Grade 5 Class Portrait:Class picture of the Academy Hill School fifth grade, 1957. Back row, left to right: Peter Metters, Frank Powers, Barry Zlotin, Dick Larrabee, Nick Ferrantella, Dennis Brown, Leonard Ringler, David Hardy, Dan Connell. Middle row: Donna Glidden, Pam Lawrence, Sandy Pope, Melodie Watts, Karen Lamb, Haydi Craig, Cynthia Perkins, Susan Lusk, Joanna Simms, Susan Michetti. Front row: Mary Jean Nelson, Sheila Fulton, Louisa Dennis, Susan Chase, Susan Tucker, Jackie Mainhart, Marie Stackpole. Academy Hill School. Nantucket 1957

For Students


Were you drafted?

After dropping out of college I was living at home. There wasn’t much on offer in the way of work and my parents were not emotionallyUnauthorized Army recruiting poster. Circa 1968 well people,making life increasingly difficult. I needed an escape and the Army promised a career and the chance to find myself. And it was rumored the Paris peace talks would end the war soon. I enlisted in the Navy but rushed through the entry exam and failed it. Not long afterward,I enlisted in the Army. I was half way through the physical when a burly sergeant grabbed my arm and shouted, “Open your mouth!” Seeing my dental braces he kicked me out. It’s a little known fact that during the war the Army would not take men with dental braces. My orthodontist said anxious parents offered him extra money to put braces on their sons. I told him to take mine off. I passed the physical,and enlisted in the Army and became a medic. I wanted to help people.

Do you believe the draft was necessary?

Without the draft I think relatively few men would have volunteered,or continued to volunteer as the casualties mounted and a meaningful purpose and victory slipped away. I think without the draft the war would have ended much sooner and many lives would have been spared.

How do you feel about people who avoided the draft?

I’ve never felt bad toward anyone who avoided the draft,though at the time I didn’t appreciate the moral mSgt. Gary Kelch giving the peace sign. Quan Loi 1970  Photo  Jeff Motykaaturity of men who decided to avoid military service based on their religious or political beliefs. In 1994,while backpacking in Laos,I met a man who had left the US for Canada to escape the draft. He didn’t want to be wounded or killed in a war he didn’t believe in. I admired his honesty and common sense. Most drafted grunts I knew were not keen on serving their country in time of war. For many years I was a friend of Father Dan Berrigan,the radical Jesuit priest and member of the Cantonsville 9,a group of religious people who famously burned draft cards to protest the war. I’m grateful to have known Dan. I never met his brother Phil,a highly decorated WWII vet,priest and anti-war activist. If there had been no draft it’s unlikely that significant numbers of young American men would have volunteered to fight against the drummed up and distant threat of a communist world take over. When world boxing champion Muhammad Ali spoke out against the war the government stripped him of his title and threatened jail but Ali never backed down.


What was your boot camp/advanced training experience like?

I took Basic Training at Fort Dix,NJ in the winter of 1969. During the eight weeks of training there was a lot of physical Medic and buddy Sal Jeppi. Ft Dix, NJ 1969exercise and marching that whipped us into shape. Drill sergeants conditioned us to think as a unit,to obey orders,to shoot rifles,go for long hikes and camp outside. But none of the training was relevant to Vietnam. I spent the next nine weeks at Fort Sam Houston in Texas learning to be a medic.We took classes in basic anatomy and first aid and how to give shots. We practiced applying bandages and cloth tourniquets on each other. We saw many training films. Most were of WWII or Korea vintage. During the final week we shot at targets without taking time to aim,a useful technique in guerilla warfare,and the closest we got to simulating Vietnam. However, once in-country,the first thing the medics told me–after blowing pot smoke down the barrel of an M16 and into Wilhem Dafoe as Sgt. Elias in the 1986 movie Platoon.my mouth,yes,just like in the movie Platoon–was to forget everything I learned at Fort Sam. They taught me which ointments treated jungle rot,fungal infections,and minor cuts and scratches. They taught me which antibiotics and anti-histamines treated various ailments. I was given a canvas medical bag that I filled with bottles of pills,tubes of ointment,a dozen cotton bandages,six morphine syrettes. A day or two later I flew out to Delta and replaced the third platoon medic.


Where were you stationed in Vietnam?

