Awarded: August 22, 2004What did I know: 21 years old, mostly a dreamer filled with visions of moving and doing things to make a better, kinder world? A believer taught by loved and respected family members that the greatest good I could do in this world would be to fight with my every resource to make this a world where people are respected and treated with dignity.
Vietnam was a controversial topic, depending on where you were and who you listened to it was anything from an outrage – to the devils work – to a great altruistic undertaking, and there were even people who paid no attention to it at all.
I fell somewhere in the middle.
I think John F. Kennedy’s line about what we could do for our country, what I might be able to contribute, had been guiding me for years and I just never realized that fact.
I knew there was a war, I knew people were dying; I was no stranger to death. When you have a big family you attend lots of funerals as older relatives die off. The difference is that they were just that. Old people who had been suffering for years with most of the afflictions of old age and it was a release for them from the pain of living, a kindness because at last they had rest, at last they had no pain.
I’ve already said I studied a lot of history, I knew about wars, from inside books, all the way back to the crusades, nothing in books can prepare someone when it comes down to being in a war.
Being in Vietnam was worse, there was not even the preparation of association with previous wars, this was a war with no lines and where you could not identify the enemy by looking at him. There were no “safe areas” and only some grease pencil marks on a plastic map showed where the “war” was going on.
The fact that those marks changed often, sometimes in the course of a day, was not a piece of information widely shared.
I was unprepared for the intensity, not only of the conflict, but of my reactions to it.
You have already read my baptism of fire. Draw in your mind if you can the picture of this young kid fired up not just with the wish to prove that he was as good as grandfather and father, not just with a love of country that told him that his country could do no wrong but with the fires built and banked by the army training just waiting for a chance to flare up, all that was needed was the fuel.
It wasn’t just the nightly harassment by Charlie that became a game after a while. He’d drop a few mortar – enough to get us out of bed – and then stop and move on somewhere else or just sit back and wait till the next night.
It even got to where we would set up a pool each of us drawing a time of day when the first round would land because they rarely did any real damage. He just wanted to yank our chains and, like a nest of ants suddenly kicked open, watch us scurry around in useless circles.
For me it was the times he’d only drop one or two. I’d sit there sweating and waiting for the next one to come, praying, “Please God let me live through this just one more time”, knowing that the spot I sat in was probably as well sighted-in as if I had been sitting on Charlie’s sighting range. Knowing he could drop a round on the thin sheet metal of the guard post or into one of the sandbagged pits as easily as if he were standing there tossing it in as part of a game of horseshoes.
Day in, day out, although usually daytime was better but then we made better targets as individuals during the day so it’s hard to say.
In 1967, even the end of ‘67, things were, according to the media, all going our way. So much so that the US Army had decided that in a gesture of good will based on the power of being ahead in the game they would allow the celebration of the TET holiday for 1968, complete with fireworks.
This was like giving Charlie a safe conduct pass to the places he most wanted to be, no questions asked. We used to joke about it but at the 1st signal compound on plantation road in Saigon we kept a field telephone on a post outside the compound hooked into the Army/ARVN switchboard. We knew Charlie used that phone, and we listened in, of course Charlie never said anything that was important but it was there all the same.
Each day brought new tensions; after TET it seemed like all hell fell through the bottom of the basket and ended up lying in our front yard, like something the neighbor’s dog left waiting for you to step into.
I had friends who were wounded or killed, just like a thousand others or more. I spent 8 hours on the order line with our compound at Hue while half the operation’s building was gone from mortar and rocket fire. The only line they had to the rest of the world was the direct tie line between us that no one else could get onto. The radio hop was Hue to Da Nang to Chu Lai but the control circuits never broke out in Da Nang and they didn’t have the equipment to spare for repairs; I was already there so I fed the information via teletype back to Washington through DCA Arlington. From there it was sent back to Saigon and to wherever it was needed.
Because our compound was inside the walls of the city, it wasn’t as well revetted as those at Chu Lai that were more or less in the open and easy targets.
I think each day I aged a month; each time I went to Quang Nghi and didn’t lose a guard or didn’t get hit was more a miracle than normal. It almost seemed that at times Charlie left me alone on purpose just to make me crazy; when would the second shoe fall? After a while I began to think it was personal but that’s the way the screwy situation was.
