The Return 

The author on a fire base near the Laos border in 1970.

“You don’t want to work here,” the foreman said.

I left Vietnam on Good Friday and was home for Easter. As a Catholic I pondered the irony. I hadn’t called ahead, and when I knocked on the door late that night my parents were terrified a military officer had been sent to notify them I’d been killed. Instead, when they opened the door, they found what was left of me.

My father was proud of my service. Somehow my mother knew that my last months in Vietnam were awful. She knew at a glance I was changed, but was thrilled that her only son had returned home. A few weeks later, when the last of my army pay was gone, I applied for unemployment, filling out the forms as best I could. What was my last job? US Army, Vietnam. Why did I leave? Rotten pay. Hazardous conditions. What did that previous job qualify me to do? I read maps and plotted artillery fire on people trying to kill me.

Would my answers offend those who read them? I hoped so, but the clerk was not amused. My Army skills were not suited to civilian life, she said. Silently, I screamed,  “No shit, Sherlock!” I was officially categorized as “miscellaneous.”

Jobless, I contented myself doing as little as possible while collecting $55.00 a week. Four times a month I lied to the clerk, telling her where I’d sought employment. One fateful day, after I turned in my list of lies, instead of a check, I was given a blood red index card.

“You have to go there and apply for a job,” said the clerk, smirking.” If you don’t get the foreman to sign the card and bring it back to me, I’ll terminate your checks.”  On the card was written the name and address of my future employer. Was this a plot to deprive me of my weekly benefit? To find out, a few days later I drove to the innocuous sounding Salem Woodworking, in Salem, New Hampshire.

The receptionist took the crimson card and paged the foreman. Covered in wood dust, a grizzled man wearing overalls and a blue work shirt looked me over. I had on my army field jacket. My hair was wild, dirty. My attitude was not pleasant.

“You don’t want to work here,” the foreman said.

I was stunned, but convinced that he was playing his part to stop my checks.

“Did you just get back from Vietnam?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

 “Do you know what we make here?”

“No. I don’t.”

 “Caskets,” he said. “We make caskets.”

I was shocked. And angry.

Kindly, the foreman said, “I’ll sign that card for you, son. Take it back and get your money. Those people are idiots.”

Enraged, I drove to the unemployment office, parked my truck over the front curb, flung open the door, marched into the lobby and screamed, “WHAT KIND OF FUCKING IDIOT SENDS A COMBAT VETERAN TO A CASKET FACTORY FOR A FUCKING JOB?!!” A line of unemployed workers began clapping, yelling their support. Moments later the manager rushed to me, grabbed my arm, gently led me to his office, and apologized for the mistake. My country, I realized, had welcomed me home.

Gary Rafferty served in Vietnam in 1970-71 with A Battery, 2nd/ 94th Artillery, 108th Field Artillery Group. He is the author of Nothing Left to Drag Home, The Siege of Lao Bao During Operation Dewey Canyon II as Written by an Artilleryman Who Survived It.  Email: