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Davich: 50 years later, Vietnam vets look back

Coming Monday

This year marks the 50th anniversary of our country’s entry into the Vietnam War. More than 3 million men and women served and more than 58,000 didn’t return home. While there was fighting half a world away, the events there also brought a transition in American culture. The Post-Tribune will profile a Vietnam War veteran every Monday. We will start with Hobart resident Earl McDowell, a Marine who came home with a Purple Heart. If you know someone who served who might like to be profiled, please email Joe Puchek at jpuchek@post-trib.com.

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Updated: July 30, 2014 6:12AM



The draft. Napalm. Agent Orange. Protests. Casualties. Deaths. “Charlie.” Crossfire. Friendly fire. Flashbacks. Viet Cong. Khmer Rouge. Fall of Saigon. The Tet Offensive. “Apocalypse Now.” Controversy. Regret.

These are my immediate thoughts when I think of the Vietnam War, which marked a fateful “can’t turn back now” milestone 50 years ago this month. That’s when Gen. William Westmoreland succeeded Gen. Paul Harkins as commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, or MACV.

That’s when U.S. military strength in South Vietnam increased to 23,000, with hints of many more troops heading to that enigma of a country in Southeast Asia. That’s when Uncle Sam bit into a very rotten apple and has been spitting it out ever since.

To this day, a half century later, there is still debate whether it was a “war,” a “conflict” or simply the darkest smudge on our country’s illustrious track record of military involvements around the world.

“My first thought is almost always, ‘What a waste,’ ” said Walt White, who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1964 and served more than a year in Vietnam. “I was there at the front end, one of the first troops to go in.”

“They just kept pouring in men and money, wasting both, literally throwing away billions and killing off our soldiers with those inane rules of engagement,” the Portage veteran said. “All the while alienating most of its indigenous population.”

White squarely blames the executive branch of the government, not the military, and certainly not the soldiers from any branch.

“We were just doing our job,” White said with a shrug. “We did what was asked of us, and we were reviled for it.”

Flash back with me for a minute to the United States of America in 1964 and afterward.

President John F. Kennedy recently had been assassinated, replaced by President Lyndon B. Johnson, a good old boy with good old-fashioned views about war, combat and “victory.”

The country feared the domino effect of communism across the globe. The fall of Vietnam and Southeast Asia would topple a lot more dominoes, eventually landing on U.S. soil, many Americans were convinced.

Continuity in the White House was of the utmost importance to Johnson, who battled numerous fronts in his presidency. So he kept sending troops, money and misguided intelligence into a tiny country that most Americans couldn’t find on a map.

“There ain’t no daylight in Vietnam ... not a bit,” Johnson would later confide to Sen. Richard Russell, revealing his hidden pessimism about the war.

Then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who later became known as the “architect of a futile war,” voiced public support time and again for our involvement in Vietnam while whispering private worries to Johnson.

“We don’t know what’s going on out there,” McNamara told Johnson, who put too much trust in his advisers. (Sound familiar?)

If only something happened, they reasoned, to provoke us into a legitimate reason to be in Vietnam, the ever-gullible, fearful American public would rally behind it. Simply put, they were looking for a pretext to flex American muscle on foreign soil. (Sound familiar again?)

That pretext conveniently took place in early August 1964, with the “Gulf of Tonkin incident” when North Vietnamese torpedo boats supposedly attacked the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, just off Vietnam, in a pair of assaults. The second attack, allegedly two days later, never happened. And the cause of the first one is still a bit of a mystery.

Still, it was enough for Johnson to declare, well, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the closest thing there ever was to a declaration of war. It sailed through Congress with help from misguided, sensationalistic media and fearful, ignorant Americans. (Sound familiar once again?)

That resolution authorized Johnson to take any “necessary measures” to repel more armed attacks against the U.S. and, officially, the war was on. That incident triggered a complex conflict that we attempted to fight with conventional military thinking.

Those 23,000 troops swelled to 75,000, then 125,000. We kept filling the cracked vase called Vietnam with the blood of U.S. soldiers. It leaked into our TV sets, our homes, our conscience.

A new kind of America — with its ugly underbelly of governmental ignorance and arrogance — was exposed to the world. And to ourselves. It was a slippery slope and we’ve been slipping into the abyss of regret, shame and controversy ever since.

“They called us baby killers,” recalls Mickey Radovich of Valparaiso, who was 19 when he was drafted in 1971 and sent to Vietnam. “Well, how many U.S. mothers lost their babies in ’Nam?”

“That is how a lonely 19-year-old soldier boy felt stationed halfway around the world in hell who, on occasion, cried himself to sleep not knowing if he’d ever see another sunrise or his family again,” said Radovich, now 62, who served with the 101st Airborne and the 196th Infantry Brigade.

When Radovich returned to the states, landing at an airport in San Francisco, he remembers parents pulling away their daughters to avoid any interaction with soldiers.

“Because, I guess, they thought we would rape them right there on the spot,” he recalled.

White, who returned home from Vietnam earlier than Radovich, said, “I wouldn’t have responded well to being spit on and called a baby killer. The indifference I received from people was bad enough.”

In 1969, President Richard Nixon introduced a program called Vietnamization, with the South Vietnamese Army assuming a larger combat role and the MACV beginning a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. In early 1973, the Army’s role formally ended.

In all, more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and military personnel were killed in Vietnam. More than 153,000 were injured, not to mention those emotionally wounded to this day.

“The only time anyone ever thanked me for serving at that time was on my very last day of active duty,” Radovich recalled.

While standing alone in his dress greens at Denver’s airport waiting for his flight home, a little old lady walked up to him.

“She looked me right in the eyes, smiled, lightly touched my crossed arms and softly said, ‘Thank you.’ Then she slowly walked away,” he said. “I couldn’t say anything because I was in shock. I felt like an (expletive) for not saying anything in return.”

White, whose vehicle proudly displays his Marine Corps loyalty and Vietnam combat, said, “I got a welcome home from the Gulf War that I never got from Vietnam. It kind of changed my feelings about Vietnam. But I haven’t forgot how I felt. I’ll never forget.”

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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