John Wear, Vietnam veteran
New Hope, PA, USA
(The below letter appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, April 23, 2000. A few weeks before it was published, the editor of the paper's Community Voices section had asked the readers: What did Vietnam teach you about America ... its values and its people? This is what I wrote deep from within my heart.)
I grew up as an Air Force "brat." My father (may he rest in peace) was a 30-year career US Air Force officer. I was raised as an "America, love it or leave it," right-wing, conservative Republican. I graduated from a military preparatory high school with the "America, my country, right or wrong, my country" attitude. President John F Kennedy's words, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what can you do for your country" still rang in my ears as I joined the US Marine Corps in mid-1966. After completing Bootcamp, I was practically rabid in my belief that America could do no wrong. During my enlistment (in 1967), Time magazine published a letter that I had written to the editor where I chastised (then) Cassias Clay for saying that he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong and for his not submitting to the draft. In that letter, I wrote the we should "fight now and love later." Not much later, I spent twelve months and twenty-nine days inside a flame-thrower tank "playing hide and seek" with the North Vietnamese Army in and around the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Vietnam. I saw a lot of unpleasantness (to say the least) but I came home physically unscathed. I arrived in Vietnam a proud "gung-ho" American fighting man, I came home a disillusioned and ashamed "old" man.
Luckily I was never was spat upon nor was I called a "baby killer." For years I perceived that due to the lack of interest by the general public, I avoided any and all confrontations and conversations about "Nam." What did they know anyway? They weren't there. I did not join the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, the Marine Corps League or any other of the veterans groups. Why? I imagine that my inner conflict of a proud warrior versus an ashamed loser could not be resolved. Killing the enemy was practically a mechanical thing. You see them, you point and you shoot. The Marine Corps trained us to do this, it was our job. But seeing brave American fighting men killed and/or horribly wounded in battle was one of the most traumatic things anyone can imagine. I also had a very good friend killed during my tour. I believe to this day that if my tank had been accompanying his tank during that bloody operation back in May of 1968 that I could have somehow keep him from the needless death that occurred. I visit his name on The Wall (in Washington, DC) often. It's a very small consolation.
What did Vietnam teach me? I taught me that I was young, stupid and way too gullible back in the 1960's. Then in the 1970's it taught me that the American people have deeper feelings for American embassy non-combatant civilians who have been held hostage by Iranian militants than they do for the American fighting man who shed blood in Vietnam. Who got the ticker-tape parade down 5th Avenue? In the 1980's the Vietnam War's legacy taught me that during and after the conflict we were lied to by everyone from the military leaders all the way up to the President about what we did and why we did it. Who recalls "the light at the end of the tunnel'? During the 1980's it taught me that we Vietnam Veterans could put our money where our mouths were and collected enough money (without the US Government's involvement) to build a most awesome memorial to our fallen comrades-at-arms..."The Wall." Finally in the 1990's, thank God, I located a group of USMC Vietnam tankers who after 30 years have reached out and found one another. I am now no longer afraid, ashamed or angry. I am proud of what I did in the past and proud once again of my country, the United States of America.