A Swiss Direct Hit

Medic and Nam vets Henry Roll, George Knoll, Rick Claggett, Rick Owen, and Randy Brack were recently contacted and interviewed by high school student Frank Nygegger, who attends Kantonsschule Wohlen in Switzerland. With Frank’s permission Medic is delighted to publish his exceptionally well written research report, US Soldiers in Vietnam. The paper is divided into two parts. An historical overview of the war, followed by the vets responses to Franks questions.

Throughout the history of mankind, war has been its constant companion. Since the very first men walked the earth, they fought each other, for whatever reasons they had.  There have been wars about land, about riches,  about power and glory, about religion and for as simple a reason as freedom.  There have been wars out of anger and wars out of love, wars out of pride, greed, hatred or simply out of stupidity. But no matter how much humanity changed, and war with it, one part of it has always remained, one part of war has never changed. And that is the human part.

One might argue that with war and with technology people changed as well. But if we look at soldiers that went through war hundreds, or thousands of years ago and then we look at soldiers that went through war 20 or 30 years ago or are even experiencing war at the present day, it becomes visible, that deep inside, they are still the same. They are afraid and angry, they are courageous and cowardly, they are hungry and tired, they are exited and bored, they win and lose hope.

Although the 20th century has seen many wars, one of them influenced our view and our opinion on war more than any other. And even though it has had such an impact on the way we perceive war, it is often being forgotten. According to Wikipedia, estimates of the casualties in the Vietnam War range from about 1.5 million dead to over 3.5 million dead. 58’000 of them were American Soldiers. (wikipedia.org, 28.2.2015)

The Vietnam War was the first war to fully be documented and covered by the media. Never before did technology allow to capture and depict war in a scale such as in the Vietnam War. It wasn’t a war in a far away land, that no one other than the soldiers would ever get to see. It was a war that, for the first time, happened right in the living rooms of thousands of people all around the globe. For the first time, people were able to see what was going on on the battlefield and were hit by the full horror of war.

I have always been interested in military history, as strange as it might sound to some people,and  especially  in the human part of it.  And I do think, that the men who fought in the Vietnam War hold memories that should not be forgotten, just like other soldiers that fought in other wars, whatever side they were on. We can learn from them and try to make sure, that future generations will not have to go through the same as they did.  And as long as there are living witnesses, I believe, it is our privilege and our duty, to ensure that the memories they hold are not lost.

In this essay I will take a look at the lives of the soldiers that fought in Vietnam, backed by information I received from interviews with Vietnam Veterans. First I will take a look at the lives of the Veterans before the military and the war, their childhood and their background. Then I will look at the time they spent in Vietnam, what their duties and jobs were and how the moral of the US troops changed during the war. And in the last part, I will look at the time after the war. How did war influence them, what were the problems and benefits the war caused?

In the end, it is my goal to give the reader an idea of who these men who fought in Vietnam were, what their journey to Vietnam and back was like and how war changed them.

2.1 Before the War
As it can be read on Wikipedia, The Vietnam War was fought between the United States, the South Vietnam and a coalition of allied forces on one side, and North Vietnam (NVA) and South Vietnamese guerrillas, called Viet Cong(VC) on the other side. Latter two were backed by the USSR and The People’s Republic of China. The war officially started on November 1st 1955, although there had been a war before between the French colonial forces and the North Vietnamese communist rebels from 1946 to 1954. The US involvement started in 1950, when the first American military advisors were sent to Vietnam and financial support was provided to the French and their allies, the South Vietnamese State, which was officially established in 1949. But the French didn’t manage to hold their position in Vietnam and with the defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the war was lost for them. Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam each became independent states. (wikipedia.org,

The second part of Battlefield: Vietnam, a documentary, shows that by 1956, free elections were planned to take place in all of Vietnam, but neither the South Vietnamese government nor the American government would allow this to happen. They were too afraid, that the communist party would win most of the votes and turn Vietnam into a communist state. At the same time, South Vietnam’s first president, Ngo Dinh Diem, ruled his country according to his own ideas. He himself, being a roman-catholic, pursued people that followed other religions as well as political opponents. At the same time, he put fellow Catholics into politically important positions, which further provoked the mostly buddhistic population of South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese government, which at first thought they would be able to take over the country by simply being elected as the leading party, and had had a mostly peaceful, political revolution in mind, were now forced to change strategy. From now on, the emphasis of their preparation and their strategy would lie on their military forces, which would be used to overthrow the South Vietnamese government and its US supporters. (Battlefield: Vietnam, The Undeclared War, 1999)

Wikipedia states that, during the mid and late 1950s and the early 1960s, the US constantly increased the number of its military advisers, reaching a total of around 3400 men in 1961. In 1968, the number of advisers being stationed in Vietnam would reach its peak of almost 10’000. Their challenging task was to train South Vietnamese soldiers and to enable them to fight on their own, without the military aid of the United States. A task which would often prove impossible. (wikipedia.org, 28.2.2015)

