Honor and Gratitude: Chronicles of Montgomery County Vietnam Veterans

>>I’m Montgomery County
Executive Isiah Leggett. I served as a Captain in
Vietnam in 1968 through 1969. Vietnam was somewhat of an
unusual war. Many of the veterans who returned from
Vietnam, including myself, were treated without the respect
and dignity that we actually deserved. We failed to separate
the war from the warrior. This is why I established the
Veterans Commission here in Montgomery County in order to
restore some of the dignity and respect that our soldiers so
richly deserve. I’m proud to present the following
documentary that chronicles the experience of just a few of the
Montgomery County residents who served in the Vietnam War.
>>Originally it wasn’t thought to last long. It was supposed to
stop the spread of Communism. But it went on to become the
Vietnam War and it defined a generation. Regardless of their
opinions young Americans were sent off to serve their country.
Because of advancements in news reporting those back home saw
images and stories in ways that weren’t available during
previous wars, fueling an antiwar sentiment never before
experienced in the U.S. Over 58,000 American servicemen
and women were killed, and more than five times that were
wounded. Many were captured or listed as missing in action,
and others still remain unaccounted for.
By 1975 the war was over, but the conflict was not.
Few were initially welcomed back into society despite answering
the call. Forty years later about 13,000 Vietnam veterans
call Montgomery County, Maryland home. Many are still overcoming
different challenges as they continue to heal from their
experiences. As their lives have continued their time in war has
not been forgotten. These are their chronicles.
>>I grew up in California. I went out to the local junior
college for two years and then I transferred out to the
University of Santa Clara. I graduated in 1960. At that time
I chose to come into the Navy as a Cadet Aviation Officer
Candidate Program for College Seniors to come in and train
as a naval aviator. [ Music ]
1964 the Tonkin Gulf incident was one where North Vietnamese
torpedo boats attacked two of our destroyers. The next day
President Johnson ordered retaliatory strikes, and I was
stationed on the USS Constellation with an A4
Squadron. We were involved in the very first action in
Vietnam. As I was flying very low, almost hitting the
treetops, we ran into a lot of heavy fire, and as a result
I was hit, poof. And everything was like a big white cloud
inside the cockpit, and so I keyed the mic and said,
“I’m getting out. I’ll see you later.” Ejected from an airplane
about 400 and some knots at sealevel. That’s quite a jolt.
And another fellow from our ship was shot down. He was killed.
When I ejected and landed right in the water right
in the coast there I was immediately surrounded.
They put me in a truck and took me to Hanoi where I became the
first resident of this old French-built prison that we
later nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton [ Music and Sounds of Helicopter ] I gave them my name and rank and, of course, they asked
me other questions. I said, I cannot answer that.
Why not? Why can’t you tell us? I says, because as a prisoner
of war — Well, there’s no war. There’s no declaration of war.
You’re a criminal. You came here and you bombed and you killed
our people. And I thought, oh-oh. It wasn’t more than a
week before they showed up and here, here was a copy of
my hometown newspaper. There was copies of Time, U.S. News and
World Report, all these — with my pictures on the cover.
What do I do now, you know? My plans were basically all messed
up. I mean, here’s all this information about me. Some of
these cells were no bigger than seven foot by seven foot square,
with two concrete beds on sides. So a space that wide in-between
the walk back and forth. Now, can you imagine two people
living in there? I would be in there, the cell, for all day,
all night. Well, except for the good 10 minutes that they
let me out to wash my clothes and dump out my bucket.
My bucket was my bathroom. The paper towels in the paper
dispensers you get out of the restroom, two of those.
That was our toilet paper for the week. And then you had
your little — a porcelain water jug and that was — they’d fill
that twice a day. So that was your water. They fed us twice a
day. In the summer months it was pumpkin soup. The meat was
not in there. It was just the broth. In the colder months
it was rice and this plant we called sewer greens. We would
go over and dump our waste bucket and sometimes we’d
dump it in the pond. After a while you would see this little
algae floating on the surface. That algae would carry little
plants and they would blossom into big leafy plants.
And you’d see the peasants go out and they scoop it up,
take it to the kitchen, chop it up, boil it, and that was our
vegetable with rice. Some of our meager belongings — one of them
was very important. It was a mosquito net. You know, you
have the mosquito net over — draped around your mat.
Part of it was to keep the mosquitoes out. The other part
was to keep out the rats and in other camps, rodents, snakes.
I mean, they were just all over the place in some of the other
camps. The wooden blocks with little grooves to fit your
ankles in that they could come in and put you in irons
and then they would lock it from the outside so these irons would
come down and you could not move your ankles. This is when you
were being punished, okay? And you’d be that way for weeks,
even months. As others were shot down later on in the war,
and the numbers increased gradually, we had to rely
on communication to keep us intact as a coherent unit.
We recognized that we were not going to make it if we didn’t.
The way we communicated with each other was tapping on a
wall of the cells. We’d tap. We had a tap code and we would
communicate with each others in the cells. We had been shot down
and were captured, but we were not out of the war. The battle
was there. Our motto was we’re going to come out of there,
but we’re going to come out of there with our honor.
So our motto was “Return with Honor.” The camp commander’s
rules said there was no communication, and if they knew
we were communicating we were severely punished. Yeah. Oh,
they really get — I mean, they were brutal about it. When they
pulled you out of your cell or you didn’t come back for
several days or a week, sometimes you wondered
if you were going to ever get back and sometimes people
didn’t come back. Their real goal was to break you.
They want propaganda and they want you to write a statement.
We resisted. Well, then, you know, you’d go through the
routine of resistance which would go — you’d sit there on
a stool for days and nights to be, you know, beaten to the
point. And they had tricks where they would actually use the rope
trick, we called it, to pull your sockets out of your arms.
Okay, a shoulder. Our objective was that they would just reach a
point and give up on you. The hardest part was the mental
part dealing with not only the boredom but the unknown.
