Like many combat vets returning from Vietnam, my homecoming was rather uneventful. I flew from Seattle to Chicago and then from Chicago to Oshkosh. At no time, at any of the aforementioned airports, was I scorned or spat upon as some veterans reported. I was largely ignored. When I arrived at the Oshkosh airport, I didn’t call any friends or family to pick me up. Instead, I called the cab company. The driver seeing my sun tanned face asked if I had been stationed in Florida and I replied Vietnam. The cab ride was silent until I was dropped off at my parent’s residence.
I experienced acclimation difficulties when I returned because I felt so out of place. The war in Vietnam had done its damage to my psyche and person and I struggled with finding my place in America. For the first two weeks at night I slept on the floor next to my bed because the bed was too soft and foreign to me. The hard floor felt right because I had grown accustomed to sleeping on the ground in Vietnam.
I got together with my pre-war high school buddies on a few occasions and I discovered I couldn’t relate to them anymore. I thought for the longest time that they had all changed and it took me months to realize they hadn’t changed much at all, but I had . . . and so significantly. I was no longer interested in going out looking to pick up girls, to shoot pool and drink beer like I had done before the military. My buddies were doing what they had done the year before and I didn’t blame them. I just could not relate. It got so bad, after a few days, I called my war buddy Al Torsiello in New Jersey and explained my predicament and he was feeling the same way. I caught a flight to New Jersey and finally felt kind of normal because I could relate to him as we experienced the same things in Vietnam.
This is not to say my pre-war buddies were not great people because they were. They were very nice people but in my view naive or innocent much like I had been at one time. I had been jaded by what I saw and experienced in Vietnam and even though we were the same chronological age, our life experience levels were vastly different. As a result, I felt much older. I was 19, but felt 35.
I finished my military career and entered university life where I still felt vastly different. At that time, as a freshman in college, I was 21 years old and I was in classes with 18 year old recent high school graduates. There was no way I could relate to them as I felt more like their father than a fellow student so I sought out other combat vets on campus and discovered the Vets Club. Once I found these guys, young war veterans, we could speak the same language and it made the transition a little bit easier.
During my years in college, I never attended any on campus university/social events. My goal was to get my degree and get out and I did it in three years by attending school in the summer and during interims (breaks between semesters).
While attending college, the war hadn’t left me because the anti-war protests were in full bloom. It was not a popular time to be a Vietnam veteran because the populace had turned against the war. If you were a Vietnam veteran, you were part of the problem, so what many vets did was go into the closet and assimilate within the general population to the extent possible. It was the path of least resistance for guys who were tired of fighting. All we wanted to do was to fit back into society.
Throughout my work life, Vietnam never left me as it was like my constant companion. It was always around me. I am not alone in this regard as I have discovered working with other Vietnam combat vets and in reading comments in veteran Facebook groups. The war never goes away. All you can do is try and manage it. I don’t know if it is because we were severely traumatized at such a young age or because we were treated indifferently and poorly upon our return home. I’m no psychiatrist, I only know we felt alienated from others and we were largely ignored for years and years.
About ten years ago, somebody told me if I presented a military ID at Lowe’s I could get a ten percent discount on anything I purchased. Since I owned apartment buildings at that time, I was a constant visitor to home improvement oriented stores. I went to Lowe’s and made some purchases and handed my credit card and military ID to the young cashier for the first time. He looked at my military ID, rang up my purchases and said “thank you for your service”. I have to admit it’s been a long time since I had been at a loss for words, or felt stunned, but I just looked at him for a few long seconds, shook my head and said “well . . . thanks”.
I walked out into the parking lot and reflected upon what the young cashier had said. I knew he had been trained to say what he had said and that he had to say it to keep his job. Why I was startled was because I had been home from the war for forty long years and some kid who probably knew nothing about the Vietnam war and all of the suffering I and many Vietnam vets had endured was the first person to publicly acknowledge, in an affirmative way, my military service. I thought more about this and I asked myself where were the “thank you’s” or expressions of support, of any kind, from the general population for the previous forty years when I and my fellow vets really needed it. I felt it was just par for the course.
These days when I hear that phrase bandied about I know it’s just a catch phrase maybe born of guilt by some or maybe now it’s the socially accepted way to acknowledge someone’s military service. I really don’t pay it any mind because I never felt from the first time that it was a genuine expression of anything. I don’t place blame on anyone who says it or for that matter anyone who accepts it. Nor do I want to appear to be a curmudgeon about this. I just liken the expression to a Spanish phrase I hear when I thank a waiter or waitress in authentic Mexican restaurants and their reply is “da nada” which means “it was nothing”. I just go about life with my constant companion and my long memory. I remember the truth and how we were really treated and scorned upon our return.
Although I don’t mention the phrase “thank you for your service” in the new song lyrics, I had the phrase and the sentiments expressed by some Vietnam combat vets in mind when I wrote this song “Holes in our Souls”. My blog is Viewing the War Through Music and the song can be heard at: www.soundcloud.com/Jim-Purtell/holes-in-our-souls