2.2 The war begins
As “Battlefield: Vietnam” part 10 shows, the situation grew ever tenser until on August 2nd 1964 the decisive moment came: The destroyer USS Maddox reported, that North Vietnamese torpedo boats had fired at them and that they had returned fire, sinking and damaging several North Vietnamese vessels. The attack was later proven to be a false report. Bad weather and high strain certainly played their part. Two days later, a second attack followed, which lead the US senate to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution: President Lyndon B. Johnson would be given full authority to take what ever steps necessary, to protect the US interests and soldiers abroad, and to stop the communist forces from advancing. Retaliation strikes on North Vietnamese naval bases and coastal military facilities followed and on march 2nd, as a response to previous Viet Cong and North Vietnamese attacks on US air bases, operation “Rolling Thunder” was initiated. It would be the most devastating aerial campaign the world would ever see. (Battlefield: Vietnam, Rolling Thunder, 1999)

2.3 Search and destroy
Part 3 of the, Battlefield: Vietnam“ series states, that on March 8th 1965 the first 3500 American troops landed in Vietnam. Their mission would at first only be to protect US air bases. Soon more troops followed and with Operation Starlite and the Battle of Ia Drang Valley the first major ground strikes against NVA and VC troops took place. The strategy the US military would apply was called “search and destroy”. The enemy troops would be located, pinned down and then eliminated. The focus would not lie on the capture of land and cities, such as it had been in the Second World War.

What counted were dead enemy soldiers and captured arms and supplies. Soon the US troops had to realize that it was almost impossible to locate and pin down the NVA and VC troops with their hit and run tactics. But this would eventually be necessary in order to dissuade North Vietnam of continuing their support for the war. Although many larger operations took place, none would deliver the victory the US were hoping for so desperately. (Battlefield: Vietnam, Search and Destroy, 1999)

2.4 The Tet Offensive
Then, according to “Battlefield: Vietnam” part 6, on January 30th 1968 happened what nobody was expecting: The VC and some NVA troops started an all out campaign all over South Vietnam. More than 100 larger cities were attacked, including 36 of the 44 provincial capitals. Saigon, Capital of the South and seat of the US embassy, the US headquarters and other important sites, would be theater of a merciless battle, as well as Hue, the ancient capital of Vietnam, and the Marine Base at Khe Sanh. There, a battle had been going on for already 9 days.

The Tet Offensive would go on until March 28th, with two smaller offensives taking place later the same year. The Tet offensive ended in almost total annihilation of the VC troops. To retain a constant presence of troops in the south, NVA troops had to replace the dead VC. More than 110’000 had fallen at the end of all three phases of the offensive. (Battlefield: Vietnam, The Tet Offensive, 1999). The battle of Khe Sanh, in which 6000 US Marines were surrounded by more than 17’000 NVA troops, went on until July 9th. All in all, 274 US soldiers were killed, 2541 were wounded. In the operations undertaken to relieve Khe Sanh, around 3000 US and South Vietnamese soldiers lost their lives, and more than 9000 were wounded.

The battle was seen as a major victory, the one the supporters of the war had been hoping for. But it was too late. Although Khe Sanh and the victory over the VC and NVA forces in the Tet Offensive had been a major military victory, the damage that was done on a political and social level would change the course of the war. (Battlefield: Vietnam, Siege at Khe Sanh, 1999)

2.5 Public opposition, Operations in Laos and Cambodia and Vietnamization
Another documentary, called Vietnam In HD“ shows very well, that the public support for the war had already suffered the years before, but now it started to drop dramatically. The Tet offensive, news of costly battles such as Khe Sanh or the Battle for Hamburger Hill and the rise of the hippie movement in the US and other western countries played their part in making it almost impossible to keep the war going. Draft evasion, public protests against the war and even violent riots, started by protesters as well as police officers, were daily business. The war was now fought on two fronts. In spite of this fact, the war would go on for another 4 years. (Vietnam In HD, The Tet Offensive, 2011)

According to Battlefield: Vietnam“ part 11, secret operations in Cambodia and Laos began, even though the US were not allowed to enter either country. The operations focused on stopping the leakage of NVA troops and supplies to the south, and destroying hostile bases near the border.

Although the US and South Vietnamese troops capture a lot of supplies, they were not able to eliminate NVA headquarters in Cambodia and Laos, nor were they able to stop the constant flow of troops and material on the Ho Chi Minh trail from the North. (Battlefield: Vietnam, Peace With Honor, 1999)

As the documentary, The Most Dangerous Man in America shows, once the public got to know of this secret war and the Pentagon Papers were published, revealing information the US public had been deprived off, the anti war movement gained even more momentum and President Nixon’s position was weakened strongly. (The Most Dangerous Man in America, 2010) Part 11 of “Battlefield: Vietnam” also shows, that in Vietnam, the Vietnamization program was given high priority. The goal was to build a South Vietnamese Army that could fight a war on its own, once the US had drawn out of Vietnam. From 1969 on, the US were constantly redrawing troops from Vietnam and in 1971 the total number of US soldiers in Vietnam was around 156’000, compared to its peak of 543’000 in 1968, as it can be read on americanwarlibrary.com. (Americanwarlibrary.com, 1.3.2015)

