Sunday , 14 April 2024

The Spat Upon Vet Revisited

Back in mid-April, the phone rang one evening.  You have a call from Bob, the woman’s voice said.  I was in end-of-day mode, not the best time for a tele-scammer to invade my home life.  I hung up, and the phone rang again almost immediately.  That dance took two more turns, before I switched to sardonic.  Bob’s not here, I answered in my most blandly convivial voice, but she insisted.  It’s a call from Bob.

The next call I let the answering machine pick up.  The good nurse must have finally figured, “screw the privacy policy,” and she gave Bob’s last name, and a call back number.  Like I said, end of the day, I’m in fade out.  Unless you’re identifiably one of my closer friends or a family member, and you want the verbal me, you gotta call before six, after which I’m mixing my martini, and starting to prepare for dinner and an evening that does not include talking on the phone.

Anyway, I snapped to.  Christ, what a jerk I’m swearing at myself, as I rush to the phone.  It’s Bobby, a dear friend, old comrade from the day, the GI project in Wrightstown outside Fort Dix, and then part of our activist circle on the deserter amnesty issue before he took the union buy-out and fled to the hills of Vermont.  Bobby, who took his first plane ride at 19 en route to Vietnam, schlepped an M-60 all over the Delta with the 9th Division.  He was third generation printer’s union at the Daily News, and had barely ever traveled from Brooklyn past Manhattan – maybe a time or two over to Jersey.  Bob is one of those rare Brooklyn Yankees’ fans, worshiped the Mick, day dreamed about playing center field in the house that Ruth built while gazing out the window in grammar school until Sister Mary Malpractice put a knuckle sandwich upside his head.

Bobby wasn’t much of a student.  If he survived Nam, there was Charlotte, his HS sweetheart waiting at home in Sheepshead Bay, and the union card as a legacy from his grandfather’s own bashed head when the newspaper workers battled the publishers’ goons for the right to organize.   It was one of those womb-to-tomb life plans, and if that wasn’t the American Dream for the average working stiff, nothing was.  I don’t need to tell you that Nam pretty much put a major crimp in that scenario for my friend Bob.  As I dialed the phone, I feared the worse.  But the voice was the same old Bob, and it’s not that we’ve ever been out of touch for very long since the early 70s, never more than a couple of months at a time.  Sometimes he’d come to Maine, or I’d go see him.

The news was that Bob was in the psych ward at the VA in White River Junction, about an hour and a half from his place in Vermont’s so-called Northest Kingdom.  PTSD became a ratable service-connected disability by the VA in the early 80s, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Bob had been among the first to get his diagnosis and his hundred percent.  He’s been through all the substance programs, the in-patient clinics, with their twin accents on group therapy and meds.

Alcohol is how Bob deals with his demons.  And Dames.  Charlotte divorced him, but they remained neighbors and stayed close; when a brain tumor took her, Bobby lost his best friend, the one he could always lean on to regain some semblance of balance after each bounce off the wagon, and each prolonged binge into oblivion that followed.  Bob tried and tried to build another relationship.   But he smothered women with kindness – No, Michael, really, this is the one, I know it – and in succession, they would flee, breaking his heart and, in some cases ripping him off in the bargain.  It was the latest broken heart that sent him back to White River Junction, that and the open casket funeral of a local boy one town over who’d been killed in Afghanistan.

I’d always get on his case about his thing with women.  Take it slow, I’d say.  Don’t try to rescue her and the two kids, or get involved with the scum bag dead beat dad, all in the first month.  Or whatever.  About the dead kid in the casket, that registered on me.  Bobby is a sweetheart and a funny, sensitive guy, a softy.  But when he offered that dead boy as causa prima for his latest bout with the deep, deep blues, it caught in my throat too, and I could feel the mist starting to rise.  It’s that deep, unappeasable thing that makes a Nam vet bawl whenever he goes to the Wall in DC.

Anyway, Bob hadn’t tried to hurt himself.  I was thankful for that.  He was feeling better and was going to check himself out in a day or two against the advice of his keepers, but that was to be expected.  None of them can imagine, given their own far less turbulent heads, how any of these toxic grade PTSD guys ever survive from one day to the next.  But I knew Bob’s resilience, and could hear in his voice that he’d landed on his feet again, and still had some rounds left in him.

A couple of days later Bobby called to tell me he was back home.  He became uncharacteristically talkative about his time in Nam.  All the years I’ve known him, he’d never go into detail, not even with me.  He didn’t have to.  I could read between the lines.  The 9th Infantry Division was based in the northern Mekong Delta, some forty miles below Saigon.  Till the late sixties, American units only operated sporadically there, and the South Vietnamese Army hardly at all.  This warren of waterways, rice paddies and canopied woodlands was densely populated and traditionally a stronghold of the Vietnamese resistance, the guerrilla forces of the Viet Cong.  I always figured Bob had gotten into some heavy shit, and just couldn’t bring himself to talk about it.

Suddenly, I couldn’t get him off the phone.  He’d started looking through old boxes he’d dragged from the barn to his living room, mostly articles Charlotte had clipped every day while waiting for her soldier to get home, from the Daily News and the Times, particularly if they mentioned the 9th.   Bob was rambling on about some home coming parade involving his unit, and how they’d been attacked by antiwar protesters.