Delta 1/7 First Cavalry Division patrolled areas north west of Saigon. The provinces included: Song Be,An Loc,Loc Ninh,Phuc Vinh,Bui Gia Map,and Tay Ninh. In the invasion of Cambodia we spent forty-seven days in the enemy’s backyard and saw our share of combat.

What was a typical day like in combat?

Delta spent two to three weeks a month in free fire zones:areas without rules of engagement. We got up at 6am. Breakfast was C rations cooked withD 1/7 Cav 3rd Squad ready for Mini Cav: Front-Shake n Bake, Gary Williams, John Roop,Jim Lamb, Steve Melhop. Back-Mike Derrig, Ray Williams, Knuckles, Joe Dorio. LZ Compton,An Loc 1969 C4 plastique explosive. A small chunk boiled water in less than a minute. If an automatic ambush (booby trap) set up the previous day had not exploded,a patrol was sent to take it down and bring it back. If the ambush had exploded a platoon was sent to take prisoners or kill survivors.

Around 7:30am the company would move out. We might march for two or three hours. Then set up a perimeter,a circle with foxholes about every thirty yards. A platoon would be sent on patrol. The rest of us would hang out;there were men on guard around the perimeter. After an hour or two we would march,then set up a perimeter and eat lunch. We might rest an hour,then march another two hours.

By late afternoon we would set up an NDP (night defensive perimeter) and everyone would clear a small area to sleep. Platoons would be sent out to set up automatic ambushes on enemy trails. Afterward,the men would cook C rations or LRRP meals for dinner. Before dark,the men in each squad drew lots for guard. Two hours per shift. Two shifts per night. At sun up the daily cycle began again. Two or three weeks later Delta would chopper to a remote firebase (also known as an LZ) for perimeter guard. After seven days we walked or flew back to the jungle. There was a rhythm to it. A definite pattern.

What types of injuries/illness did you treat?

I treated a lot of bamboo cuts and scratches,heat rashes and fungal infectMedic on patrol. Song Be 1969ions,bug bites,leech bites,ringworm,diarrhea,colds and fevers. Every morning I gave each man in my platoon a small anti malaria pill and once a week a large pill. Over time I patched up many guys with gun shot or shrapnel wounds,several hit by friendly fire. In fact the first man I patched up was shot by a nervous machine gunner in a low flying chopper.

Did you and the men in your platoon fully understand the reason for being in the war?

There was one (drafted) man in my platoon who said the war was based on US aggression,that we had no business in Vietnam. One day he said, “That’s it,” and he quit the patrol. So we left him there,talking to himself in the jungle,and he ran to us because he wasn’t safe. That’s all that mattered:not why were we fighting,but when will the next ambush,or rocket or mortar attack take place? Nobody thought about why.

How did you stay in touch with family? How did the Army keep up morale?

Before email there was snail mail. While on patrol,letters and packages were taken or delivered by chopper every three days along with food,ammo and water. There were no cell phones but I did talk to my folks once while in Bien Hoa,large modern base. MARS phones linked a land line with a ham radio operator in the US. It was primitive but it worked.

Every three months Delta Company took three days in-country "Worm" on guitar during in-country R&R. Bien Hoi 1969R&R at a Bien Hoa. We wore clean clothes,ate hot meals,slept in beds with sheets and pillows,took hot showers and drank cold beer. There was a boxing ring,and a parlor for a legitimate massage. At night we watched movies outside on a jury rigged screen or listened to live rock music played by a Vietnamese band. Drugs were available,as were prostitutes. For three days men got drunk or high or fought amongst themselves,or sat and talked,and then it was over,and we flew back to the jungle as if nothing had changed.

Occasionally the Army would surprise us. Once,on a remote base,two female Red Cross “Donut Dollies” wearing light blue skirts and blouses jumped out of a chopper that had just landed. The young women smiled as they walked around the muddy base handing out donuts from a black garbage bag. We smiled back and said thank you as we ate their donuts but didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. One afternoon a Chinook landed on the mudscape of LZ Green. A full brass band emerged from its  loading ramp,marched in formation to level ground,tuned up,then played a half dozen John Phillips Sousa songs. When they had finished,they marched back into the chopper,which trembled,then lifted and flew them away.

Did you work on a base or did you stay with the infantry?

AfMedic as shit burner. LZ Frances, Tay Ninh 1970ter eight months in the bush I landed a job in the battalion aid station. I didn’t like the work so I volunteered to burn shit on LZ Frances. There were no toilets on remote bases. Oil drums split in half covered by a make shift wood seat served as commodes. The shit burner I replaced,Roye Abbott,had been to college,dropped out and was drafted.

