excursion and, of course, My Lai had come to the forefront of the insidious war effort. And then, Kent State happened. It's easy to forget how shocked we were then. So much has happened since. I had quietly opposed the war since my return, but only in private conversations. I just didn't bring it up unless it was necessary. But now I was back in school and felt a visceral connection with people who opposed the war. I was one of them, but quietly so. And I had something to say. But I remained quiet, except for letters to the editor and personal conversations. My family knew of my dismay, but not of my experiences. There was never any real inquiry about my combat days.
Immediately after the Kent State shootings, there was talk of the college being closed down for a few days, to forestall any protests like those emerging around the country. In the school newspaper, I read a notice that a group of veterans who were opposed to the war was going to meet in the student center. I decided to go. How could I not? Veterans, like me, who were opposed to the war. Who knew? So I went, expecting to see perhaps 10-15 guys in a small room who had convictions and needed to vent. But when I got there, the meeting was in a small auditorium and there were perhaps 200 guys there. It shocked me. I still remember the feeling that I had when I saw that group. I thought that maybe I was just a disgruntled, somewhat angry and resentful young vet who was atypical. It turned out that I was part of a wave. This was, in fact, an incipient meeting of a chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I was smitten. Most memorably, I recall two pilots, who had flown bombing missions against peasants, tell their emotional stories of carnage and how sorry they were. It was a tear-jerking event but very important to me.
In the ensuing days, after the school had, indeed, shut down, I went to more meetings and agreed to speak to community groups about my experiences in the war. I was still only 22, and this was not my usual routine, but I did it and have been forever grateful for that.
One of the things that I decided to do, as other vets did also was to write a letter to my dad, a conservative Orange County, CA republican who supported the war and did not show an inclination to hear about my experiences when I returned. That was very sad, and I struggled to overcome that, and I did.
In that letter, I expressed my dismay about the war, again. I even had to remind him that I had been there had been in combat and therefore had some level of experience on the issue. How could I have to say this again but I did!
Days passed, and the protests continued and it was the news of the day. I finally received a reply from my dad. It was sharp, condemning, and without concession or understanding. I was hurt perhaps devastated. My own dad, who had been spared conscription in WWII by an employment exemption, could not bring himself to try and understand his own son's opinions that were based on such visceral experiences? I still lament that circumstance. I always admired him so much when I was young. But he got locked into that post WWII conservative mindset, and he never left it even when his son had perspectives based on actual experience that contradicted his beliefs.
My story is, I suspect, a relatively common one. Those were fractious times not unlike now. Somehow we got through those difficult days. Maybe we can do it again. But the pain lives on.
Chuck Aswell is a retired teacher living in Penn Valley, California. He was drafted in his 3rd year of college in San Diego, in 1967. He served with the 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division, south of Saigon in 1968.