Five Simple Words

More than thirty vets have responded to Medic’s open query: what do you feel, think and say when someone says to you “Thank you for your service.”

Bill Ehrhart 1/1 Marines
Infantry (corporal)
Vietnam 1967

Over the past decade or so, it’s become quite the fashion, when people learn that I once served in the Marines, to say to me, “Thank you for your service.” I’m sure they mean well, but I wish they would take just a moment to reflect on what they are saying.

I went halfway around the world to a place called Vietnam, where I killed, maimed, brutalized and made miserable a people who had never done me or my country any harm, nor ever would or could.

I served proud, arrogant, and ultimately ignorant politicians and statesmen who thought they could mold the world into whatever shape they believed it should have. But it was hardly service in the interest of my country or the majority of Americans, let alone in the interest of the majority of the Vietnamese, who wanted little else than for me to stop killing them and go back where I came from.

Do those well-meaning folks who thank me for my service really want to thank me for that? I surely hope not. It is not service I am proud of.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the stock genuflection to Vietnam War veterans was “Welcome Home.” But what makes anyone think I’ve ever come home? Because I got out of Vietnam with all ten fingers and all ten toes? Because I vote and pay my taxes? Because I keep my shoe laces tied and don’t drool? It’s hard to feel at home in a country that learned so little from such a destructive and ruinous debacle.

And now I see that the Pentagon has launched a decade-long Vietnam War Commemoration to “thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War.” There’s even a website that says, “A Grateful Nation Thanks and Honors You.”

Hey, I could use some decent affordable healthcare, or even just a free tank of gas for my car. But what am I supposed to do with that website? Eat it? Take it to the bank? Meanwhile, consider the “service” I performed while in uniform. My nation is grateful for that?

And now “the other one percent” who fill the ranks of our so-called “volunteer” military today is carrying the entire blood burden of our latest wars, getting sent to Iraq and Afghanistan over and over again, while the rest of us go about our lives as if nothing at all out of the ordinary is going on.
What the military seems to have learned from the Vietnam War is: get rid of the draft and you get rid of domestic opposition to foreign interventions. So far, it’s working.

But the cost is steadily mounting. Suicides among active duty military and recent veterans have reached epidemic proportions. The Veterans Administration has a backlog of over 800,000 claims for medical disability. And substantial allegations have been made that the VA and the Department of Defense are falsely diagnosing veterans and soldiers with pre-existing “personality disorders” prior to their military service so that these veterans can be denied benefits for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, though the military was happy enough to sign them up when they first enlisted. Thank you for your service, indeed.

Frankly, I suspect that this whole Vietnam War Commemoration is less about a grateful nation thanking and honoring us Vietnam War veterans than it is about a frightened and nervous government trying to gloss over the follies and consequences of military adventurism so that the next generation of young Americans remains willing to place their trust in the hands of people who clearly believe that those they send to fight our wars are expendable (rhetoric not withstanding; actions speak louder than words).

Instead of thanking our servicemen and women for their service, perhaps we ought to be asking less service from them and more service from ourselves.

Bill’s prose and poetry have appeared in hundreds of publications including the Los Angeles Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Utne Reader, Reader’s Digest, American Poetry Review and the Virginia Quarterly Review. Visit his website to learn more about him.

4/3 11th Light Infantry Brigade
Vietnam 1967-1968

When someone thanks me for my service, I return a genuine “Thank you.” I am not uncomfortable, but I am a bit hesitant to accept the grace meant to honor my service. So much more is going on with me in that exchange. There is the senselessness of the conflict I was part of; the death and mayhem witnessed, the grief, the fear. I know that what is said genuinely comes from their heart, or at least from a place of empathy. They have no idea what my experience was, but they’ve obviously dared a thought towards what that experience must have been like. I know that they will never know, could never know, and so I simply respond: “Thank you,” and smile.

Over the years I believe America has been made aware as to how veterans of the Vietnam conflict were received when we returned home. I was never spit upon, but I was called a baby-killer by a co-worker. She had no idea that my first duty as a combat medic in Vietnam was to assist our doctor in the delivery of a Vietnamese baby girl, and I had not been in-country twenty-four hours yet. My first experience was the birth of a child…not death. That came soon enough, and often. She had no idea of the turmoil hidden deep within me. She could not fathom how my life had been forever changed by my experience. Most of America did not know how to accept us…what to say to us. We simply faded into the murkiness of processing our daily, uneasy journey, battling the beast that returned home with us and waited for the moment to claw at our lives.

During a session of counseling at the local VA, my counselor held her opened palms inches from her ears. “This…”she said, “…is where the majority of we civilians live our lives.” Moving her hands further from the sides of her head, she continued, “This is where you combat veterans live. You have been exposed to so much more than we.” I had never thought of it that way, but it makes perfect sense. It explains the tendency to ignore insignificant and mundane issues that may be important to others, but have no relevancy in a combat veterans world view.

Example: I was involved in a group discussion that had asked the question, “What time in your life did you have a life-changing experience, and how did your faith in God help you?”

I sat and listened to the stories in silent astonishment as each person answered; the first days at college away from home, buying a first home and losing sleep over the financial commitment, interviewing for a job…all valid issues, yes. But in my world view they were trivial and bland experiences! As I listened, I argued with myself to remain silent and not show open disdain towards my coworkers and their humdrum stories. I knew it wasn’t their fault …it was their life and world view based on their experiences. I did not want to shame them or have them pity me. I did not want to harbor animosity towards them.

When the question landed on me I hesitated to collect my thoughts. Where do I begin? What do I say? Should I even mention Vietnam and lay my experience on them? I took a breath, looked down at the conference table and began. I told them of death, the smell, sights and sounds of war, and of having to come to terms with the possibility of my own death on a daily basis. I talked of Vietnam, and the night I had screamed at God for an explanation, and that God was silent that star-filled evening, Heaven was far from near, and the death continued regardless.

This is my worldview, in-part, and what shapes my thoughts, including the innocent tribute, whether empathic or obligatory: “Thank you for your service.” Where it once was uncomfortable to hear, I now find it easier to accept. However, I have made the decision to reply: “Thank you, I appreciate your gracious thought. You can continue to be of help to us veterans by paying close attention to those politicians who dismiss veterans as an expense and obstruct passage of veteran’s benefits and issues and not send them back to Congress, Republican or Democrat. ” I like that.

Carl Lee Bronze StarCarl Lee
Delta 1/7 First Cavalry Division
Vietnam/Cambodia  1969-1970

My response when someone utters the words, “Thank you for your service,” is a polite ‘Thank you’. I guess I am so far removed from being in the Army and too, the way Vietnam veterans were treated when we all came home, it’s almost that I don’t even hear what they have said to me.

What this vet would rather hear more than anything is “Welcome Home” from another veteran. That is the ultimate, “Thank you for your service,” which has much more meaning for me.

I’m glad in today’s society that finally we’re paying the respect and admiration to our Armed Forces. I am proud to have served and I’m proud of our military brothers and sisters that are serving our country today. God bless America and our military!

john-ketwig John Ketwig
Army transport
Vietnam 1967-1968

Please don’t thank me for my service. I was taken against my will, yanked away from all the hopes and plans I had for my life, and made to see and experience things that contradicted anything and everything I had ever been taught about right and wrong. I heard the screams of someone dying, far away from home, a fragile human being blown apart, for no good reason. I saw burnt, bloodied, maimed children. And men, and women. I smelled the scent of open wounds, of flowing blood and burnt flesh. I felt the splatter of someone’s loss of life as it exploded across my face, and no matter how many times I have washed my face over the past 47 years I cannot wash away that horrible stain. And you would thank me for that? I abandoned my morality. I lost my equilibrium. I cannot tell you much of what I learned, but it wasn’t worth a damned thing in the civilian workplace, in my baby’s nursery, or at the checkout of the grocery store. It is only a spectre, a dense dark monster that pursues me in the night; that colors my view every day in ways no one else can see. Too many nights, almost half a century later, the horror twists my stomach into knots. Oh, I know, you thank me because you don’t know anything else to say. You still hope that it was all about freedom and democracy and good things like that, and not just about profits and power, authority and career advancement and some ancient goddamed illicit definition of the word masculine. It was about corporate profits and garish stripes sewn onto a sleeve, about genocide and the screwed-up notion that you can make a total stranger’s existence better by killing or maiming him. I was playing in a rock ‘n roll band when they came for me, reciting songs about understanding and brotherhood and love. They took me against my will, stripped me naked and beat me bloody, and they sent me to the other side of the world where death fell out of the sky and exploded, and its shards tore up anything and anybody they hit. I learned to lie as flat as possible on the mud, to will my body to become a puddle and sink down into the ooze. I learned to overcome the terror, the violent tremors, and I learned that none of those things matter when your number is up. I learned it happens to the very best guys, in the very worst ways, and there’s nothing right or righteous about it; they were just wasted. Please, oh please don’t thank me. If you want to express something, promise me you will get involved in the struggle to abolish wars. Nothing else will say that you understand.

Then I will thank you.

John is the author of the acclaimed Vietnam memoir “...and a hard rain fell. A GI’s True Story of the War in Vietnam.”

Navy, Communications Tech
7th Fleet Gun line, Vietnam 1968-69

Three out of five times it is a middle-aged woman. One out of the other two will also be a woman; younger or older. The occasional man will invade my space; come up to me, like the women; grab my hand, shake it and begin to profusely, effusively, thank me for my “Service”. If I hadn’t already made a deal with the universe/god/my conscience to always have a pin or patch with Veterans For Peace on my body while in public to help assuage my guilt; survivor’s and otherwise; I would think of going out in the World disguised as a “civilian,” to avoid these heart felt thank you moments. As it is, part of my guilt is that I was never in direct combat, but anything identifying the wearer as a Veteran implies the worst to most citizens. At first I would try to explain my noncombatant/R.E.M.F. status to them. One more thing about the military experience they could not understand: why had it effected me so strongly if I wasn’t in direct combat.

