My Mercenary Years

Recently a fellow Vietnam veteran and I were discussing how many of our fellow Vets chose to wear regalia identifying themselves as Vietnam Veterans.  Veterans of more recent wars also adopt hats, badges or jackets that proudly proclaim their service to the nation.  My friend and I don’t wear our service on our sleeve.

As a teenager I pulled some really stupid stunts.  One of them was ‘marrying’ when I was 17.  My parents were very tolerant of my stupid stunts but going over to Oklahoma and getting ‘married’ on a lark one slow afternoon, well that assertion of adulthood was mine.  They decided not to bail me out. My parents who had been willing to pay for my college education were not willing to support me and my new wife. I looked for work but didn’t have much to offer an employer.  I worked as a carhop while attending college classes not doing very well at either.  Fell asleep during one of my favorite classes and decided what I was doing wasn’t working out.  Joined the Air Force.

I planned to attend law school after college so thought being a Security Policeman would expose me to at least one aspect of the law.  Air Force wanted to put me on flight status but having no one to advise me I demanded Security Police.  I didn’t leave behind silly stunts when I left civilian life.

Once in the Air Force I worked as a base patrolman, guarded airplanes, and became a dog handler after I was reported for playing fetch with a stray dog while working a base gate.  Vietnam was not on my mind or pretty much of anybody else’s in ’64.  Got orders for Up Country somewhere in the boonies of  Vietnam.  Upon arrival at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon instead of reporting to transient barracks for further processing to up-country checked into the base Security Police Squadron.  Thye Squadron took care of the rest, I was assigned to Tan Son Nhut.  No dogs available, so I was put on squadron detail, cutting grass, picking up litter and other outdoor chores until a dog became available.

First Sergeant’s Detail was easy, life was good.  Some short staffed law enforcement sergeant saw me and my fellow detailers trimming grass and demanded we be assigned to regular duties.  I was assigned to the law enforcement division.  Duties included Cantonment Gate Guard, base patrol, some patrol off base around the bars, whore houses and dope dens adjacent to the base.  Eventually ended up working the second gate to the base with RVN troops.  Duty was good.  Lots of days off.  At one point working three days on, one off.  Beer was cheap, life was good.

The corruption of the US military was obvious. Military trucks with purloined goods left the Base regularly.   Theft of military supplies for sale on the black market was almost open.    I had a cousin in Army HQ who shared with me the frustrations of career warriors suffering under leaders who lived lives of pashas detached from actual warfare.  The cynicism of the natives in the bars about US intervention was not hidden at all.  The collapse of traditional values among many  Vietnamese families was obvious even to me.  The Vietnamese it appeared to me just wanted peace, and it didn’t really matter where it came from or who was in charge. They had been at war of one sort or another for 50 years.

I came to believe the Americans, especially those in leadership roles just didn’t understand the goals of the North or South Vietnamese.  I have a number of war stories to demonstrate but among the most telling was a “joke” in the Stars and Stripes, the weekly military produced newspaper.  A North Vietnamese Soldier, so the paper recounted,  was given a heavy artillery shell in Hanoi and told to take it south to the Mekong Delta.  He shouldered the load and started south.  After going without adequate food, water, or rest dodging bombs, ambushes, mines, and snakes he eventually reaches his goal and turns over the artillery shell to his fellow NVN soldiers.  He then asked, what should I do now?  He was told, “Go back and bring another shell! ” The powers that be thought that was funny and a morale lifter for US servicepeople, the problem as I saw it was that we were battling a committed enemy whose determination could defeat our superior technology, better trained and fed troops, an idea that never occurred to our politicians at home or to our military leadership.    I came home thinking the US needed to get out of Vietnam.

Back in the States and separated from the AF I wanted to return to college.  The GI bill was being discussed in Congress but had not passed.  Remember my remarkable stupidity of marrying at 17.  It got worse there were two kids now along with their mother.  Looked around for work but nothing much was available, but the Navy was desperate for warm bodies, a two-year enlistment was offered.  So, I joined the Navy, worked to get assigned to Vietnam.  An early out was promised to folks returning from Vietnam.  I had planned to spend 18 months in the Navy and get a 6 month early out.  The Navy balked at sending me to Vietnam initially, but I managed to get there two months off my schedule.  I was assigned to Danang Naval Station as a Personnelman.

During my tour I actually learned a bit about Vietnam.  Duty was pretty good as a Personnelman even though all personnel were restricted to base.   I returned home more convinced that  much of what we were told about the conflict was incorrect or plain and simple lying.  And a spartan GI Education  bill had  passed, nothing as generous as WW II vets got but something. There was no welcome for returning vets.

Back home and divorced, I went back to College.  I had learned the first time around; class attendance was necessary to succeed.  I made it to class no matter how hung over I was and got my BA.  I also became active in the antiwar movement.  I had come to believe the war was not worth the lives and treasure being lost.  Being anti-Vietnam war in Arkansas was worse than having served in Vietnam.  Antiwar, must be a long-haired druggie.

The RVN vets were not very welcome on Campus. The VFW believed we hadn’t fought in a real war, besides we were all long haired druggies; not their kinds of Vets.   Employers assumed we were not good job candidates.  I took all this in and got really angry.  My war was an embarrassment.

While at college I didn’t speak of my service much except among fellow vets.  Many instructors didn’t like having older students in their classes because they were not as amenable as the just out of high school kids they were accustomed to, and the ex-soldiers were probably war criminals anyway in their view.  Many Vets were not as bitter as me,  some were angrier.  Most Vets were loudly supportive of the war but not the vets I hung with.

The war was in my past and I decided it would stay there.  I enjoyed going to college.  I enjoyed going to class, most instructors, most reading assignments.  Some instructors displayed incredible interest in helping me to succeed.  I also enjoyed my social life.  My University experience became my life defining experience.   The intellectual challenges and the joy of learning, of discussions introducing me to different viewpoints, new ideas.  Making friends that have lasted a lifetime.

As the war became dim in our collective memories the treatment of Vets is now remembered with embarrassment.  Well, I needed a job at the time.  I met my contractual obligation.  No thanks required or expected.  And it is too late to undo the treatment I and others received upon our return to the World.  But I do have to admit it is nicer than nastiness.

Even after getting my degrees some folks still held their prejudices about Vets as I interviewed for professional positions.  Now after all these years I am still embittered, my problem not someone else’s. But wearing regalia or other celebration of my time in Vietnam, no thanks, why remind myself of the dirty little war I participated in that left thousands dead or injured to no good end.

Tom Bercher is a Vietnam War veteran living in Arkansas.