On the days when nothing happened I still couldn’t breathe easy because it wasn’t until the day was passed that the unbroken day counted. In the end, when I had a chance to leave, I took it without a second thought (at the time) and now I will never know if I did the right thing or not.
What if I had stayed that extra few days? Who else would I have known that died? Would maybe I have found my plot of ground somewhere on that road or maybe in a downed 117 in the jungle between Chu Lai and Da Nang.
I will never know.
But inside my head today, still the jungles of Vietnam and the fear chitter at me daily, telling me what I don’t know and just making noises in the night; noises that still frighten a little girl who never had a chance to grow up like other little girls because she got caught in a grinding mill with a war on one side and a deep dark hole on the other.
In the confusion of youth I was torn on one hand by a part of me I really didn’t understand and one the other by a belief and a desire to serve my country strong enough to take me into a war we could not win and the evidence was there, if I had known where to look and what questions to ask.
But I couldn’t and wouldn’t because I was naive and idealistic and when you come right down to it not very bright. Oh I’m smart enough but I have a blind side (like a lot of other people – I have no corner on that market) when it came to my country. I hadn’t reached the point where I could admit that we could, as a country, make mistakes, make bad judgments, and kill thousands of our own troops because of stupidity in the management department.
I’m older now. I know that we can and do make mistakes. We’ve still got the best game in town but it’s not perfect, yet. And I pay a price each day. I share a load with thousands of others knowing that there is no cure for the pain in my heart, an echo of those days of fear and stress and horror.
I am not special but if my words are, then perhaps it is because it is somewhere written in some book that it is left for me to be a voice for those who cannot speak up; who cannot talk of their pain and how they feel and how they felt and if I can say anything, If what I say can be placed against that wall of silence which holds so many others and keeps their souls from crying out and being heard and perhaps act as a listening post for them, perhaps it will do me some good as well.
For 20 years now, more than that but round numbers work, I have been alone. Oh, I have friends, one yesterday told me that what I was feeling was all in the past and I should stop dwelling on the past and move ahead, after all Vietnam was 30 years ago for me and I’m not there anymore. Of affection, love and support I can’t speak from firsthand knowledge because I don’t have any – only the remembered echoes of a damaged 10 years after I returned; damaged by what I carried inside me and a fear that I would do untold harm to the very people I loved the most.
I think I may have used the wrong word: intense is a weak watered down politically correct word for what Vietnam was to me. Hell would be the proper word.
Even that sounds insufficient, inadequate, as if there were a word which would, by it utterance, bring forth for any mind a picture of fear, a picture of destruction, a picture of death up on it hind legs and pawing at us dragging us into the sticking cloying red mud of Vietnam – trying to bury us in blood and mud.
There is no one word strong enough, not in the American language nor in any other that I have heard of because words are woefully weak in describing the stronger emotions, good or bad. It is equally hard to describe love but people are content in that because this is an enjoyable emotion, one that every last one of us seeks in one way or another.
No one, if they are sane, actively seeks out the experience I had, others had, in Vietnam.
It remains difficult for me, now, to use a singular in talking about the after-effects of Vietnam. I may be one person, my experiences were my own. The legacy of Vietnam is a shared commodity, shared by all the men and women who served there, I am not just one, I am part of that many and using a singular makes it sound as if I was the only one who suffered, I was the only one damaged.
And I know that is not true. I cannot, in honest discussion, exclude those others because they aren’t there to speak for themselves – but they need to be heard. Heard here, heard everywhere; yelled from steeples and towers and carved in six foot letters on the sides of tall buildings for the entire world to see and the entire world to know and for those who don’t care to read and maybe feel a stirring of guilt in their souls for their indifference.
I went to war for you; I went through things which would make you sick and which you might discuss (but never over dinner or cocktails). I put my life on the line so that some stupid b3&#@*% somewhere could have a nice comfortable life free from the raw details of death and mayhem.
I and a hundred, 500 thousand, 2 and a half million others fought, sweated, cried; some died not to protect a high ideal – the ones we took with us. We fought and cried and died so that politicians could beat their drums, ring their welkins and point with pride at the generous and wonderful things the government of the united states (note the lack of caps) was doing for its beleaguered brothers in Vietnam.