On my first day,it was monsoon,cold and rainy,the base an enormous puddle of sticking mud,the barrels overflowing,I asked Roye, “How do you stand it?” “It keeps you warm,” he said. Then Roye put on the filthy cotton gloves he’d worn these last two months,he grabbed the long steel pole used to stir the fetid sludge,he pointed to the five gallon diesel can filled with fuel,the magnesium trip flare that would ignite the foul muck,he stepped up to that stinking over flowing half barrel of GI shit and,taking his time,he matter-of-factly showed me how to burn it all down to a fine white ash.

Did you receive any medals?

My decorations include: the Combat Medic Badge,the Silver Star,two Bronze Stars with V device, the Air Medal,the Army Commendation Medal.


How did you feel when you came home from Vietnam?

It was a strange time. My brother was jealous because my folks had worried about me,but neither my brother or my folks wanted to hear about what I’d been through. Most of my friends were like that too. It was like being in a dream. I’d been away. Now I was back. So for the first year or two I kept quiet. In college I grew my hair long,wore hippie clothes,smoked dope and partied–but I kept a loaded pistol under my pillow and a canteen by my bed. I had nightmares. I slept with a lot of women and didn’t care if they got emotionally hurt. I had two types of friends:intellectuals and trouble makers. Someone tried to kill me. Everyone thought I was strange. The Dean of Students took me under his wing. I had PTSD and didn’t know it.

What is your opinion on protesters?

It’s a curious fact: ten days before going to Vietnam I attended the Moratorium on Washington in November 1969. There were tens of thousands of mostly young people some standing or sitting,others dancing or chanting,not a few drinking wine or smoking dope. HA cop beating a demonstrator. Cover art, Berkeley Barb, November 1968ow many were there to protest, how many to party,how many to just vent spleen? The protesters would continue to make headlines;the war continued five more years.

My friend Ed Torres gave me the address to the Berkeley Barb,a radical newspaper printed in California. I sent for it and miraculously,the paper arrived every month in the mail. I didn’t understand the radical politics but I learned about the anti-war movement.

Sometimes I wondered whEd Torres fighting Mr. Tooth Decay on LZ Ramada. Tay Ninh 1970at would happen if a hundred grunts and crowd of protestors met in a vacant field. Would they talk to each other? Would they argue and shout to no avail? I imagined telling the protesters their rallies were fine but we had casualties and needed replacements. That’s what we need,I would tell them: replacements.

I came home with a year left in service. At Fort Devens I got involved with the Common Sense Book Store,an off base GI coffee house in Ayer,MA. Active duty GIs went there to hang out and speak freely in opposition to the war. We formed Radio Free Devens,an anti-war show,broadcast weekly by WAAF in Worcester. I was interviewed by the press. At an anti-war rally I shook hands with Dan Ellsburg on national TV. That upset the Army brass.

How would you characterize your overall experience in the military?

Before enlisting I lead a fairly sheltered life. In the service I met men from every state and various countries. I made some good friends but I made enemies too,and met my share of malcontents,thieves and junkies,drunkards and cowards. In Vietnam I discovered my physical and emotional limits. Early on,I wept as three North Vietnamese soldiers were gleefully shot at close range after their legs had been blown off by mines. But later I saw the enemy as not human;I learned to like revenge. And much later,I learned that war can rob you blind;that no one wins;that we’re all human beings.

Do you have PTSD? Can you talk about that?

I had my first nightmare during the last days of the Cambodian invasion. Intelligence reports In from patrol: Medic (wearing .45) and Bruce Kepley on LZ Compton. An Loc 1969indicated the enemy was following us. That meant that at night,half the company pulled guard while the other half slept. Wearing my bandoliers,my pistol and pistol belt,my boots,I slept near Jerry Bieck,the RTO. In the dream,enemy sappers crawled past me and were heading to the command platoon. I woke up,unholstered my forty-five,cocked the hammer,lowered the pistol,and aimed at Jerry’s feet. Just before I pulled the trigger,the moon came out from behind a cloud. I recognized Jerry’s American boot-treads,pointed the .45 straight up,pinched the hammer,pulled the trigger,set the hammer to place,slipped the weapon into my holster,and went back to sleep. In the winter of 1999 I found Jerry and told him how the light of the moon kept me from blowing his foot off. “Thanks, Doc,that would have put a dent in my golf game!” he said. But I was in tears. That’s how real it was,that memory.

