Tim Lickness, Vietnam veteran
San Diego, CA, USA
by Tim Lickness, 2000
It does not seem that long ago that I paid my last visit to my friend Don, but, in fact, it’s been thirty years. Don and I had been best friends since seventh grade. Although neither of us would admit it we knew he was dying from the effects of his tour of duty in Vietnam. Don enlisted in the Marines the same day I signed up to be a paratrooper in the Army. We shared the experience of that war. I had been a twenty-one year old platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles of World War II fame. Don had been a forward observer with a Marine unit I now cannot remember. I looked into his eyes and saw his soul. I knew that he had been to hell and back, but now he was a peace. I will never forget that sight.
A little over a year before that I lay in a hospital bed in Yokohama, Japan recovery from infections that were the result of otherwise minor war wounds. I had spent the first part of the year in Vietnam, where I had little time to think about what I was doing in the war. But, as I stared at the ceiling of my hospital room, I thought about what I had been through. It had been tough, but I knew that I had done what other American soldiers had done in other wars: my best to do my duty under difficult circumstances.
Three months later, I went back to “the world”, back to the United States, where, to my surprise, I was not welcomed home like soldiers of other wars. Most people did not want to hear my story. So for nearly thirty years I have kept quiet. Except for other veterans of this war, few would know what we had seen and what we had felt. The impact of our experience has profoundly influenced us. I am not sure I can adequately describe my experience, but I owe to myself, my children, my friend Don and to my country to try.
I arrived in South Vietnam in February 1968. The communist North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong had launched the now infamous Tet Offensive, a countrywide assault upon the major population centers and much of the countryside. The US military went on a counter offensive, which in hindsight was largely a military success. There was intense fighting through much of the rest of 1968. Reading now about the war in 1968 you would think we had been defeated. The truth is that we were successful on the battlefield, but the result was a public relations disaster back home. At the time all I could see was what one infantry platoon was doing in a very small part of a very large jungle.
Most of what Americans know about our national experience in Vietnam has to do with war crimes like Mai Lai, or of gruesome depictions of civilian casualties such as the famous photo of that naked 12 year old girl fleeing her village aflame or of a VC being executed with a bullet to the head. People remember Agent Orange or drug abuse or post-stress syndrome. Or they still argue about how and why we got there and why we didn’t leave sooner. Incredibly most do not know of the honorable, hard service by most of us who served. Most Americans do not want to know and most veterans do not want to talk about what it was like.
We did not always know what was going on. Sometimes we sat for hours or days waiting for orders. Sometimes it was even boring. We dreamt of home – of American girls, of cars and of hamburgers. We lived for letters from home. We counted the days until we would return. We also fought fierce battles for small amounts of ground or to tally a body count.
The food was lousy. The bugs were everywhere. Our clothes were soaked. There was nowhere to be comfortable. You had no privacy. A sound nights sleep was impossible. Death was always close.
Some days, we would be called on to cradle a soldier in our arms, both of you knowing he would soon be dead. You will never forget the plaintiff sound of his voice asking for morphine, or the warmth of his intestines on your hand as you tried pressing them back into his body, or his final fixed stare at you – one moment alive the next dead.
It is impossible now to explain why you kept blowing air in the mouth of a friend even after he threw up in yours, even after you knew he was dead. You wanted to yell at him for dying, but you couldn’t. We fell exhausted unable even to cry and a moment later, were rocked back into fighting by a shot overhead. Or how explosions would cause loss control of your bladder or wind. The smells made us retch. The sights made us numb. But still, like soldiers in every war, we had a job to do.
And, finally, some of us went home. But there were no parades. We had no Ernie Pyle to record our battles or “Saving Private Ryan” to tell of our heroics. We have been looked upon as kooks or crazies or, by some, as victims. But that is not who we are. We are you neighbors, your stockbrokers, your lawyers, your handymen, your child’s teachers. It was hard service in a difficult and unpopular war. But we served out of a sense of duty. We were forever changed: physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. We learned about sacrifice, courage, determination and the honor of duty well performed.
Most of us never asked for a hero’s welcome, as most of us were not heroes. But we want you to know what we went through and to be welcomed home like soldiers from America’s other wars. But most of all, we want to you appreciate the freedoms and liberties we all enjoy in this country and the part men and women veterans of Vietnam have done to insure them.
This Veteran’s Day I will put a flag up in front of my house in memory of my friend and the others who “gave their tomorrows for your today”. My hope is that the people of this country will some day appreciate Vietnam Veterans and our part in the noble calling of giving oneself for others.