Over the years, I have responded in different ways. At first I did not know what to think, what to say, and would stammer something like, “No, don’t thank me.” Before I could say more they would insist on the thank you. Then I tried saying that I had not chosen to be in the service. I had been drafted, but again, they cut me off. After a while, I got more adamant about getting my say. I tried things like, “You don’t owe me anything.” But before I could get much more out I was steamrolled with a salvo of heart felt gratitude. After a while, I got a thicker skin about it and would say, in a tight, angry voice, “You are welcome” and move on as fast as possible, but then their feelings got hurt. Their intentions were, after all good; mostly. Some were suffering from their own version of survivor’s guilt and were thanking me to make themselves feel better.

Then there was a short period were I thought of responding with this line: “You are welcome. You know I killed that one particular VC just for you.” A couple of combat veteran friends laughed at that, but were relived when I told them that I never had done such a thing. Some times I want to shock the world.

I wear the Veterans For Peace button/badge, as I had said, to atone; also to support the cause and on the least altruistic level because I can never stop being a veteran; never let go of war. So why should civilians have the privilege of forgetting about it. There is a little “in-your-face” aspect.

The answer I now offer to people who give me heart felt thank you’s is to say, “I did not want to go to war and I would hope that no one ever has to go again; as unrealistic as that hope is. If you really want to thank me, work for peace.” And I offer them a card with the Veterans For Peace, VVAW, IVAW, Courage to Resist, Free Bradly Manning, Oxfam, Heifer logos. And because I live in Oakland, Ca., the Alameda County Food Bank websites, and suggest they get involved or at least donate to it. Some take the card and a few probably donate.

The other day I got another twist. The Department of English, at the University of Iowa, which publishes the Iowa Review, put out a request for veteran writers to submit to a special issue. I sent a few things in and waited the six or eight weeks for the polite, but impersonal rejection letter. When it came, the last line read: “Thank you for your service to our country…”

Eugene Baker
USAF  Radar Tech

Coming from a family of sharecroppers in rural Texas I entered the military to escape poverty, and worked twice as hard as many of my colleagues to prove myself capable. I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base as a radar technician during the Vietnam War and elsewhere in Southeast Asia for a lesser publicized conflict. When people thank me for my service it makes me feel good–it lets me know that citizens of the US appreciate the sacrifice we made for them. It’s surprising how many people, even kids who were not alive for the war, will stop and thank me for my service. When a young person says that to me, it means his parents explained the meaning of making that statement. After my service I continued on to work for the FAA twenty-eight years. In retirement I am happy with where I am and how I got here.

Susan Frey  LtJG–RN
US Naval Nurse Corps 1968-70

Several years ago a good friend sent me a bumper sticker. Its tagline reads “The Vietnam War, I Served.” This gives me away–not only my era but my sensibilities.

The sticker rides high on the rear bumper of my turbo charged, five on the floor, custom painted, black magic, 2003 VW Beetle convertible. I often observe people taking notice, and when I approach the driver’s door they seem surprised the driver is an elderly woman, though in good health and posture, which belies my real age.

In the ’60s just about every female soldier was a nurse or Red Cross volunteer. At twenty-five, I was one of those angels of mercy, a damn good RN, though not a Nurse Ratchet or Major Houlihan type. I had joined the Navy to practice triage nursing on the hospital ship Repose, but my lack of sea legs and constant sea sickness rendered me unfit for duty. Fortunately at that time the Navy Nurse Corps was not hard-ass on their medical staff. I was reassigned stateside to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, the amputation center for the Northeast corridor.

Believe me when I say that Philly was a pit. In addition to rats, race riots, military patient unrest, and public unrest, the nursing staff were encouraged to reside over the bridge in Camden, New Jersey (now equal in status as a dead zone).

Over the course of my two-year commission, I became increasingly skeptical and pessimistic about our military, our government leaders, our foreign policy, and our medical paradigm. Subsequently I lost all interest in a nursing career and left the field to pursue the arts.

The phrase “thank you for your service” prompts a range of feelings in me: from absolute guilt for being part of the military in war time, to suppressed anger. There are times l want to scream a reply, but ultimately offer a polite smile and a tempered “thank you.”

You might be wondering why I keep the sticker on my car. To be honest, that custom black magic paint job cost me a fortune; removing the sticker would damage the paint. And on some level the sticker keeps me in touch with my experience of treating the injuries of men wounded men in combat. On a daily basis I saw the suffering and sorrow caused by a war carried out in my name.

Toward the end of his presidency General Eisenhower had warned of the military/industrial complex. Of course, he was right. Now, as we enter further into dark times, I appreciate even more the men and women I have met through Veterans for Peace (member since 1995), enlightened veterans serving the public consciousness in creative and nonviolent ways.

Paul G. Saint-Amand
USAF Communications

Unrequited: Of Time and Service

I’d just left my friend wired up in the ICU. Disoriented by the endless sterile corridors of the hospital, I finally found the right elevator which took me to the garage entrance. Nestled in the corner, the parking payment machine was duct-taped with a cardboard sign explaining it was broken and to pay on the way out. I hate the smell of hospitals and couldn’t wait to get into fresh air, even if it was only a couple of short breaths between the hospital building and the musty garage.

I was putting my credit card away when someone touched my shoulder from behind. I turned to face a man in a ruffled gray sweatshirt haphazardly draped over a wrinkled, faded collar. Under his blue Patriots cap, his mouth barely moved as he tried to catch his breath between words in a slow, halting staccato.

“Excuse me, sir do…do you know…where I can pay?” He caught his breath and stammered on. “And find…my car?”

“Sure,” I said. “But the parking machine is out of order.” I pointed to the sign. “I guess we have to pay on the way out.” This way to the garage I told him.

“My brother umm. . .” His voice trailed off and he had not budged. His lackluster eyes suggested that no one was home, and his hands shook as he raised the cap to wipe his brow as though he had to think about what to say next. I first thought he might be on drugs or that he was mentally disabled. He also seemed so emotionally cowed that his eyes, red and watery, dropped to the tiled floor before I could gather my thoughts to respond.

“This way,” I motioned again. Together, we walked out the glass doors toward the garage.

When we reached the staircase, he began to speak again, though his words continued to be barely audible and staggered.

“My brother died today of a heart attack…they found him too late,” he said. “He made it to the hospital, but then…he was gone.” His voice trailed off and then emerged again under the duress. “He wasn’t supposed to use the snow blower! I told him I would do mom’s driveway when I got back with her medicine. But he’s stubborn…damn stubborn.”

His voice sank further as he told me he had lost his father last year and now his brother this afternoon.

“It was too much to bear,” he confided. “Exhausting.” He had been taking care of his mother all year and never considered he would lose his brother. “At least not today,” he said.

“I’m sorry.” I offered my hand. “I’m Paul.”

“Frank.” his hand was cold and moist, his grip tenuous.

We began to climb the stairs to our respective parking floors. I mentioned that I had lost a fellow veteran to snow and a heart attack a couple of years ago. I told him how my friend had shoveled out his car during one of our heaviest storms and started driving when the attack struck. He was already dead when the car ran a red light and crashed into a telephone pole. Looking back, I guess I was trying to relate to his tragedy as we mounted the next set of stairs.

“You’re a veteran?” He asked.


“I’m a vet too…Air Force. Material control….You?”

Frank’s words unexpectedly flowed smoothly, though holding precariously to a more distinct cadence.

“Air Force, too. Communications—Sixty-Four to Sixty-Eight.”

“That would make you Seventy-Three.” He paused. “My brother’s age.”

Through our common bond as veterans, it seemed we had made a connection that included his dead brother. It was then that Frank promptly reached into his hip pocket and from his wallet withdrew his new “Federal” driver’s license, pointing to the word “Veteran” printed at the bottom of the license.

“You gotta have one of these if you want to fly or go into a government building,” he cautioned.

“Yeah, I heard about that, but haven’t changed mine yet.” We continued to climb the staircase. “You gotta show ’em your 214. Don’t forget to bring that with you!” He tapped his wallet against his hand three times before putting it into his back pocket. “Your 214,” he repeated. “Don’t forget it, ok?”

“Got it!” I answered. “Thanks for the info.”

We had reached the stairway platform entrance to the second floor. “This is my floor…I see my car.” Frank said. He turned to face me and paused.

I sensed that maybe he didn’t want to give up our conversation. Nevertheless, I had another floor to go and was feeling in a hurry to get back to my own life. After all, I still had seventy-five-plus minutes of rush hour drive ahead of me. So I instinctively reached out to shake hands, and instead we fell into an awkward embrace as though we had known each other for more than the few minutes or so at the hospital.

Frank pulled back as surprised as I was. “Hey, man. Thank you for your service,” he said.

“Yeah, you too.”

I’m sure my voice barely disguised my antipathy towards that all too common platitude. Regardless, he nodded and entered the darkened garage.

It wasn’t until I was back in my car that I felt a crushing uneasiness. What was so damned important to me that I couldn’t have offered to take a half hour and have coffee with him to be sure he was okay? Frank’s world had fallen apart; he was clearly in shock, and here was a moment that I surely should not have been thanked for my service. At best, maybe I did a small duty on the way to the garage, but I certainly didn’t fulfill my service to him—ironically, a fellow veteran.

No, in fact, that moment sticks with me now like gum on the bottom of my shoe whenever someone proudly offers that sanitized and sanctioned phrase—“Thank you for your service.”

Bravo 1/7 First Cavalry Division
Vietnam/Cambodia ’69 -’70

I think we served honorably in an unjust war. The unjust bit wasn’t our fault, but still it gets me down. I don’t get thanked for my service very often, because I don’t advertise my vet status. Therefore it really isn’t a problem. I just don’t like being thanked because I feel guilty for helping to cause misery to the Vietnamese people for no good end and no good reason.

