Memories of Viet Nam

My mother had mentioned my father’s teeth grinding and his waking up in sweats as he relived the Korean War for years in the 1950s and 1960s, but this in no way prepared us to deal with the stranger who returned to us in 1969.

We wrote letters to Dad nearly every day and we did get some replies, but we had no idea what he was going through, beyond the nightly news reports on TV and the daily casualty tally. He told us virtually nothing of what it was like, which was good, but it was almost as if he wasn’t really there.

We kept remembering how he was when we lived in Germany . . . in good spirits, ready to go for an outing, joking and laughing, and we wished it could be like it was, but this was not to be.

For Military Brats, war is hell too.

For me my year in hell meant attending “public” school in Columbus, Georgia. It was 1968, the height of the civil rights movement and the Junior High school I was attending was about to be integrated.

It was strange listening to many of the fellow students discussing the issue. Having only gone to schools on post up to this point, which were, of course integrated, I failed to see what the problem was.

Finally the day arrived, and two lone black students were enrolled. While I couldn’t relate to how they felt exactly, I did feel very much along at the school, as I missed my fellow Military Brat friends and there was no one at the school at first I could relate to.

Missing respect for authority

I was very surprised at how so many of the students would talk back to their teachers, and how so many students were taken out into the hall and were talked to by the teacher, or in a few cases forced to lean against the wall for a few minutes until their arm muscles ached.

There did not seem to any fear of a student’s father getting a call from the school, and I soon realized this school, Rothchild Junior High School, was similar to schools I had attended on military posts, but it was not run the same way, and there was virtually no respect for anyone in authority.

For the first time I was riding a bus to school. It was so loud and rowdy sometimes, the bus driver, Old Man Tucker, would pull off the road and wait in silence until it was quiet enough for him to be heard above the roar. Looking back, I’m surprised we never had an accident, and that he had enough self-control not to strike the trouble-makers on the bus.

As much as I loved to read and learn, I dreaded going to school each day. I would wake up with a knot in my stomach, fearing the unknown—would I get beaten up by a student who didn’t like my flat top haircut?  Would my mother get word during the day that my father had been killed?

Making new friends

Like other Military Brats, even in the worst of circumstances, I was able to make a few new friends. One new friend liked to draw in the margins of his notebook paper as much as I did, and we spent some time together lunch and during “study hall”.

This was the first time I had experienced study hall, and most students were doing everything but studying.

I was, like many kids growing up in the age of manned rocket flight, in love with all things to do with space travel and rockets. I had a dog-eared Estes Rockets catalog that I read and reread, and I took to designing my own rockets during study hall.

I never had the money to go to the next step and actually order a rocket kit, but I spent countless hours drawing the schematics of the rockets and thinking about men possibly walking on the moon.

A familiar face

One day someone got on the bus who I recognized. My classmate and friend Perry, who also lived at Biggs Airfield in El Paso, Texas, was now living about a mile or so from where I lived.

Finally, I had someone to talk to who understood some of what I was going through.

Perry and I did not have any classes together, but we did have a chance to talk for a while on the morning and afternoon bus ride, and occasionally at lunch, but I never shared with him what I was going through and how difficult it was adapting to a civilian school.

At Biggs Airfield, we shared classes and we would ride our bikes around the post.

But in Columbus, my mother kept us close and we weren’t allowed to stray far from the house. She didn’t have to tell us it was not like living on post. I was reminded of that every day on the school bus which was loud and unruly, and in the classrooms where students talked back to their teachers—both behaviors that were never tolerated on post.

The library

What I missed the most was the post libraries. At Biggs Airfield, we had two, I believe, within easy biking distance from our assigned quarters. But in Columbus, it was miles across town, and required navigating four-lane highways and busy intersections.

Fortunately for me, Rothschild Junior High School, had a fairly well-stocked library, and I took full advantage of our library time at school and I read every book the library had by Robert A. Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Arthur C.Clarke, Andre Norton, Alan E. Norse, and others.

The race to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade was heating up and the Apollo space program progress was both in the newspaper and on the TV, serving to fuel my interest in science fiction even more.

For me, most of the science fiction I read was pure escapism. In the worlds of the future there was no war that everyone hated called Viet Nam.

Adjustments

As 1968 turned into 1969, I adjusted, as I knew I must, and it was good to be living in the same town as two of my father’s brothers and just a few miles from my father’s mother and father.

We had a small house that was our house, bought with a VA loan, and for a while we had the life of many of the civilians around us, except the fact that my father wasn’t going to work every morning locally; he was in Viet Nam, sleeping in a tent.

A stranger returns

My father came home in the summer of 1969, and there were stiff hugs and we were all glad that he had made it back to us to us safely. But there were no smiles on his face and attempted jokes at the dinner table fell flat and the first few weeks it was as if a stranger had returned.

