There is "is..."
by
Dan Crummett

Stories


  I was somewhere between drowsiness and sleep, gazing at the prismatic colors of sunlight flooding through the weave of a soaked boonie hat draped over my face, when the braying of a loudmouth Argentine kid in the swimming pool penetrated my thoughts. The warmth of the San Antonio sun and the collective poolside noise had been part of semi-conscious dreaming, but now I was aware of a loud confrontation involving this gaucho and three or four younger Americans who were obviously impressed by someone who claimed to be a combat veteran.

"Malvinas" this and "Malvinas" that, I heard him emphasize during their game of "keep away" with a beach ball the lanky, dark-complected youth kept to himself—parading through the pool. "They are the Malvinas Islands!", he challenged, looking to see who was watching, obviously hoping someone would give a damn and bestow upon him the respect he apparently so deeply craved. "At least we fought," he finally spouted, recalling Argentina’s failed attempt at tangling with England’s Margaret Thatcher, after one of his fawning followers mentioned his brother was in Southeast Asia years earlier—obviously struggling to stay in context vicariously through his brother’s experience.

"We weren’t pussies, like VEEEEEIIIIIIITNAAHHM!," he jibed, affecting derision of the whole American experience more than two decades earlier.

Fury raged within me at the brashness of this foreign upstart saddling the political ineptness of my country on the individual soldiers who did what their government demanded. I wanted to step on him. "Don’t ever judged the combatants who fought the war by the outcome of the conflict itself," I thought, realizing even this adolescent—if he actually did serve with the Argentineans in the Falklands/Malvinas…whatever—was covered by my most recent revelation.

Look at Matthew Brady’s photographs taken during the U.S. Civil War. Study the pictures of the French, German, British and American soldiers in World War I. Browse through the Time/Life volumes on World War II and Korean War history. Gaze at the statue of the three Vietnam veterans in Washington, D.C. What do you see? The same faces of the same kids. Sullen and fatigued faces. Weary faces. Old-before-their-time faces.

Whether they wore blue or gray, a spiked helmet or beret, whether their allegiance was to Lincoln, Lee, the Kaiser or the King, or whether they were just fighting because they had to—without ideals—the faces are the same. Young lives diverted, sometimes permanently, for decisions made elsewhere.

Win, lose or draw, the workmen of war—regardless of the color of their uniform—have the same job, collect the same pay and perpetuate feelings and fears known in every generation somewhere in the world. Their kinship is eternal.

Disturbed, I tried to go back to sleep.

Years later, however, the poolside incident still burned deeply, like the Vietnam experience which sensitized me to it in the first place.

In 1991 another group of young faces went to the Persian Gulf, conducted themselves admirably and professionally, used their highly-capable weapons with precision and were well on the way to obliterating the war machine of a minor dictator. The politicians monitored the conflict, and when it sufficiently met their requirements, declared victory and the young faces came home to parades, reunions, and thankful loved ones.

They won. Their craftsmanship was heralded worldwide as the sign of an invigorated nation, so long embittered and traumatized by the stigma of its unwillingness to fully commit itself 25 years earlier in Southeast Asia.

Were the men and women of Desert Storm more courageous than the troopers of the Americal Division, the Fourth Infantry or the 101st and 82nd Airborne of the 1960s and ’70s? Was the cause any more noble for the fliers of Desert Storm than that of the Air Force and Navy pilots who pounded Hanoi and the Ho Chi Minh Trail to stop despotism there? Was the sand and heat of the Arabian Desert more challenging than the mud, filth, squalor and rain in places like the Iron Triangle and the delta regions of the Mekong River? I think not.

No, the risks were the same. Death, dismemberment, imprisonment and mental anguish make a weighty balance to the euphoria of victory, flapping flags and pride-swollen chests. It’s a gamble generations have faced and embraced. It’s a gamble that still has a personal allure, probably because I wasn’t killed, dismembered or imprisoned.

The veterans of the Iraqi trouncing deserve credit for a job well done, and with eternal kinship I salute them, as do the others who bore arms in countless other conflicts throughout history. But, their return and subsequent reception stirred an unexpected reaction within me. I was jealous!

Although quite disgusted with the U.S. Army after 18 months and a trip to Vietnam, deep inside I was still proud to have been a soldier. I felt a kinship with those who have written: "To those who have served, no explanation is necessary; to those who haven’t, none is possible." Overall, however, I was not unduly concerned with the indifference bestowed on the combined experience of the Vietnam veteran. I was just overjoyed to be home, healthy and restarting my life with my new bride. Like the majority of others who spent time in Vietnam, I was ready to get on with life "back in the world." I’d felt frustration, rage, loneliness, fear and betrayal in connection with my tour of duty, but now, jealousy was a new pang in this arena.

Despite the hand-wringing of the national media about the "ticking time bombs," 70 percent of whom were just waiting to explode with "Post Vietnam Syndrome," most of us just came home, went back to school, or went to work. We stayed away in droves from our father’s American Legion and VFW affiliations, and for the most part, took up where we left off. Today, veterans of the "Vietnam Experience" make up a large portion of the work force, are raising children and are trying to capture what’s left of the "fat of the land" that was so prevalent when we were told to protect those oppressed, ensure free elections, and stop the spread of Communist domination down the Vietnamese Peninsula.

Like many others, I’m sure, I thought the experience was over and had begun to accept the fact that many folks today don’t even remember Vietnam, much less care about the feelings or concerns of those who were there. It’s a simple matter to just blow it off. After all, isn’t that how we got through the thousands of tours of duty pulled from 1964 through 1973?

Still, there it was. Jealousy. Jealousy for some glory. Jealousy for some recognition. Jealousy for something more than the GI Bill, a flag for my wife when I die, and a generic government-issue headstone. Although those things are commendable, and I’m certainly not complaining…I’ve used the GI Bill for all it was worth! But, it dawned on me, all the collective euphoria and chest pounding over the return of the GIs from Desert Storm was partially an atonement for the lack of response to us as we trickled home from Vietnam, one-by-one, quietly as possible in that turbulent age of disdain for anything military. At least that’s what some sociologists were saying at the time, and maybe some of what they said was correct. Personally, however, it was too little, too late.

Yet, as the old saying goes, "Half a loaf is better than none," and considering the passage of time and the fleeting collective memory of places like Tay Ninh, Dalat, DaNang, Camau and KheShan, the Vietnam veteran probably would be wise to soldier on in life as it has been presented and one more time just say: "There it is…"

1997 - Dan Crummett - dcrummett@provalue.net

187th Assault Helicopter Co. 11 Combat Aviation Bn.,
First Aviation Brigade

Tay Ninh/DiAn, June 1971/March 1972

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