I’m happy to have served with all my comrades, but unhappy with where the service took place. I feel proud that I was able to step up to the plate and do my bit in spite of being scared out of my gourd sometimes. But again that feels tainted because of the war I was in. In many ways being there was the best bit of my life, and I actually regret not staying on at least until my buddy Ken Cruise left for home. I was pretty fucked up in the head at the end. Probably not worth anything much as soldier, but maybe it would have passed.

My uncles served in WW II, but my dad was too young. I always looked up to them and wanted to be like them. That was a big reason I enlisted. I feel kind of robbed because my war wasn’t nearly as honorable as theirs.

I also don’t like the phrase when applied to the most recent wars. I have a good friend (infantry) who fought in the 1st Gulf war. I think that one was justified and well-conducted, even though the government did some lying to drum up support. But Bush Jr’s wars based on out-and-out lies were not just, and were certainly not well-conducted. These wars have added greatly to the misery of the people in the Middle East. The war in Afghanistan didn’t get Bin Laden. We probably could have spent a large sum of money as a bounty, would have been miniscule compared to what that war cost. Someone would have sold that bastard out. But no. Bush wanted to be the “War President” and show up his dad.

Thank you for your service. I don’t like the phrase because I don’t want to be in support of our continued bullying of other peoples. Intellectually I separate soldiers from policies, but emotionally that doesn’t work. Therefore I don’t like the phrase, especially when it is said to me. It’s embarrassing really.

Martin Corcoran
B Battery, 1/21st Field Artillery
Vietnam/Cambodia 1970

I feel that the overwhelming number of people who say “thank you for your service” are trying to be nice, or reacting to my First Cavalry Vietnam Veteran ball cap. They have no idea what that phrase should mean to them… and what it doesn’t mean to me.

Fifty years ago, the hardest part of my service was coming home. I’d gone through five or six months of training to get ready for RVN, but on the way back, nothing was done to get the troops ready to re-enter what we called “The World.”

I was in my parents home seventy-two hours after leaving a firebase and was shocked at how Vietnam and Vietnam vets were portrayed in the media. I think that the nation was in a hurry to move forward, and to forget about our troubles in southeast Asia. Our service and sacrifices were largely forgotten.

The other day I was speaking to an internet billing rep over the phone, and in going over pricing I mentioned I was a veteran. She instantly said “thank you for your service.” I was surprised. The statement meant nothing to her. It reflected a corporate response. Later in the afternoon I had an appointment at the VA clinic. I was a little early and the VA was running a little late. While waiting for the doctor, I found myself speaking to other vet patients, a majority of whom were wearing caps and polo shirts with their various units displayed. Most of the conversations ended with “thank you for your service.” I felt that these statements were truly genuine.

I believe that the only time that phrase rings true is when it’s offered by a military veteran and more so if it’s from a Vietnam vet. To all these men, I say welcome home.

Andrew Fassett
USMC  9th Engineer Support Battalion
November 2011 – June 2012 Afghanistan

I’m standing in line, could be anywhere.
Someone nearby overhears a story I tell.
Patriotic ears perk up.
Red, white, and blue sonar bleeps out an alert.
“Were you in the armed forces?”
“Yes” I reply.
“Thank you for your service.”
Accompanying hand extended.

Thank you for your service.
A culturally programmed response.
How 99.5% of America responds to the .5% of us who served in the armed forces.
Repeating and repeating, thank you for your service, thank you for your service, thank you for your service, thank you for your service, thank you for your service.
Some genuinely mean what they say,
But they simply have no idea what they are saying.
Almost no one knows what they are thanking us for.
Many can relate to us only half as well as they can relate to the 1%.
Who they at least dream of being one day.
Meanwhile volunteering for the service probably never made their list.
But there is that hand, still extended out.

Thoughts and memories flash before my mind’s eye.
Have they ever signed on to a four-year long experiment?
Have they ever been overseas, where it would have been a crime to go to be home with family?
Which isn’t to say I wanted to leave.
In fact, there was no place I would have rather been.
Riding down a wadi we called a route.
Knowing any second the metal surrounding me could become a new implant I never requested.
Praying everyone would arrive home in one piece.
But knowing it was already too late for one of us.
Having witnessed an IED put one of my Marines near death.
Seeing him reduced to only one appendage left.
Which was enough to throw a strike at the World Series.
But not enough to restore his amputated dreams.
Yet now he has prosthetics
And his old dreams have been replaced by new ones.

Meanwhile, most of us made it out unscathed.
While others aren’t exposed to those dark days.
Spending their years of service navigating the bureaucracy.
Yet even they never depart unchanged.
The individual who signed in on the contract is never the same one who signs out.
Same name, same spelling, but so much has changed.

Which brings me back to those five words.
Thank you for your service.
How should I respond?
How do I simplify an equation that fills a whole chalk board so that it fits onto a flash card?
How do I instantaneously create a bridge across a chasm you can’t see to the other side of?
How many strokes of a brush does it take to paint a clear picture?
How many minutes are they willing to listen?
I just shake their hand because I already know.
Enough to say “Thank you for your service”
Because after that, their duty is done.

Caleb Nelson
Navy, Persian Gulf War, 2007-2008
Aviation Electrician’s Mate on F/A-18E

Sir, your check. Thank you. Service appreciated, I left the bar with a good friend who had just told me about how he got discharged from the Marines, extracted from a kinetic combat tour after a traumatic escapade. Since I escaped an OTH (other than honorable discharge) and instead got only sixty days on restriction (of which I deserved every minute) for a bloody fight with my roommate, calling a senior chief a bitch and then refusing to tell my command who gave me alcohol on base under age, I’m drawn to guys that washed out of military service.

The flag foldings, the pins, the medals, the commendations for war always intrigued me. The excitement after a well-executed drill, or extraction, or bombing raid is palpable. I remember a lieutenant (who almost got discharged for doping before deployment) hopping around on the flight deck in ecstasy because he used the Gatling gun. While other pilots climbed quietly down into the catwalk, he yelled, “I lit up that hillside.”

The way he took off his helmet and dropped it on the non-skid like a football in the end zone, high-fiving his plane captain, seems almost unreal in my memory. He looked like a dancing bull. As engines wound down, birds chained in a neat row along the catapults, his emotional outburst lit by the greenish stealth of evening flight ops sent chaotic shadows along the deck.

When that deployment finally ended, after I threw my flight deck jerseys into a dumpster on the pier, I didn’t want to be known for my naval service. I hung out at college parties near Old Dominion, and enjoyed being mistaken for a frat boy. Having turned my nose up at each re-enlistment opportunity, I felt increasingly isolated. My navy friends all followed their separate ways, and I went back home to pursue journalism.

Working for student media, I wrote a self-deprecating screed about my last three months in the navy for the honors magazine. I ended that article with a complaint about military exercises. Marching in circles, all the professional time and effort spent polishing bullets felt like a circle jerk to me. I called the article “Dirty Deeds.” What is the point of bombing people, I mused? What’s the point of anything?

For several years Caleb ran Warrior Writer’s workshops in Boston.

IMG_3254Dan Wilcox, US Army, 1969 -1971
194th Armored Brigade, Ft. Knox, KY

I was a reluctant soldier, having been active in SDS and in peace marches during my college years. After I graduated I was drafted into the Army. They were still drafting into the Marines at that time and it felt like a relief when they told us were were all headed to Fort Dix, not Parris Island. While in basic training I connected with anti-war activists, but never visited any of the coffee houses or other meeting places. I did join the “American Serviceman’s Union,” and got alternative newspapers like The National Guardian.

After being discharged, with great relief, I continued to support anti-war efforts and eventually discovered Veterans For Peace. Our VFP unit in Albany, NY marches in the Veterans (Armistice) Day and Memorial Day parades with the more traditional veterans organizations. Often at the parades, & when standing peace vigils in my VFP hat or sweat shirt people will stop to say “Thank you for your service.” I sense their courtesy, in some way their awkwardness in how to acknowledge the “service” of veterans. I prefer to bring a message of peace without being judgmental or confrontational and have struggled to find a short way to respond beyond a somewhat meaningless “you’re welcome” or “thank you.” I now respond, with a big smile, “My real service is working for peace.” People are often surprised by that, but continue to smile and sometimes say “thank you” again.

Fred MarchantFred Marchant
Marines 1968-1970

It was in Scollay Square restaurant a couple of years ago. The restaurant was right next to the State House, on Beacon Hill in downtown Boston. There were tourists, lobbyists, and business folk all around us, and they and the dishes and the silver were all very loud. I was finishing up a long overdue lunch with a poet friend, and as I had not seen him in a good long while, we spent most of the hour just catching up on the past year. When the check came, I grabbed it before he could, took out my credit card, slipped it into the sleeve, and gave it to the waiter. It was a credit card from USAA, the United Services Automobile Association.

In recent years USAA has been advertising on TV, but for most of my life it was hardly ever advertised. I first got the credit card in 1969, when I was in Quantico, VA, and had just been commissioned as a lieutenant in the USMC. If memory serves me well, membership in the association was reserved then for officers and NCOs, but in now it was open to any active-duty personnel and their families. Hence the TV ads. Over the years I have often thought I should rid myself of this last vestige of my involvement in the American military. I was in for two years, and left in September 1970, as one of the first Marine officers to be honorably discharged as a conscientious objector. I did not go to Vietnam during the war years, and first visited the country only in 1994. But as a writing teacher I have many times in the years since worked often with veterans, occupying a kind of liminal zone of veteran-hood combined with pacifism. As I think of it now, it was mostly inertia and laziness, and a dash of low interest rate, that kept the USAA credit card in my wallet.

When the waiter came back with the bill, I quickly calculated and wrote in the tip, and handed him the receipt. He said thanks, and then with all the sincerity in the world, he added, “and thank you for your service.” My poet friend is also a veteran, and we both cringed at the phrase. Later, as we walked to the corner to say goodbye, I noted that the waiter probably recognized the card from the TV commercial, and just assumed his “thank you” was something I would be glad to hear and grateful for.

