Thank A Vietnam Vet?

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“Thank you, Sir, for coming to see us,” I said as I shook hands with the largest hand I had ever held in my 19 years.

“No son,” the man replied with a sorrowful voice and sad gaze, “thank you for being here.”   This big man appeared to be supporting the weight of the world on his drooping, broad shoulders.

This was my total conversation with the then leader of the “Free World”, LBJ, or President Lynden B. Johnson. The place was on a small knoll of sand at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam; the year 1966.

I was very young and knew little of politics, let alone the politics and economics of war, but I loved my country, enlisted and volunteered for duty in Vietnam. My heart had been crushed at the assassination of a President whom I had admired, JFK, in my senior year of High School. Somehow my patriotism began to grow after the shock of such an evil act against one of our Presidents in my life time. I was proud to serve, and appreciative of a visit by my President on that day.   There was a picture of me with LBJ published in the soon after U.S. News and World Report magazine.

A Year Later . . .

Standing in the Army terminal awaiting the time to board a contracted commercial airliner for my journey home, the young boarding agent, Army enlisted man, asked to see my orders and shot records.   In a moment of shock and fright he said that he could not give me a boarding pass because my shot record was not up to date. I knew that it was as I had made two trips to the base hospital to make sure that it was.   He pointed out that the shot in question, a plague shot, had not been given. It was 45 minutes to boarding.

I hitch-hiked to an Army infirmary I had never seen before to beg for a plague shot. They agreed and I was given the shot and they gave my record folder back. I raced out to catch a ride back to the terminal and arrived to hear the announcing of boarding. I gave the boarding agent my shot record and he looked surprised and stated again that he could not give me a boarding pass. In my rush to get the plague shot, I did not look at the record. It had been noted about a plague shot, but the doctor did not sign and date the record.

At this I was in a panic and the frightening events of the last 13 months raced through my mind. It was at that moment of confusion and panic as I lifted my sleeve to reveal a trickle of blood, that a master sergeant standing nearby hearing what was going on said to the young agent in firm tones, “Let him on the plane!”

The pilot was welcoming us all on board as he was moving toward take off.   It was 10:00 am the moment he said, “The flight line temperature at take off is 136 degrees. Sorry you all have to leave this tropical paradise.”

Okinawa, Japan was our first stopping place. We had a little over an hour layover for fuel at least. We were asked to deplane while they serviced the plane. Then we all lined up to re-board. There was a problem and I was held up at the gate.   My name was not on the manifest.   They were determined to not let me back on the plane.

Travelling with me was my supervisor for the past 13 months. He stepped up and convinced them I had been on the plane with him from Cam Ranh Bay. I was allowed to board. I determined I was not getting off that plane until it set down at Travis AFB in California.

20 Hours Later . . .

“Is anyone sitting next to you, young man,” I said to the small boy on my plane leaving San Francisco for Los Angeles.   It turned out that the young boy was six years old, and he was excited to have a man in uniform sit with him. At least he was excited until he learned I was returning from Vietnam. It seems his dad had filled his mind with hate and distrust for baby killers in the U.S. military.   This was my first realization that I was not a returning hero. It wasn’t long before I learned to never talk about my tour in Nam again.

It was not until after 9-11 that I began to comfortably speak of my time in Vietnam, even though I returned with a team of prayerwalkers in 1998.

March 29th is designated National Vietnam Veteran’s Day. Most people are not even aware.   When the Vietnam personnel began to return home, America was ill-prepared to give them the things they really needed. I am not speaking of parades and celebrations, but a little human understanding and help in readjusting to normal life after this long and brutal war, the evils of which many were not prepared to see and experience.

Neither the military nor the VA was prepared to assist these veterans with what they would suffer, some for the rest of their lives.   It has been estimated that 500,000 personnel suffered from PTSD. I myself suffered from on-going nightmares for years. And the thousands who would suffer lingering and deadly effects of our government’s Agent Orange assaults on vegetation turned out to be as brutal as anything the Viet Cong had dreamed up to afflict our troops.

Yes, say thank you to our Vietnam vets, I personally appreciate the words, as others do because that is something we never heard when we returned.   We were not greeted at airports and military bases with cheers and flag waving as some have returning from the Gulf War, or more recent Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yes, please say “Thank you, and welcome home.” It is greatly appreciated. I am often moved to tears from the kindness of those words. But, if the LORD gives you opportunity, do something nice for one or more of these aging, often struggling veterans of a war that was not their choosing, and a war that they each one desired to win for the sake of a better world.

To my fellow veterans, I pray for you all, and I am glad you are home again.   And, if I get a chance, lunch is on me.   God bless the rest of your lives!

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