Remembering a generation tied to Vietnam

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Today, Vietnam is little more than a footnote in the history books. But that war defined a generation of Americans.

I imagine if it is taught at all in the high schools, it comes at the end of the semester and getting short shrift from the teachers.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, The Wall That Heals is coming to Johns Creek March 30 through April 2 at its Newtown Park. A 250-foot replica of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., it is meant to bring the memorial to the millions of people who participated or were affected by that war.

With it is a traveling museum that sets the context of that war.

At 11 a.m. Saturday, April 1, all Vietnam Era veterans are invited to attend a special recognition ceremony at Newtown Park’s Burkhalter Amphitheater hosted by the St. Brigid’s Knights of Columbus.

It is their intent to honor all military service members who served during the Vietnam Era. They would appreciate any and all veterans who would come.

A lot of memories and emotions were stirred up last week at the Johns Creek Chamber of Commerce luncheon. Guest speaker was Barry Stinson, a member of the Johns Creek Veterans Association and a Vietnam veteran.

Now I am a Vietnam Era vet, but that’s not a patch on the pants of those who served “in country” – aka Vietnam, Republic of, in military parlance. The closest I got to Vietnam was Fort Ord, California.

What struck me about Barry’s story was it was so typical of so many young men at that time. Like me, he went to college after high school for which he received a draft deferment. And like me, he was an indifferent student and subject to the distractions that afflict many young people in college.

So in 1967, he dropped out of college and faced the dilemma of all draft-age young men in those days. Do you wait for the inevitable letter that brings greetings from the president of the United States? Or do you enlist and get the best prospects that you can.

Stinson decided he would join up, enlisting in the U.S. Navy. That at least would keep him from getting shot at in the jungles of Vietnam.

One thing Stinson did not take into account is that there are a lot of rivers in Vietnam and Admiral Elmo Zumwalt determined that there should be Navy boats in those rivers. Now unlike the jungle, when you are in a boat and get into trouble, there are only two directions you can go – fore and aft. Likewise the enemy has reasoned that out as well.

Stinson said his boat, the USS Crockett, was a bigger than the “swift boats” like the one in “Apocalypse Now,” and a bit more armored.

For the first six months it was the Crockett’s job to interdict arms smuggling along the coast by the North Vietnamese to troops in the south. They didn’t see much of anything because the overland supply route, aka “The Ho Chi Minh Trail” was spectacularly successful.

So Admiral Zumwalt wanted a naval presence up those rivers, so thus Stinson and the Crockett went up and down rivers the last seven months of his tour.

The boats were like floating artillery platforms to provide support fire to troops onshore. It was called “Operation Fort Apache,” which I suppose was a reference to those boats on the river. Well, it was better than “Operation Sitting Duck,” I suppose.

Now I have the greatest respect for all of those served in Vietnam, but for my money, the guys on those gun boats going up and down rivers in hostile territory were special.

As I noted earlier, I saw a lot of similarities in my youth and Stinson’s. I didn’t so much drop out of college as drop courses. That led to an insufficiency in college credits to maintain my student deferment, and I received my draft notice.

Here, my history diverges with Barry’s. I signed up for language training, specifically German. My thinking was if I was trained in German, they would send me to Germany. It was also 1972. The American presence in the war was winding down and “Vietnamization” was the plan now.

What it meant was no more Americans were heading to Southeast Asia. I was safe.

But for so many of my generation, Vietnam was a defining moment. War tests you like no other experience in life. For all those who served there, they should be honored. So I will be at the Wall That Heals. I hope it does give healing for those guys – and gals – who all left a piece of themselves there.


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