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LETTERS TO VVAW
By Thomas B. Chapman II
I am Thomas B. Chapman II and forty-seven years old. I just stumbled onto your VVAW home page. I read some of your info and I see that you folks help with bad discharges. I'm not sure if you are the man that I need to talk with...or even if I have missed the boat. But as I sit here and peck at this keyboard I feel overwhelmed ...overwhelmed by the flooding in of my 27 years of carrying this burden (which I shall tell you more about later)...overwhelmed with a somewhat strange, maybe hopeful feeling of finally stepping out to resolve my internal war that has raged both consciously and subconsciously ever since I chose to leave the military service after one year and three days of stateside service. Joe, however it goes, I am thankful for this opportunity to speak my heart to a caring "ear."
I was drafted in mid summer 1968. You know, Joe, as I sit here trying to get this all out, I find it difficult to remember specific dates so I may be off a little in that area. I was a nineteen year old boy who had been on the honor roll most of my school years, active in 4-H and sports, and worked a part time job at fourteen years of age and full time while attending school at fifteen years old - paying much of my own way and helping a little in the support of our family.
I did basic training in Fort Polk, Louisiana and hated it...people demanding respect and giving none in return. They said that it would get better when I got to AIT; I went through medical training in Fort Sam Houston, Texas...saw the same nonsense going on there (now let me tell you - I was somewhat of a rebellious kid and didn't like military treatment). I was permanent duty at Ft. Carson, Colorado. I would screen sick call in the morning and clean the dispensary and find sometimes hours awaiting the end of the duty day. I, along with another medic, was ordered to sham in the back of an aid vehicle in the motor pool so that the "brass" wouldn't see us and come down on the sergeant who ordered us into the ambulances to kill time. This stunk! Here I was with a mother and father in Chicago in bad health and I needed to be there with them instead of here playing games.
I applied for a compassionate reassignment and when the paperwork was returned to the company clerk he said that I had grounds for a hardship discharge. I took a leave of absence to go home and I never returned. I called my company commander when my leave was over and told him that I wasn't going back to the army.
I assumed another name and SS# and stayed away for several years until I grew tired of looking over my shoulder, went back to my real name and SS# and awaited the Feds. The FBI picked me up in 1976 and took me to Fort. Knox, Kentucky, where I waited in the stockade for my discharge. The Red Cross contacted the military and informed them that my little brother had overdosed on drugs and that it looked like he would die. The army let me go home to see my brother (the only compassionate thing that I saw them do in my one year and three days with them and I do appreciate them doing that!). My brother, thanks to God, did live.
The army had me to return to Fort Knox to pick up my "undesirable discharge" papers. I first realized what undesirable discharge meant when I applied as a medic at the hometown fire department. The captain liked my qualifications and attitude. He told me that the city would be giving tests in a few months and that in the meantime I could work as a volunteer. We shook hands and I turned to leave, stopped, turned and walked back to the gentleman. I told him that I should let him know that I have a "U D." He said, as he tore up my paperwork and tossed it into the trash can, "The city frowns on that." I was very discouraged.
The war within me...Mr. Miller, I got off track here but I really needed to pour this out. I thank you for "listening." At one point while in Fort Carson, I was assigned to work at the hospital. If I remember right, Carson was the largest or one of the largest posts for returnees from Vietnam. I enjoyed serving the men there. Many of them had not been on solid foods for a long time. I worked the night shift and as I made my rounds I found that some men were ready for solid foods and often it would be days (if memory serves me well) before a doctor would sign orders to change diet. Well, I knew an ol' boy in the kitchen and he would give me a big bowl of fruit that I hid in the bottom of my "rounds" cart. I would check the men's charts to see who was able to take solids and I would let them choose what fruit they wanted. Joe, money can't buy the feeling one gets just watching the appreciation on their faces for a simple piece of fruit. It gave me a feeling of self worth.
Well, at some point of time around the compassionate reassignment/hardship discharge period, another medic and I got orders for Nam. There was an error made - they had us down as ground pounders instead of medics and that voided those orders. I was told that the error would be corrected and that we would still go when new orders were issued. Joe, I was terrified. I reasoned that if I went and was killed that my parents would just die. I was told by the returnees that I served in the hospital (all the men except one who wanted to go back and kill, kill, kill) that if they had it to do over again they would not go - no matter what the cost. They hated the killing of innocent people...men, women and children. I was really torn, Joe.
I was a good medic; I could save lives if I went to war. But I knew in my heart that if I was faced with a kill-or-be-killed situation, I would kill: whether it was myself I was defending or the lives of the men that I would be there to patch up and protect. I have lived with this struggle over half my life...thinking myself to be a stinking coward. Unless God changes something, I shall go to my grave feeling like a coward.
Joe, I had a girlfriend to whom I returned when I left the military. She lived on the top floor of a high-rise apartment. I took her home after a date one night (not long after quitting the army). I kissed her goodnight at the door of her apartment, turned and walked towards the elevator as she entered her apartment. Suddenly I heard gunshots (at that time I wasn't carrying a gun or any other weapon). I immediately turned and ran towards the apartment, thinking: what am I going to do against a gun? The answer was that I didn't know but I had to rescue her. As I broke through the door the lights came on and I saw her sliding down the wall to the floor with a trail of blood on the wall. I grabbed her, eased her onto the floor and called the emergency squad (or whatever they were called back then). Her brother had shot her in the dark, thinking that she was a burglar. Thankfully, she turned out fine. I realize, Joe, that I would have gladly laid down my life to save hers.
I reason that I am not a coward based upon my reactions to that situation. However, Joe, somehow that does not resolve my internal war of whether I made the right choice as a twenty year old boy and how many lives I could have saved (even one life) to return home to his/their family? How many lives would I have taken? Would my life have been taken? Would I have returned as a basket case like several guys that I know who were there? Am I just a STINKING COWARD and trying to make excuses? If you don't like to see a grown man cry then you had better turn your head 'cause this is tearing me up!!!! How many men (boys) died, Joe, because I wasn't there to defend them...to watch their backs...to patch them up...HOW MANY, JOE? HOW MANY DIED ,JOE, BECAUSE I WASN'T THERE - HOW MANY?
Well, Joe, that felt good. I just took a few minutes to just bawl. I found a quarter of a century of pain flowing out like the explosion of a dam. I have never been able to get it out as I just did...grieving...sobbing...cleansing. You know, Joe, I was just thinking that if I feel this way...how many others are in the same boat that I'm in? How many others need the healing that just began in me? How many others are so very much worse than I am? How can I help them, Joe? Joe, how can I help in what you good people are doing? I sure do thank you (until you are better paid) for being there for me. Please let me know what I can do to help.
Thank you, Joe, for allowing me to bend your ear.