The list of names on “The Wall” is longer than the population of many American towns. The number of those who served there could easily overfill many cities. I grew up in a city whose population was 500 thousand. There were fewer people who died on the highways of the United States in all of 1968 than arrived in country in the month of January of the same year.
Even after “The Wall” was a reality it was years before any monument was even thought of to honor the women who died in that war, and years more before one was finally placed. Fittingly enough, since most of them were nurses, placed near the wall of names of the ones they were there to care for, the ones they had to hold and smile at as they watched them die.
I carry on as best I can today, sometimes I feel I take more backward steps than forward but I have never given up, although there have been times I wanted to. I get older and it gets more difficult to face each new day with a cheerful face, many days see my tears.
Who am I that I should still be here?
A question I have asked and heard asked for 30+ years. And I still am no closer to an answer; I only now begin to admit there is no answer.
In the eyes of one person, this one person, Vietnam was a terrifying experience. In the soul of this one person, Vietnam was a tearing destroying beast which devoured much of the person I once was and most of the ideals I started out with. Do I feel robbed? Yes. We all, somewhere in our lives, find that some of the things we believe in are unreal, unattainable, and unrealistic, and we discard them as useless baggage and find new goals to strive for. That is living, that is as it should be. To have them ripped away, stripped off, and then the remnant left exposed to senseless death of innocents as a mere tool to trap the unwary.
The constant knowledge that violent death laid a stone’s throw away and that at any given moment you could be greeted by a smiling person who, at that moment, the next, or perhaps that night, might be actively working to end your life.
I left home with a nicely inscribed book of rules for living. While I was there I learned a new set of rules hoping that when I returned home I would be able to unlearn those and be able to fit back in where I came from. While I was gone somebody re-wrote the rule book. I could not use the old rules; they were lost to me forever. I could not use the rules I had lived by for most of a year, they didn’t fit in a peaceful society., I didn’t know the new rules I didn’t have a chance to learn them so I wrote my own, again.
I never have fit back into place.
I can’t walk away again. There were good things, even in war; you make friends who don’t die. Even in war you have days when good things happen. If I strip away all of Vietnam, if I could, I would lose those memories as well, and the memories which are all that remain of some few who did not come back and I am the only one who remembers their last minutes – a legacy I cannot just throw away because as long as one person remembers, they aren’t gone for nothing, they weren’t wasted. I know their courage and I know that they died with honor and I was the last person they saw before they died, I had to tell them they were going to make it and…
I CARRIED THEM BACK WITH ME!
Live in the present they say.
My life, my world, is very much the present.
Put Vietnam behind me and get on with my life!
I cannot. It is not a thing you can put behind you.
Vietnam is and remains a living place which travels the roads with me, inside me. For good or bad it is there and while I would control my memories so that they do not run my life I will not shed them for I earned them, and for all the damage that they have done to me they are also my testament of dignity and bravery for those whose memory I honor.
Thirty years have passed. Some have been happy, some sad, all growing, learning, maturing so today I look back at Vietnam with different eyes. I see that kid climbing into that plane on a cold Chicago night, a plane load of strangers who would travel half way around the world together. Play cards, get drunk, sleep, tell tall stories, or talk about their families. Some would even admit that they were afraid. For 18 hours they flew westward to Hawaii and the Philippines to Vietnam where, for the most part they went their separate ways, most never saw each other again. Many never knew the names of the ones around them on that plane. It never occurred to anyone to ask. Brave eager kids who had no idea what they were walking into.
A year later, in ones and twos they trickled back home, the lucky ones, but they weren’t kids anymore and many times they had proved their bravery during that year, the eagerness was gone and from inside, through their eyes, a different light shown out – older, changed, no longer the simple teenager who had left family, friends, or maybe a girlfriend or a wife; someone different but not different.
I didn’t see it in myself but I could see the difference as I traveled home and came across those who were on their way to hell. You could tell by looking which direction they were going. It was in their eyes, in the way they walked even in the way they talked.
The eyes are supposed to be the windows of the soul, most of those eyes were empty but in a few, a terrible light showed through as if the gates of hell had been opened and the fires flared out through those eyes. Eventually that light would break out from all to many as we fell victim to our ghosts, some sooner than others, some lucky enough to conquer most of the ghosts and find some peace others to survive for many years before being struck down by Vietnam, but all casualties of the same war.
©Copyright August 2004 by Jeanette Zobjeck