The war would not be widened anymore, the new goal was “Peace with Honor”. According to Wikipedia, in 1972, when only around 24’000 US troops remained in Vietnam, operation Linebacker I and II were launched. Once again the North was target of heavy bombing. These two operations were the last attempts to stop the transportation of military supplies to the South and weaken North Vietnam’s military power. (wikipedia.org, 2.3.2015)

2.6 End of the war and aftermath
After the US troops had left Vietnam, the war went on for another three years. As the last part of “Battlefield: Vietnam” shows, although the US had trained the South Vietnamese army for years, it would show that without American consult and weaponry, the South Vietnamese forces were unable to withstand the NVA forces. On April 30th 1975, NVA troops took Saigon, just hours after the last US army personnel and civilians had been evacuated. In Operation Frequent Wind, from April 29th -30th, 1968 Americans and South Vietnamese were evacuated out of Saigon by helicopter in just two days. (Battlefield: Vietnam, The Fall of Saigon, 1999).

After almost 20 years of fighting, the war had ended. Wikipedia states that estimates of the casualties of the war range from 1.3 million to more than 3.5 million dead, the vast majority of them civilians. (wikipedia.org, 28.2.2015)

Number and facts
1. Total number of soldiers that served in the Vietnam War: 2.6 million
2. Total number of casualties: 58’000 wiki
3. Hostile deaths: 47’434
4. Non-hostile deaths: 10’786
5. Wounded: 303’700 wiki
6. Severely disabled: 75’000, 23’214 100%
7. Percent of dead who were Caucasian: 85.5% (49’830)
8. Percent of dead who were black: 12.44% (7243)
9. Percent of dead who were other races: 2.06 % 1147
10. Average age of the fallen US soldiers: 23.11 years
11. Number of dead by service component: National guard: 97
12. Regular: 34’508
13. Reserve: 5762
14. Selected Service: 17’671
15. Not reported: 182
16. Percent of soldiers with finished high school education: 79%
17. Percent of soldiers with lower/middle working class background: 76%
18. Total draftees (1965-1973): 1,728,344
19. Percent of draftees in Vietnam: 25% of forces (648’500)
20. Percent of dead draftees: 30.4 % of forces (17,725)
21. Percent of Vietnam Vets who say their glad they served: 91 %
22. Percent of Vietnam Vets who were honorably discharged: 97%
23. Percent of Vietnam Vets who made a successful transition to civilian life: 85%
24. Days of combat for the average US infantryman: 240
(Sources: See Sources)

Life of Vietnam Veterans

4.1 Before the war
4.1.1 Childhood

Just like in so many other wars the world has seen, the US Armed Forces that fought in Vietnam consisted of a variety of different backgrounds and origins. It is often heard that the major part of the US soldiers, especially the ‘front pigs’, came from a low, if not even poor, social class. Chances were not low that quite a lot of the soldiers, especially the older ones, had experienced at least restriction on the level of consume and financial possibilities. According to shmoop.com, all financial, industrial and even agricultural power had been focused on sustaining the military efforts in the Second World War. Tanks, ships, planes, rifles and cannons had to be built and thousands of soldiers had to be medically and nutritionally supplied. Rations were part of the everyday life. (shmoop.com, 2.3.2015)

But then came the 1950s and with them an immense boom of the American economy. Never before had the nation seen such wealth and such a high standard of life. When I asked some Veterans, how they would describe their childhood, answers were generally very positive. “Generally good. I spent a lot of time helping my father remodel our old Victorian style home and later building a home for he and my mother to retire in. Other childhood activities could be, as I look back on them, considered to have been dangerous. I played American football in school, I often played in the railroad yards, I swam in an old canal and a large river next to it, I spent much time camping and hiking and I hunted with my father and my friends.” (George Knoll, question 2)

“My childhood was pretty interesting. I spent most of it growing up on a small farm not far from where I live now (unfortunately, the farm long ago became a subdivision). My father grew up on a farm in a neighboring county during the Depression, and was always trying to be involved in farming again (he was a maintenance foreman for DuPont). At various times we raised hogs, had layer chickens (their purpose was to lay eggs for resale), rented the farm to a dairy farmer, and then we ended up boarding horses for several years, until my parents sold the farm. I got to spend a great deal of time outdoors, hunting and fishing, as well as doing chores. It was a pretty good time. I learned to do many things that most of my friends didn’t know how to do.” (Rick Owen, question 2)

Although these two answers are very positive, it should not be forgot, that in the 1950s, even though the economy was booming and the US were one of the wealthiest nations world wide, 25% of the population still lived in poverty, according to shmoop.com. (shmoop.com, 2.3.2015)

Lower/middle middle or working class would still make up a big part of the population, meaning that chances were high, that soldiers would come from such a background. But there’s different interpretations to that as well. Being part of middle or even lower middle/working class, doesn’t automatically make one poor. Regarding the general well-being of the US economy in the 1950s, even with a background from a “lower” social class, life must have been rather good, especially in comparison to earlier times.

