My college sophomore year was 1965-66. President Johnson was escalating the war. I had high school friends that had been killed in Vietnam and college seniors that graduated in June 1966 were getting drafted and had orders for Vietnam. My father was a highly decorated WWII war hero including Purple Hearts, but I wasn’t interested in following in his or the seniors’ footsteps, so I began to actively seek a solution. I found an Air National Guard Unit near my home that had openings. I passed the tests and joined that summer with a commitment of missing a year of college for training and then being a weekend warrior for the remainder of the 6 years that I signed up for.
I did my training and was back at college in September 1967. On January 23, 1968 I stopped by the Commons Room to catch the news before going to study for final exams. I was told by Walter Cronkite that the ship the Pueblo has been captured by North Korea. My National Guard Unit was called to active duty and I had 24 hours to report. I missed two exams, but my professors worked with me so that I could get credit for the courses.
After reporting for duty, there were rumors of us going immediately to Korea, but things settled down and it was determined that the crew of the ship was safe. We were kept on active duty anyway and settled into a routine. Our unit began to be dispersed. I spent the spring at Myrtle Beach AFB (not a bad gig). in early summer we were told that some of us would have to go to Vietnam so that regulars could rotate back home. Since I was one of the few men that wasn’t married and hadn’t started a career, I volunteered to go.
Our air base was in a safe area, but the experience was eye-opening. My interaction with the soldiers in the field was limited, but to look into the eyes of 18-19 year-old draftees and see vacant stares like they had no hope, couldn’t cope and their soul was dying, if not dead already, was disturbing to say the least.
After returning home, because we had been on active duty and in a combat zone, our commitment was fulfilled and I no longer had to be a weekend warrior. I returned to college in September 1969, graduating in 1971.
In retrospect, the experience made me a better person and a better student. Now, I wouldn’t change the experience for anything. I grew up a lot during that time. One regret I have to this day is the friends that I lost, not because they were killed in Nam, but because I served there.
More than 40 years later, in a motivational seminar last week, the speakers periodically were asking those who served in the military to stand to be honored. Tears came to my eyes that afternoon when as we stood the speaker said "for those that served in Vietnam, welcome home. It wasn’t your fault."