Last weekend my wife and I had a birthday dinner for a couple we know, both of whom have birthdays right on top of each other’s. Each of the guests was assigned a decade to talk about – covering the decades of our friends’ lives. The person who had the 60’s was a man now in his early 70’s and a member of a well-known old Richmond family. Rather than recount the hit songs or curious fashions of the time, he talked about Vietnam. The raucous table got quiet rather quickly.
I knew my friend had served during the Vietnam War, but I didn’t know much more. He left college after two years, went to his draft board and volunteered to be drafted into the Army. The guy is smart as could be and there is no doubt he could have stayed in college and avoided service. He could have joined the National Guard. I am sure he had the connections that were necessary at that time. He could have enlisted in one of the services and likely gotten some sort of rear echelon specialty. No doubt he could have figured out some way at least to become an officer. He did none of those things. He went into the Army as an enlisted man, an infantry enlisted man. Presumably because he was smart and had some college, the Army sent him to an NCO academy after he completed AIT – laughingly referred to as a “shake and bake” program. He came out as a buck sergeant, an E-5. He then served a year in Vietnam as an infantry squad leader operating along the Cambodian border. He didn’t talk much about what had happened during his time there except to note that he was fortunate, many of his colleagues did not come home.
The Vietnam War was often violently opposed on many college campuses. Socially, it was entirely acceptable to attempt to avoid service by almost any means available. Why did someone like my friend not just go with the crowd? He quietly told us that he had the example of his father who had lied about his age so he could join the Army in the First World War. Like the call heeded by his father, he felt his country needed him and he answered that call. He did what he saw as his duty. Notwithstanding his clearly privileged background, he neither sought nor expected some special privilege or break. From the perspective of our supposedly more enlightened times, such conduct seems at best naïve. Is it? I don’t think so. If we are so “enlightened” that we can’t appreciate duty and sacrifice we are truly in a bad place.
What shocked him when he came back from Vietnam was that many of his peers not only did not support what he had done, they actively supported the enemy he had been fighting. Duty was scorned, contemptible really. Almost 50 years later that still hurts him – and in ways that I cannot begin to understand. All the “thank you for your service” remarks now uttered – and there were even a few of those offered the other night – will never make up for how the veterans of the Vietnam war were often treated. Maybe we have learned something from that bad time. I hope so. Service, doing your duty, is noble, not naïve. Let’s not forget that.