Bob, I interrupted, what the hell are you talking about.  That welcome home shit was something Reagan’s people manufactured trying to get Americans to stop feeling bad about Vietnam so they could stick it to the rebels in Central America, go from covert to overt, which the public wasn’t buying.  There were a lot of cry-baby vets, who couldn’t get their dad’s “good”  war out of their imaginations, and who knew goddamned well that Vietnam was no noble cause, the pap Reagan was doling out, but who couldn’t make the emotional break because to them, if the war was bad, it meant they were bad too.  The hat vet organizations like the Legion and the VFW are filled with vets who think like that – or who don’t do a lot of independent thinking about their war experiences, or the world in general, is the way I view it.

No, no, no… Michael, Bob persisted, we had a parade.  I’ve got it right in front of me.  They jeered at us, it says.  Again, I jumped his train of thought, onto a digression about how the whole spat-upon vet thing was an urban myth.  No documented evidence has been produced, and besides, I said, how did all those GI-hating hippies get on the tarmac of a U.S. air base to sling their spit at guys just getting back to the World?  And even when you out-processed, and left the base, it’s not like you were in uniform, even if you hadn’t been discharged yet.  The average GI hated the uniform by then, and couldn’t wait to get it off when on his own time.  But Bob was still adamant.  He just couldn’t string it out in a way that made any sense.  Finally, I said, make some copies of what you’re talking about, and send them to me, okay?  And, listen man, those clips sound interesting; they should go to a library.

When the clips came I could see immediately that Bob had sent me something important.  It was a copy of a very brief AP story, only three paragraphs, datelined Seattle July 10, 1969, under the heading, “Returning GIs, Hailed, Jeered.”  The other clips Bob included tell the whole story.

In the ‘68 presidential run up, Richard Nixon promised, if elected, to begin withdrawal of American troops from active combat in Vietnam, to be replaced by the forces of South Vietnam.  This strategy quickly became dubbed in the media as, “changing the color of the corpses,” because the American Air War, and presumably the war itself, was on the books to continue indefinitely.  Nixon, in fact, would fulfill this promise, and, in doing so, unwittingly set the stage for the victory of the Vietnamese people and the reunification of their country.

To implement Nixon’s policy, the Pentagon chose a battalion of the 9th Division to play the public role of being the first homecoming unit, first among 25,000 U.S. troops that would be rotated home over a seven week period.  On July 8, 1969, 814 GIs, “draped in leis and grinning broadly,” stood at attention for two hours at Tan Son Nhut air base just outside Saigon, participating in a farewell ceremony that saw them harangued by the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, as well as South Vietnam’s president, Nguyen Van Thieu, “a late arrival,” according to the story in the Times.

After the ceremony, the GIs boarded the giant C-141 transports that would, after 18 hours, return them to the World.  A few GIs are quoted in clippings from the New York papers. The men are understandably ecstatic, since for many of them it means cutting short, if only by a month in one case, their one year combat tours.  Most of them have seen heavy action in the Delta, which is also described in many articles Camilla had saved for Bob.  And I know from my own experiences, some of horrors they’d dealt with, and, one guys says it all, “I’m just lucky to be getting home alive.”

When the transports landed at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, another dog and pony show awaited the returning heroes, 3000 people, some of them relatives, and a brass band.  The men off the first plane got a hand shake from former Vietnam commander, now Army Chief of Staff, General William Westmoreland.  The South Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S. is also there, as are 100 little leaguers in uniform.  The battalion is due to be deactivated, and many of the men will be discharged.  But not quite yet.  Two days later there’s an official home coming parade in downtown Seattle.  And that’s where it happens.  The AP story reports “the jeers of antiwar protestors who demanded, “Bring them all home now.”  So, it appears from the slogan quoted that the protestors weren’t “jeering” at the GIs, but at the likes of Secretary of Army Stanley Resor, and the other pro-war officials, who watched them march past from the reviewing stand.

Now, here’s the tough part.  Bob felt like he was being jeered at, and I’ll bet that was how most of the other GIs that day felt too.  When we talked Bob told me that, not only had his unit been verbally abused by protestors in Seattle, but he’d experienced similar treatment when he went to Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn to report for his induction physical.   But Bob, I reminded him, that happened everywhere.  The antiwar movement was all over the inductions centers, in the major cities anyway.  They were protesting the war and the draft, not the draftees.  Besides, I added weakly, you weren’t even in the Army yet.

I was missing the point.  Most of the protestors had enough middle class privilege to avoid military service.  Blue collar guys like Bob didn’t get that option; they went to war.  The fact that Bob misunderstood the words the protestors were yelling that day in Seattle is disturbing; what’s even more disturbing is that he’s still misinterpreting them after all these years.  Class resentment runs deep and gets tragically misplaced in this society, while divide and rule fuels the myth that vets were spat upon, even when they weren’t.

About michaeluhl

Michael Uhl’s writing has appeared in national magazines like Forbes, GEO, House Beautiful, Travel and Leisure, the Nation, and the Progressive. He has contributed regularly to the Sunday Boston Globe Book Review. Uhl holds a PhD in American Studies. He is the author of Vietnam Awakening, and is now working on a second memoir. His website is at:

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