Although the military tradition is very strong in the USA, it can be assumed that a rather small part of the soldiers came from families with strong military tradition, although there were some exceptions.

“No it is not a tradition to serve in the military. Having said that, my mother’s family had
ancestors who served in the French and Indian War and later in the Continental Army in the American Revolution. My great-grandfather fought in the Union Army in the Civil War, a great uncle in the Spanish-American War, my father and my uncle fought in World War II. My family was not professional military, but served when called.” (George Knoll, question 3)

A very interesting fact is, how little many of the US soldiers had heard of Vietnam in their younger years. The same most probably went for a big part of the population. Although the US had been active in Vietnam since 1950 and stepped up the support in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many knew almost nothing about Vietnam and the war that had been going on there.

“I was fairly naive about the situation at first. All I knew was that the communists were trying to take South Vietnam and unite it with North Vietnam, and that everyone (mostly) thought that we had to stop them from doing this. Before I graduated from high school in 1967, I worried more about being outside and hanging with a few friends. Vietnam wasn’t on my mind that much, until I turned 18, and the draft started taking more people. After I graduated, I spent more time learning about Vietnam, but still didn’t know that much.” (Rick Owen, question 6 )

The media coverage of the topic was rather weak in the pre-war phase (whereas during the war it was by far topic number one on both TV and magazines) and Vietnam wasn’t exactly one of the countries everyone had heard of. Some might argue that it was a blessing for many kids growing up during that time to not be bombarded with facts about war and politics all the time. But it would have certainly been an advantage, if a higher percent of the people, especially the future soldiers of that time, knew more about the country they were going to fight in and about the enemies they were going to face. But then again, during the war, most of the soldiers had other things to worry about than the geography and history of Vietnam and its people. And I assume that for thousands of years teenagers have thought more about hanging out with their friends, going outside and doing sports, and less about politics and wars, so the, “Vietnam Generation” was certainly no exception to other generations.

4.1.2 Education and Military Training
Generally it can be assumed that the educational level of the average US soldier in Vietnam was rather well. The official percent, according to mrfa.com, of US soldiers who fought in Vietnam and had a high school degree is 79%, making the US Armed Forces of that time the “smartest” of all US armies that had been at war until then. (mrfa.org, 1.3.2015)

To what extent education equals intelligence and in the end the ability to do a good job and survive in war is another question. But carrying out tasks one was assigned to in a responsible manner, a wider general knowledge, being able to learn new skills, and also applying them, and simple skills such as reading and writing are abilities that can be learned in school and very certainly get in very handy in a war situation.

“In my experience, some of the men I served with had college degrees. Others were just smart. But there were many high school only soldiers in my unit. A few were illiterate and several were not fit for combat. In my opinion, they did not have good common sense or learn quickly and tended to make mistakes that put us in danger.” (Marc Levy, question 19)

“The men were trained and in that sense able. Well educated is up to definition. We had college and university graduates, most all soldiers were high school graduates, but there were some from Appalachia or other rural areas who had only a very limited education. I did run across one soldier who could not read or write, he had others do it for him.” (George Knoll, question 19) So even considering that 79% of the soldiers that fought in Vietnam were high school graduates, it seems like some soldiers were on the rather “simple side”. Furthermore, basic training often barely prepared the soldiers for what they would have to face in Vietnam: Enemies that new their land from birth on and would use evasive guerrilla tactics, steep hills, brought rivers and thick jungle that often made movement very difficult, and myriads of insects, reptiles and diseases that would try to kill them.

What lowered the educational standard of the Army at that time massively, was the Project 100,000. According to John Worsencroft, Author of “Salvageable Manhood: Project 100,000 and the gendered politics of the Vietnam War” in Project 100,000, 100,000 soldiers should be recruited every year, which would have previously been below the mental or medical standard of the US military. Soldiers that were to under- or overweight, to small or to tall, had some kind of sickness or simply were too stupid (even IQ of under 80) were now accepted into the military. Officially it was a program that should give jobs and educational opportunities to uneducated and poor people.

Astonishingly, 96% of the New Standards Men passed basic training. (John Worsencroft, 2011) But the soldiers were not really given any kind of great opportunities. They were there to fill the ranks and do the dirty jobs. Calling in the National Guard would have been too much an escalation of the war and drafting too many college students would have infuriated the public too much. But more troops were desperately needed in Vietnam, so Project 100,000 was ideal.

According to blackpast.org, 70% of the 354’000 “New Standards Men” who were accepted into the military were inducted into the Army and were given jobs that often involved combat assignments (83% of the New Standards Men inducted into the infantry saw combat), the other 30% were split on the other three branches. 40% of all New Standards Men were black and of these 65% were from the South. (blackpast.org, 2.3.2015)

Herb DeBose, a former Afro American Army lieutenant, knows exactly what to say about Project 100,000: “I think McNamara should be shot. I saw him when he resigned from the World Bank, crying about the poor children of the world. But if he did not cry at all for any of those men he took in under Project 100,000, then he really doesn’t know what crying is all about. Many weren’t even on a 5th-grade level.”