After joining a writer’s group at the Common Sense Book Store,just outside Ft.Devens,I began writing down my war dreams. I did that on and off for twenty-five years. Many of the nightmares were about killing,or not having ammo,or being chased or attacked,or being shot. Sometimes I talked in my sleep. “Who goes there?” I bolted up and yelled one night when a college girl friend got up to pee. Forty years later,coming out of war dream,the love of my life dodged a throttling punch to her face. I held her close,said I was sorry,and wept.

In college,I wore my mud stained Cav path sewn on top,grenade pins clipped to the sides,love beads encircling the crown,Combat Medic Badge pinned to the front boonie hat,and thought everyone knew what it meant. Patrols,ambush,jungle,monsoon,the screams of the wounded,the hush of the dead. But they didn’t. They were young and happy and PTSD was not yet on the map.

My startle reflex kicked in during my sophomore year. I would duck or drop at sudden or loud sounds. My friends thought I was crazy and laughed,which got me upset. Every grunt knew you dropped at the first hint of an ambush.

Around my senior year I got depressed and anxious. Doctors at the Veterans Administration prescribed several tricyclic anti-depressants. The side effects were awful. Walking home one winter night my left leg went numb and I half crawled in the snow the last hundred yards. The next day I dumped all the pills into a large envelope with a note, “Fuck you and your fucking pills” and mailed it to the VA. A new doctor,a Vietnam vet,gave me Valium,and it worked. As I told him, “It puts out the burning coals inside my head.”

Even so,I remained depressed and anxious. And I continued to startle easily,and got angry at little things,and had daily fantasies of killing people. I thought of suicide a lot. I spent a lot of time alone. After college,I never held a job more than three years,and often for less. It was hard finding work. No one wanted me. I became dependent on Valium.

In 1981 someone tried to kill me. I was stabbed several times. Waiting for the ambulance,I sat in a chair and patched myself up. When the EMTs arrived,I said, “Careful,I have pumpers,”meaning the wounds were arterial and had spurted blood. After the paramedics bandaged me up,one of them told the ambulance driver,“Step on it,he might not make it.” It felt like war.

In 1986 the movie Platoon opened in New York. I was living in Brooklyn  and went to see it once a week for three months straight. Why wasn’t everyone doing the same? When the DVD came out  I watched it twice a week for years.

The road to Tchpukla. Todos Santos, Guatemala 1992I left the United States in 1992. My plan was to study Spanish in Guatemala,then return to the US and work with immigrants. The first school I went to was in a Quetzaltenango,grimy industrial city. I stayed a night,then caught a bus to Todos Santos,a rustic town in the Northeast highlands. There,I studied Spanish for two months,then backpacked Central America for six months,always returning to Todos Santos,where I made friends with villagers,a few gringos,and climbed in the mountains nearly every day. I still had anxiety and flash backs,but there was something about the crude living conditions, the rigorous climbing,that made me feel real.

When money ran out I returned to the US,drifted a year in Northampton, MA,then worked a year in New Zealand. With the money I saved,I flew to Singapore,the gateway to Asia. I had many adventures,but many flashbacks too,and terrible anxiety,especially in Hanoi.

After travels in Asia and and the main islands of Indonesia,I flew to Australia,hoping to take a course in EMDR,a form of hypnosis which I’d heard could benefit PTSD. I enrolled in a two day course most of the participants were doctors and nurses. No one knew about my depression and anxiety. The first day we learned the basic protocol;on the second day we practiced the technique on each other. At first nothing happened when I received the treatment,but later,while sitting by myself,somewhat suddenly and without apparent cause,an extraordinary sense of well being swept over me;it lasted two weeks.

I left Australia and backpacked Europe for a nearly month,staying with friends I’d met while in Asia. In Amsterdam,where I had rented a small room in a pension,I finally melted down,not knowing who or where I was. Somehow I managed to by a plane ticket home.