I swear sometimes I lost my sanity. I was held captive for
eight-and-a-half years. I prayed a lot, especially when I was
first 18 months by myself. The senior ranking officer would
send a signal, usually by a tap, and we would all stand and, of
course, we couldn’t say anything out loud, but we’d stand and
we’d say the Lord’s Prayer, quietly to ourselves so it
wasn’t heard outside. But we were all saying it together.
And then we would face east, because that’s where home was,
the U.S., and we’d stand and put our hands over our hearts
and say the Pledge of Allegiance. That happened
every Sunday morning for all of those months and years.
When we were released and we came out of there, it was the
first time we’d never been out of the camp without being
blindfolded, without being handcuffed. The plane taxied
out, finally got to the other runway, and revved up
and started taking off rolling down, and as it’s taking off
the kids were just — the guys were just going wild yelling.
We had a team of doctors all over us when we got off that
plane. They said, well, you better have — you’re going to
have to stick with a bland diet first of all. I said, oh. I was
dying for a steak and eggs and a hotdog. And then here comes
the next group of guys. They’re coming through and they’re
walking out with milkshakes. And I said, wait a minute. If they
can have that, I can, too. The heck with this. I went up and
ordered steak, eggs, and the doc says, you can’t eat that. You
can’t all — Yes, I can. I felt like I was let out of a mason
jar that had been on a shelf for years. And I was out and I
was facing a new world. My emotion was so drained.
It was not a big deal for me. I wasn’t overjoyed. I was happy
to be home, but I also wanted to get on with my life and do
something, and do other things. We were the only good, quote,
only good things to come out of the war. The poor kids that
went over and fought the war, the 18/19-year-old that came
back, took the brunt of the anti-war controversy.
They were good guys. They went out, they did their job.
[ Sounds of Helicopter ]>>[Radio communications]
>>I lost a brother. He was a young fellow, 18 years,
11 months, and 20 days. I put everything into this kid and
when he died it was just too much for me. I volunteered
for the draft. That’s what happened. And I didn’t have to
worry about my life. It would be planned for me. I felt like I
belonged in the Army. It gave me a full life and it gave me a
mindset away from what had been plaguing me. My basic training,
I went in at Ford Holabird, and from there I went to Ford Bragg,
North Carolina, and then advanced infantry training
in Fort Gordon, Georgia. Then I reported to the Republic of
Vietnam on the 17th of July, 1969. Went to this big camp
where everybody was there. No one knew what to expect. And I
recall a soldier doing a traditional thing that I end up
doing. He came up to me and he said to me, “This watch kept
my time. It will keep yours.” And he gave me a watch.
It really made by feel like I can make it, you know,
because he didn’t have to do that. And some of the guys
were a little hard on us, you know. Enjoy this now, because
this is it. You probably won’t make it, you know. I thought
that was cold-hearted. But then a lot of them were really nice.
And this particular soldier just came up to me and picked me.
They called out which unit you’re going to, and I was
called out to be in the first cav. Our job was to protect
at all costs, Saigon. And being an air mobile unit that’s what
that was all about. UH-1’s, Huey Helicopters. The sound of the
rotor — you never forget that sound. They came up with fancier
ones as the years went by. Even our gunships was made out like
the UH-1 helicopters, and eventually came up with the
Cobras. Looks like a big old shark flying in the sky.
Flying, you look and you see the guys beside you and around you.
When I first went out we had what they call a Hot LZ,
a hot landing zone. So you just get out. The van didn’t even
land. You get to over the top of the water and the helicopter
banked that way and those guys fall out. They would bank the
other way, the other guys fall out. You’re disoriented — you
don’t know where to go so you follow the leader.
Our objective was to get to the wood line, which is what we did.
And once you get to the wood line, you take this deep breath
and you feel like, okay, I’m not shot yet. I’m still here.
And then once you get through that thing where you set
up a perimeter, then you realize, okay, I’m really in
this thing. I’m no longer at the base camp no more. I’m out here.
That’s when the whole reality of it all sets in. My job was to
carry the M16, and I carried an M79, a grenade launcher.
It shot a 40-millimeter projectile. So I was the man
with what they call a thumper. It looks like a little shotgun.
I’d never had a weapon like that before, so I kind of felt
powerful. I felt like I was a part of the unit. And you make
friends with guys that — just like you. You’re scared to
death. We went to the first firefight and we came out of
the helicopter. I was in the swamp not being able to swim.
This tall guy grabbed me, and I loved him from that moment on.
His name is Howard Chen. We call him Lurch. Anytime you take
a break you get a chance to talk to somebody next to you.
The saddest was if they got killed then you lost a friend.
And here you are, a young man from wherever you come from.
We’re all from different places. This guy’s bragging about
Alabama like it’s Heaven on Earth. Another guy’s talking
about California, getting back to the surf. Some of these
are things you never heard of. We realized you’re all Americans
and no longer are you a particular race. You’re a
soldier, and it’s wonderful to work with different guys
because you can know who you can depend on. And that’s what I
like. I mean, if I’m going to be in a situation, I wanted certain
guys near me. If you’re standing in the Mess line and going
to get chow, somebody might get shot from a sniper. War, it’s
instant. It happens instantly. There is no set time.
And the few times that you felt ease, it was because of a
friend next to you, a warm body next to you, somebody who
gave you reassurance, this is going to be all right.
The two, three, four, or five of you, you’re all scared of death.
But as long as you’re together, no worries.
[ Music and Helicopter Sounds ] October 5th and 6th. It was like
a two-day war, because we didn’t know we had walked into an NVA
bunker complex. To see a live bunker and people shooting at
you, all the training you had couldn’t prepare you for it.