In the end it must not be forgot, that only 354,000 of the almost 9.1 million soldiers that served during the Vietnam Era were New Standars Men and not all of them went to Vietnam.

In conclusion, despite the official number that tells us 79% of the soldiers in Vietnam had a high school degree, quite some issues with the educational level of some of the soldiers that fought in Vietnam seemed to have existed.

4.2.1 You’re in the army now!
The average age of the US soldier who fought in Vietnam was around 23 years, which meant, that most men had already spent 5 years out of high school. Time enough to reach a master of arts or to consolidate oneself in a particular professional area. So with about 22-23 years, the average recruit entered basic training, although some joined the army right out of high school, 18 years old.

Back then, basic training would take 6-8 weeks. In 6-8 weeks, the recruits were broken down and built up again as soldiers. They would exercise, they would learn to handle their military equipment and to function as a team. After that, if one wanted to specialize himself in a certain way, there was Advanced Individual Training which could take between two months and almost year. Soldiers would now learn to fly airplanes, handle cannons, save lives or lead other soldiers, amongst many other opportunities of Advanced Individual Training. After that the soldiers were ready for their deployment. Whether 8 to 50 weeks of training prepare one for a war, is another question.

4.2.2 Welcome to Vietnam!
Upon arriving in Vietnam, it is easily imaginable that many of the soldiers experienced a big shock. Temperatures that could, according to online-reiseinfos.de, reach almost 40° C, humidity of an average 80% or more and very often more than 250mm of rain during the rainy season formed their own kind of welcoming committee. (online-reiseinfos.de, 3.3.2015)

As Vietnam Veterans have written on yahoo.com, the units usually arrived at one of the big Air Bases such as Bien Hoa Air Base, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Da Nang Air Base or Cam Ranh Air Base, among others. Depending on what their jobs were going to be, different “journeys” awaited them. It could be that they would serve in a supply unit, as a medic in one of the bigger hospitals in one of the big bases or as maintenance crew for the airplanes and helicopters that would fly their sorties from the big bases. In this case, the soldiers wouldn’t have to be flown in country and could start functioning in their position after one or two days.

For the ones that would serve their tour with a unit which was stationed on a base further inland or with units that were constantly on the move, it would take a bit longer until they had reached their final destination. They would be transported to the base nearest the Headquarters of the Division they were part of, where they would be assigned to their Battalion. They would pass on to their battalion, where they were assigned to the company they would then serve with. This whole process could take up to 5 days. (yahoo.com, 3.3.2015)

4.2.3 Jobs and duties
The everyday life of soldiers in Vietnam could range from utter boredom to nerve-wracking tension. The more tasks became daily routine, the more attention had to be paid to prevent mistakes, because often the smallest mistakes could have gruesome consequences.

“My job in the Air Force was called “munitions specialist”. I worked in the bomb dump,
assembling various sorts of munitions, bombs, flares, rockets, napalm and 20mm ammo for the fighter jets and gunships.” (Rick Owen, question 14) “My supply point had five acres and three warehouses full of parts of all kinds. There were little bitty springs and artillery gun tubes that were 30 feet long. I think there were about 100,000 different stock numbers. There were supposed to be two lieutenants and one warrant officer to run the tech supply. What there was, was me. Our job was to give supplies to units that came in with properly prepared supply requests.” (Randy Brack, question 15)

Due to the guerrilla tactics of the NVA and VC forces in South Vietnam, there were periods in which no enemy was spotted for days, weeks and even months, which led to a rather quiet and boring everyday life. But then from one moment to the other, all hell could break loose and the enemy could be right before your doorstep or even inside your base. Then, every soldier was needed even more and had to fulfill his job, or people would certainly get wounded or die. The mental stress these two “levels” of tension could inflict on a soldier and the rapid change between them were just one of the many problems soldiers would have to face. If supplies didn’t reach the troops, if a soldier who was supposed to guard a certain section of a perimeter did not watch carefully or fell asleep, or if a munitions specialist worked neglectful, the consequences could be disastrous.

“I was an attack helicopter pilot. My helicopter was armed with 7.62mm machine guns, 2.75” rockets, and a rapid fire 40mm grenade launcher. I had a co-pilot and two enlisted crewmen […] one was my crew chief and the other was a door gunner. I also had a wing man who flew a similarly armed and crewed helicopter. We worked as a “fire team” flying to the rescue/support of other troops on the ground when they were under enemy attack. We flew missions every day, mainly at night, averaging about 6 hours of flying time per 24 hour period. We had to land to re-fuel and re-arm multiple times during the night. It was very intense flying because we were shot at during missions.” (Henry Roll)

“When transferred to the dog platoon, I was a Scout Dog Handler. Scout Dogs lead patrols in the bush and alert us on human and mechanical ambushes. When I was in the field (generally about 5 of 7 day) I was with my dog 24-7. He led patrols, I followed and interpreted what he alerted on. We’d normally spend a couple hours a day on patrols. The rest of the time we were moving as a unit or in a night time perimeter.” (Rick Clagget, questions 14+15) These quotes above show, there were many different versions of what a soldiers everyday life looked like. There were hundreds of different jobs, that required different skills and came with different duties and different daily routines.

