It has bas been 38 years since the Vietnam War ended on March 30, 1973. But it wasn’t until March 30, 2011, the soldiers who served in the war were given their official welcome home by the U.S. government.
“Finally welcoming us home, huh?” one Vietnam veteran quipped as the informational flyer was passed around the Vietnam veteran’s support group that gathers on a bimonthly basis in Kearney. The flyer announced that March 30 would officially be recognized as Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day (WHVVD).
They gather in a small classroom wearing United States Army hats with different infantry numbers and pins. With white and salt and pepper beards and deep, throaty laughs, they seem like your typical grandpas: full of jokes and stories, warmth and laughter. But each of these men has a dark past that has followed him for nearly 50 years.
The slogan across one veteran’s hat, “PTSD: Don’t Leave Nam Without It” (post-traumatic stress disorder) seemed to say it all.
“It was a whole other world over there,” said one veteran. “They took us from a civilized country to a third world country.”
As the veterans reminisce about the culture of Vietnam, the climate, the landscape and even the wildlife, it seems these events took place just yesterday.
Roy Schoen, the coordinator of the group, said during their meetings, the veterans often talk about their everyday lives and what they do to cope with the demons that haunt them. Opening up about their memories seems to be one of the most difficult things for these men. Beyond the battlefields in Vietnam, each dealt with treacherous rainstorms, spiders and snakes, all compounding the fear of what would happen next.
Many of the men in the group were members of infantry units, and most members of infantry units were drafted.
“I was pretty worried about being drafted at the time. I joined the reserves in order to avoid the draft. A lot of men took college classes to avoid the draft,” said Larry Hardesty of Kearney. “The punishment for being kicked out of school was being drafted into the Army.”
Nebraska was, and still is, a conservative state, Hardesty said. It was very unusual for men to protest or flee the country to avoid being drafted in Nebraska. “If you were called upon to serve, you did. Most seemed to view their service in the military as ‘My country called and I have to go,’” Hardesty said.
As one veteran in the support group noted, even if you didn’t want to go, the returning veterans were proud of their service in Vietnam. But even this pride seems to be clouded by the constant reminder of what happened there.
“Everybody has little quirks that bother us,” said one veteran. He said vivid scenes in the movie “Platoon” caused him to squeeze his wife’s leg until it bruised and even to shout out during the movie.
As the men discussed their experiences for a few hours, one man continually wiped at his brow and neck with a handkerchief, while another shuddered and gripped his neck as he spoke of his memories. “Just talking about this still gets to me,” he said.
Although the warfare was one of the most daunting parts of the war, emotions surrounding death had to be put on the back burner while they were in action.
“You never get used to men dying. You just had to shut yourself off in a firefight and let it come back later. Sometimes it still does,” Hardesty said. “They took farm boys and put them in active duty. It took the humanity out of people.”
Hardesty said his best friend, popular and outgoing in high school, was drafted and returned marked by the war. “He was quiet and was not the same person.”
Along with suffering from PTSD, many Vietnam veterans also struggle with other repercussions from the war. The exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide the military used on trees and vegetation providing cover for enemy troops, has led to severe repercussions for many veterans. One man in the group was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and another with cancer. Both diseases are believed connected to exposure to Agent Orange. The veterans described the spreading of the defoliate by airplanes as a beautiful sight, but they never expected the horrific side effects the chemical carried.
As each of the men describes his everyday struggles, from uncontrollable anger to lack of trust to battles with health care, their experiences in the war bond them together. Larry Giddings’ personal story about his friend, Allan Schwartz, a medic in Giddings’ platoon and a fellow Nebraskan from Lushton, was documented in The Grand Island Independent in 2006.
Giddings, from Broken Bow, and Schwartz bonded over their home state and interest in cars. It was Schwartz’s faith in God that impressed Giddings most. On October 28, 1968, when their platoon was on ambush patrols, one mistake cost the lives of many.
“The problem was we had been leaving the perimeter just before dusk every day and our enemy had taken notice of this,” Giddings said. When the enemy began to attack the platoon, Giddings rushed back to the perimeter and made it out alive.
However, his fellow Nebraskan didn’t have the same fate. Schwartz left a place of safety to help the wounded and was killed by mortar shrapnel.
After Schwartz was killed in the platoon’s most costly battle, his death haunted Giddings.
“I felt really bad about Allan’s death because he was a fellow Nebraskan, medic— and because of his deep religious convictions,” Giddings said.
For 38 years after his friend’s death, Giddings continued to visit Schwartz’s grave at York Cemetery on Memorial Day to place a bouquet of red, white and blue flowers on Schwartz’s gravestone. “I never forgot Allan,” he said. “It was the one I had the hardest time getting over. It wasn’t justified.”
Yet even with the darkness the war brought to the men, the continued joys of life—from new grandbabies to vacations—allow them to keep moving forward.
“There are days when things slow down and I get depressed, but if I stay busy, it’s not so bad,” one veteran said.
And no matter how dark their days may get, each veteran carries a sense of pride for serving their country.
“Nothing else that I’ve done has had more impact on my life than my tour of duty,” Giddings said. “But regardless of all the anguish, pain and problems it has caused me, just count me as proud to have served. God Bless America.”