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What Could I Have Done? What Should I Have Done?
By Jim Wohlgemuth
Writing about 1972 and my personal history does seem a bit trite and self-centered, after all, I did so little. It was my last year in the Navy and I was confident in myself and my ability to survive. So, I had come a long way from the frightened seaman watching the VC rockets slam into the base at Chu Lai while we were beached. I was transferred from the Westchester County LST 1167 to the Point Defiance, LSD 31. I had moved home ports from Yokosuka, Japan to Long Beach. I was counting the days, and through a strange twist of fate, and an inattentive Executive Officer, I would get my request for an early out approved.
I headed home in September sneaking on the plane in my "civis" and with my hair seriously out of compliance. At home, I got ready to attend college at IUP (Indiana University of Pennsylvania). I was leaving the Navy and Vietnam forever. That was the plan and for the most part, it worked; the recognition of exposure to Agent Orange, and a diagnosis of a little PTSD would come later.
College was going great and living was good. Then in 1975, my experience in the military came crashing in and I realized it had all been for nothing. Of course, I knew that in 1972. I knew that our Vietnam efforts were futile in 1969 but now it was real. South Vietnam, where the US had lost over 58,000 of our own while killing millions and leaving a wasteland, was falling. I went home and watched with my dad as NVA tanks roared into Saigon and I started to cry. I had taken many little film clips of my Navy experience (most of which I have posted on YouTube) including our assignment to Market Time and Ready Groups. I went into my bedroom and started watching the films; one after another after another, while I drank a beer or maybe two or three. My Dad came in and said this is really upsetting for you. I told him that I was just so glad it was over but I am also so upset with all that we had done to those poor people of Vietnam, and to each other. I had not been in country like those poor guys dressed in green. I had not suffered as they suffered but now I realized I was complicit in the suffering that was Vietnam. Why didn't I do something beyond the one letter I wrote to the editor of my local Butler County Eagle, condemning the National Guard at Kent State. What could I have done? What should I have done?
I was grateful to the Peace Movement for putting the pressure on to end our involvement, but just pulling out still left the carnage, the environmental destruction, and the memories of what we had done. Unfortunately, we could never pull it all out. I had heard about Vietnam Veterans taking a stand, bearing witnesses, testifying, and throwing their medals away. I was grateful and in awe of their courage. Where was my courage? What should I have done, what could I have done? In this time frame I sent my first check to VVAW, I think. I heard that there was talk about building a memorial to the Vietnam War and initially, I was taken aback and wondered why, but then I heard about Jan Scruggs who just wanted to remember the nameless faces that would soon be lost to history. I sent another check, what more could I do? What should I have done?
I was skeptical then grateful when I saw the design of the memorial, of the "Wall." I was grateful when it was done, but despite living in the DC area, I did not go to the dedication. My first daughter was recently born, but, seriously, I did not feel worthy. I had watched the sacrifice and suffering without enduring it. Weeks later, I walked down to see "The Wall" during a lunch hour from my job at the Department of Commerce. I was by myself and when I got there it was wonderful and horrific, all at the same time. I started to tear up and I had to leave, all the while asking myself what could I have done? What should I have done?
After almost thirty years, I would finish my federal career working in the old BIA building right across Constitution Avenue from the "Wall." I would visit once a week slowing down, during a run, to take a breath and honor all those NAMES (thanks to Jan Scruggs) and always wondered what could I have done? What should I have done?
So, I was talking to a friend Al Glatkowki and if anyone knows Al, you know just how much he did and his personal sacrifice. It was during that conversation when I wondered just how many guys are out there like me that still wonder what we all could have done then, back in 1972 or before or since? What should we have done? I wonder how many old guys go through their day with just a tinge of guilt about something we did or something we did not do? I know I do. That is why I will wear my VVAW sweatshirt, wave my Veterans for Peace flag, talk on my little podcast (Veterans for Peace Radio hour on Spotify) about the damage caused by US militarism and imperialism to this day. I have a Vietnam Vet license plate hoping someone will try to thank me for my service. Then I can talk to them about the futility and devastation of war and ask them to try to be more aware of US militarism, imperialism, and the military-industrial, congressional, media, complex. As you can expect, those conversations, when they occur, do not last long here in Tennessee.
I know I will never relieve that tinge of guilt that I feel. I know I can never repay the debt I owe to the Vietnamese people or to the 58,000 on that "wall," or the brave young people of the peace movement and those servicemen and women, those vets who took a stand against that war, but at least now I know I am doing just a little something and I am grateful for VVAW and Veterans for Peace for giving me that inspiration.
Jim Wohlgemuth was on the USS Westchester County LST 1167 from 1969 to 1971. He was on the USS Point Defiance LSD 31 from 1971 to 1972. He is a retired Federal employee and Middle School Social Studies Teacher. He is co-host of the Veterans for Peace Radio hour on Radio Free Nashville, Spotify, SoundCloud and Pacifica radio.