It’s just that it’s so phenomenal you can’t be
hysterical. You have to stay focused and do what you’re
trained to do. Fuzzy was a friend of one of our sergeants,
Sergeant Murphy. He was the only one that got
killed that day. And for him to be so close to me and me see
it, I just never got over it. I was surprised at how that
bothered me all of my life. They had another terrible
war November the 4th. I was in the hospital. I got
back to the unit about the 8th. When the helicopter land
there was a big old circle where the bulldozer had dug
out a hole and they had bodies and they put lime on them
and two men have each — two men had to grab bodies and
throw them in. And that’s when it really hit home to me. When
you’re searching a village you find yourself wanting to be
more human than you really are. I mean, you didn’t want to shoot
everybody because you realize those people are scared like you
are. The sadness of it. We’d search a village and
walk away and then get shot at and then you turn around
and just destroy everybody. That’s part of my torment. When
you participate in that, you can’t say you didn’t do it
because you did. And when you see what has been done,
that’s what haunts you. That’s what bothers me to this
day. To know that we did everything we could to kill
those people. But when we searched they offered no threat
to us. So you still wonder to this day what happened. And
after being home all these years and you see these movies,
now you understand what happened. The Vietnamese were in
among these people, you know? And they were scared, too. I
shot at the people in front of me. I don’t want to claim it but
there are some guys get proud of my kill. Just for my own
sanity I try not to say that. But I’m almost sure that I’m
responsible for somebody dying because I sure shot at them. I
threw grenades at them. I did everything I could to kill
them, you know, which I was proud of at that time. But since
then that has caused me a lot of grief which — they’re
human beings. I mean, you know? It wasn’t my intention to just
try to kill everybody. I was trying to keep them off me.
[ Music ] My coming home was wonderful.
When I had known a lady coming on the PA system. She
says, “Gentlemen, we are 60 miles out of the Coast of
California. Welcome home.” And when I came home my whole
family was at my mother’s house. So I had a lot to go for me. I’m
25/26 years old. I had a car, I had a job I could probably put
this war behind me. There’s a lot of little things
you bring home from Vietnam that you’re not aware of until
you start living your life. I mean, I’d like to pretend that
none of this existed. But, in reality, it does. Wake up in the
morning scared to death, sweating. I just figured I had a
bad dream. I never associated that with being in Vietnam. But
I found that sadness would creep up on me a lot of times.
For example, I’d be playing music and people would be up
there dancing and I’d be crying looking for another record,
and I don’t know where the sadness came from. And I noticed
that I do not go in places and sit with my back to the door.
Wherever we go to dinner I want to see who’s coming in the door.
Fortunately I ran into Sandra. A friend of mine brought me
here. I met her and we spent three months holding hands
sitting at the table, a chair between us, and it just worked
out. And I got to say that that’s been 18 years ago. I’ve
been married to her almost 14 years. Really, all right.
Really, all right. I can make it now. As I look
back on pictures I have about me and the war, I can see what
kind of soldier I was. And all I wanted to do was be a
good soldier. That was my whole aim for going in. And I think I
achieved that much. I’m proud of that.
[ Music ] [ Inaudible Speaker ]
>>I’ve always wanted to be a Marine. And being 17
years old I went down to the recruiter and he said I couldn’t
join. I had to have my parents’ signature.
So I went down and had my mom and dad come up and sign,
and the Marine Corps was number one top of my list.
I enlisted long before I even got a draft notice. I was so
immature, anyway, so I really didn’t think about Vietnam.
I had people say, oh, no way you’re going in the Marines,
you know? You know, don’t you know there’s a war going on?
And I go, yeah, yeah. And I’ll make it in the Marines.
Week after I graduated from the Einstein in 1968 I was
in Parris Island, South Carolina, Marine Corps
Boot Camp. They stripped us down, shaved our heads,
gave us chrome domes, and uniforms, and we went
through more advanced trainings on weaponry and different types
of strategies and all the typical war type training,
and then came home on leave and, you know, wearing my uniform.
I come home and there was no one there. All the folks that I used
to hang around with were either gone and the other ones had
excuses why they didn’t want to be with me, and I, you know.
And later on I found that was because I was going to Vietnam
and they didn’t want anything to do with me.
[ Music ] I got to my unit and from there
that’s when the war began. So there were no more
shooting at targets and the targets were shooting
back. It was real. It became real, real quick. It wasn’t
television anymore. We were on hills. They called them hills.
And on the hills they would have big tents. It’s the first
time I ever in my life slept, ate, showered, bathroom, drank
out of same canteens of all races — and all races and
religions, all in one place. It was amazing. The bond is
there because you know that if anything happens
they’re going to protect you. They’ve got your back. They’ve
got your six. And even the ones that were more frightened than
you were, wouldn’t let on. And we protected each other. It
was no more fighting against Communism, or domino effect. It
was to stay alive those 13 months and try and hope
everybody else stays alive. And that didn’t happen, but
you did the best you could. You just — every day you
just tried to survive. We would be on the hill maybe
a day or two, then we’d go out and search the area for the
enemy. When we went to a village there were no men. There
weren’t anybody old enough to hold a weapon. It was either old
women or little children. We’d ask them if they’d seen
the VC and they would tell us, you know, yes or no, and
99% of the time it was no. If we found a cache of rice that
was, you know, to feed an army, the villagers didn’t have the
rice anymore. And if we went out of a village and took fire,
we had to come back in and sometimes we had to destroy
the village. Sometimes we’d go out for weeks and never see the
enemy. They would shoot at us and we wouldn’t see them. We’d
fire back at them. We might see a couple of blood trails. Hardly
ever we’d find any bodies. Didn’t realize until later
on that they had spider holes and underground tunnels that
they would pull the dead and the wounded in so we
wouldn’t find them. We came upon a tunnel. I was still small
to go in and that was pretty tight and scary. I mean, when
you walk in there with a flashlight and a .45 and if you
run into anybody they already know. It’s their home field
advantage. They know where the tunnels are, and how high
they are, and how low they are. We didn’t know, and so I crawled
back out and thought I heard somebody in there. And we
brought the flamethrowers in and Another time it was
battling the bow bands. So many NVA, North Vietnamese
Armies, that we had to bring in Puff the Magic Dragon
and Spooky, the gun ships. They might have lost in
the thousands that day and we lost in the 20s or 30s.
