This commentary introduces an upcoming 14-part radio series on Voice of Vashon, “The 52-Year War in Vietnam.” The series, part of Steven Nourse’s show, “Isabled,” begins at 12 p.m. Friday, April 30. The series’ first episode will be two hours of narration and songs of the Vietnam era, presented by Nourse’s collaborator, Linda Summersea. The series will continue to stream at 4 p.m. Thursdays, on KVSH, or on-demand at voiceofvashon.org (scroll to “Isabled.”). The series marks the 46th anniversary of the official end of the war in Vietnam on April 30, 1975.
In the antiwar song, “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag,” Country Joe and the Fish sang “What are we fighting for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.”
Country Joe may not have given a damn, but that is not the case for the 2,709,918 Americans who served in uniform in Vietnam, the 58,148 men and women who were killed in Vietnam. Not giving a damn also does not apply to the 75,000 severely disabled in the war. Of that number, 23,214 were 100% disabled, 5,283 lost limbs, and 1,081 sustained multiple amputations.
The War in Vietnam was not like World War II. In World War II, the Americans were the heroes who saved Europe from Nazi tyranny and Hitler. They came back to America to open arms. The soldiers who returned from Vietnam were told to keep a low profile, to not wear their uniforms in public, and if they did, they were spat upon, cursed, and called baby-killers.
In doing my research, I found what seemed to be a giant hand coming out of the sky to grab handfuls of young American men and women and dropping them in a jungle thousands of miles away. These “kids,” who looked as fresh-faced as youngsters in a Norman Rockwell painting, were taken from every big and little town in the United States.
In doing this series on the Voice of Vashon about the War in Vietnam, my purpose was not to discuss it from a political perspective but rather a human perspective. In war, we discuss the unintentional loss of life or property as “collateral damage” and the Vietnam War had more than its share of that damage.
Each of the young men and women addressed in the statistics above had families and friends that unwillingly also became collateral damage. The average age of those killed in Vietnam was 23, with the youngest being 16. This means that most had mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, and numerous close friends. Of those killed, 17,509 were married and many had children.
Many veterans who are alive today are also collateral damage suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, dementia, multiple forms of cancer, heart and pulmonary disease, and have children with birth defects — all these due to Agent Orange.
In our own small town, we lost 12 men to the war — amounting to almost seven percent of island males ages 18 to 24 who lived on Vashon at the time.
From a personal perspective, how did these twelve veterans who were killed in action feel about the war? We can’t even venture a guess. We can get a glimpse, or maybe a reflection in the mirror of what happened, through the interviews with the “boots on the ground” Vashon Vietnam War Veterans or the veterans who graduated with me in Ellensburg in 1966.
These folks saw all aspects of the war—the smell, heat, dust, and rain. One vet said, “you could chew the air.” Another stated, ”the stench of burning human waste in fifty-gallon drums mixed with diesel oil would knock a buzzard off of the s…. cart.”
Yet these young warriors managed to smile, laugh, joke, and make some of the closest friends that they have ever had in this abysmal environment.
Islander Chris Gaynor said, “When in battle you wanted to keep alive the soldier on your right and the soldier on your left because that was how they also felt about you.”
When asked what he remembered most, one vet said, “Carrying bloodied and broken children to a first aid station.” Another vet said he hitched a ride on a garbage truck to get back to his unit. He hadn’t eaten in several days and found an unopened C-ration can of fruit cake. He said it was the best meal he had ever tasted.
It took 23 support personnel to back every combat soldier in the field. Each of these persons had equal value in the effort. That is why I interviewed vets with a variety of duties, including combat soldiers, machine gunners on helicopters, Swift Boat team members, a conscientious objector, a clarinet player in a band that played in local hamlets to pacify the citizens, a Pathfinder, a nurse, boat and airplane mechanics, a Donut Dolly from the Red Cross, and a POW survivor and his daughter — who was seven-years-old when her dad was captured and taken to spend the next seven years at the Hanoi Hilton.”
Veterans who participated in the War in Vietnam have voices that need to be heard and keenly listened to. The average age of the veterans I interviewed was in the 70 to 75-year-old age range and one is 93.
History tells us we must learn from the past to effectively navigate the future and that is my objective in taking on this task of love.
Steven Nourse, who holds a doctorate in education, is a long-time islander who retired in 2014 from Central Washington University after a long career in education. His Voice of Vashon show, “Isabled,” has a special focus on topics permanent to disabilities. In his Vietnam series, he has collaborated with Linda Summersea. Before moving to the Pacific Northwest, Summersea was a writer for NPR’s “Tales from the South” and the producer of “Artbreak,” an award-winning children’s art program for community access TV. She has also had a long career in art teaching and administration.