We were so close there was no room
We bled inside each other’s wounds
We all had caught the same disease
– “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” by Melanie Safka
As I approach the 50th anniversary of my receipt of a Greeting from the President of the United States, I need to express my gratitude to my local draft board as constituted in the fall of 1967.
If not for them, I would have missed the experience of a lifetime, and opportunities to meet and spend time with some of the finest people I’ve ever met.
In the military, you become close to, and love like family the brothers and sisters you live, eat, force march, bivouac, sleep, patrol, bleed, and die with. They come from all over the country, and sometimes from outside. Over 20,000 Canadians joined the U.S. military during Vietnam.
Rednecks from Oklahoma, Idaho, and California, and college grads from Ole Miss, Cal, Bowdoin and New York University share space and time in an Army barracks with a brother from Watts, a Mexican-American kid from Michigan, and a Puerto Rican guy from Vieques.
Mix in a few Swedes, Finns, and Ojibwa from Minnesota, a couple Poles from Chicago, a pair of Irish-Catholic cop’s sons from Pittsburgh and atheist hippies from Oregon, fill all the empty spaces with the rest of Middle America and pretty soon we figure out, we’re really all the same.
The people you meet and the friendships you build last a lifetime, whether that lifetime ends abruptly at 19 by a booby-trap, or from a heart attack on the 19th hole at 71, or at 88 as the first Mexican-American Four-Star General.
Through the years, you may not speak too often, but no matter how long it’s been, you always recognize the voice on the other end of the phone. And they are always with you, and you with them, and the reinforcements are the other guys like you at the local vets’ club, saloon, or golf course who know they don’t have to talk the talk because they’ve walked the walk. You can tell by the limp.
Over there, in an infantry unit there were two colors, green and red. Red, get it? Green was the color of the jungle fatigues, and the color of the flesh falling off your feet, the jungle rot having won the battle.
The smell so bad the locals gave you wide berth.
Some of us stayed in touch after we returned home and got out. And some of us just kind of hid. It was crazy being a veteran here, then. It made there seem like a picnic. That’s why a lot of guys went back, and they missed their buddies.
I met Don at the reunion in Charleston and he went back with me in 2007 for his first time. A year later, he took his wife and has been back three more times. He was rotated home about six months before I came in country, but he likes to say, “We served together at different times.”
I first found Bobby managing a restaurant in Seattle. Jon and I took R&R together in Hong Kong in April 1969 and we saw each other in Riverside in ’88 and at the reunion in Sacramento.
Felix ran the Enlisted Men’s Club. We got home about four months apart and he drove out from Virginia in a Volkswagen Bug. We drove up to Fort Ord and found Doc, who still had eight months left to serve before he was out. I later ran into Doc in Las Vegas, his hometown.
Jimmie found me after I ran an ad in a veterans’ magazine looking for Willie. Turns out Jimmie had a roster of over 60 percent of the guys who served in the unit from late 1967 through 1970 when the division came home. He had no contact information on Willie.
We had been wounded together, and separated at the field hospital in Lai Khe. I didn’t know if he had lived or died for years. Then when I visited the Memorial I didn’t find his name and I was relieved. I finally located Willie in 1996 with the help of a friend in the VA in DC.
I’d been tearing pages out of phone books in airports across the country, a roll of dimes always handy, calling every listing in the book with his last name, relating the story.
The old Swamp Rats have gotten together several times over the years since the first Gulf War, when it became OK to be a veteran of our war. We don’t agree on much politically, spiritually, or generally, but we still love each other and we all still agree on one thing – service to country.
Thanks again to the local Fresno draft board, fall 1967.
Jim Doyle of Fresno is a freelance writer and a veterans advocate.