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It Still Hurts
By Jim Wohlgemuth
So today at Unity Church here in Nashville the pastor, John MacLean, led a remembrance of 1967, the fiftieth anniversary of The Summer of Love. The service was of music and trends and a lot of fun. Of course it started off with Scott MacKenzie's, "San Francisco," you know, don't forget "to wear a flower in your hair." He moved to other songs like Aretha Franklin's, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" and "The Beat Goes On" by Sonny and Cher. There was a discussion of Hair and the band led us in singing "Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In" and others. The joint was jumping.
But like '67 it was not all fun and frolic. He stopped to talk about Detroit in 1967 where over 40 African Americans (he reminded us that African Americans were called Negroes at the time) were killed by police and National Guard. He talked about the desperation that leads to riots. How can we blame rioters when desperation of injustice and poverty is overwhelming. He showed pictures of tanks in the streets and how could this happen in the streets of American cities.
He talked about the news and then Vietnam. I was OK for a while. He reminded us that we all listened to Walter Cronkite and got our news often from "Life" or "Look" Magazines. I was still OK. He said in 1967 the anti-war movement was getting going and that 11,000 young Americans were already dead and that more than 40,000 were yet to die along with the millions of Vietnamese. I was hanging on. Then a member of the congregation shouted out who was in Vietnam? John asked all Vietnam Vets to raise their hands and I glanced at my wife and saw her nod strength and I raised my hand and began losing it. I pulled my hand down and then raised it again and then some one asked us to stand up. No I could not, I would not. I was in tears by this point. A wonderful gentleman from behind tapped me on the shoulder and said "Thanks for your service." I could not speak and just flashed a peace sign as I nodded. The tears and emotion blocked the cheers from the congregation, why were they clapping?
In '67 Vietnam was only a lingering fear in the back of my mind as I graduated from high school and prepared to go off to Drexel Institute of Technology not realizing how totally unprepared I was. After an unsuccessful year at Drexel, I found myself forced by my Mom to visit a recruiter before the draft board caught up to me. Vietnam would grab me the summer of '69 when I joined the Westchester County LST 1167 and sailed into Da Nang. From there we went to Chu Lai, where on August 13th, 1969 Viet Cong rockets streaked through the sky and into the base causing us to go to general quarters and for me to wonder how any of this had happened. It was over in a half and hour. The next morning there ware several plumes of smoke but that was it. I had no more close encounters with violence until my last cruise. This time on the Point Defiance LSD 31 when, as a ready group of four ships, we headed toward the beach for a helicopter assault north of Hue. The LST in the group came under fire and we were ordered hard to port and got out of there while the cruiser Oklahoma City streaked by guns a blazing.
My brushes with danger were so minimal compared to the Army and Marines in-country yet here I was almost 50 years later still agonizing over Vietnam. After the Navy and college I worked in DC. A portion of that work was across Constitution Ave from the Vietnam Memorial. I would visit it often. The weight of the names on the wall would hit me hard. Why were they there and not standing next to me. Why was I not one of the names? Did I shirk my responsibility by joining the Navy to avoid the risk that these 58,000 plus took and lost?
Everyday at least once a day I am touched by my service in the Navy. It was not a positive. It is nothing I am proud of. And it is nothing I share unless asked. It is also something I am not personally ashamed of even though I am ashamed of the politicians that led us into that needless conflict to kill millions while killing 58,000 plus young American who should be grandfathers and grandmothers now.
I cried again today at church, knowing what I always have known. That I will never get over and get rid of Vietnam. And now realizing the youngsters who we continue to send into harms way and the tears they will shed for the rest of their lives.
God help us. All of us.
Jim Wohlgemuth, USN 1968 to 1972, graduated from Indiana University of Pa 1976, married 1977. He retired from the Federal Government in 2005 and retired from teaching 2014. He is a member of VVAW, VVA, & Veterans for Peace.