I probably should have said something. I probably should have taken a moment to explain to this young waiter what my service actually was. I should have told him that my rejection of military service was my real “service.” I could have been grumpier about it all, and maybe have taken the time to explain to him that the “thank you” gesture had already become a cliché. That it had become meaningless, despite any earnest good will he felt. I could have gone deeper, even held forth on the way that phrase was just too easy to say, that not knowing what the person being thanked had actually done or lived through made the whole gesture in no small way inauthentic. I thought too of my veteran friends from the three or four wars now in my lifetime, especially those friends who carried a weight of post-traumatic distress. How the thank you phrase itself kept knowledge of that kind of distress at arm’s length, boxed up, sealed, quarantined.

I also could have pontificated as well, pointing out that underneath the phrase was an echo of privilege. It was like thanking the housekeeping staff for doing a good job polishing the floor, making the bed. There was also a “glad it was you and not me” note being sounded in it. Underneath the apparent good will of the phrase, there was and still is a kind of casual and yet dangerous sentimentality. Strictly speaking, in a democracy we make collective decisions about war and peace. “Thank you for your service turns difficult questions in the relations between civilian responsibility and military action into a too-easily digested commodity. It’s a little dollop of social grease used to avoid facing up to the abrasions that come with questionable wars.

Of course I didn’t say any of this. I hardly had words for what I was thinking and feeling at that instant. It was lunch-time, the restaurant was loud, and the young waiter had tables to wait on, lots of customers to serve. I am sure the young waiter meant no harm in what he said. I actually thought maybe someone in his family was in the military, maybe it was his own ritual magic designed to protect someone whose life was not as secure as ours. Or maybe not. Maybe he was reflexively just repeating what he had heard. As best as I can remember I probably just said my own pro forma thank you to him, no snarkiness. I also reminded myself again to shuck my life of that damn USAA credit card. And yes, I gave him twenty percent.

Fred has the distinction of being one of the first Marine Corps officers to be honorably discharged for conscientious objection, during the war in Vietnam. He teaches English at Suffolk University and is  a nationally recognized poet.

LT ROSENBAUMJoel Rosenbaum
Air Force Weather Officer/Chief Forecaster
Detachment 18, 30th Weather Squadron
Vietnam  ’68-’69

Thank you for your service is a well-intentioned phrase on the part of civilians and a cover by government agencies to hide their own deficiencies with a simple slogan to make things right.

Due to my extensive academic background, and life long interest in weather, I was the chief forecaster at Cam Ranh Bay. At the time there was a wing of F-4 Phantom jets, C-7A Caribou transports, transient C-130s, Freedom Birds, R&R charter flights, Army P2V aircraft, Navy patrol planes, and an Army Airfield at Dong Ba Thin. My unit provided weather support and climatic briefings when called upon. With certain exceptions, it was a good rear job.

Returning from Vietnam in October 1969, I never once heard that phrase. Instead, as a graduate assistant working at Rutgers University, I was the recipient of nasty comments from a foreign graduate student and several undergrads. WWII faculty members were more encouraging.

One night, when I was walking from the college library to my office, a female student asked me if I would escort her back to her dorm; crime problems were her concern. It turned out we had met eleven years ago. It was a pleasant surprise and a subtle form of welcome home.

Upon completing my graduate degree I had a bad interview experience at a government agency. The interviewer didn’t care about my Vietnam service or awards. He eventually went to prison for molesting young girls.

When I scored high in a job exam for the Social Security Administration, instead of being thanked for my service, the interviewer looked at my resume and said I would not be a good fit. “As a captain in the Air force, you are probably used to pushing people around, and we can’t have that in this agency!” he said. Long ago I accepted that my Air Force service in Vietnam would never be acknowledged, and began using the Jewish principle of Tikkun olam, or ‘repairing the world.’

I returned to school and received an Associates degree in Respiratory Therapy. I became a registered respiratory therapist and cardio-pulmonary function technician and evening respiratory supervisor at a local community hospital.

In 1997 I came down with cancer, along with heart problems and diabetes, all from exposure to Agent Orange. The VA awarded me a disability rating of 100%.  Prior to a 45 mile trip to the VA hospital in East Orange, NJ for a medical evaluation, I was reminded of the visit three times by phone calls which included the phrase “Thank you for your service.” When I arrived at the VA I was told to go home. The doctor assigned to me was absent; another doctor refused to see me.

I believe government agencies should avoid using empty platitudes. I believe the most sincere way civilians can thank veterans is to ask, “Is there some way I can help you in going from military to civilian life and work? Would you like to tell me about your military experience? Is there another way I might help you?”

Joel Rosenbaum passed away on 9 November 2016.

NG/11 B   Navy/radar/Aegis weapons tech
Persian Gulf/Former Yugoslavia 1991-1993

Folks Sometimes Say

Folks sometimes say:
What branch where you in?
What did you do?
Were you in war?
Did you kill anybody?
Dear ones please know that asking a vet
about war brings up hard memories. It is
like asking a victim of sexual assault
about their rape.

Folks sometimes say, oh you didn’t
see the bodies, so it can’t be that bad.
Group-fired weapons are difficult to
parse out culpability. My watch station
did enable 52 Tomahawk cruise missiles
though others fired. We
all laid in stores and munitions.
My soul does bear the burden of one who has
taken life. My conscience does carry
the full weight of my actions. My heart
was broken, Humpty Dumpty style, never
to be put back together again.The
truth Is that there are no uninjured
participants of war.

Folks sometimes say, thank
you for your service. I am brought
back to the fact that I was onboard
a destroyer, aptly named, as that
is what we did. I am being thanked
for destruction, I am reminded I am
a murderer each time.

Folks sometimes say…
just stop!
don’t say anything to veterans about the
war. If you really are curious, get to know
them, ask them about their lives. War is not a
topic of light conversation. If you have
to say something, just say welcome home.

RTO  Delta 1/7  First Cavalry  Division
Vietnam 1970

Five simple words. I had to wait 30 years to hear them. Now it seems like they are said too often. Five words I wanted so much to hear for so long, now cause me to cringe.

I was drafted into the Army in 1969. I didn’t enlist. I didn’t want to go. However, once in, I decided to serve to the best of my ability. I was placed in the infantry and arrived in Viet Nam in late 1969. I served as a combat infantryman, a rifleman, until I was wounded on April 23, 1970, and subsequently evacuated to recover at Walter Reed Army Hospital. I was medically discharged in January 1971.

At that time, veterans were not held in high esteem by society at large. I cannot recall having someone thank me for my military service. It just was not done. I managed to blend in and most people I encountered had no idea I was a veteran. At the time, this seemed normal. Society was unable to separate the veteran from the government policy toward the Viet Nam war.

In the early 1990’s, during the first Iraq/Gulf war, the attitude of the public changed. Even those who were anti-war, were pro-veterans. It became fashionable to recognize and thank veterans for serving in the military. Society could separate the service of the veteran from the policy of the government.

The first time someone said to me, “Thanks for your service,” I was thrilled. I had a warm feeling. Finally I was recognized. It seemed like the stain of serving in Viet Nam was being erased.

As time has gone on, and the “Thanks” have continued, I have developed an aversion to hearing those words. I realize that the vast majority of those uttering this phrase are non-veterans. They have no idea what they are thanking me for. It is almost like they have a guilt complex for not having served in the military and this act somehow relieves them of that guilt.

Most veterans greet me, and I them, with the phrase, “Welcome Home.” This is very meaningful to Viet Nam vets as we never received our welcome home when we returned. This phrase is almost a short hand code used between those of us who actually served and know what war and combat mean. It is also used and understood with current veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

During one recent session with my therapist, she said, “Thanks for your service.” I reacted badly. I felt that if she didn’t get it, how could anyone else. We had a long discussion during which I explained how I felt about this convenient slogan. In the end, she agreed to further reading and talking with other therapists and vets. During our last session, she said, “Welcome Home.”

Now when someone utters the five simple words, I may cringe, but I remind myself they mean well–but they just have no idea what they are saying, what they are thanking me for. In the end, it is better to be thanked, even out of guilt, than to be ignored.

Blackhawk pilot
82nd Airborne Combat Aviation Brigade
Afghanistan 2007-2008 and 2009-2010

“Thank you for your service.” My response to that phrase ten years ago was dramatically different than what it is now. When I first heard those words, I was a twenty-one year old newly commissioned lieutenant with a whole lot of idealism and not the least bit of understanding regarding war’s realities. So I accepted the phrase with what I thought proper – a small nod, and a quiet “Thank you” in return.

I remember thinking that I didn’t really deserve thanks, since I hadn’t done anything yet, but how would a stranger know that? And why would an introverted and overly courteous young woman voice that thought when the only possible outcome would be the discomfort of the person who had offered kind words to begin with? I continued with my “nod, thank, and move on” response as a safe bet.

As soon as I finished flight school, I was shipped to Afghanistan. The two best words I can come up with to describe that place are breathtaking and brutal. I vividly remember my very first flight. Sitting in a complex, multi-million dollar helicopter and looking down on mud-brick huts and hand-tilled fields made me think, “If not for this machine, I’d believe that we’ve just been transported 2,000 years back in time.”

Over the course of hundreds of flights, my brain registered images of epic mountains, lonely desert, and lush river valleys, but it balked at burned-out Russian tanks and women running for cover at the sound of our approach. I saw things that made me laugh, like a family of four riding a single motorbike, and things that seared my brain even as I tried to ignore them, like a row of Afghan men against a wall with black hoods over their heads. I had been one of the pilots who landed in their village in the dead of night and dropped off Special Forces, who put every “military age male” in zip tie handcuffs and hoods before shoving them onto our aircraft to take back to the FOB for interrogation.

At the time, I questioned nothing, for the reasoning always went something like “these could be the guys who keep shooting rockets at us while we’re sleeping” or “I’m not taking any chances, that mortar hit so close to our aircraft that my bones are still shaking”. One of the worst days of my life entailed flying to a crash site in order to pick up the burned remains of an aircrew. I never saw the bodies, never even got out of the aircraft. The infantrymen on site were responsible for the horrific task of filling body bags, and our crew chiefs then loaded them in the back. The pilot next to me said, “There’s a smell you’ll never forget”. His words are what I can’t get out of my head. The military dubbed those kind of flights “Hero Missions.”

