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It has taken me a long time to come to some peace about my Vietnam experience; forty-four years to be exact. Surprisingly, it was a matter of serendipity that began the transition for me.
About a year and a half ago, I was asked to write articles for The Veterans Site. I was about to retire after a happy career of teaching, both at the high school and the college levels. I was not willing to just sit down and watch the days go by, and I am a writer, so it seemed a natural fit for me, though in the beginning I was not sure of how I felt about it - if it would take me back to memories I had spent a lifetime trying to ignore.
You see, I have spent the last forty-four years putting the Vietnam experience and my coming home experiences behind me. I had been a Corpsman with 3rd Recon Bn, 3rd Marines from January 1968 to February 1969. I went through the Tet Offensive at Khe Sanh, and after that, eight more months going out on squad size recon patrols. But it was the coming home that really shaped my reactions to my service in Vietnam.
When we came home it was to a nation that was angered by the Vietnam War and, for the most part, took it out on the returning veterans. It was led by our peers who, in their anger, painted those of us who has served as violent, baby killers, willing tools of an imperialistic government. We, of course, did not see ourselves like this at all. We, like all veterans before us, had no political sense at all. Like veterans before us, we saw ourselves simply defending and protecting the brother on either side of us, watching each other's back, just trying to do what we were ordered to do honorably and to survive.
When we came home we were ridiculed, rejected, and spat upon, and most of us tried to melt into the background. We often hid the fact our service. I even lost a potentially career-oriented job as a physician assistant precisely because when I was asked to reveal where I had received my degree, I had to admit that I didn't have one, that my experience came from four years in the military and Vietnam. I had taken and passed a national exam a month before, the same one college graduates were required to take, and been registered as a Physician Assistant, but when I applied for a job at a major university on the East Coast and they found out that my experience was as a Corpsman in Vietnam, they refused to consider me any further.
Writing about the young men and women who are fighting in today's wars, I have, once again, been reminded of their quality, their dedication to one another and their commitment to a cause greater than themselves. The side effect for me has been that it has caused me to reclaim my own history as a veteran, to accept it and to be proud of it.
On one of my recent appointments to the VA Hospital, I bought a Vietnam Veteran baseball hat and started to wear it in public. This has been an interesting experience for me. At first I was nervous about wearing it. How would people look at me? What kind of comments might it bring? In fact, I have been deeply moved by the number of people who have made a point to thank me for my service, or shared a story or two of their own experience, or simply shaken my hand. Most pleasing is the fact that other Vietnam veterans have approached and said the one thing that none of us ever heard on our return to the world: "Welcome Home, brother." Nothing has meant so much to me. Nothing,
Please, never forget to welcome our veterans home. Let us commit to care for those who come home wounded both in body and mind. Let us commit to making jobs available to them. And let us especially continue to care for and try to solve the troubling issue of homelessness among our veterans.