That was probably the worst, one of the worst battles that I
remember. Everything you saw on TV wasn’t even close. I have
pictures in my mind that no one should see; no one should ever
have to see. I can’t speak for any other branch of the service
but in the Marine Corps, you knew you were going to die.
That’s what you were put there for. You’re there to — it
absolutely has to be destroyed today, we’ll take care of that.
HELO company 3rd battalion 7th Marines. My understanding we
had 100% casualties and I served with them for eight
months. Everyone was either wounded or killed in one way,
shape, or form. July 4th, 1969, we were on
patrol in Mortar Alley and it was early in the morning.
I was walking point. Boom, boom, boom. Well, I woke
up in the hospital. Priest, the doctor, and the
nurse were standing there and the first thing they said
was, you lost a leg. So I’m 18 or just turned 19. Who’s going
to marry a cripple? Who’s going to hire a cripple?
And a country that didn’t give a damn [ Music ] I worked hard for 40 years
to now, where I’m married. I got a job. Somebody hired me,
the Department of Veterans Affairs. I work as a
Readjustment Counseling Social Worker-Team Leader at the Silver
Springs Vet Center. I was working down at the Vietnam
Memorial and this guy kept staring at me. He goes, “Are you
Wayne Miller? Were you in” — I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “I
was the guy that put you on the helicopter. Our unit’s
having a reunion here in D.C.” And I walked in the room, they
just lost it because they thought I was dead. We did not
lose the war in Vietnam. We quit. We quit. I’d have
rather lost. I’d rather be sitting there signing the piece
of paper saying we lost the war than to quit. And it
just made it so much harder for all those guys that
were wounded and killed. You know, Marines never quit. We
don’t quit anything. We don’t even quit the Marine Corps. Even
when we’re dead we still have a job. I have to put Vietnam
on every morning. I have to put my leg on. When
people would ask how I lost my leg, and I would say, it
was a motorcycle accident, because when I said Vietnam — I
had one guy one time tell me, you deserved to lose your leg in
Vietnam. Years later I thought about that and in a way he was
right. Because if I hadn’t of lost my leg I would not have
been able to help all those other folks who have lost limbs,
who have lost loved ones, who have — who have been
affected by the war and just not making it yet. And if I can
make it and show one person, then, yeah, I did deserve it.
How’d you lose your leg? I didn’t lose it. It was blown
off in Vietnam. I went over and served my country and this is
the result of what war is. I wouldn’t change anything. I’d
do it all over again. [ Inaudible Conversations ]
[ Music ]>>I served as an Army Nurse in Vietnam
at the 95th Evacuation Hospital. At that time there was a lot
of demonstration going on, you know, against the war. And
the flower children. It was the draft and the guys had to go
into the military. I graduated from high school in ’66 and
then went to nursing school in Boston. And in ’68, ’67/’68
I was coming home to a funeral every six months. And I
remember standing at the cemetery and I said I’ve got
to do something. I went back to Boston and found myself an
Army Recruiter and walked in and said I want to join the Army to
be an Army Nurse. I spent 10 months working in the Recovery
Room, Intensive Care Unit, here at Walter Reed,
and now I get this phone call. You’re going to Vietnam.
What do you do as a 22-year-old woman, young woman,
to pack a dufflebag to go to war when there are no shopping
malls? And you have to pack for a year. Everybody else is like
having this normal life and I’ve got to go off to war, whatever
that is. So anyway, I got up there to Da Nang and then
they got me to a hospital. Anyway I reported to the Chief
Nurse there for duty. And I remember her saying to
me, “Oh, I didn’t know you were coming. What am I going to do
with you?” So that was my welcome to Vietnam.
I worked in the triage area which we called Pre-Op
and Receiving, Pre-Operative area and Receiving.
Receiving meaning we were receiving the wounded
from the helicopter pad. And I’ve got a young guy there
waiting to go to the O.R. He’s lying in the bed and he says to
me, “I can’t feel my leg.” And I say to him, “It’s gone.”
And you know, as a nurse, you’re not prepared for that.
We don’t do that. Doctors tell patients that.
But I was all he had. At night I had to stay awake.
You know, nurses never sleep. And I’d have to listen for
choppers. Even to this day — I saw a chopper the other day
and hearing that familiar sound it brings me right back.
There really wasn’t an obvious reason for why we were there.
I found out that the soldiers that I would ask — they were
young, you know, 18/19 years old. They didn’t know why.
They were ordered over there and their only goal was
to get back home alive. And when I talked to the people and I
met — you know, I had some friends, a Vietnamese nurse
that was a good friend of mine and they didn’t understand this
war. It had been going on for so many years.
[ Music ] So, anyway, I go down to
start working in the Pre-Op and Receiving area and I meet
Crissy and Annie who ended up my best friends even still,
you know? We were all lieutenants. Less than a year
experience over there in the middle of this war. But we took
care of the patients. We taught each other. Crissy was
amazing. When she worked nights I could tell when we had
casualties. I would come in in the morning and there would be a
few more flowers drawn on the wall. That’s how she dealt with
her loss and grief and seeing these atrocities. I saw a lot of
death and devastation. I don’t know if you’ve
heard of expectant patients. Those are the patients
that are expected to die. The only time in my experience
that that happened was with the head wounds. So the
neurosurgeon would assess the head-wound patients
and decide if there was no hope. And if there wasn’t, then
that patient would come over to the Pre-Op area
and I would sit with them. And I’d put a screen up and
sit with him until he died. I think that looking back on it
I had some defense mechanisms to cope. I didn’t — I think
like I don’t remember one name of anybody that I took care of.