That word, hero, never sounded the same to me after that. Neither did bagpipes, or the song “Amazing Grace”. Those things were a part of every “ramp ceremony”, and they now cause me irrational panic. For every American death over there, we were lined up on the tarmac in rigid formations, holding salutes until our arms shook as flag-draped coffins passed in front of our eyes and onto a plane headed for home. I wanted to be on the plane, just not in the box. When I did get home, I didn’t respond anymore to “Thank you for your service”. I simply said nothing. The phrase made me feel incredibly conflicted.

I originally went to Afghanistan believing in the mission, believing in the evil of terrorists and the “just cause” we were sent to fight for. I even defended the war when other Americans began to question it. But ultimately I left that country wondering if we were doing more harm than good. No one who risks their life for a cause wants to find out that it was for naught. I fought against that possibility long and hard. Eventually, I faced reality. I shed the uniform after completing my contract, and I’ve been pursuing answers ever since.

I have regrets about participating in violence for profit, but being honest about that means responding to “Thank you for your service” (and it’s corresponding mentality) with “Don’t thank me, I was wrong”. As of yet, I’ve never had the personal courage to say that. I find relief in the fact that people rarely say it to me anymore, since I don’t wear a uniform, or a ball cap that proclaims my veteran status. You won’t find a veteran status on my license plate, or an Army bumper sticker on my car. My identity is more than that. Some people might question my patriotism, but that would be incorrect. I simply choose to fight for peace now, rather than rush to war. I choose to respect the military by saying their lives should only be at risk as a very last, and very rare, resort. I choose to bring attention to a veteran suicide rate of twenty-two per day, and say that it shouldn’t be a surprise to the general public. I choose to honor my family’s long history of military service by working the rest of my life to prevent the next generation from ever seeing war, and from ever having to hear the phrase “Thank you for your service”.

TOM GALETom Gale US Marines 1965-1966
HAWK missile radar technician

Last week, as I was starting to leave an event, I got into a conversation with someone, and somehow I mentioned that I had been in Vietnam with the Marines in 1966. The fellow immediately reached out to shake my hand, saying “Thank you for your service.” I immediately stepped back and said “Please don’t thank me, I wish that I had never been there.”

He didn’t inquire if I had killed or saved anyone. I did say that I felt lucky never to have fired my weapons nor killed anyone. I wish I had added, “However, I spent a lot of time in foxholes ready to shoot whoever attacked me. I was in harm’s way.” And I would not do that today. War is immoral.

I recall now that the first time someone had said “Thank you for your service” was just a few years ago on the Boston Common, after I and other vets had demonstrated against some military operation by the USA. I was taken aback by that phrase. In all those years I’ve been back, no one had ever said that to me, and there were three teens passing by, making that same comment. I just looked at them and graciously said ‘Thank you.”

I wondered later what the origin and idea of that was. Did these kids understand the experience that a veteran has seen? Who prompted them to say it? They seemed sincere, and I am sure they thought that they were being compassionate, and maybe grateful to us. I do not think they understood why we were protesting. In hindsight I would have liked to have asked them those questions. It could have been a teachable moment!

So, why do I react so defensively? Maybe it is because it comes off as a shallow statement. It could be a conversation starter, but I don’t think that has been my observation. I have tried to think of a succinct response, one that encourages a discussion of why we go to war. Why we are so willing to send our sons and daughters into harm’s way.

I think part of my reaction has to do with how I became a non-violent activist, and my resulting disdain for those who are not. I try to not be judgmental of people. I see the effect that violence has in the media, the effect that PTSD has on military families, and the violence of the have-nots, who feel hopeless about their economic situation.

I was brought up with the Golden Rule and tried to bring up my boys that way. I think I had a good high school and college education that showed respect to fellow students. Although I have to say that there was a violent guy at my high school football game that started a fight afterward. It lasted into the night, causing the police to bar people from going into the adjoining town. I knew it was one person causing this so I kept my respect for others.

So, it wasn’t til Northeastern University, where they had mandatory participation in ROTC, that I began to feel something changing. When I flunked out of NU, knowing eligible for the draft, I enlisted in the Marines. I was told they were the toughest, and it was at Parris Island that I found it might be true. I recall bayonet training (pugilism), raising questions about how aggressive we had to be, and the DIs [Drill Instructors] had us striking blows at each other! These guys were mean.

A year and ½ later they put us on a boat and did not tell us- until we were miles from port-that we were sailing to Vietnam. For the remainder of the voyage I felt the dread that I would not return.

I was in a missile outfit, and suffered the view of being behind the enemy lines, always on guard. I experienced the constant fear of attack, and a firsthand view of a fragging and its aftermath.

So, it was a great relief when my orders to return stateside came through. So many stories I could tell but who cares? I received an early-out to go back to college, to a new life that I could control.

However, it was not until I learned of Veterans For Peace that I began to use my military experience for good – giving back to society; to help make young people be aware that there is an alternative to a military culture.

So, I need to prepare a response to that phrase, that starts a conversation of feelings and needs about our community service, their’s and mine and all of us. I need to stop and take this moment as an opportunity to listen and hear each other, so as to understand.

Rory Fanning
Second Army Ranger Battalion
Afghanistan (2 tours)

Last week, in a quiet indie bookstore on the north side of Chicago, I saw the latest issue of Rolling Stone resting on a chrome-colored plastic table a few feet from a barista brewing a vanilla latte. A cold October rain fell outside. A friend of mine grabbed the issue and began flipping through it. Knowing that I was a veteran, he said, “Hey, did you see this?” pointing to a news story that seemed more like an ad. It read in part: “This Veterans Day, Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Rihanna, Dave Grohl, and Metallica will be among numerous artists who will head to the National Mall in Washington D.C. on November 11th for ‘The Concert For Valor,’ an all-star event that will pay tribute to armed services.”

“Concert For Valor? That sounds like something the North Korean government would organize,” I said as I typed into my MacBook Pro looking for more information. The sucking sound from the espresso maker was drowning out a 10-year-old Shins song. As I read, my heart sank, my shoulders slumped.

Special guests at the Concert for Valor were to include: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg. The mission of the concert, according to a press release, was to “raise awareness” of veterans issues and “provide a national stage for ensuring that veterans and their families know that their fellow Americans’ gratitude is genuine.”

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen were to serve in an advisory capacity, and Starbucks, HBO, and JPMorgan Chase were to pay for it all. “We are honored to play a small role to help raise awareness and support for our service men and women,” said HBO chairman Richard Plepler.

Though I couldn’t quite say why, that Concert for Valor ad felt tired and sad, despite the images of Rihanna singing full-throated into a gold microphone and James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett of Metallica wailing away on their guitars. I had gotten my own share of “thanks” from civilians when I was still a U.S. Army Ranger. Who hadn’t? It had been the endless theme of the post-9/11 era, how thankful other Americans were that we would do… well, what exactly, for them? And here it was again. I couldn’t help wondering: Would veterans somewhere actually feel the gratitude that Starbucks and HBO hoped to convey?

I went home and cooked dinner for my wife and little girl in a semi-depressed state, thinking about that word “valor” which was to be at the heart of the event and wondering about the Hall of Fame line-up of twenty-first century liberalism that was promoting it or planning to turn out to hail it: Rolling Stone, the magazine of Hunter S. Thompson and all things rock and roll; Bruce Springsteen, the billion-dollar working-class hero; Eminem, the white rapper who has sold more records than Elvis; Metallica, the crew who sued Napster and the metal band of choice for so many longhaired, disenfranchised youth of the 1980s and 1990s. They were all going to say “thank you” — again.

Raising (Whose?) Awareness
Later that night, I sat down and Googled “vets honored.” Dozens and dozens of stories promptly queued up on my screen. (Try it yourself.) One of the first items I clicked on was the 50th anniversary celebration in Bangor, Maine, of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the alleged Pearl Harbor of the Vietnam War. Governor Paul LePage had spoken ringingly of the veterans of that war: “These men were just asked to go to a foreign land and protect our freedoms. And they weren’t treated with respect when they returned home. Now it’s time to acknowledge it.”

Vietnam, he insisted, was all about protecting freedom — such a simple and innocent explanation for such a long and horrific war. Lest you forget, the governor and those gathered in Bangor that day were celebrating a still-murky “incident” that touched off a massive American escalation of the war. It was claimed that North Vietnamese patrol boats had twice attacked an American destroyer, though President Lyndon Johnson later suggested that the incident might even have involved shooting at “flying fish” or “whales.” As for protecting freedom in Vietnam, tell the dead Vietnamese in America’s “free fire zones” about that.

No one, however, cared about such details. The point was that eternal “thank you.” If only, I thought, some inquisitive and valorous local reporter had asked the governor, “Treated with disrespect by whom?” And pointed out the mythology behind the idea that American civilians had mistreated GIs returning from Vietnam. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the Veterans Administration, which denied returning soldiers proper healthcare, or the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, organizations that weren’t eager to claim the country’s defeated veterans of a disastrous war as their own.)  –full essay continued–

WEBB NICHOLES tossed a flower into Boston Harbor at the Memorial Day Peace event off Christopher Columbus Park. VFP member May 2013Webb Nichols
519 Military Intelligence  MACV
Vietnam 1965-1966

“Thank you for your Service”
You are welcome. I am wiser now. There was absolutely nothing gained in my service. In my participation in killing and war, I was not protecting the United States from terrorism or an assault on its liberty.  I was part of the expenses of war and the Military Industrial Complex, which is draining the United States of its human and financial treasure.

When you pay your taxes, remember that your name is on every bullet, every rocket fired in anger. And your blood is mixed with the blood of the injured and the dying, be they combatants or the innocent.
There is no escape. The fallen fall at our feet.

If you are truly grateful to me, help us change the world from war to peace, from ignorance to enlightenment.
Do not take anything fore granted. Do honest research on the consequences of war. Speak truth to power.

