Americans call it the Vietnam War. Present-day Vietnamese call it the American War. Whatever it is called, the 407 days I served in that war have had a profound effect on my life ever since.
Prior to landing back in the States at Travis Air Force Base on August 29, 1969, we were warned that there might be unfriendly protesters waiting to “greet” us. There were a few outside of the fence but they were not unruly. I experienced plenty of that during the next three years in Washington, D.C., as former Senator Len Jordan’s point man on Vietnam—lots of heated claims about the war and those who served in it. That was disappointing because I thought serving the country had been an honorable thing to do.
I’d been commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1964, graduated from law school three years later, and finished artillery school in March of 1968. The Army initially sent me to Okinawa, but I requested and was reassigned to Vietnam, arriving in July 1968.
During most of my tour, I worked with and lived among soldiers of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVNs) at the Province headquarters in Tay Ninh City. My 4-man liaison unit had the responsibility of clearing all air strikes and artillery fire in the Province. It was our job to ensure that civilians and friendly forces were not endangered.
Most of the ARVNs I worked with were Catholics from nearby Cao Xa village. When Vietnam was partitioned in 1954, the village was located in North Vietnam. Father Dzu moved the whole village to Tay Ninh Province to escape Communist persecution. They were refugees in their own country. The Communists repeatedly attacked Cao Xa but were always repulsed by the fighting men, women and children of that valiant village.
The ARVN soldiers were good friends and I trusted them with my life.
When I learned about an orphanage in Tay Ninh City, my liaison unit adopted it as a civic action project. We brought food, clothes, fire wood, a generator, an electric water pump and a variety of other supplies. We had a number of parties for the kids, introducing them to ice cream and hot dogs, both of which they loved. My unit was often at the orphanage and I have to say the kids worked their way into our hearts.
When I got home, I thought the orphans and my ARVN friends would be safe, even as we brought our troops home. President Nixon promised that the U.S. would supply the ARVNs and provide air support in the event of a North Vietnamese general offensive. That happened when the northerners launched their ferocious Easter Offensive in 1972, which the ARVNs repulsed with our help. Unfortunately, we utterly failed the ARVNs three years later when the Communists launched their Spring Offensive and drove all the way to Saigon.
It broke my heart when I saw the pictures of the Communists taking over in Saigon in April 1975. I knew my friends in Tay Ninh were in mortal danger. The way the war ended still causes me great pain. I saw it as a tragic betrayal of our ARVN allies and a giant stain on the honor of this great country. I was sickened by the cries from some quarters that we should not take in refugees from that conflict. I only hoped this tragic experience would provide guidance for our future foreign policy. How soon we forget.
For example, the war in Iraq was completely unnecessary–one of our greatest blunders since World War II. We absolutely forgot every lesson we should have learned from Vietnam. If our leaders had studied the mistakes of Vietnam, we would have stayed out of Iraq and may have been able to leave Afghanistan years ago.
My Vietnam experience and how it has shaped my world view is chronicled in a newly-released book, Vietnam…Can’t get you out of my mind. The book can be purchased online from Ridenbaugh Press or from Amazon.
My wife, Kelly, and I are planning a joint speaking and book-signing tour to various locations around the state this fall. She has just published a new novel, Bloodline and Wine, and we will be making stops at a number of Idaho cities to discuss both books.