No Hero's Welcome
The Memoirs of Sgt. Robert Wheatley, USAF Security Service
Watching the war from afar ~ Home again, yet still there....
The Vietnam war was one fraught with ambiguities and ambivalent feelings. For most, it had been difficult enough to be whisked from a comfortable, secure life in the States to be plunked down 24 hours later in a strange foreign land in a very uncertain situation with no prospect of seeing home again for a year or more, if ever. But in many respects, the coming back was an even more difficult adjustment. Of course there was the scorn and rejection we felt from the general public, but even our own families, loving though they were, and glad as they were to have us back, seemed somehow distant and strange. But they were strange only insofar as we were strange to them. We just weren't the same sons and brothers and husbands and fathers they had known before we went away. We'd changed in too many ways to describe, and I suppose most of us left a piece of ourselves over there too. We were in limbo, caught between two worlds; ecstatic to have survived it and returned to our beloved homes, yet at the same time longing to be back there.
The loneliness and homesickness we might have felt over there was just replaced with a different kind of loneliness when we returned home. For unlike our fathers, who returned from the war victorious, en-masse to cheering crowds and an adoring public, Vietnam vets left their compatriots behind to continue fighting an unfinished war. We returned alone, or in small groups of two or three or four to be greeted by a hostile public. We felt rejected at home by the public at large, who didn't seem to care how the war had impacted our lives. And we were unable to find the words within us to make our feelings understood to even our families, even though they might have been willing enough to listen. There was no way to truly understand it without experiencing it.
I remember how puzzled my family seemed to be when I told them that I really hated leaving Thailand. They couldn't understand why. They just couldn't seem to relate to that idea at all. I wondered if they felt that in saying that, I was rejecting them. That, of course, wasn't the case at all. When my step-father saw the picture of my teelock that I'd placed atop my dresser, he thought he had it figured out. Referring to the picture, he made the comment to my mother, "Now I know why he didn't want to come back." It was no fault, no shortcoming of theirs. They couldn't begin to know the real reasons, could they? And for decades I couldn't begin to find the words to tell them, or even to fully explain it to myself. Only my brothers in arms, who had been through the same things could understand without the need for any explanation.
For the most part, friends didn't want to hear about it. They couldn't relate, certainly didn't want to relate to those things we had experienced. All they knew of the war was the propaganda they were seeing on the evening news. And all of that was far too ugly for them to discuss or to even think about. Whenever I tried to mention what I had experienced during the last four years of my life, the typical reaction was a look of distain, a look askance that said, "How could you have done that!?" Because of that rejection, and because of the shame with which we were painted, that part of our lives, a part that in many ways we might have felt good and proud about, we were forced to compartmentalize and hide away in some deep corner of our inner psyche. I think it's the reason so many re-upped after a short time at home and went back to Southeast Asia for another tour. To someone on the outside looking in, that must have looked like some kind of insane death wish. Unable to find understanding at home, how could we help but feel the need to be with those who did understand and could relate at gut level to what we'd been through? For some, that meant re upping and going back to the Hell they had just escaped. Most of us though, realizing we couldn't change the way things were, just swallowed hard, buried it all, and got on with our lives, perhaps only to be forced to deal with the repressed memories and feelings at some point later in life.
I landed a job right away, and I bought a new car, of which I was very proud. But I quickly found material things do not necessarily bring contentment. For a couple of years after discharge, somewhat disillusioned and morally adrift, I basically wandered aimlessly through life seeking pleasure - pleasure and acceptance. And in seeking the acceptance of my own age group, I allowed myself to fall into and be influenced by the wrong crowd. No, I wouldn't begin to say that relieves me from the responsibility for my actions. For I chose my own friends, and no one twisted my arm. Even though that time was a relatively short episode in my young life, it was a particularly dangerous one. I drank heavily and became involved with illicit drugs. I touched on the fringes of the criminal sub-culture associated with street drugs. I came close to destroying myself and my life, before I realized where I was headed. Even then, it was primarily my sense of responsibility toward my loved ones, especially to my mother, that pulled me back from the edge of self destruction. I would not want to portray all returning veterans as disillusioned drug abusers. But stories like mine were not rare either. Looking back on it now, I realize I was really just looking for something to fill the void left inside me after my return from the war. I guess I was looking for purpose in life, acceptance, and a reason for being. In May of 1971, I met the woman with whom I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life. She accepted and loved me for who I was, as I was. She gave me that purpose in life and saved me from myself. We saved each other, really.
Today I talk with many veterans who, as I do, still sometimes shed tears when remembering the war, and perhaps feel just a little foolish about crying over it after all this time. But I tell them, "We've saved up those tears for thirty years, and it may take a lifetime to cry them out." Those unable to externalize their feelings will forever keep them buried inside, festering wounds of the soul that may continue to poison their lives and accompany them to the grave.
Thoughts on The Infamous "My Lai Massacre"...
In the year after I returned home, news broke about an incident that had taken place in March of Ď68, during the Tet Offensive. We hadnít heard about it at the time, as it had been pretty well suppressed. But once it became known to the media, it received intense coverage. It would come to be known as the infamous "My Lai Massacre". The Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai was known to have been harboring Viet Cong guerrillas for some time. During a "search and destroy" mission, hundreds of women and children and old men from the village were rounded up, summarily shot, and thrown into ditches. Many of the women were raped before they were killed. The full extent of the atrocities perpetrated that day may never be known, except by those involved.
There were no young men present in the village that day. They had left when they heard that American forces were approaching. They must have presumed that those left behind in the village would, as in the past, be left unharmed. They were wrong this time. If the people of the province were not communist sympathizers before, it was certain that they would be afterward. It was the most insane and shameful incident of the entire war, at least on Americaís part. It's difficult to imagine why anyone involved in it would take photos of such an event. Yet there they were - powerful new images of anguish, terror, and innocence that would fan the flames of anti-war sentiment. And to our utter shock, horror, shame and disgust, the tragedy they portrayed and the atrocities of which they told, were not only real, but this time intentional!
