Barry Goldwater ran for president against Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and I was just old enough to vote. We were warned not to vote for Goldwater because we’d get involved with a war in Vietnam. Well, I voted for Goldwater and sure enough, before I knew it, I found myself in a U.S. Army uniform, climbing off a troop transport plane in Saigon. I had a duffle bag on my shoulder, an M14 rifle in my hand and a patch that read “1st Infantry Division” on my sleeve.
I learned fast about what it’s like to be in a war – from the inside out. We didn’t have TV or even radio. News came in letters from our mothers, most of whom wrote to us every day. We waited for those daily messages and devoured news about home and about the war.
Our mothers told us that some guys were running to Canada to escape the draft. We all knew one or two of them from home. We weren’t surprised and it didn’t bother us. We knew them to be physical cowards. They never played varsity sports and didn’t stand up for anything. They never mattered. In fact, we were happy to see them flee the country.
Little did we know that later Jimmy Carter would give them amnesty and let them come back to the country from which they ran. It broke our hearts.
And letters from our mothers told us of the demonstrations back home. The people we were fighting for blamed us and called us bloodthirsty baby killers. We couldn’t understand. And, unless you were there, you can never come close to comprehending the crushing impact on our sense of self-respect and confusion about right and wrong. My mother wrote that she was sure I was not a part of any of that. Small consolation.
There were some heart-moving moments. Bob Hope came at Christmastime with his troupe. That was a real morale bump for us. We were asked to loan Army vehicles and drivers to move the entertainers from the air strip to the stage and back. I sent my jeep and driver, and when he returned there was a clean white handkerchief on the passenger seat. As I approached, my driver leaped to his feet, dramatically swept the cloth away and said, “Sir, the last fanny on your jeep seat belongs to Anita Bryant.” Martha Raye was there and showed up everywhere. Johnny Unitas and Willie Davis spent days there. They tossed the football with us, told stories and treated us like teammates. God love ‘em. Somebody cared.
Then my year was up and it was time to ship home. Happy day. I was jeeped to Tan Son Nhut Air Base and waited three days for a plane ride to the U.S. Meanwhile, I bought a khaki uniform and got it laundered and starched. Next stop: Oakland, Calif.
I remember the trip as about 20 hours in the air, but I was so excited there was no sleep. Before deplaning, I put on my khakis and felt good walking down the airport concourse. A group of rowdy young people saw me in my uniform and it started. The booing and name-calling. Words can’t describe my feelings then so I won’t try. I found the nearest restroom and put on some wrinkled civvies I had at the bottom of my duffle bag.
That was my first welcome home. There have been others that were much better. In fact, the best happened when we Vietnam vets marched as a group in a fall festival parade.
As we stepped onto the parade route, the crowd saw our banner and erupted up to their feet from the grass and out of their lawn chairs. They applauded. They waved. They shouted, “Thank you.” My eyes filled with tears and I was paralyzed. The crowd stood and applauded the entire mile of the parade. They guy next to me wiped a tear and said, “I’d fight for these people any day.” And we would.
Mike Kirchen is retired and lives in Wisconsin with his wife, Linda. He served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division.