We heard that there was someone coming in, a nurse, Sarah, who
had worked in an E.R. before, and we were all excited because
none of us had ever worked E.R., and here we are, running the
E.R. So Sarah started working with us and she only lasted
a month or two. She couldn’t — she got very nervous, migraine
headaches, and within a couple of months she was
medevaced back home. [ Music and Sounds
of Helicopter ] Even over there, you talk about
going home, but you never really — it was almost like you
never really believed you were ever going to go home
again. [ Music ]
You know, the politics of it that we supposedly weren’t in
Laos. We weren’t in Laos. And I remember one night getting
mass-cas and they’d come in on a Chinook. So a Chinook Helicopter
is not a Huey. It’s a big helicopter that can carry like
up to 25 wounded and, you know, several stretchers. And so we
got all these wounded in and I remember asking one young
fellow, where were you injured? Because that was the question
the doc would ask or I would ask, and he — and saying to
me, you know, this young 18-year-old would say,
“Is this when I tell you the truth or what I’m supposed
to tell you?” So, obviously, they were in Laos.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? Where does the truth begin?
And the politics end? [ Music and Sounds
of Helicopter ] My friend, Crissy, is from
California. You know, when she came home she ended up in
California, and she was approached by several producers,
TV show producers. And one of them was from China
Beach . And I don’t know if you’re seen the show, but each
episode is based on a story, a real story, from a nurse. Cris
helped with the stories there, and she told me it was too
painful for her to talk about her own story, so she
told my story [laughter]. So, I guess, it was the — some
of the stories there for that nurse, McMurphy, was based on
the stories about me. And China Beach was reality
for us because, remember, we were in Da Nang and
that’s where China Beach was. And on our days off we would
go to China Beach to swim. For us, China Beach was
absolutely a reality. That was our R&R right
there in-country. Here I was in Vietnam and I
applied to two universities while I was there. I got in to
those two universities and I put my paperwork in to get
this drop. And I didn’t hear anything, and I didn’t hear
anything, and I talked to my new Head Nurse about this, who
was very mean. And she said, “Oh, you don’t
need to do that. I didn’t go back to school until I was 42.”
So I thought, okay, what do I do? And I thought, well, I
could write to my Senator. I could write to Ted Kennedy. I
knew, as an officer in the military, you don’t write to
your Senator. This is not something you do. But I decided
it was worth it to me. And six days later that Chief
Nurse comes running down — I’m working on a
Sunday I remember — running down the hall and says,
“McCarthy, go pack your bags. You’re out of here.” I didn’t
even have any written orders or anything, and she said, “You
go pack your bags and go to the airport and you’re out of
here.” So that was my goodbye out of Vietnam. In 10
days I was in college which is what I wanted, you know? I had
signed up for the G.I. Bill and then I got a job in the
Emergency Room up there City Hospital, part-time job,
and I was going to school fulltime. But within a few days
it hit me. It was a very, very, very dark time. It was harder
coming back from Vietnam than it was going to Vietnam.
You know, when I came back from Vietnam it was like
what do you do after this? Life was very anticlimactic.
[ Music and Sounds of Helicopter ]
Now, Indianapolis, I wasn’t really fitting in in
Indianapolis. I remember working in that E.R and I was helping
a surgeon, oral surgeon, suture up somebody’s face.
And I said to him — he was across from me, you know,
and I said, “I can help you with that.” And he said,
“Why? How do you know how to do this?” And I said, “Well, I did
this all the time in Vietnam.” And he stopped and he looked at
me and he said, “I’ve never been out of the state of Indiana.”
I was looking around and it seemed like people were just
going on with their lives and it was like, don’t they realize
that there is still people being killed in Vietnam? There’s this
war going on and nobody’s paying any attention to this.
[ Music and Sounds of Helicopter ]
Cris died a couple of years ago, my friend, Cris.
She had a weird leukemia that they think is connected
to our exposure to Agent Orange. That was a tremendous loss.
She came here for the dedication of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial
and we were part of that whole parade.
And the soldiers would yell out, “I think you took care of me.”
[ Sounds of Helicopter ] [ Birds Chirping ]
>>I was drafted in 1968 on the 17th of July.
And that was my birthday. It was my 21st birthday.
You swore in that you — your oath to the United States
of America that you’d be a good citizen and due your duty.
And then you’d step into line, like the 70 guys
that were there the day I was there, and they literally went
one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight Marine.
You — they picked the Marines. You didn’t. That was the drafted
Marines. I luckily was not that guy. Didn’t want to go in the
Marines. Army. I didn’t want to go anywhere.
I wished they would have gone Navy, but they didn’t do Navy.
Okay. Early in the morning our bus gets there. We’re tired.
Nobody slept well, and, of course, you know you’re going
to basic training, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The initial, you know, take your fingerprints, then they took all
our bags. What size foot do you have? Well, I think I’m a 12.
Bang. Here. Haircut, bald. That all happened between the time
we got there and like 7 o’clock in the morning. I mean psh psh
psh. But I got my leave time at home over the Christmas break
and I literally left — my parents took me to Dulles
Airport. I got to Vietnam on like the 3rd of January of 1969.
Coming off the plane there’s this group
of guys passing us getting on the plane with the big smiles
on their faces and the look like, oh, you poor guys.
And we get there, we get inside the bunkered area,
and what do we hear? Boom, boom, boom. Rockets going off.
Not too close to us. But we got to this place and, of course,
you’re waiting there for orders because they’re going to divide
you up, and I ended up in Company C, fourth of the third,
11th Infantry. I mean we were in the Quang Ninh River Basin
Quang Ninh rice paddies, getting into our little trouble.
First time out they flew me out on a helicopter
with two other guys. There were three of us on the helicopter
going out. I’m the only one who came home.
[ Music ] Hurley was in my platoon. He
stepped on a booby-trap and was blown sky high. I was
the last person to see him alive that was in his unit. I was sent
to the 27th Evacuation Hospital. I knew that he had a wife at
home. I knew that she was like seven/seven-and-a-half
months pregnant. I knew that. But he said to me, “I’m not
going to go home like this. I’m not going to go home like
this.” And there was nothing more said, and I said, “Okay.”
