Robert Baker, Vietnam veteran
Destrehan, LOUISIANA, US
The way in which you are affected by your service in Vietnam changes as you grow older. Age has a way of providing a more meaningful and reverent review of the crazy, mindboggling things you did in your youth, particularly when it comes to Vietnam. In the 3 plus years I spent there, I felt I was impervious to harm, even though I spent a lot of time in positions that maximized your exposure to the enemy, as a door-gunner on a helicopter and later as an infantry officer. I didn't have a lot of time to worry about those who became casualties. I learned rather quickly that to do so was a maddening exercise in futility. The mission always came first. Now, thirty years later, I often spend time reflecting on the perils of that era, and those who were less fortunate than I, and it has been the source of more than a few thoughtful and trying moments. I am the diabolical opposite of the young carefree and rambunctious soldier I was in Vietnam. I am a father, grandfather, and the family's elder statesman, experiencing a whole new range of emotions and responsibilities. Now I tend to be much more careful, certainly not aggressive, and prefer to make judgments in a slow and exacting way.
This is the first New Years Eve since I left Vietnam that I did not retire to my garage with a glass of scotch to salute in private those many friends that did not come back. I'm not sure why. Its something I'll have to think about for a while, I guess. In the many years past, I have always been able to sense their presence there with me in the garage. I envisioned them just as they were when I last saw them, young and in jungle fatigues. This yearly vigil gave me the opportunity to say thanks again; thanks for watching my back, thanks for making the sacrifice, and thanks for serving your country. I remember them when I see a Vietnam special on television or whenever that beautiful American Flag majestically leads the way at the front of a parade. The tears well, the throat tightens.
My children, with one exception, are grown now. They are old enough to see a movie or read an article on the war, and understand the impact it had on both this country and the people of Vietnam. They prompt me to talk about "what it was like" from time to time, much the same as I did with my father about WWII. Two years ago I wrote a book containing a collection of stories that included a lot of my experiences in Vietnam, and other events and anecdotes relative to family experiences. I gave it to my children for Christmas. Of course they liked it, but in a lot of ways I really wrote it for me. There are many stories and events that I just simply refuse to forget, and this was my way of permanently recording these memories in a way they will always be there for me.
I've noticed in my present job that there is a bond that exists between the vets. I think we just know that we can always count on each other, and still believe the requirement to watch each other's back didn't end with the cessation of military operations in Vietnam.
I have a 12 year old son. He looks the part of a good Airborne Soldier and he's so much smarter and wiser than I ever was or will be. I would take great pride in seeing him serve his country in uniform, but I cringe at the thought of his hand slippping from mine to board an aircraft that would fly him away to another Vietnam. That would take more courage than I've ever mustered before.