Jim, a Vietnam Veteran, wanted to watch Ken Burns recent documentary about that thirty years long sad war. I sat with him, marveling at the footage of men walking single file through the jungle. The interviews with both the Vietnamese and American soldiers were fascinating. And heart-wrenching.
I commented to Jim he was fortunate not to have been drafted into the Marines. He said he dodged that bullet by one person. The guy in front of him in line ended up a Marine draftee.
While watching the documentary I asked him many questions about his experiences.
Did he ever see anyone die? Yes, shortly after arriving. The soldiers were killed and wounded by the friendly fire of helicopter gunship. Later, one beautiful day while marching through a stream, Jim glanced down and at his feet was a dead Asian, floating on his back. He is unsure if he killed anyone. They fired their rifles frequently, but the jungle was so dense it wasn’t possible to see what they were shooting at. The rifles were semi-automatic. Each time they shot ten to twelve bullets were discharged.
Was he exposed to Agent Orange? Yes, everyone was. I didn’t realize that. Fortunately, so far he hasn’t experienced any illnesses due to the exposure. Our neighbor has had several bouts of cancer from it.
Did many men get malaria? Not that he knew. All soldiers had to take daily malaria pills. He did end up in a hospital with a kidney stone, air-lifted away in a helicopter loaded with wounded on stretchers.
Was he scared? “OF COURSE,” he said with a you-gotta’-be-kidding-me laugh.
Jim was a skinny twenty-one-year-old. He weighed only one-hundred-and-thirty. The backpack he lugged was about fifty pounds.
When he first arrived, Jim was stationed at I Corps, the northernmost military region next to the DMZ. He was trained as a mortarman. Later he moved to III Corps, the densely populated, fertile military area between Saigon and the Highlands. While there he met a Vietnamese guy who was selling parrots. Jim bought one, named it Bluebeard and fed it raisins and nuts. He left the bird with a friend when he traveled to Hong Kong for his second R and R. The first had been Hawaii. When he got back he learned the bird had been run over by a Jeep while walking on the road.
Shortly thereafter Jim was lucky enough to be stationed in the rear, working as a General’s waiter. He spent his last two months there. The Army offered him the opportunity to extend his time in Vietnam for one month. In exchange, the Army would forgive him the last seven months of his term. Jim chose to go home. For the remaining time, he was stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington.
Jim went to Vietnam on May 24th of 1968, arrived home on May 24th of 1969. His son, Jason, calls every year on that date to wish his Dad a happy DROS day. Jim has no idea why the going home day is called DROS by the service. Internet search netted no info.
Unlike so many soldiers, Jim never suffered PTSD. He said, “One day I was on the Vietnam channel, the next I was tuned to Oak Park, Illinois.” He didn’t even tell his family he was coming home. The house was locked when he arrived. He went to his little brother’s school and shocked him by walking into the classroom looking for a key.
I was in High School while he was in Asia. Later, my freshman year of college, I marched in a protest march. But only because I had a crush on the boy organizing it. I wore a peace sign necklace, bell bottoms, and Earth shoes.
I’m proud of Jim’s service. He still has his dress uniform, as well as his rumpled everyday jacket.
The Bronze Star Medal (the one with red, white, and blue ribbon) is awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity with the Armed Forces of the United States, distinguishes himself or herself by heroic or meritorious achievement or service, not involving participation in aerial flight.
Like the Bronze Star, the Air Medal (the one with the Eagle on it) can be awarded for both valor and meritorious achievement or service. The Air Medal is awarded only for circumstances involving participation in aerial flight.
The Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) is awarded to infantrymen and Special Forces soldiers in the rank of colonel and below, who fought in active ground combat while assigned as members of either an infantry, ranger or Special Forces unit.
The CIB badge is the one Jim is most proud of. That’s the silver and blue oval with a rifle on it. It recognizes the inherent sacrifices of all infantrymen, and that, in comparison to all other military occupational specialties, infantrymen face the greatest risk of being wounded or killed in action.
Due to the GI Bill, he was able to go to college. They even paid for his two master’s degrees.
I’m blessed Jim came home safe and sound. He’s a wonderful partner and a true gift in my life.