Marching in the Vietnam Veterans’ Parade in NYC 1986

In the summer of 1986, the city of New York gave permission for the only Vietnam veterans’ parade in New York.

All veterans were invited to attend a march across the Brooklyn Bridge to Battery Park to the Vietnam Memorial. I wanted to be with the crowd, and although Mary did not, she still came with me.

There were hundreds of veterans in uniform, some in the jungle-type uniform we used at war. As we crossed the bridge, many people were standing along the railing, cheering us on.

I was dressed in combat boots, army jacket, and beret and had all my medals pinned to my chest. About midway across the bridge, I started taking off my medals and giving them away. People were amazed that I would do this.

But I wanted no more to do with the unjust war. I know for a fact that my actions were because of my Bible training. Thus, my medals, combat rope, and hat were given away on the Brooklyn Bridge march. I even wanted to step out of my combat boots and walk away from them, but I had no other shoes to put on.

The only thing I had left after that day was my uniform and boots.

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PTSD: The Lasting Effects of Vietnam

I’d had no choice but to leave the printing trade where I’d been working, because the noise from the presses gave me the impression that guns were being fired and even though I used earplugs, I was a nervous wreck. My nerves were not good.

I think only other combat vets (or those people who work in the VA hospitals with combat vets) can truly appreciate and fully understand the deep emotional trauma that resulted from our time in Vietnam. Other people in our daily lives don’t see the hurt, because for the “lucky” ones who returned from Vietnam with their physical bodies intact, there are no apparent reminders.

But I think all veterans of the Vietnam conflict came home with major problems. Some soldiers did lose limbs or were otherwise badly wounded, but others – and I am included in this group – suffered emotional wounds that could not be seen, whether it was nervousness caused by loud noises or having a guilty conscience over ever being involved in such a war.

I know I hadn’t wanted to be physically hurt, and I surely did not want to hurt anyone else. But that was war, and although I came home in “one piece,” the Vietnam conflict left its scars on me.

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War is Evil. All is Fair in Love and War.

War is evil. All is fair in love and war.

I constantly asked myself why I was in Vietnam. I had not asked to be here. How could I get out of here? These questions ran through my mind daily.

I felt myself going insane but didn’t want to break down in a country so far from home. So I prayed hard to maintain my sanity. I thought of my loved ones. I drank beer. I’d see my buddy losing it as well and somehow know how to give him support. This was not a party. War is evil.

When patrolling through a village and looking at the sadness in children’s eyes, we felt compassion for them. We were heavily armed, driving tanks and helicopters overhead, and a little boy or girl would look at us, frightened to death.

What did we do in cases like this? Because the kids were too young to understand that we were not there to hurt them, we always carried boxes of candy in the tanks to give out, to try to reassure them – or at least calm them.

War is evil, and no one benefits from it. When we were out on patrol in deep jungle, sometimes we ran out of drinking water. It was 95 to 100 degrees in the jungle, and sometimes we would come upon a body of water.

Did we drink it? No, we didn’t. This water was stagnant and not safe to drink. We knew we could get diarrhea or other ailments if we drank it. We would just wash our heads to cool down and hope the resupply helicopter came quickly with drinking water.

I’d look high in the sky and see the shiny jet known as the “Freedom Bird,” and I’d feel good and sad at the same time. I’d be glad to know someone was on his way home but sad that so many were left behind.

I’d look again and there would be another Vietcong being pushed from an open door of a gunship helicopter, because he would not give up the information needed to find the larger group of Vietcong. Maybe he did not know; maybe he did know. Whatever the case, war is evil.

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I Did Not Want Anything to Stop Me from Getting Out of Vietnam

I will never forget the moment I was called into a sandbag bunker to hear a message coming across the ham radio airwaves. The message went like this:

ATTENTION!

MIKE CHARLIE slice slice QUEBEC UNION

EHCO ECHO November

Yellow October Union Roger

W H Apple Bravo Bravo

Apple I S WELIMA L

The message is in code; each letter of the alphabet was associated with a certain military word; we learned this early in our training. So the message actually said, “attention McQueen. Your wife had a baby boy. All is well.”

I would not see my son for five more months, but I was so very happy – overjoyed – and the company was happy for me. But I still was not home. I had a little girl that I had to leave when she was only one-month-old. Now I had a son I couldn’t see or hold. Mary sent me pictures of Sheryl and Claude – the new baby – and I cherished them. They stayed with me all the time.

My orders to return home would not come until November 25, 1968. I had to stay alive in a war zone because I had to see my wife and kids. Only God knows what I had to do to try to make this happen; I had some close calls.

