April 30, marks the 44 year anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. An unpleasant time to be a soldier.
In 1955, President Eisenhower committed US support to South Vietnam. Beginning a war that today stands as the second longest that required American combat forces. The first being the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
During this war that spanned two decades, over 58,000 American soldier’s lives were lost. On the other side, nearly 2 million Vietnamese perished. Another 12 million became refugees.
Tom Eberhardt served in the Navy from 1967 through 1970 and served in Vietnam. Still visibly upset, he remembers his time in basic training vividly. He recalls a commander that on several occasions crossed the line in the way he treated soldiers by purposely denying them food.
“I know that that’s against naval regulations to do that sort of thing. So that was typical of some of the stunts this guy pulled. So in a way, it gave me a bad attitude about being in the service,” Eberhardt says.
Wayne Holleman served in the Navy from 1959 till 1979 and did several tours to Vietnam. He remembers the enemy as a dedicated fighting force, especially the NVA (North Vietnamese Army).
As a Seabee, which is a Navy construction crewman, Holleman’s job was to patrol rivers for enemy insertions from Cambodia. “That was one of the main insertion points for the NVA. Coming out of Cambodia, into Vietnam, right above Saigon.”
Holleman says that while performing this task, the days you did not get into contact with the enemy were the good ones. The ambushes always came from the river banks.
Holleman left Vietnam due to a bullet to the hip, and shrapnel received in combat. His recovery was a three-year process, and he credits the medical treatment he received.
“There’s where I earned a high respect for Corpsmen and nurses,” Holleman says. “Especially in the hospital in Yokosuka, Japan. I and one other sailor were the only ones in that ward. All the rest of them were Marines.”
John Tuggle served as an Infantryman from 1969 through 1990 and fought in Vietnam. He remembers his introduction to combat being a surreal experience that nothing can quite prepare you for.
“I felt like a freaking fool because I wasn’t expecting that much,” Tuggle says of the amount of ammunition that was expended. “In combat, in the field; the old boys on the other side of that rifle that’s firing at you want you dead as a door nail. So they’re doing their best to put you in the ground.”
Tuggle recalls a particular mission that took on an extra meaning for him and his men because of the brutality the enemy exhibited. His team went to a village that had several children injured by a common enemy tactic of cutting bamboo to a sharp tip, dipping it into feces, and burying it. Unable to do much, they left; but returned later to see a massacre.
“It was a mess. There were bodies laying everywhere, and children crying. Old men and women crying. Well, the VC (Vietcong) had killed a lot of the villagers.”
The VC cut body parts off many of their victims and took them. This angered Tuggle’s men so much that they trailed the VC for three days until they caught up with them.
“We caught them in a little meadow; an opening area. It was a grazing area for the oxen and the water buffalo, and we killed all 14 of them. There was 14 of them and we killed them all. Caught them in a crossfire and killed them all.”
After recovering the body parts, they returned to the village a third time to return them to the village elder.
“Their belief was you couldn’t enter their heaven without all of your body parts. Some of them were missing hands. Some were missing feet, heads. So we took them all back to them.”
A common residual of war for soldiers is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Dr. Shonna Puels, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and professor at California Southern University, says PTSD affects each individual differently.
“It can be one traumatic event or a compilation of traumatic events over time.”
According to Dr. Puels, research is inconclusive on whether PTSD for veterans is different than it is for civilians.
For many soldiers who fought in Vietnam, they returned to a nation that did not support them or the over 58,000 lives lost in a conflict that many were forced to fight in by means of the draft.
This is what Holleman thinks about the anti-war sentiment at the time: “That was their right to do. They could protest it all they wanted to, but don’t blame the guys that were fighting. It wasn’t the guys that set the policy, it was the government.”