And I went out. And I went back to my unit
and three days later I found out that he died on the
airplane going to Japan. So he was right. He’s the one I
get most emotional over because I made a
friend and he was gone. After that I didn’t make a
lot of friends in the bush. [ Sounds of Helicopter
and Music ] I started out as just a
gunner, just carrying an M16. I went from there to
becoming a machine gunner which I didn’t like, you know.
And then I was wounded. I caught a piece of shrap metal.
We were on a mission and it just cut me and I ended up with
like three stitches in my neck. That was not so bad. When I got
back after the wound, back to Lieutenant Pinsenschaum who was
my platoon leader, carrying his radio, the platoon radio. And
what I liked the best was I was in communication. Now everybody
said, “No, you’re in communication but you’re also a
target because the enemy’s going to be shooting at you
because they want to take out the communication.” And I said,
“Yeah, but I like this.” And it got to the 17th of
July and we were on a mission. It was my birthday and I’m
freaked out a little bit by that. We actually got into an
ambush and got ambushed, my platoon. And we got up on
this mountainside and I had been trained on the
radio to call in artillery fire. We finally got out of
the situation anyway. And on the radio comes across
as this ends, Line number 151, because they wouldn’t call you
by your name over the radio. “Call Line number 151. As soon
as you get back to the perimeter take your stuff and
report. There’s a helicopter coming in. You’re going to get
on the helicopter. Line number 151.” I went “Line
number 151, that’s me. Why me?” He said, “Because
you’ve got the right amount of time left in-country. They
want somebody with the amount of time you have
left in-country, Americal Division Headquarters. You’re
going to be the Protocol Driver for the Chief of Staff of the
Division. People fly into the airport. You’re going to go pick
them up in this nice Jeep and you’re going to come back
and you’re going to bring them to the back” — there was a
hotel here. What did happen later? General Edwin L. Powell,
he’s the General in Vietnam who flew his own helicopter. He
says to me — I get called into the General, phew. “Would you
like to be my driver?” I said, “Yes, sir.” Still in the same
place but now I’m not a protocol. I’m now driving for a
General. General Powell says to me, “If you stay in
Vietnam until I go home,” General Powell’s going home,
“I’ll get you a job at the Pentagon.” And I said, “Well, if
I go back to the Pentagon, will I be driving for you
specifically?” He said, “No.” He said, “You’ll be in a general
pool of drivers at the Pentagon.” And I said, “No, sir.
I’m going back to Maryland. I’m going back to college.” And
that’s what I did. [ Music ]
Came home in my uniform and was back from Vietnam.
All the neighbors were in my front yard. Welcome home,
Steven, welcome home. All I wanted to do was go into the
basement and hide. I was standoffish to people for a
long time. Within months, as soon as I could, I grew a beard
and became more or less a hippie. And I’m not really
inside a hippie. But I had the hippie look because I wanted
to fit in. I enrolled at Montgomery College.
I actually came back, enrolled — I enrolled where I’d been
before. By 1970 I came in and never left.
I went, basically, from being a sound guy to being a
lighting person, and then from being the lighting person —
I ran many lights in this facility we’re recording in —
lighting person to becoming the theater shop foreman.
I had gone through the really dark days.
I mean, I wear a number of things I did, yeah.
I haven’t talked about the — having to shoot at people,
kill people, that — yes. That was there. And I will tell you
that there’s a Veterans Center in Montgomery County that opened
down in Forest Glen near the old castle, and they do great work.
I can’t say enough good things about those people.
[Music]>>I was a Spec Four boat
operator out of the Port of Vung Tau. We arrived in April of
1967 and came home in April of 1968, so I got to be there
for the famous Tet of ’68. Previous to getting that draft
card I had actually considered going to Canada, just
avoiding the whole thing. I told my father that, probably
trying to start something being an 18-year-old kid, and he
surprised me. And he looked at me and he said, “I
understand.” Well, I didn’t do it. I would not run from that
responsibility once it was in my hands, so I decided I
would go and make the best of it. We got shipped to Fort
Bragg, North Carolina. We all got our orders for AIT,
Advanced Individual Training, and mine was for Fort Eustis,
Virginia, training to be a boat operator. We spent a lot
of time on the water. In fact, as Army sailors we did
lots of our training over at Norfolk. Of course, being guys
in green, we took a lot of heat from the sailors, but that’s
okay. When we landed at Tan Son Nhut, which was the
airbase not far from Saigon, there was a firefight going on
on the airfield, 40 or 50 yards away, I’m sure. A bunch of GIs
running across the airfield, tracers flying everywhere,
and some lieutenant met us, and he just was not the
least bit concerned. We said, “What about all that?”
And he said, “Oh, that’s over there. Don’t worry about it.”
[ Music ] We ended up a hundred miles
south of Saigon. In a port area that was called Vung Tau. We
were assigned to a huge barge and most people think that
that thing that goes down the Mississippi River being pushed
by a tugboat is a barge. That’s not. That’s a scow. A barge
looks exactly like a seagoing vessel. It looks like a boat.
The only difference is it isn’t self-propelled. We got assigned
to a new company that was a transportation
company and we were all assigned to various, actually, scows. And
we were transported up and down the river. That one I was
on happened to be refrigerated, so we were taking perishable
goods and we would tow additional scows filled with
thousand-pound bombs. And you hear this all the time
about war, mind-numbing boredom interspersed with brief periods
of extreme activity. We would take ground fire from
the shore. They’d occasionally shoot rockets at us. We used to
lie on the deck of the boat and shoot back at nothing. And
eventually we quit even doing that because it seemed just so
useless to be firing in the jungle. And when the firing
would start we’d go below if they weren’t shooting below
the waterline. And our quarters, such as they were, were below
the waterline on these things. [ Music ]
Tet was the lunar New Year and its date changes a little bit
every year depending on the full moon. And a big truce was called
because it’s a holiday there. And so everybody relaxed a bit.
You could do some other things and their truce was violated
repeatedly by the Viet Cong. We say that we won every battle.