It becomes obvious that all tasks have to be carried out responsibly and that the soldiers charged with them have to communicate and work together in order keep the whole machinery working. All this at temperatures of more than 30° C, humidity of more than 80% and once the monsoon season started, the rain turned a big part of the roads, the ground the bases were built on and the countryside into a muddy hell that would make it hard to move both on foot and in vehicles. And let’s not forget that outside of the bases there was an enemy, ready to strike at any time.

But no matter how diverse the everyday life of different units was, very often, they would spend their free time at the same places and with the same activities. According to the Veterans I interviewed, inside the bases and cities, soldiers could go to the cinema, spend a pleasant or exciting evening at the local bars or simply hang out in their barracks and listen to music, amongst other activities.

“After work, people had various activities they pursued. Physical fitness was one; hobbies, like photography; sports; recording/listening to music; and partying. Several of my buddies and I played pinochle about every night, smoked (I only smoked cigars), and drank. On a day off, I might go exploring some in the desert near our barracks (my first base), but I never went very far. That base was also on the coast of the South China Sea, so swimming and snorkeling were other activities.” (Rick Owen, question 15)

Depending in which units one served, one got to see more of these leisure activities. Troops being stationed in bases, especially the ones closer to cities, would have more possibilities in their free time than infantry units out in the field. But even for these existed a possibility to get some days off.

After weeks in the field, they could get some days of rest at one of the bases. And there was even the possibility to get front vacation, which would allow one to get a few days off in a city somewhere in the “safe” part of Vietnam or in cities like Hong Kong or Sydney, as Karl Marlantes writes in What It Is Like to Go to War”. But these were very rare and one had to be quite lucky to get such a front vacation. (Karl Marlantes, 2011)

4.2.4 Morale
The morale of the US troops in Vietnam can be considered very well during the early stage of the war. Although there had been public opposition to the war from the very beginning, it wasn’t near anything of what would come during the later years of the war. According to Wikipedia, the cold war had been going on for almost 20 years and after the Red Scare during the 1950s, many Americans were willing to believe, that communism was a huge threat to their Western/American freedom and way of life. (wikipedia.org, 3.3.2015)

The US Armed Forces of that time were considered the best that had ever existed and because nobody had yet seen the horrors of the war which were about to come, the US Army marched into Vietnam, supported by their nation, determined to make a quick end to the communist threat that was about to lay its hands around the yet non-communist south of the country. During a phase of the war that went on from 1965 to 1968, the morale of the fighting troops was very good, although there were always throwbacks. Heavy fights took their toll and left their marks in both hearts and minds of the soldiers and the US public. George Knoll, who served with the 2/12th Artillery, 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) from August 1966 to October 1967, describes the atmosphere in his unit as follows:

“Generally good, no one felt morose or bitter, most seemed upbeat and were eagerly awaiting returning home.“ (George Knoll, question 17)

The morale of troops in general is a very complex construct that depends on various factors that all must be paid attention to. The access to supplies, the support of family and the public, a clear mission, officers who treat their soldiers well and give logical instructions, not being constantly bored or stressed, a good atmosphere within the own unit and the possibility to to once in a while get a short break are just some factors that keep the morale of troops up. If these factors tend for the worse, moral usually starts to drop, although not necessarily immediately. Within many units, a unique sense of self-understanding, pride, loyalty and even humor would evolve, that only their unit and no other could understand, further bonding the men in that unit. But there would also always be complaining.

“One thing to remember is that soldiers always complain. This has been true since pre-biblical times. I have no doubt that the men in Joshua’s army complained as they marched around the walls of Jericho. Having said that, the men in my unit were not happy to be there. It was 1970, the secret war in Cambodia was just over, and the war in Vietnam was slowly winding down. Some units were already being withdrawn back to the States. Granted, it wasn’t a combat unit, but the guys still griped when they worked 6½ days a week outside in 100+ degree weather. Or during the monsoon season.” (Randy Brack, question 17)

In the year 1968 came the big change. The Tet Offensive was the biggest offensive the VC and NVA troops had launched so far, sweeping over more than 100 cities all over South Vietnam. The US and South Vietnamese troops defeated the NVA and VC forces, annihilating the latter almost completely. But the damage that was done on a political and social level would change the war and influence the morale of the US troops in Vietnam and all over the world.

