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Notes from the Boonies
By Paul Wisovaty
The Tuscola VFW Post has around 40 members, about 20% of whom I would call active. "Active" means that they show up at meetings, pitch in with fundraisers, march in parades, and in general do whatever needs to be done. Of the paid-up but not literally active members, I probably wouldn't recognize half of them if I passed them on the street. I'm guessing that they join and pay their dues so they can wear a VFW ball cap, and while they are sitting around at McDonald's every morning someone will thank them for their service. That means a lot to those guys.
Of the eight members who actually participate, we have two Korean War vets, five Afghan or Iraq vets, and one Vietnam veteran: me. I was sitting around at a recent meeting, and one of the Middle East vets turned and asked me, "What was it like when you got back from Viet Nam?" I don't think about that a lot, partly because I don't have any close friends in Tuscola who are Vietnam vets with whom I can talk about that experience. But his question was a legitimate one. What was it like to come back from the Vietnam War?
I'm guessing that if you ask ten Vietnam vets that question, you would get pretty close to ten different answers. Part of what I say will hit home with some of our readers, while I suspect that for others it will sound like a foreign language. The only thing I'm pretty sure of is that it wasn't anything like coming home from WWII.
Actually, I have ten or twelve good stories I could tell, but The Veteran has strict wordage limitations on submissions. I'm quite sure that this is because of contributors like myself, so I'll just offer two or three "coming home" stories, and the reader may decide if any of them make any sense.
I ETS'd and returned home on June 2,1968 - as William Manchester entitled it, "The Year Everything Went Wrong". Two weeks later I enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Just returning from an armored cavalry squadron in Vietnam, it was in one sense like landing on another planet. In another way, it almost seemed as if I had just returned after taking a semester off. Walking along the university quad, all I saw was happy-go-lucky young students playing Frisbee with their dogs. Conversations in the student union or in campus bars were about the same as you would have heard ten years earlier: what classes they were taking, whom they were dating, and next Saturday's home football game against Michigan, and we're sure gonna kick some Wolverine ass this time! (We almost never did.) And maybe Vietnam, but improbably. Too many other things were more important.
We did have occasional anti-war demonstrations, but they weren't large, and fortunately they didn't end like Kent State. And Urbana-Champaign was a long way, geographically and culturally, from Madison or Berkeley. I did go to DC a few times for some much larger protests, but that was DC and I was going to school in conservative little central Illinois. I would guess it was safer here anyway.
One more story. I was talking one day with a male student who was about to graduate, and would lose his 2-S student deferment. Lacking bone spurs, and this being the year of Tet, he was almost certain to be drafted. But he opposed the war, and had thought about going to Canada. As I had (finally) become anti-war, I responded that I would certainly support his decision to do that. Yes indeed. O Canada!
I will never forget his response. It was something like, "That is so nice of you. You came home safe and sound, you've got the GI Bill to pay for your education, you get to join the VFW and march in parades, and I'm sure you've got some real good war stories you can tell in bars. And you're giving me your permission to do what you didn't have the guts to do in 1966. Thanks but no thanks." And he got up and walked away and I never saw him again.
My first thought at the time had been to go after him and punch him. Here I was, a good veteran who had done what our government told him to do, and this guy was calling me the coward. And I was even offering to support him if he went to Canada! Some guys just don't appreciate anything.
But, of course, there is another side to the story. What really took more "guts," submitting to the draft with the possibility that you would come back "safe and sound," or going to Canada with the possibility that you might never get to go home again? And you would be leaving your parents back home to deal with that decision.
Of course, there is also one issue which would seem to trump them all: how courageous, or how honorable, was it to participate in the invasion of a foreign country?
Anway, that was 52 years ago, and I don't know whether that young man went to Canada or submitted to the draft. But just maybe he belongs to VVAW and is reading this column, and can talk about it. I think I would like to do that.
Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois. He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.