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 returning home on August 30, 1969. My experience is chronicled in my newly-released book, Vietnam…Can’t get you out of my mind.
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.
My heavy artillery battalion provided artillery support for all of Tay Ninh Province, which is about 55 miles northwest of Saigon. The Province bulges into Cambodia and was a main terminus of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The northern half of the Province was largely triple canopy jungle and decidedly hostile territory. Several North Vietnamese military facilities were located just over the border in Cambodia, but we could not disturb them.
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.
I also worked with ARVNs who were members of the Cao Dai faith. It is a universalist religion formed in Tay Ninh City in 1926. The church claimed 3 million members in Vietnam and neighboring countries. It operated an orphanage in the city with about 73 kids, mostly orphans of war.
When I learned about the orphanage, 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.
The orphanage work had a completely unexpected twist. During one of the daily trips I made to the base camp where my battalion headquarters was located, I received an Army Commendation Medal for helping the orphans. Although he did not believe in gambling, Major Keith Painter from Logan, Utah, likely saved my skin by insisting that I stay the night at base camp and play poker with the other officers. The Communists destroyed my living quarters at Province headquarters that very night.
One of my duties was to assist the Special Forces units in Tay Ninh Province with their artillery needs. They had an administrative unit, B-32, in the city and a number of smaller “A” camps located in dangerous territory around the Province. They were dedicated soldiers and good people.
Another job was to conduct artillery fire missions from the back seat of a rickety little two-seat spotter airplane called a Bird Dog. We flew over the jungle at about 800 feet to shoot at intelligence targets or whatever looked suspicious. We had to shoot up all of our monthly allocation of ammunition, even if we could not find a promising target. If we did not use up all of the month’s allotment, we might be cut back the following month—shoot it or lose it.
As a full-fledged lawyer, I was defense counsel of choice for the soldiers in the battalion who faced court martial for a variety of offenses. The charges generally involved yielding to temptations of the flesh in Saigon when the soldiers were supposed to be fetching ammunition for our guns.
The ARVNs I worked with became good friends. I trusted them with my life and, thankfully, was never disappointed. We were the only Americans living in the headquarters area, and any one of dozens of ARVNs could have quietly tossed a grenade under our bunks any night, but it never happened. They had a lot to lose if the Communists took over. The Catholics would face annihilation and the Cao Dais would suffer religious persecution.
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.
Quite a number of Vietnam veterans suffered mightily from the war experience. We failed to give them the help and support they needed to get healthy and successfully reintegrate into society.
The majority of vets were able to move on in a positive direction, using the experience to improve their lives and build their communities. It has certainly been a powerful influence in how I view the world. It shaped my view of service to country–every young American should have the opportunity to serve this country in either a military or civilian role.
It is essential to treat victims of war and calamity–refugees and asylum seekers–with compassion and dignity. We have a moral responsibility to provide refuge to those who helped U.S. troops in foreign conflicts. Over 100,000 Iraqis and Afghans who risked their necks helping our troops are in danger as they wait and hope for entry into the U.S. When we start a conflict, we also have a responsibility to help the civilian refugees it produces.
We should never go to war unless a vital national interest is at stake. The war in Iraq was unnecessary–one of our greatest foreign policy 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 might have stayed out of Iraq and may have been able to leave Afghanistan years ago.
One positive thing we all seem to have learned is that those who serve the nation in foreign conflicts deserve the respect of the nation, even if the conflict is unpopular. Many Vietnam veterans came home to indifference or even hostility. It heartens me that our service personnel in recent years have been appreciated by their fellow Americans.
Two years ago, my wife and I went to Vietnam–my only trip back. We visited Hanoi, as well as a number of cities in what used to be South Vietnam. After a couple of decades of suffering, the folks in the south seem to be doing relatively well. Cao Xa village has a new name, but the Catholic Church of Father Dzu no longer exists. Where there were thousands of bomb craters in the northern part of the Province, there are now farms, villages and rubber trees.
We felt welcome everywhere we went. The Vietnamese people were so friendly, just like I remember my friends from 50 years ago. The war is behind them and our two counties are becoming aligned in many ways. You wonder whether there was any necessity for the past hostilities.
My new book outlines this experience and how it has played out in my life–how I was inspired to public service by President Kennedy, pursued the law, went to war, and have tried to make a difference in public affairs. Although I left Vietnam in 1969, I doubt it will ever leave me.
For those who might be interested, Vietnam…Can’t get you out of my mind, 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.