We were thinking things would be the same as before, but we were wrong.

My dad’s brothers came by to visit, and we got to visit some with our cousins, and later on other family members arrived and in some ways it was like old times as we kids played and listened in once in a while to the adult conversation going on.

When my dad’s three brothers got together, talk always turned to stories from two of my uncles who had served in WWII. One of my uncles, Uncle Myers, had served in the Navy and was a landing craft pilot during D-Day, my other uncle, Uncle James, had served in the Army and had been in many major campaigns during WWII including the Battle of the Bulge.

My brother and I weren’t allowed to be part of the discussions and story telling, but we could sometimes listen in from the kitchen or overhear some stories when we got together over at my grandmother and grandfather’s house.

It would be many years later before I would hear my Dad talking about specific incidents in Viet Nam and he never talked to me about any of his war experiences one on one, which probably is just as well.

Repairing a bottomless pit

The house was brand new and the lawn responsibility fell on my brother and myself. While my father was gone we had seeded, fertilized, watered and had finally gotten something to grow in the sandy soil.

But near the back corner of our backyard, a storm drainage grate had been put in by the city, which attracted the runoff from several yards, and over the course of our stay we watched as part of the embankment behind our fence eroded away around the storm drain.

Looking down at the hole around the exposed concrete culvert that went down into the ground, it was like the opening to a creature’s cave. Over the months before, it had only gotten larger and was like a live creature, eating our yard.

Looking back, this was something the city would have been responsible for, but Dad took it upon himself to fix and he made a project out of filling the hole and shoring up the embankment.

Naturally, we wanted to help, even if it mean getting growled at. We had half-expected to be in trouble on what had happened to the back yard around the drain, so to pitch in on some yard work would be getting off easy.

We worked away moving piles of dirt. After the third or fourth load of dirt on the uneven ground, my wheelbarrow tipped over. I was 11 and a half, and the load of dirt probably was twice my weight.

My Dad exploded and kicked me and told me to go inside.

Fighting back tears I obeyed him and went inside.

Moving On

Eventually my Dad’s leave was over and we were packed by the Mayflower Moving Company and headed to Fort Knox.

My father was a drill instructor at Fort Knox for four years, and threw himself into his work and we only saw him at dinner and for an hour or so afterwards, and occasionally on the weekend.

Little by little, over the years that followed, the stranger turned into more of what I remembered my father to be, but he was never the same.

And as I grew from a boy into a young man I realized I had to cherish the good memories, and try to forget the things that were bad.

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10 Comments
  1. Vann, much the same happened to us when my father was reunited with the family after his tour in Vietnam, and later again in Korea.  The biggest adjustment came from my sister, who had a hard time understanding why this near-stranger was attempting to tell her what to do.  Even my mother later revealed her anger at my father’s reasserting his authority at home, for she had spent the years seperated being both the mother and father, and sceding that responsibility wasn’t easy.

    As far as my father ever discussing his time at war, it only happened once.  I was already into my second year of college and we were sitting around late one evening.  Somehow, the conversation turned to his tour in Vietnam (this was just as the first Gulf War began), and he described the approach and landing into Vietnam.  That was it.  We never discussed anything relating to Vietnam again. 

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    • Jim

      This is the first time I have seen a site for military brats.  I thought I was alone out there,  My dad started in b-17s over Germany, b29s in Korea and b47s in the cold war and did year in Vietnam.  I never new if he was coming home.  What a nightmare….I am still not right with it….I had 3 sons and swore I would never to that to them….I learned more about my dad listening to him tell my sons….things I never knew…My sons asked questions….I never did…maybe thats why.  I still get choked up when I think about planes crashing and not knowing if it was him.  

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      • I learned more about my dad after he died than I ever did while he lived. There was a rule at our house that  we didn’t ask my dad about what he did because he wasn’t allowed to talk about it. all I knew was that he flew planes. I also knew that he was military intelligence. 

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  2. In July of ’60 my Dad, then a Lt. Col. in the Army, was posted to Vietnam as a millitary advisor. At that time dependants were allowed to go to. We were there for 2 years. I attended 8th grade in Siagon at the American Community School and 9th grade at Brent School a boarding school in the PI. 

    I had experiences there I will never forget.

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  3. My dad served as well, he has never talked much about about vietnam. Just a few things like, they were told never sleep with their hands behind their heads. This was because it would cause their arms to fall asleep,if they were attacked they would not be able to hold their weapon. Just this year I saw the movie We once were soldiers. I knew from the unit patch they wore that it was my dad’s unit. I cried through the whole last part
    My mother later told that yes that was his unit, and that he was on the advance team. They set up the the lz’s{landing zones) which they referred to them as the course.
    After I was married we were stationed in Schweinfurt, I met Benny. He was a Vietnam Vet, we became good friends. One night we started talking about Vietnam and he really opened up about his tour there. When he finished he told me that was the first time he ever really spoke about his time there. I hope that it helped him in some way. I now work at Ft Stewart and I have met a lot of wounded warriors. I’m also on the forensic team. This is not the way you want to meet our soldiers. It is very sad to see these young soldier who have committed suicide. Our soldiers need our support, they may not open up about their deployments. All they may need is someone to lean on, if you can be that someone.