Navy Chaplain, 34 years in service

I was a college grad about to be drafted and wanted the quickest way in and out in order to get the GI Bill. I turned down a commission as an Army artillery officer. They wanted too much time and the job was dangerous. Instead, I joined the Navy. As an enlisted man I was an electrician’s mate aboard two  destroyers, the USS Brinkely and the USS Orleck, in the Pacific during the end of the Vietnam war.

I volunteer at the VA once a week as a chaplain. Initially, I said, “Thank you for your service to our nation”, to every vet. Most were appreciative. A few were not. The VA chaplains told me it was better to say “Thank you for your sacrifice for our nation” because veterans who have sustained moral injury may not be proud but ashamed of what they did in combat. I have started saying this. It seems to resonate better with them.

Whenever I hear those five words, it makes me feel as if the country cares about the sacrifices the armed forces make to keep this nation free.

JOHN-JANICE CARNEYJanice J. Carney (served as John J. Carney)
HHC, 9th Transport Btn, 1st Log Command
Vietnam ’70-’71

I honestly do not know what that phrase means. I gather it makes the person saying it feel better, and no further conversation regarding my experience in Vietnam is needed. I recall hearing it for the first time early in the Bush/Cheney regime. It was not long after Bush’s speech declaring that the Vietnam War malaise was gone. For my era, a cold stare, being asked if I killed any women or children, that was a welcome home.

After the first sergeant at 666 Transportation Company figured out I did not know how to drive, I was reassigned to HHC, 39th Transportation Battalion, 1st Logistics Command, in support of the 101st Airborne Division. I was the Battalion Mail Clerk/Carrier. My duties where picking up mail, orders and documents from 26 Group and Battalion HQ and delivering them to our grunt company’s along the Lao border. I was on Highways One and Nine often. The hardest part of my job were the KIA personal inventories, and making sure an officer sent a “your son or husband died….” letter to parents or wives.
I served my three hundred sixty-five days in Vietnam, did my job, and got back to the world alive to talk about it. That’s not heroic, it’s surviving.

In the late eighties I was drinking, getting into and losing fights, I had depression and anxiety attacks. I went to a few Nam vets rap groups. It was nice to get a hand shake and “Welcome home, brother” from a fellow Nam vet.

At some point in the mid-eighties or early nineties, I believe out of guilt, people who never served began offering a hand shake, a pat on the back, to welcome home aging Nam vets.

After a decade of continuous war, the word hero is tossed around; anyone in uniform is an American hero. But for me a war hero did something a bit crazy in combat. Something over the top.

To be honest, here in 2015, the hand shake- smile-thank you for your service is an overused and hollow gesture. The majority of American’s never wore a uniform. They owe veterans of our never ending wars a moral justification for why we fight. From the president, down to city councilors and mayors, they owe us more than “Thanks for your service.” As leaders, they owe us a moral compass putting the art of diplomacy over the rush to war.

Today I belong to the Smedley D. Butler Brigade, Chapter 9 of Veterans For Peace in Boston, MA.

M113 FOR PETERPeter Sablock
Bravo  1/10 Cav
4th Infantry Division  Vietnam 1967-1968

I was drafted at eighteen and was a perfect example of an apolitical, carefree and quite unconcerned young adult. I was well read, really knew my history, knew what war was, but really, it was the other guy who died, it would never be me. In my foolishness I was an immortal. I cared nothing about politics and longed to see what war was about. Hell, I was raised on dozens of Hollywood movies where the bad guys died and the good guys (mostly) lived. And they all died quietly, fell over when hit, and it was done. I went a baby and came back one hundred years old, scared of noises, scared of crowds, scared of the dark, especially the dark, hating the government and wanting nothing from it, and angry. Oh the anger, the tendency to go from calm to uncontrollable rage in fifteen seconds. How did that happen to me?

When someone says “thank you for your service” I respond “thanks” and then change the subject. But really, I’m angry. Did they just get a little endorphin rush from their good deed? Do they feel noble now having said that. Do they have any idea what I did over there-would they say it to a participant of the My Lai nightmare. How do they know I didn’t do something like that? What they should do is apologize for all the ways the experience warped us. Apologize for the government, with data from 3 wars, utterly failing to help us transition back to the world.

Soon after arriving in VN I reported to the divisional in-processing unit. It was situated next to a chopper pad. As I stood outside, a Chinook with a sling under it came in to land. The sling was filled with ponchos. The NCO told the 11 Bravos among us that we were their replacements.  The  ponchos held bodies. So began my journey.

I often think that there are dozens of Vietnam’s. The VN of the units that first deployed together, the VN of the replacement, the VN army pre-drug and drug. The VN of antiwar attitude, the VN before the attitude ‘outed’.  The VN of the delta, the VN of the tea plantations, the VN of triple canopy and steep rugged hills and mountains.  The VN of urban, the VN of settled populations. The army of the brigade and division base camps and the army of remote company sized firepbases. The VN of ‘free fire zones’ with all locals removed to large camps. The VN of an armored/mech unit, the VN of an infantry unit; the VN of cold milk and ice cream at dinner and the VN of a canteen of warm water with beans and franks. And all this is important–because no one can know what it was like unless they were in your VN.

Oh, I know, there are overarching aspects we all share. It’s what bonds us together. But the devil is  in the details. We all know what a round sounds like as it snaps by your head, but were you hugging the ground, or standing up in an APC?

My M113 carried a floor of M60 ammo boxes and .50 cal boxes. We hoped that they would deaden the blast from a mine. Of course if we are moving quickly and throw a track, and the vehicle rolls, then we die, crushed under one thousand lbs of ammo. Oh wait, let’s solve that by sitting up on the back hatch. Oops, perfect target. A mech/armoured unit never surprised anyone, they could hear us coming kilometers away. When we took fire it was because they were set up and ready for us. And crap they were good soldiers; the NVA 22nd Regiment is the stuff of my nightmares.

After almost fifty years I can still strip down my M60 step by step. I can feel the receiver tucked under my right arm, the belt feeding over my left, and smell the gunpowder. I can remember which C-rats came in the B1A, B2, and B3 units. I can still taste that god awful unchewable Hersey jungle chocolate bar. I remember the smell of burning shit in half a fifty-five gallon drum, a body two days old, feel the blast wave of a Chicom, and the ball of plasma from an RPG going off beside me.

For a brief period of time I walked the edge and came through it. And on one dusty late afternoon in dry season, when I was the only one left capable of standing, I did my job.

Fact–the plasma jet from an RPG going off three feet from your face looks like a miniature sun and will deafen you for several minutes. Daily questions I ask myself–how did I not get completely ripped up. Why was I fated to get the one-in-a-million ‘you live’ card? How did they miss with the follow-up grenade? Why did I run at them? Why did they fade back? So many questions and no fucking answers.

I am the last of my crew, all have gone from battle, suicide, or strange cancers. I keep them alive as they were, as I was.

3rd Plt. Ldr. Alpha 1/7
First Cavalry Division  Vietnam 1967/68

“Thank you for your service.”
I doubt most folks would have any idea what I did in the military. I could have been a cook, a clerk typist or an MP. Was I in Vietnam, Germany or behind a desk at the Pentagon? They can’t be thanking me for leading a rifle platoon in combat or for loosing three guys killed and two wounded at Hue during Tet. They don’t know my story and that’s OK.

These five words don’t make me upset. Though they’re often spoken without thought or conviction, I understand that the words are well intended. Sorry, but I guess I’d rather be talking to another Vietnam vet and hear just two words….”Welcome Home”.

woody.bmp Woody Powell
Korea, 1951
Executive Director,
Veterans for Peace 2001-2005

I always feel uncomfortable because acknowledging it with a “Thank you” of my own seems to gloss over the fact that my war was unnecessary, brutal, and not something to take national pride in. Sometimes I say nothing and just look at them until they become uncomfortable. Other times I cave and mumble something appreciative. Sometimes, when the occasion seems to call for it, I will say how I feel about being thanked for participating in something so destructive and senseless.

B Battery/3rd Battalion  82nd Artillery
196th Light Infantry Brigade Americal
Vietnam 11/68  1/70

I’m usually shy and introverted, so I seldom start up conversations with someone I’ve never seen before, but sometimes, when I see a soldier or vet in line for a coffee and bagel, I’ll at least say “Hello, where did you serve?” or “Are you on duty?” and I’ll tell them I served in the Army in Vietnam. That usually stops the conversation, I mean, it’s all over. I feel I’m supposed to say something, as I’m courteous to strangers in fatigues, but every time someone thanks me for my service, I cringe. Why? Because I am deeply conflicted, even ashamed at what my ‘service’ actually amounted to.

This happens a lot. It happens every time I visit with a soldier, no matter how brief our time together. I’m convinced they are taught to thank a vet as part of basic training, or exit training, as every single soldier has said it to me. But what’s worse, now I’m hearing it from their spouses too.

I’m trying hard to remember any of my basic or advanced training in Missouri or Oklahoma in 1968. Nope, no sergeant ever said “When you leave the Army, be sure to say ‘Thank you for your service’ to anyone who says ‘Yes, I was in the Army’ (or Navy or Marines or Air Force).

No one in South Vietnam ever said this as part of the introductory scare-the-living-bejesus-out-of-you with spider filament trip lines, and balls of spears swinging out of nowhere if you were stupid enough to not see what’s coming. Nope, no messages of thankfulness there, either. And none when we took occasional mortar rounds from Viet Cong or NVA. Not even when my company was overrun in June 1969.

Nope, nobody said anything like “Thank you for your service.” The stewardesses on the flight home didn’t mention it. No soldiers on my last stateside base pulled me aside and said  “Be sure to say     ‘Thank you for your service’ if you ever talk with a vet.'”

I did receive this message when I got home in 1970: “Hey Baby killer! Hey murderer!” I’ve forgotten the other more descriptive terms hurled at me.

