Not All Vets Are Created the Same
I used to be amused by the assumptions non-vets make about veterans but now, I’m getting annoyed so let me set the record straight. Understand that this is just the opinion of one veteran who did time in a long ago war. Also, understand that my experience in the Air Force was vastly different from an Army or Marine “grunt” or Navy swabbie. There’s also a great deal of difference between a veteran’s experience between war-time and peace-time as well as different duty stations and let’s not forget the era. So, right off the bat, you can see that every vet probably had a different experience from other vets.
First, let’s dispel the notion that all vet’s are expert marksmen and trained killers. During my 4 years in the AF, I handled an M16 rifle about half-a-dozen times and actually fired it about 3 times. During Basic Training at Lackland AFB in Texas, my flight (AF version of a platoon) was issued M-16 rifles one time. We spent the day on the range where I managed to shoot a qualifying score that basically said I hadn’t accidentally shot anyone including myself. Then, when I arrived in Vietnam, we were issued M-16s and taken to the range for a “refresher” class in which we were basically told which end of the rifle the bullet exited. Again, I was able to shoot a qualifying score. The rifles were then locked up in the armory. I checked out my weapon about 3 or 4 more times when I convoyed to nearby bases and camps or during alerts when the base was under attack. Thankfully, I never had to fire my weapon at any person.
During my 3 years, 6 months, 1 week, 3 days and, approximately, 14 hours of active duty, I don’t ever recall holding or using an USMC Ka-Bar (aka USMC Mark 2 combat knife) or anything vaguely resembling it. The closest I came to one was when I hung out with my Republic of Korea (ROK) marine friends. They probably wouldn’t have allowed me to carry one for fear I’d hurt myself and get them in trouble. So, hand-to-hand combat was definitely not my schtick.
Next, lets talk about the daily life of a Vietnam vet where approximately 80% were support personnel, whom front line grunts lovingly referred to as “REMFs” (rear echelon mofo.) REMFs installed, maintained, repaired and otherwise kept the war machine running as smoothly as humanly possible. A quote that best defines the daily life of a REMF is “Hours and hours of boredom, interspersed with moments of sheer terror.” I didn’t engage in hand-to-hand combat, I didn’t set up ambushes along jungle trails, the only grenade I ever saw was mistakenly fired at me by a bored Marine although THAT was a moment of sheer terror.
Last, let me tell you about blood and guts. I saw the most blood and guts at the morgue where American KIA were prepared for transfer home. The first dead person I saw was rumored to have died of a heart attack during a rocket attack although I preferred the story that he had been bitten by a cobra. He appeared to be sleeping on the sands of Cam Ranh Bay with not a single visible wound on him. The worst were three US KIA I transported to DaNang in body bags. I didn’t see anything but they had lain out in the sun for two days before they were recovered. The stench was enough to make me nearly puke aboard the C7 Caribou. The rest of the bodies I saw were in thousands of aluminum coffins used to transfer embalmed bodies home. The coffins were basic equipment shipping containers repurposed to hold bodies. I never saw nor smelled anything but the memories are seared into my mind.
Bottom line, I am not a trained killer, I didn’t engage overwhelming enemy forces with nothing but a Ka-Bar clenched between my teeth, I didn’t jump out of perfectly good airplanes shouting “Geronimo!,” I didn’t heft a pair of M-60 machine guns, one in each hand, holding off waves of VC.
So, the next time you read some breathless article in the media about a vet going bonkers, picture in your mind a cook who can’t stand the sight of another powered egg breakfast or a mail clerk imploding over another mangled package or a mechanic screaming, “Who the hell put 5W10 in this engine?” Most of us were just kids doing a dirty, nasty, impossible job. To quote Konstantin Josef Jireček, “We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”