Back in the US,I couch surfed several months,then An accomplished fiddler, banjo, guitar and bag pipe player, and, among other things, a bomber pilot in WWIIlanded a spot in a VA PTSD in-patient program in Montrose, NY. The program was not especially well run but I completed it,then lived on a nature reserve with the wise old poet Peter Kane Dufault (he lived in a shack in the woods) and his lovely wife Ruth. Peter lent me a bike,and I rode a hundred miles a week,and often,in the shack,reached by a narrow winding path in the woods,we talked politics or literature,or played chess,or Peter played the guitar,or banjo,or fiddle. Once a week I cleaned the house,a reliquary of dusty old books and magazines,tchachkas,and spider webs,for Ruth.

After three months I moved back to New York. At the urging of a VA therapist in Manhattan,I tried a newer generation of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs. The side-effects were so bad that I demanded the head of the psych department to write a letter stating the drugs made me crazy,and I wouldn’t take them anymore. He seemed frightened and wrote two pages on the spot. From then on I took only Valium.

During this time I went to therapy groups for combat vets. In the best groups,the men were willing to talk about the war and how it affected them. There was a real sense of struggle and unity and trust. But in other groups,men gathered simply to gossip and joke and pass time. Rarely did they speak of  anger and rage,or nightmares,or wanting to kill people,staying alone,crying for no reason. I began seeing a therapist once a week,and took up exercising,and writing too. The talking cure helped,but so did the company of a few trusted friends.

The nightmares have tapered off,but the anger and rage,the violent thoughts,the social isolation, the down days as I call them,remain problematic. On the upside,every so often a good day breaks the negative spell. That’s what I live for.

Do you think Vietnam was a success?

Patriots may argue that the US never lost a battle in Vietnam. Even President Obama made the claim in a 2011 speech to veterans in the American Legion. However Andrew Bacevich notes that “For the most part,Vietnam was not a war of  ‘major battles.’ What matters is a war’s outcome. Therefore,the president’s claim is largely beside the point,not unlike advocates of the ‘Lost Cause’ citing Robert E. Lee’s victories as evidence of the superiority of the Confederate army.” Saigon fell on 30 April 1975.  On that day the Americans abandoned the Vietnamese. But in some respects Vietnam was a gift,a bonanza,a gold mine. Immense sums were made on war contracts,the black market and kick backs. For career soldiers there were myriad honest or shadowy ways to advance in rank. But for many grunts,and Vietnamese civilians caught in the crossfire,the war meant upheaval and horror and sorrow.

What are your feelings on the importance of the Vietnam War?

The American war in Vietnam will be remembered as unpopular,misbegotten and self-defeating. The Gulf of Tonkin incident and the equally discredited Domino Theory were used to escalate an unwinnable war. I believe American military and political hubris lead to vastly underestimating centuries of Vietnamese military skill. The US military doctrines of Search and Destroy,Winning Hearts and Minds,and US air,land and sea superiority were wrongheaded and ruinous. It’s clear that our doctrines failed and our technologies were defeated.

Much of the war’s news coverage was uncensored and Vietnam veterans against the war and other anti-war activists march in protest near Convention Hall in Miami, Fla., Aug. 22, 1972, as the Republican National Convention opened. Disabled Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, holding an upside down American flag as a symbol of distress, is seen in the march. (AP Photo)helped to expose the wars immense cost and carnage. Cover ups occurred but a case can be made that events like My Lai were military policy. The New York Times,defying the government,published the Pentagon Papers,secretly gathered by whistle blower Dan Ellsburg. The documents exposed the extent to which President Johnson and his staff  lied to Congress and to the public. The revelations were key in ending the war. As did protests by students, ordinary civilians and Vietnam vets,most famously Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

I think most American’s don’t know or care to know the full impact of the war on the Vietnamese: the legacy of Agent Orange on the land and the people;the horror of B-52 strikes on civilian targets;the kidnaps, assassinations and torture under Operation Phoenix;the years of human suffering due to economic sanctions and financial collapse after the American retreat.

The Vietnam war taught American vets that the VA was often unsympathetic to their physical and emotional well being. Veterans’ advocates fought the American Psychiatric Association for ten years until PTSD became an accepted diagnosis. Vietnam veterans were compelled to file a class action suit for compensation as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. The list goes on.

Lastly,Americas still grapples with the loss and losses in Vietnam. The how and why and meaning of it. Vietnam will remain an American and Vietnamese tragedy for a very long time. Perhaps the real tragedy is that the American people,the government,the military,have learned so little from it. __________________________________________________________

PHOTOS: A look back at the Vietnam War on the 35th Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon.

Peter Kane Dufalt: An American Poet’s State of the Union