Perhaps this is why, in the 1990s, the Armed Forces decided to take a positive step, and have veterans tell veterans something good, like “Thank you for your service.”

Just to clarify, I can’t find any of my service awards, pins, badges, fatigues or anything else I was allowed to take home with me. They’re just gone. So are most of my memories, except those that put me in a mild state of shock and disbelief, and I’m back on a hill numbered 477 somewhere in South Vietnam. I’ve even lost all the pictures of my buddies sitting on bunkers looking out into the mountains that stretched all the way to Cambodia. So it makes complete sense that I unconsciously stopped telling anyone that I had once ‘served’ in Vietnam.

What did I do? I calculated the range and azimuths, as well as how many powder bags were needed for a 105 howitzer round to explode on suspected North Vietnamese. I’ve never tried to add up how many rounds per day, times months in Nam, I calculated fire missions on the enemy. Nope, I don’t want to be thanked for that kind of service.

Only later, much later, when learning Hatha yoga, did I start to listen to my instructor as she read from a favorite book of hers by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk. Like a loud Buddhist gong reverberating for days in my head, I realized I could have inadvertently killed one of the world’s most revered Buddhist teachers. I’ve been in a state of regret ever since, though I’ll admit I don’t think about my war time in Vietam, now a distant nightmare awoken only when triggered, perhaps by a Huey helicopter buzzing my little village in Wisconsin, or viewing again “Born on the Fourth of July” or any Hollywood film of what happened over there.

Nope, I’d rather just say “Hello, how are you? Where’d you serve, and can I get that coffee for you?”

MARTIN Martin Ray, Captain
525th Military Intelligence Division
Combined Intelligence Center
Vietnam  1971-72

Four years in the Army. If I’d truly given of myself a ‘thank-you’ would be welcome. Nothing beats hearing thank-you for a sincere and meaningful gift.
Why did I volunteer for Vietnam? There may have been a touch of nobility or sacrifice among my motives. But mainly an adventurous pulse beat within me then. And I had heard tribal voices. Templates of manhood called like Sirens in the haze. It was my life’s chance to rub shoulders with war.

Mortality was never an issue in my mind. Not my own nor toward anyone else. I wasn’t capable of considering it.

Airborne School had been a hard-earned lark. At Ranger School I was resourceful enough to match up with tough training. I stuck bayonets into straw dummies screaming “Kill, kill, kill!!!” The classmates who really understood were combat veterans.

There were other things I didn’t grasp. I had only a dim awareness of the currents of myth and entitlement that underlie national as well as personal destiny. I remember looking back toward America from an Asian shore wondering if this entire history had happened to teach me something.

After an interesting couple of years as a construction officer in Thailand and Germany I reported in June 1971 to the assignment station at Cam Ranh Bay. I volunteered for combat engineering duty with the 101st Airborne Division. I wound up at a geographical intelligence desk in Saigon. Perhaps it was a miraculous intervention. I do say thank-you for that.

It was my third time living in Southeast Asia. My dad had been military attaché to Burma during my teen years. Then the paradisiacal posting, for a young man, to seaport construction in rural Thailand. Now to French Indochina’s capital, the Pearl of the Orient in turmoil.

I liked the local people. I spent many hours after work wandering the streets of Saigon photographing its citizens. I got around town by bus, spent nights printing portraits and city scenes in the darkroom.

Who knows how close VC sympathizers were to me during these escapades. No one ever bothered me except motorcycle-mounted Saigon cowboys stealing cameras. And once a taxi driver pulled a gun over a disputed fare after curfew. I walked away, he didn’t fire.
I figure I had protection, perhaps the protection of innocence. Sometimes you shouldn’t look down.

The first time I reported for night duty officer I tried to load bullets into the .45 cal pistol worn on security patrols. My hands shook with the sudden clarity of what that gun was for. I threw the ammo clip back into the drawer, strapped on the pistol and went out into the night. I never carried a loaded weapon that year.

Yes, it was a year of innocence in the sense of not provoking a bee hive into attack. In other ways, not innocent at all. I tried hard to support the war effort with good intelligence studies. I relished a pat on the back from senior officers. I regarded field grunts as tainted by blood on their hands.
I came home unscathed, untroubled except by those shadows of self-discovery and judgment.

I’ve added my voice and my photographs to the peace movement since 1972. I’ve pondered the sometimes gratuitous gesture “Thank you for your service.” The wars keep on coming.

People want to connect. Many have profound ambivalence, sorrow, confusion. Maybe they feel guilt. Maybe they understand there’s a terrible price for war and its damage to participants on all sides. Maybe they hope to separate the warrior from the war. “Thank you for your service.” Maybe they’re lock-step patriots.

I don’t presume to know the burdens of combat vets any more than the average person who says “Thank you for your service.” But by surviving they may have gained enviable fraternity with their brothers. They deserve a special chance to share in all the fruits of life available to their fellow citizens.

3rd Tanks, 3rd Marines
Vietnam 1968

The Five Words

If you tell me, “Thank you for your service,”
and I think you are sincere, I might tell you,
“Don’t ever say that to a veteran,
because if dark particulars come to light
like a stain on porcelain, say, it will spot your heart
and blot the smile from your child’s face forever.
You might not then think of it as service,
but as evil, eternal and far too close.
The way it happens, when bad happens,
it’s fast, you’re slow and become its keeper.
So, please understand, in talking about war,
it’s about killing and merciless cruelty;
nothing more.  Now.  Given that I may
answer, what would you like to ask or say to me?

First published in Big City Lit, Fall 2019-Winter 2020. An award winning poet, Richard Levine’s books include Selected Poems, The Cadence of Mercy, and A Tide of a Hundred Mountains. See more of Richard’s poetry on his website.

C 4/3 Light Infantry Brigade
Vietnam 1968

It pisses me off when someone says, “Thanks for your service”. What the hell do they know about my service? Saying thank you for your service is the same as having a check out girl at the grocery store wish you a good day. They don’t really care about your day; they just want to get through the moment.

We invaded Vietnam in my youth, a country that posed no threat to us, we gunned down unarmed civilians, we mutilated both alive and dead bodies, destroyed crops and livestock, burnt homes, tortured detainees and I personally witnessed a gang rape. Thank me for my service, why, to make you feel better for supporting wars of corporate profit that I went to on your behalf? If my service was so god damn important why didn’t you show up?

Why did it take twenty years after the Vietnam conflict for you to thank me? Was it because I hid inside my combat induced trauma for the first twenty years screaming for help and we somehow missed each other?

When are you going to serve?
Do you want your children to serve?
What does service mean to you?

Are you thanking me for joining the army and wearing an American uniform? What if I was a total fuckup, incapable of performing basic military skills on a show or go training exercise, will you still thank me?

If you knew that I had killed and raped noncombatants while wearing that uniform would you still thank me for my service? My one-hundred-percent-service-connected-PTSD service riddled buddies are torn with survivors guilt, they are suicidal and self destructive, they need more than a thank you for your service, what have you got for them? Can you see them?

Is it possible you are thanking me to hide your own guilt at not showing up to serve and not caring that the resources we veterans need are being attacked in the congressional budget process? People used to tell me they supported Vietnam, I did not need their support, what I needed was for them to show up and help me dig my foxhole before dark and pull watch later that night.

What if I had caused the death of a grunt while in combat, would you still thank me? What if on the day you thank me it is the anniversary of my best friend’s death, what should I say to you, “thanks for reminding me”?

What if I fragged an asshole officer who made bad decisions that killed my buddies, do you plan to thank me for protecting my buddies or for fragging the officer? I say thank me for both.

I am sixty-eight years old, if I had participated in every American covert and overt military action over the last sixty years, I would have helped overthrow more democratic elected governments than I created. How is this global militarism serving America? Ask Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Argentina, Vietnam and Cuba. How is this serving America?

Do you feel better after you thank me?

I understand that most people who thank me for my service mean well. They thank me because I ask for it, I wear a flag like a T-shirt or a baseball cap with military markings to show service related pins and badges. They thank me because I draw attention to myself as a veteran when I fly these flags. I am sure most people are just trying to be nice; I am thankful and still somewhat pissed.

Do you care how I feel after you thank me?

What do I usually do when someone thanks me for my service is; I acknowledge them with eye contact, a fake, tight closed mouth smile and a nod, and then I avert my eyes to end the exchange between us. This thirty second exchange can cause me weeks of problems, obsessively reviewing what I should have said instead of just walking away. The anger I opened this essay with happens in my head and fills the days between “thank you’s”. I don’t usually say the thoughts out loud but I wish there was a way to help people understood! The longer I go between people thanking me for my service, the easier my life is.

Those who make knowledgeable informed comments about my unit or observations about my branch of service are welcome. That’s the beginning of a conversation, no offense taken here, a question seeking information is always better than a statement containing inaccurate opinions. Thanking me for my service is a statement of your personal values; a question from you about my service is a sign you care about my personal values.

The myth surrounding the idea that veterans don’t want to talk about their experiences is just that, a myth. The truth is we veterans want to talk about our experiences but most civilians don’t want to hear what we have to say. They are horrified at the reality of some of the things involved in our service. Most Americans are afraid to ask a real question of a veteran. Many times they resort to a nifty one liner, sanitized, void of context.

America, please stop saying thank you for your service to veterans. Ask a simple question, treat us like humans, ask about our service; who did we serve with? What did we do? What was our rank?

Tommy is the author of the well written Buffgrunt: Memoirs Of A Tree Vet.

CIA  Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos

Six years in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Southern China, up and down Rt. 1 from top to bottom. Udorn was the main base of operations for Air America’s “road watch” teams (aka forward air controllers) who called in air strikes on south running heavy movement on Rt. 1, saving many thousands of GI lives and limbs. Most vets and civilians knew very little about CIA’s road watch programs or anything else. To this day many vets blame me for every war since Kore–even though clandestine services are greatly needed in war and peace time.

Serving my country was my only priority for more than three decades. That service changed during the administrations under which I served. Just like grunts, I have night terrors, night sweats, a startle-reflex that meds don’t really help.

