Being a Vietnam Vet

I’ve been a  Vietnam Vet (VNV) since my tour of duty in Vietnam (Nam) was over in June 1967.

I’m not exactly sure what I expected as VNV. I just wanted to make it out of Nam alive and luckily I managed to survive. What I wasn’t expecting was people asking me why I went. It wasn’t like I said, “Hmmm… I don’t really have anything better to do today, why don’t I go to Vietnam?”  No, that wasn’t what happened. I was drafted and told if I didn’t report for induction into the US Armed Forces that I would go to prison for 5 years and get a huge fine to boot.

When I got my draft notice in June, 1966, I was still basically just a kid, so I hoped for the best and I reported for duty into the army.

5 & 1/2 months later, after basic combat training and medical training, I found myself in the Central Highlands of Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division. Each day felt like a week and each week felt like a month and each month felt like an eternity. I mean I counted the days, the minutes and watched the seconds tick off of my wristwatch. It was a very long year.

So when I made it back out of Vietnam alive, I was very, very happy as was my mother and my father and my girlfriend at the time.

But, aside from the people who I loved and who loved and cared about me, it seemed like not only did no one else care — many of them felt disdain and contempt toward VNVs. And many people didn’t want anything to do with VNVs and that included service organizations like the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other veteran’s service organizations — and at the time, it also included the VA (The Department of Veteran’s Affairs).

Why is that? Well, it seems like the people who sent us to fight in VN didn’t know how to let us win the war. They were afraid if we did too good, the Chinese and/or the Russians would join the fight and they didn’t want that to happen because that might lead to a much wider war and maybe even to World War III.

So we weren’t allowed to win the war. But that didn’t mean they just gave up and let us come home. No, that  meant, there were places called “ free-fire zones” – in U.S. military parlance a weapons fire control measure, used for coordination between adjacent combat units. The definition used in the Vietnam war by US troops may be found in field manual FM 6-20: A specific designated area into which any weapon system may fire without additional coordination with the establishing headquarters.

Free fire zones were based on the assumption that all friendly forces had been cleared from the area, established a policy designating free-fire zones as areas in which: Anyone unidentified is considered an enemy combatant and soldiers were to shoot anyone moving around after curfew, without first making sure that they were hostile.

The opposite of Free Fire  Zones were “No-fire zones” where there were restrictions on firing weapons and on bombing raids so as not to harm friendlies. Not that most VNVs could tell the difference between who was “friendly” and who was “unfriendly” — so the war zone was basically a zone of schizophrenia. In other words, an actual real place that makes it hard to tell the difference between what is real and what is not real and how to to make decisions or think clearly or have normal emotional responses.

It wasn’t like WW II where whoever was wearing a uniform on the other side of the front line was the enemy.

So, when VNVs came home to less than hero status (to put in nicely), it was in many ways more damaging than actually being in Vietnam. VNVs were treated very badly and called “losers” to their faces and shown to be angry and crazy on TV shows and in the movies. Even my girlfriend at the time asked me why I put a Vietnam Veteran bumper sticker on my car.

There are persistent stereotypes about Vietnam veterans as psychologically devastated, bitter, homeless, drug-addicted people who had a hard time readjusting to society, primarily due to the uniquely divisive nature of the Vietnam War and that went on for decades.

Unemployment, depression, anxiety and suicide and divorce rates for VNVs have been much higher than the rest of the population. VNVs had a very hard time getting back to the civilian lives they had before going to Nam and many never did. I live up in the hills of Butte County, California among the tall trees and open space and the peace and quiet and I’m not alone in that respect. Thousands of VNVs have moved away from crowded spaces.

And adding insult to injury, one of the things that I felt was unfair was I remember hearing that President Carter or Ford pardoned those who dodged the draft but not the guys who tried the army and and found it was not for them so they deserted and here it is some 47 years later and they have never been pardoned.

But I learned a lot about life and about people and about myself having had the experience of being a VNV and the aftereffects. I realize there are good and bad in everybody and that no matter what life experience you have, good, bad or indifferent, you can learn from it and go on and still make life worthwhile.

I’m just sorry to have lost so many friends and so much time in getting here. But that is not to say that I don’t still have my struggles with depression and anxiety and feeling a sense of betrayal but I am happy to still be alive and still have people who love me.

ArmyPhil Phil in the army Nam picSouth Vietnam

About Sr Felipe

I grew up in East LA, was drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam as a medic with the 1st Cav from 1966-1967. I survived that, came back to LA, went to East LA College and Cal State LA, became a social worker in Ventura, CA and moved up to Chico, CA in 1975. I started Sr Felipe's Salsas making organic salsa, enchilada, BBQ and pasta sauce that was available in natural food stores nationwide from 1980-2005. I've been doing a radio show on KZFR, Chico, 90.1 FM every Tuesday from 7:30-10:00 PM streamed live on where I play oldies from the 50s & 60s, doo-wop, Latin, folk, country and Gospel music and interview interesting people in the community. For the past three years I've been teaching beginning guitar through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute through Chico State University.
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5 Responses to Being a Vietnam Vet

  1. Pie Guevara says:

    Nice to see you here in print. Best wishes.

  2. Jules says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for sharing. Yes Phil, like you, we are happy that you are alive. Always remember that you are LOVED by many!!

  3. Great share, this is really inspiring.

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