And I suspect that’s true. They also demonstrated they could go
anywhere they wanted and be anywhere they wanted at any
time they wanted. I got orders to leave a full week before
I expected to go. And so it strikes me as very odd that I
got this opportunity to get out and these other guys didn’t.
On the day I left my base camp it was hit by an attack
and I was told at the time five guys I’d been with that day
were dead. I later discovered by visiting the Wall that it was
actually only four. And I’ve carried those four names
around with me for years. And you ask yourself many times over
the course of your life, why did this happen?
Why did I get to go and these guys stayed behind and ended
up paying the ultimate price? When I first got home I tried
to just forget everything that had happened. I collected the
uniforms. I collected anything, any paraphernalia that I had
left from my service and I destroyed it all.
My mother had saved every letter that I had written and I went
and found them and I destroyed them, an act I greatly
regret today. I would love to see what I was thinking
at that time, whether it was true or not, you know?
One of the things I did was get married, way too quickly I think
And it’s just recently at one of the PTSD groups I was there —
I mean, we got discussing something about, you know,
there’s kind of a profile of Vietnam vets who were not very
good at some things, and one of them is marriage.
And I remember somebody saying something and looking up
and saying, “Dear God, it wasn’t all her fault.”
[ Music ] One of the things the Army
taught me was that if I wanted more control over my own life I
had to know more, or I at least had to have the pieces of paper
that said I knew more. So I decided I would go to college. I
would get more education, the first in my family ever. And
I cleared post and made it out in time to start Montgomery
College in 1968. It was hard to make the adjustment. People
wouldn’t stand in line with me because I was clearly military.
Even though I was in civilian clothes I still had the high and
tight haircuts and people would actually say, “I’m not standing
with a soldier.” So I get through the whole
registration process and I go up and I turn in my papers. And the
lady behind the desk says, “Oh, you’re not 21.” And I wasn’t.
“You’ll have to have your mom and dad sign this.” And I said,
“Really?” I said, “I just came back from Nam and I think I can”
— “No, no, no, no, no.” It’s not her fault. So I slid
the papers over to the next window, wrote my mother’s name
across the bottom, slid them back over and handed them to
her. And she took them. So that was covered. After I
graduated from college, I started working for Montgomery
County Public Schools in their School for Emotionally
Disturbed Adolescents. That was a very intense,
occasionally violent, kind of place. I was known as the guy
who brought calm to chaos. And people would say, other
staffers, “How do you do that? How do you do — how can
you walk in and do that?” And I would say, “Nobody’s
shooting at me. This is not Nam. This is nothing, folks.”
[ Sounds of Helicopter ] The project started as a book
project. I wanted to take a picture of each of the 50
official state memorials and make a book out of it. Many
states like Pennsylvania don’t have an official memorial, but
they have a beautiful memorial in Philadelphia and they have a
beautiful memorial in Pittsburgh and they have a beautiful
memorial in 50 other places. Now I’ve visited probably 500 of
them. Finally my son said, “Hey, Dad, how about I build the
site? And all you’ll have to do is dump in the text.” Ehh,
okay. I can do that. So he built this nice site and eventually
I decided it wasn’t fair to be shipping the photos to him
to edit and then ship back to me. So I started doing all of
that, too. After I made the first post, the first person I
heard from was my brother. He said more to me in that
e-mail than we probably said in person for years and years
and years. I was so happy. Ten days later he died. I’ve
heard from people from — I think the last count was
48 countries around the world who have checked into the site.
I hear from vets on a pretty regular basis saying something
as simple as, “Thank you. I didn’t know this was there.”
[ birds chirping]>>I’m not one to go out and
say, hey, I’m a Vietnam veteran because of the way I think we
were treated when we came home. But if somebody asks me, I’ll
tell them some of my story. I was a first lieutenant in
the Army, in the infantry, and I was in Vietnam from
November of ’68 through May of ’69. I graduated from junior
college in, whenever, May of 1966, and applied to four-year
schools. My grades were not the best so I didn’t get accepted.
And so I pretty much expected to be drafted. And
that’s what happened. I was 19. I was a kid and
expected changes to happen in my life, and they did.
[ Music ] I felt, I think, more prepared
than some of the guys that — who were in my platoon. We had
training while I was in OCS, and also training in the 82nd
Airborne Division in North Carolina. I felt as prepared
as I could be. Still I knew I was going over a green kid with
a little bit of responsibility of a young lieutenant. I went
and talked to my NCOs in my company, and said, “Hey,
I’ve got a little bit of responsibility but you guys have
been here longer. You’ve got to train me.” I think I was open
enough to let them know I wasn’t coming in thinking I knew
everything. I think that went over well with my NCOs and the
guys in the — the PFCs. I served in the Central
Highlands in Pleiku is where the Fourth Infantry
Division Headquarters was, and it really was
a mountainous area. Fortunately, I was there in a
time that wasn’t the rainy season. It was hot during the
days, cold at night. I was surprised at the
temperature change. I expected Vietnam to be a
total jungle with high humidity, and that wasn’t the case
in the Central Highlands. When I got out to the field
— we’d live in bunkers. A hole in the ground, sandbags
for a wall, and then logs going across the whole. It might be 10
feet square. And then we’d have that as a roof and then put
sandbags on top of that. And we’d set up these bunkers
if we were going to stay in a position for a week or two. When we were set up in one
particular area for a length of time we’d send out two
platoons, north and south or east and west, to go
out and see if we could, not necessarily make
contact with the — we were fighting the
North Vietnamese Army — but just reconnoiter. Might have
had 30 men in the platoon, so I think we’d generally keep
one squad back in the base camp, and the other guys would go out
and set up observation posts. We were aware of the possibility
that we would be attacked, whether a ground attack
or a mortar attack. I guess I wasn’t particularly
fearful every minute of the day, but we knew we could wake up and
this might be our last day living, our last day with an arm