No one, no GIs, no civilians, ever thanked me. I can’t yet say I’m proud, but a few sincere “Thank you for your service” appreciations would go a very long way.

B Btry 1/21  FA, First Cavalry
Vietnam/Cambodia ’70-’71

Got an early out from Viet Nam (B Btry, 1/21 FA, 1st Air Cav) in January 1971. Returned to college in SW Missouri…was Treasurer of the Viet Nam Vets Club on campus. Got married, graduated, moved to St. Louis, began a career and a family.

It was not as simple as that, but life went on. Although I would no longer watch “blood ‘n guts” war movies, I did not suffer from PTSD, and my only (known) health issue was a rotten toe nail that gave me in-grown nail problems until surgically corrected a few years later. In fact, my return to civilian life went quite well. Sure, as some of us vets gathered in “the Union” or in front of the “A Building” during college days to visit, play cards and girl watch, we would get a few looks from passers-by. However, I have no recollection of any adverse comments or difficult situations on campus. And, heck, since I had no access to dental care in ‘Nam, the Army paid for some major dental work, the quality of which was commented on by other dentists in later years. Plus I got to use the GI Bill to help pay for college.

My service in Viet Nam was a source of pride for me, but I did not “wear it on my shoulder.” Nobody ever said “Thank you for your service.” I never even heard of such a statement, but it was no big deal to me. Like millions of war veterans before me, I just came home and returned to life here in the USA. Talked about it some with family and friends through the years, and I answered lots of questions from my daughter, who just wanted to know more about “from whence she came.” I did not join any veterans organization…just kept plugging along. Often wondered about guys with whom I had served – Basic, AIT, Artillery NCO School, Viet Nam. I remembered lots of names, and tried a few times to contact some. Was actually visited by fellow E-5 Don Kohrs, Indiana, in the summer of ’71, and my wife and I exchanged visits with John S. “Smitty” Clinton (of my 105 mm gun section) in Memphis the next year.

The first time I got together with other veterans – to really talk about war, share stories and reach out to each other was an ad hoc gathering in January 1991, in the West County area of St. Louis. Many will remember this as the month that Operation Desert Storm began, under the leadership of General Norman Schwarzkopf. My military pride and fervor had just been renewed as I stayed up all night watching CNN reports of the initial air attacks by US bombers. A business associate and fellow Vietnam vet, Jim Doyle, knew some other vets, and we decided to meet at a local VFW for a few beers…to show our support for the American military and reminisce a bit. One of the guys had served under Schwarzkopf in ‘Nam, and he was certain that Iraq had “bitten off more than they could chew.”

It was said that President Bush had learned the lessons of Viet Nam, so he wanted an overwhelming victory and a quick return home. So, the U.S. and its coalition partners brought the Gulf War to a quick end, and except for daily news of the oil well fires, things seemed to return to normal here on the home front. One difference being discussed on the home front was a big change from Viet Nam – the desire of the nation to proudly welcome home its veterans who served in the Gulf War. There was a huge ticker tape parade in New York City, and the nation celebrated these veterans for months to come.

While this may have been the modern rebirth of the statement “Thank you for your service,” I still did not hear those words directed towards me, but neither did I really worry about it.

Fast forward, only about a year, to Veterans Day 1992. I received a phone call that evening from my brother-in-law, Pat, himself a Vietnam vet. Since he and my sister had married only three years earlier, and we lived in different states, Pat and I were still getting to know each other. So, here it came. In the middle of our conversation he laid it on me, “Don, I just want to say, ’Thank you for your service.’“ Wow! There it was, and it almost knocked my socks off. Pat was a member of a Viet Nam vets organization in his home state of Wisconsin, so he became accustomed to hearing and speaking these words. But me, not only had I hardly heard it previously, I had not even thought to say it myself. Somewhat clumsily, I repeated those words back to him. See, that was not difficult. We concluded our conversation and I reflected on what Pat had said, how easily those words flowed out.

Thinking to myself…”You dumb son of a gun!” Now remember this statement, and use it when in the presence of other veterans.

About that same time my wife and I vacationed in the Shenandoah area of Virginia. I had found and contacted a fellow Vietnam vet, CJ Call, who lived there. We and our wives visited two or three times that week, and I said it: “Thank you for your service, CJ.” He, too, had hardly ever heard those words, but we savored them together. A few years later I reconnected with Ken Crayne, Detroit area (finally recalled the spelling of his last name). We exchanged phone calls, and that was that.

In 2002 we moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, which I remembered as the home of another fellow vet… Terry…I just could not recall his last name. Then one day it hit me…Rarick. Yes, there he was in the phone book. Another fun phone call led to visits back and forth, plus a trip to Detroit to see Ken. Terry suffered from PTSD, and Ken had recently lost a foot to diabetes, but we had a great time sharing memories that day. “Thank you for your service” was exchanged a lot, as we met Ken’s family and lunched at a local eatery.

Moving forward another five years, and I had a unique opportunity to work six months in Ethiopia, with a team of U.S. and Canadian consultants. Two of my fellow consultants are veterans, and Sweet Jesus, there it was again…”Thank you for your service” spoken meaningfully to each other.

Approaching retirement, I found myself even more determined to locate more of “the guys.” A national database and some educated guesses helped me find Al K and Spencer Y from Basic Training at Ft. Leonard Wood; Joe A, Kelly C (who recently made a vacation tour of Viet Nam),Herb S, David S and Steve D from NCO School at Ft. Sill; and from the First Cav and B 1/21 FA in ‘Nam there was Capt John A (LTC Ret.), Mike D, (CSM Ret.), Marc L, Bill T, Elmer P, Gurney “Mickey” H, Dan “Skip” C, Danny T, Marty C, Dennis P, Rogerio V, Norman A, and Jim B—who my wife and I visited in Vermont. Also reconnected with Smitty, and had kept contact with Ken and Terry in Michigan. Need to reconnect with CJ Call in Virginia. Hope to locate “Slim” (Hannibal Carter/Carver?) in North Carolina and the Dan Clark in Florida that several of us want to find.

Helping some of these guys establish contact with each other was especially gratifying. Confident that I correctly identified current addresses of others, I will follow up on their non-responses to initial letters. Sadly, a few are deceased. Also sadly, I cannot “zero-in” …YET, on some of the guys, but I will keep trying.

I love you, brothers, and I salute you all. Thank you for your service!

Marc Levy
Medic,  Delta 1/7  First Cavalry
Vietnam/Cambodia 1970

I don’t like hearing, “Thank you for your service.” It’s an empty, petty little phrase. Most civilians don’t ask what I did. What any war vet actually did. Don’t ask if we fought in combat. Or ran. Men did that, you know. Don’t ask about friendly fire. Or otherwise. Guys in my squad did that. Don’t ask about survivors guilt. Or war crimes. Or black marketeers. Just a mindless ‘thanks.’ Look, what we did in Vietnam we’ve done elsewhere countless times: invade, occupy, exploit, leave our mess, lick our wounds, fete our wounded, forget them, head to the next conflict. Those five simple words ring less than hollow. I’d rather hear, “I’m sorry for how you were treated once you got home.” Never mind the human beings we meant to save.

JOHN TOWENICKIJohn Towarnicki, Spec 4
Medic, Bravo 1/7 First Cavalry
Vietnam/Cambodia 1968-69

“Thanks for your service” I find that phrase confusing. Fact is I was drafted, but I was actually glad to serve. At first I worked the emergency room at Womack Army Hospital in Fort Bragg, NC.

It was a terrific learning experience. When I was cut orders for Nam I was almost glad. I figured I’d be sent to an Army hospital in the rear. WRONG!!! Just a very few days after landing in Nam I was packing a sixty-five pound rucksack and toting a fully loaded M16 accompanied by two frags, a smoke grenade, a two hundred round bandoleer of M60 machine gun ammo, four or five canteens of water, and three bandoliers of M16 magazine ammo, and my most valuable asset, an aid bag stuffed with battle bandages , a tube of albumin (IV blood expander), a host of medicines to include Benadryl, various salves/ointments, Valium and five morphine syrettes. Enter the combat medic, “Doc Ski.”

No need to go into war stories. Most civilians will never truly understand what war is all about. Fact is, it’s about dealing death and learning how to handle death and horror and terror. It’s about learning how to accept fear and march out the next day knowing this may well be your last day on earth and nobody, but nobody gives a shit about you except the guys in your outfit, Your brothers.

I’ve had people ask if I was afraid. I tell them I was scared shitless most of the time, but never afraid. Had I been afraid I never would have gone on patrol the next morning. I had too much responsibility toward my men to have time to be afraid. They depended on me. (I owe them still) There’s a vast difference between being scared and being afraid. Most folks won’t understand that, but front line Nam vets know what I’m talking about. I will admit that without a doubt it was the thrill of a lifetime, never to be had again. The firefights, the Charlie Alphas (combat assaults by chopper). Sounds like the talk of a crazy man doesn’t it? It’s not!

I’m somewhat uncomfortable about the “Welcome Home Brother” comment so often given by my Nam brothers. I will always say thanks to them, but in reality I really don’t think I’ve entirely “come home.” I guess I live in the past to a good degree. I always think of the men in my outfit. Every day and every night. I see their youthful faces, the wounded and fallen men. I see the phosphorescent glow of the cut flora in front of our fox holes that would scare the hell out of me. I thought, if I can see it, so can the enemy. I see the night fighting positions we dug. Fortunately in a short time the glow would subside and the night would be black as coal.

I still see the dead enemy. Today I realize that they were probably no different than me. Just soldiers fighting for their country.  I can still hear the call of the fuck-you-lizards.  When I was still a FNG, they scared the hell out of me at night.  The smell of the dead. You remember it forever. I see the flashlights the enemy used at night because vitamin deficiencies caused them poor night vision. We threw frags at them rather than fire our M16’s so as not to give away our positions.

Would I do it all again? Damn right I would. I miss the peaches and pound cake.







The story behind the photo.