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  4. Another memory maker Vann. I HATED my school in New Jersey after leaving Landstuhl. I was appalled at how the students taled to the teachers, no respect, nothing even close. I loved military base schools, and yes, coming to NJ from Germany where races did NOT mingle was quite a shock. I knew everyone was equal way before the citizens of the USA did. I was so confused at the hatred of people of color. Wow. You dad yelling at you brought back many ‘unpleasant; memories as well. Thank heavens for my mom. She kept it all together through his alcoholic haze and temper. I am alive today because of her. There is nothing on this earth stronger that a military wife.

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  5. Hi Joe, glad you are enjoying my essays here on MBL. Sorry to dredge up old feelings . . . and it’s good to know we all survived. My heart goes out to brats today where their parents have been deployed multiple times. I cannot imagine how it must bue, but at least today, we have widespread support of our troops and their families.

    Thanks for your comments and for being a reader.

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  6. Hi,

    Civilian school was so different so I quit as a sophomore and took classes from Texas Tech, enough to get in to Baylor. The first day in civilian high school I sat with the black students since I found an empty chair. I was hounded so badly that I quit. In the military this would not have happened.

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  7. My father was stationed in Fort Meade MD in 1966 and would travel to NYC where my mom and us kids lived since he had gone to Germany in 1963.  In ’66 he received orders for Okinawa. We were elated to go there and leave NYC and be a whole family again. My father was 48 years old with more than 22 years of service.  Then, unexpectedly, his orders were changed to Vietnam.  He chose to retire. We were saddened by that.  We loved the Army.  After reading Vanns essay I now can say I am happy he retired. He did the right thing for his family..thanks Dad……..

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  8. I am not only an Army Brat, but also a soldier who served during the Vietnam War.
    I understand full well my father’s life and why he left the family back in 1970.
    I married an Air Force Brat young lady in 1971. I knew I had to have something to come to
    Being a Korean War and Vietnam War Veteran, my dad knew he could not make in the USA when he retired. So he chose to stay in Vietnam and then move to Manila in the PI.
    His family grew up while he was away and through all our travels around the world.

    Living in Norway made my life complete until I married my young wife Crystal.
    I learned so much from the people and being alone with my music, books, toys and my bike rides around Oslo and out side the city.
    I found some Oslo American School kids that understood that, and we are good friends to this day.

    I met them through the Overseas Brats and love all our gatherings and meetings.
    It is great that there are many others who understand me and my family now. My own eldest son became a Trooper and was with the 82nd Airborne on 911. He now serves our community as a Harris County Deputy here in Harris County Texas for the past 11 years.

    Living with me was not easy as inside was a soldier and a world traveler who just seemed not to fit in with Civilian Pukes. I love to work and stay to myself and I do not play games at any time. I do my job and I remember I grew up in a house where you carry your work load and you live your life as a professional.
    My wife has stayed with me these past 43 years and I am sure no other woman would put up with me.
    She understand me and we raised 4 kids and now have 9 grand kids.

    Yes, I followed my dad’s tough standards and kept the kids trained on how to cook, clean, wash cloths, fold and put them away, and do what is right.
    I also worked on Public Law 94-142-(The Handicapped Law) in 1973-1976 when it became the law for the USA. Now we call it the ADA/504, for those with disabilities.
    I did that as after I began teaching at a local college in Virginia in 1974 I saw a lot of wounded Vets just trying to get by in life.
    The school had no elevators, or ADA/504 accessories for those with disabilities.

    It became my passion to teach HVAC-R, and take care of my vets when I taught at any school or took any jobs I ever held in my life.
    I have worked in a few companies that do not like Vets or those with training above the leaders I worked for.

    I press ahead and do my job and it is an effort to try and explain why I am the person I am.
    I think games are for kids and not for the work place.
    I work and expect those around to work, yes there is time for fun but not when you are working to pay the bills and feed a family.

    We may have been poor while my dad served his country, but I press ahead and work to show that if you do work and work hard in life, you can make something of yourself.
    That is what being in Norway and being a Military Brat has made of me.
    I love all the Brats I meet, and yes a few who did not make it far in civilian life. Many are leaving us now as we all age, and I have not seen many younger Brats from the Wars our nation fought and had families like ours, in the past 20 years join us.

    I wish the best in life.
    God Bless the USA! Ranger515!

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