In truth, most of the locals probably werenít really Communist sympathizers. They couldnít care less about politics. They simply wanted to be left alone to grow their rice and raise their families. They werenít about to place their families at risk by turning in those among them that were Viet Cong. Most of them remained passive, attempting to not take one side or the other. They were caught in the middle. For them, this was just a continuation of a war that had been raging around them for centuries. They went about their rural, agrarian lives, hoping the Americans and the Viet Cong and the whole damned war would just go away.
For those of us on the outside looking in, itís difficult to explain exactly why and how it happened. There was absolutely no excuse for it, but there were reasons. The Viet Cong looked no different than any other Vietnamese. They could hide among the innocent civilian population, smiling in your face, only to shoot you in the back as you were leaving. That incident may have grown out of the frustration of not knowing who the enemy really was, and of not being able to strike back at our attackers. It was perhaps a lashing out, because of that feeling of being sent over and left hung out to dry. It was, I guess, a desperate attempt to take control of an uncontrollable situation. Ponder this. If you take any animal and place him in a cage where he can neither defend himself nor escape, then continually poke sharp sticks in his face, heíll quite naturally become vicious as a means of survival. Acting from an instinct of self-preservation, he'll strike out at anything that comes near. Should it really have surprised us? The real surprise may be that it didnít happen more often.
The troops involved in that operation had been acting on direct orders from up the chain of command to eradicate the Viet Cong threat in the area. In those orders, there was a tacit "unleashing of the dogs." It was implied that any means necessary were to be used to accomplish the task. In the end, most of the blame for what happened was pinned on the company commander, Lt. William Calley. Real culpability probably went well above that. Lt. Calley, though not innocent, became the sacrificial lamb. He was the only one convicted of any wrong doing in the matter.
Oh yes, there were definitely some there who refused to participate in it, and even tried to stop it. But during the frenetic media coverage of the trial of Lieutenant Calley, there was no mention of them, as far as I can recall. For that might mitigate the horror of the main story. Their stories came out in the mainstream media, only after decades had passed. Iíd like to think that, had I been there, I would have done the right thing. But those of us who werenít there have no way of knowing for sure what we would have done. I would condemn their actions that day, but I would be the last to condemn the men involved. "Why?", you ask. There is no need to condemn them. For they are already condemned. Iím sure the memories of it must torture them every day of their lives.
However horrific, the My Lai incident thankfully was an aberration - an isolated incident. The vast majority of American troops had served honorably in the war. But when it came to light, it only seemed to confirm what the protesters had been saying all along, that America was fighting an "evil war". It brought dishonor and shame upon all of us who had served, and it gave the veterans of that war another reason for keeping an even lower profile when they returned home.
A turning point is reached ~ "The Kent State Incident"
In 1970, heeding the advice of his military advisors, Nixon extended the bombing and moved troops into Cambodia in hopes of eliminating that as a refuge for the Communists. It was very effective too, as long as it lasted. And it made perfect sense from a military standpoint. But the American public would not have it! That was the move that sparked the May, 1970 Kent State Incident, in which the civil violence got out of hand and four students were killed by National Guardsmen. The revelation by the media that the war had been expanded into Cambodia inflamed the students, and they were in an aggressive, combative mood when they gathered on campus that day to protest the action. The National Guard was called in by the governor at the request of school administrators to quell a possible riot. But the guardsmen, having been primarily trained for combat roles, were ill-prepared to deal with a hostile civilian crowd. This time, the violence would beget violence. When threatened by an advancing angry mob of rock and bottle throwing protesters, it was the guardsmen's natural reaction to resort to their weapons to defend themselves. The frightened men lost their composure, and tragedy resulted. One shot rang out, then another, and another, then a volley. When the smoke had cleared, four students lay dead or dying on the ground.
This I think, was the real turning point in the war. Americans were now killing Americans over the war, and the toll it was extracting from the nation had become too great a price to pay. The prize winning photo above by journalist John Filo captured the pathos of the event, froze it in time, and preserved it for history. If popular support for the war was virtually non-existent before, after this, America had no stomach at all for continuing it. The Kent State shootings were the proverbial "last straw." Ho Chi Minh and his generals had celebrated another huge psychological victory on that day.
The nation was shocked and outraged at the death of the students, and rightfully so. But as tragic as it was, the greatest tragedy of all is that in the end, the whole damned thing had seemingly been for nothing! What had started as a noble effort had gone terribly awry! It had all been woefully mismanaged. This horrible mess of a war would drag on for another five long years after Kent State. And when it was finally over, more than fifty-eight thousand young American lives had been sacrificed in Southeast Asia, and many thousands more irreparably damaged.... for nothing!
After the Kent State incident, Nixon, saddled with the legacy of the Johnson Administration, saw at that point, it had to be ended or it would eventually destroy the nation. He stepped up the "Vietnamization" of the war, put a halt to the Cambodian bombing, and began reducing the number of US troops stationed in Southeast Asia. The stalled Paris peace talks were resumed with an intent of reaching some kind of honorable resolution, but mainly to disentangle the US from the predicament in which it found itself. Understandably I think, the South Vietnamese government wanted nothing to do with the talks. They surely thought in our rush to get out of it, we were going to sell them out. And effectively, in the end, thatís exactly what happened. The North Vietnamese didn't want to talk either. Why should they negotiate? After all, they seemed to be winning the war - not in South Vietnam, but right here in America! But having seen the writing on the wall after Kent State, Nixon was determined that the parties would talk! And he would do whatever necessary to make that happen.Table of Contents