From now on, according to the documentary Vietnam in HD“, public support for the war dropped drastically. Public protests, the burning of draft cards and draft evasion by seeking exile in Canada were daily business. This new lack of support had a massive influence on US soldiers in Vietnam. They could no longer count on their nation backing them. (Vietnam in HD, An Endless War, 2011)

But there were also internal factors which brought the morale of US troops in Vietnam and other places around the globe down. The longer the war went on, the less soldiers still believed in the mission, which was officially to stop communism from taking over South Vietnam and eventually all of South East Asia. It became more evident every day, that the war as it had been fought until then, could not be won. VC and NVA guerilla tactics wouldn’t allow the US troops to fight battles against bigger enemy units and therefore kill enough soldiers and destroy enough supplies in order to bring down the North Vietnamese war efforts and the US themselves didn’t use all their available forces. Also, the “Search and Destroy” strategy had a bad influence on the morale of the US troops in Vietnam. Their victories were not visible, as they would not capture cities or land, but only try to destroy enemy units. The measure of success were dead NVA and VC troops.

As it can be seen on americanwarlibrary.com, from 1969 on the US began to withdraw their troops step by step. (americanwarlibrary.com, 1.3.2015)

The effort to win the war and the support for it dropped together, and with it the motivation of the soldiers in Vietnam to keep fighting. Nobody wanted to fight an enemy who would often not show himself for weeks and months and nobody wanted to die in a war whose sole aim was now “Peace with Honor”.

According to Robert Heinl, an Army colonel at that time, drug abuse soon got out of hand. Soldiers who wanted to calm down after a stressful day or simply have a good time, smoked marijuana or took heroin, opium, LSD or other hard drugs. Although the percent of soldiers who had tried heroin or other hard drugs stayed around 15%, the number of pot smokers was massive and drug abuse soon got out of control. Next to that, individuals and whole units began to refuse to carry out orders they didn’t like or they thought could harm them. Alone in 1970, the 1st Air Cavalry admitted 35 individual refusals.

Heinl further writes about the killing of unpopular officers with grenades, called “fragging”. This was another way of preventing that one would have to carry out orders one didn’t like. In the year 1970, 209 incidents of fragging were reported.

And with the rise of the African-American Civil Rights Movement and race riots, often, black soldiers would revolt against their white officers, sometimes even killing them. This would take place all over the planet, often even in US boot camps. (Robert Heinl, 1971)

The lack of public support, internal problems and a never ending war against an evasive enemy had brought the once so high moral of the US Armed Forces down to the ground.

4.3 After the war
Only the dead have seen the end of the war. These words were spoken by the famous Greek philosopher Plato almost 2400 years ago and are still accurate today. Once the soldiers who fought in Vietnam returned home, war did not automatically end for them. As the History Channel documentary “Vietnam in HD” shows very well, the soldiers were often not welcomed as heroes or even as human beings. For many they were “babykillers”, psychopaths, bloodthirsty killing machines. There were no parades to welcome them back and no military chapel would play. The moment they needed attention and careful listeners the most, or just somebody saying “thank you” or “welcome home”, there was nobody there for them. Although some found comfort and help within the own family, many were left alone to deal with what they had done and seen in the war. (Vietnam in HD, An Endless War, 2010)

These negative sentiments towards the Vietnam Veterans and the “being left alone” are two factors, which made it very hard for many of the Veterans to find their way back into society. Second, many of the soldiers brought back with them what they had experienced in Vietnam. They had done and seen horrible things, and these things stayed and still stay with them.

Alan Cutter, who served in Vietnam in from 1971 to 1972 wrote the following for The Guardian: “Too many explosions, searching dead bodies for intelligence, hours of ennui and minutes of terror, lots of blood, holding the dying, all this and more had taken a toll. I also had shared inedible and incredible meals, slept in strange places, cursed at intransigent superiors, and laughed at death but never had time to cry for the dying.”

The world they had lived in during the war and the world they would have to live in now were totally different, and for some it would prove to be impossible to separate the two. The US Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that about 31% of all Vietnam Veterans suffer from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). As it can be read on the website of the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD involves symptoms such as recurring flashbacks, bad dreams, feeling strong guilt, depression or worry, being easily startled, having angry outbursts and many more. PTSD can be treated, but it is a long and stony path back to normality. For many, war stills goes on. (nimh.nih.gov, 3.3.2015)

But besides the many bad memories and the problems Veterans still have because of what they experienced in the war, many have said to have profited form their time in Vietnam. “I definitely benefited from my time in the Air Force. It taught me more about myself than I could have learned in 10 years in civilian life. I learned to value teamwork, to pay attention to details, that I could do much more than I thought I could prior to enlisting, and I learned to be a leader.” (Rick Owen, question 34)

Being in a war can teach a man things that he could never learn otherwise or that would take many years to learn. Many soldiers also found good friends in their worst moments, friends that would go through hell and back with them. These friendships can last a lifetime and are unlike any other kind of friendship there is. Who could understand the Veterans better than men who went through the same?

Being asked the question “Assuming you were young again: Would you serve again, even knowing the outcome of the war?”, Marc Levy, who has served in Vietnam with the 1/7 First Cavalry in 1970 answered: “Yes. It’s exciting, it’s boring, the stakes are high, you’re needed, you get close to people, you see and do things not possible elsewhere: there’s nothing else like it. But there’s a price. A big price. You’re inwardly changed, and maybe outwardly wounded and most people don’t understand that part of you, and really don’t care to.”