or a leg. Some guys I know said they really didn’t expect
to come home. They didn’t expect to survive. Me being a
lieutenant, I had the responsibility of ideally
helping these guys get home, making sure they came home. It was probably midnight
by the time I was ready to hit the rack I was in the
bunker 10 or 15 minutes and all of a sudden all hell
broke loose. Somehow North Vietnamese
got inside our perimeter. When we heard the explosion
from the opposite side of the perimeter, I talked to
my man Garcia, and I said — my platoon sergeant — “We
got to get out of here.” I was edging along the
wall of the bunker. The North Vietnamese
saw me moving along, threw a homemade grenade
and evidently it bounced into the sandbags and then
ricocheted into my leg because most of where I was hit
was the right front of my leg. I hollered at Garcia and
said, “I’ve been hit.” So he came out and helped me
to the perimeter, to a foxhole, and bandaged me up
as best we could. But I was afraid I was
going to bleed to death. I had no inkling at the
time how badly I was hit. In the morning we determined
that we had killed 25 or 30 North Vietnamese. I don’t
know how many were wounded. We had lost 25 or 30
of our men — killed. Maybe that many wounded as well. I was one
of the least badly wounded, and when the helicopters came
in to medevac these guys out, I was able to help get a couple
of guys on the helicopter. And I was on the last helicopter
to leave the perimeter. And all of a sudden, even over
the noise of the helicopter, we could hear the
thump-thump-thump of mortar coming from the
tree-line off to our left. All of a sudden these three
rounds landed right in front of the helicopter, and the pilot
hollered to the door gunner, crew chief who was on the
ground, “Hop in. We’re out of here.” So the
helicopter came up and away, and this poor door gunner
reached into the helicopter and myself and another
guy grabbed on to his arms and he was hanging on
for dear life with us, and I’m quite sure his feet
were on the skids of the bird. And when it leveled off he
was able to scramble in. I was in the hospital, I guess,
probably a MASH unit in Vietnam. They stabilized me and then
sent me to the hospital in Japan where they operated on me. I
had, I think it was 85 stitches. I was in the hospital several
days and they were setting up a bed next to me for
somebody who needed traction. And when that guy came in,
it turned out to be one of the other lieutenants
from my company. And he said a couple of
days after we were overrun by the North Vietnamese, the
company was out on patrol again. They were ambushed and the
company commander was killed, three or four other guys were
killed, and a number of them were wounded. He told me that a
couple of guys in my platoon had been wounded. I don’t remember
whether he said anybody was killed. But I think that’s
when I — I didn’t know who I could write to back in the
boonies. And I didn’t. I could have written to somebody
in the headquarters company, but I put it out of sight, out
of mind. And all these years I haven’t contacted anybody with
whom I served. Somebody saw that I had been a
heroic person who had been — the night that I got
wounded and the next day. I felt I was just doing
my job as best I could. [ Music and Helicopter Sounds ]
I was just shocked. I had — I didn’t realize what
an honor it was, the award, it’s the third highest military
award given. In retrospect, I have to say that I have
accepted the Silver Star in honor of all those, the guys,
both in my platoon and company. [ Music and Sounds
of Helicopter ] I have talked to people and
I’ve heard other stories of guys coming home,
getting off the plane, and coming through the
airport with their uniforms on, and being spit upon by
civilians. Fortunately, I didn’t go through that. To me it was
good to be home. Some people I know —
it was less than a week from the time they were out in the field
or in, somewhere in Vietnam — came home and they’re thrown
out into civilian life. And at that time in the ’60s
we did not have any kind of stopgap, any kind of training,
any kind of counseling. A lot of people just developed PTSD
and it was before the term was used. And they’re just angry.
Didn’t know why they were angry. I just — I did not follow what
was going on. I came home and pretty much just wanted
to forget what I had gone through. Three years ago,
three-and-a-half years ago now, I decided I should deal with
PTSD. I feel there are different levels of PTSD
and I think I was not hit by a real bad case of it.
But thinking about the guys I lost, who were killed,
I have to say that’s history, that’s a memory.
I’m not in harm’s way. My counselor says to ground
myself. Okay, put my feet on the ground, say my name’s Bill Gray,
what the day is, the time is, what I’m doing, what I’m
thinking about is a memory and it’s not going to hurt me.
Thirty-five years later I met a guy who was —
turned out to be the President of our local Vietnam Vets
of America chapter, and he said, “One of the things we do is wash
the Vietnam Veterans’ Wall.” And I had been down there a number
of times, used it as a wailing wall, and it just never dawned
on me. Hey, I’m a Vietnam vet. I should be down here washing
the wall, too. When I was in Vietnam, a mortar round came
in and hit a bunker and three of my guys were killed.
And their names are John Montgomery, Ed Morrlll,
and Gene White. Six years ago NBC did a program
about our Vietnam Veterans of America chapter washing the
wall. And I mentioned these guys’ names. And the families
of John Montgomery and Gene White
saw [sobbing] the show
[sobbing], and they contacted Bob Dotson at NBC
to contact me [throat-clearing]. I talked with the families and
— Linda Montgomery Bailey, she said that 40 years later —
— I gave — 40 years later I gave John a voice.
And he was 19 when he got killed. Gene was 22.
And Ed Morrill was 19 or 20. [ Music ]
I don’t think of them all the time, and I don’t tear
up all the time, but it’s there. [ Music ]
>>On October 24th, 2015, Montgomery County,
Maryland held an official ceremony honoring the service
of its roughly 13,000 Vietnam veterans.
Many gathered around a Huey helicopter flown
in from nearby Andrews Air Force Base.
The aircraft, iconic to the war, served as a place
where memories could be recalled and shared
with fellow servicemen and women and their families.
Hundreds were in attendance as retired CBS News Anchor,
Bob Schieffer hosted a ceremony that recognized and gave tribute
to the sacrifices made by those who served.
An event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the end
of the war did not see the end of emotions tied to it.
Almost four months later former Prison of War, Fred Cherry,
who was honored at the event, passed away.
Every day that goes by is one further from the Vietnam War,
and one less to honor and show gratitude to those who served.
[ Music ] [ Music ]

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