War changes people. When we look at the journey, that the soldiers who fought in Vietnam made, we will see, that the people who came back from war are not the same people who went to war. Some of them had to do and see horrible things, and all were under pressure almost constantly.

Many had lost good friends and the rules that applied in the US were not valid for a whole year. For one year, many of them had been in another world. And then they returned home and had to find their way back into normal life, where people weren’t shooting at each other constantly. Most of them were successful, some even say to have profited from the time they spent in Vietnam, but many had big problems with the load they carried. Some still do.

Writing about the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War and interviewing Veterans has shown me, that war has many faces. Although many have experienced similar things, each one will tell a different story, because each one experienced war in his own way. And every story allows a new perspective on the war. So looking at different sources and different versions of an event is crucial, if one wants to obtain a diverse and accurate picture of what has happened.

The second thing I have learned, is, that many facts and stories that are presented to us, are wrong, or at least inaccurate. There are official versions of what happened and how it happened, but if one wants to find out the truth, if one wants to obtain an accurate picture what happened, digging deeper is necessary. Here to, analyzing and comparing sources is absolutely vital.


Henry Roll was an attack helicopter pilot in 1967.

Rick Clagget was an RTO and a Scout Dog Handler in 1970-1971.

Rick Owen was a munitions specialist from 1971-1972.

Marc Levy was an infantry medic in 1970.

George Knoll was a general duty soldier from 1965-1967.

Jim Brack was a maintenance battalion officer and an intelligence officer from 1970-1971.

7.1.1 Internet:
http://www.americanwarlibrary.com/vietnam/vwatl.htm [1.3.2015]
https://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20101101183938AAUQJHT [3.3.2015]
http://www.blackpast.org/gah/project-100-000-1966-1971 [2.3.2015]
http://www.mrfa.org/vnstats.htm [1.3.2015]
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml [3.3.2015]
http://www.online-reiseinfos.de/klima/vietnam.php [3.3.2015]
http://www.salon.com/2002/05/30/mcnamara_3/ [2.3.2015]
http://www.shmoop.com/wwii-home-front/economy.html [2.3.2015]
http://www.shmoop.com/1950s/economy.html [2.3.2015]
military-service [2.3.2015]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_Assistance_Advisory_Group [28.2.2015]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M16_rifle [1.3.2015]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Linebacker [2.3.2015]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Scare [3.3.2015]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War [28.2.2015]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War_casualties [28.2.2015]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weapons_of_the_Vietnam_War [1.3.2015]


Battlefield:Vietnam, Part 2, The Undeclared War, directed by Dave Flitton, 1999
Battlefield: Vietnam, Part 3, Search and Destroy, directed by Dave Flitton, 1999
Battlefield: Vietnam, Part 6, The Tet Offensive, directed by Dave Flitton, 1999
Battlefield: Vietnam, Part 8, Siege at Khe Sanh, directed by Dave Flitton, 1999
Battlefied: Vietnam, Part 10, Rolling Thunder, directed by Dave Flitton, 1999
Battlefield: Vietnam, Part 11, Peace With Honor, directed by Dave Flitton, 1999
Battlefield: Vietnam, Part 12, The Fall of Saigon, directed by Dave Flitton, 1999
The Most Dangerous Man in America – Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, 2010
Vetnam in HD, Part 3 The Tet Offensive and Part 4, An Endless War, directed by Sammy Jackson, 2011

7.1.2 Books:
Worsencroft, John; Salvageable Manhood: Project 100,000 and the Gender Politics of the Vietnam War, Salt Lake City, 2011, page 39
Heinl, Robert; The Collapse of the Armed Forces, Armed Forces Journal, 1971]
Marlantes, Karl; What it is like to go to war, New York 2011, pages 37-42

7.1.3 Sources of the Table on page 9:
1,2: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_War [1.3.2015]
3,4:http://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html#category [1.3.2015
5,6: http://www.mrfa.org/vnstats.htm [1.3.2015]
7-9:archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html#category [1.3.2015]
10: http://www.vhfcn.org/stat.html [1.3.2015]
11-15:archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html#category [1.3.2015]
16,17: http://www.mrfa.org/vnstats.htm [1.3.2015]
18: http://www.68thahc.com/K_Vietnam_Facts__Truth_and_Myths.htm [1.3.2015]
19,20: http://www.mrfa.org/vnstats.htm [1.3.2015]
21,22: http://www.statisticbrain.com/vietnam-war-statistics/ [1.3.2015]
23,24: http://www.vhfcn.org/stat.html [1.3.2015]

Special Thanks

I’d like to thank Henry Roll, Marc Levy, George Knoll, Rick Claggett, Rick Owen, Randy Brack and Dean Spiriti for their help on this project. Their answers gave me first hand information about the lives of Vietnam Veterans and also provided me with further information on the Vietnam War in general and the US Armed Forces. Without them, this project would not have worked out.