But one day I said to myself, I have only one week left on my tour in Vietnam. All that week I was careful with everything. I watched what I drank and ate and made sure not to make enemies with anyone.

I did not want anything to stop me from getting out of Vietnam.

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Military Money Change Crushed Vietnamese

During my tour in Vietnam, I never saw American money. We used paper military money, called military payment certificates, or MPCs. So ten cents, five cents, 25 cents, and 50 cents all were in paper form. And one dollar of our MPCs was worth two Vietnamese dollars.

The Vietnamese were eager to give us two dollars for one of our MPC dollars. MPCs came in different colors – a red bill was 20 dollars, a yellow bill was 10 dollars, a blue bill was five dollars, and so forth. The Vietnam black market was loaded with our military money, which they got from prostitutes selling their bodies to army men.

There was a law that forbade them from having this money, but they stashed money everywhere but the bank. So the American military came up with a way to make this stop. All army, navy, air force, marines, and civilians were warned in advance to keep no more than a hundred dollars on their person at any time. We were not to keep money in our lockers on base or anywhere.

They gave no reason for the order, but in June 1968, all Americans found out. Overnight, the color of money changed. Whoever had more than a hundred dollars of the old-color money just had to burn it, rip it, or cut it and throw it in the air. It was no longer good for anything. Quite a few Americans lost thousands and thousands of dollars, and no excuse they gave could change the government’s stand. It was worthless to try.

But Vietnamese people who had stuffed all that money away began to kill themselves when they found out it was useless. They were crying all over the country. We even found bags of old-color money when we were on patrol; people just left it.

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Too Busy Surviving Vietnam for Racial Tension

The Vietcong were not stupid; these guys were well trained, and some were more educated than we were. They had done their research on the ways and means of the American soldiers.

For example, they knew that Americans always got lazy and sleepy after breakfast, lunch or dinner. They also knew that Americans loved to sleep in the early morning hours, between 3:00 am and 6:00 am, so they would attack our position at this time. This way they hoped to catch us in a weakened state of mind.

They only protection was to always be on guard, stay alert, and trust your fellow trooper. Out in the jungle we did not have a race problem. Everyone needed each other.

One engagement that I will never forget was when we were sent to a mountain that we called Hill 108. Duncan James, a 20-year-old white soldier from Tennessee, was a good guy, and we became friends fast. When we got the order to go up Hill 108 to blow up some enemy tunnels, we thought nothing of it. It seemed like a routine assignment; but, again, little did I know what we were in for.

We were airlifted to the site by helicopters. In total, we had four squads, each with seven soldiers, one captain, two radiomen, two medics, and two lieutenants – a total of 35 men. When we left the next day, there were only 17 of us – five had been killed in action; 13 were wounded.

My friend James was one of the five killed. This is war. There was nothing nice about it. Things happened – and happened fast, without forewarning sometimes.

We received news that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, but there were no problems between the black and white soldiers. We all were too busy trying to stay alive.

 

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Surviving the Tet Offensive

By the middle of January 1968, I had already been in three battles. Little did I know, however, what was in front of me. Things started quieting down. We could not find the ones we were fighting. Here and there, we would have a skirmish but nothing heavy or long term.

But on January 31, 1968, all the quietness changed. That day was Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. The Tet Offensive was by far the largest battle fought in Vietnam.

Why? 1) It caught the United States off guard. 2) It was countrywide. 3) It was city as well as jungle fighting. 4) There was no let-up for four months or more.

It caught my unit by surprise. Remember that this was a very big holiday for the Vietnamese people. Therefore, the United States allowed a truce to go into effect for a total of three days. All sides were to stop fighting, allowing the Vietnamese the right to enjoy themselves. We had been told that there was a lot of enemy movement in the mountains and along the Mekong River, but our government chose to just ignore it.

Our unit was ordered to retreat into a rubber plantation that overlooked a highway (Highway No. 1) that ran from deep in South Vietnam, all the way up in North Vietnam. We could see crowds of people as they traveled along the highway, going about their daily lives, without bullets and rockets flying everywhere.

Then it happened at 2:30 a.m. on January 31, 1968. We got orders to report to the east side of Tan Son Nhut Airport because snipers were shooting at planes. As we moved through the darkness toward the airport, soldiers started falling off our vehicles.

At first, we thought it was just an accident, but we quickly found out we had been tricked into an ambush and were under fire. We lost 10 men before we could pull back to regroup. As soon as daylight came, we could see what we were up against, and our radio told us we were under a countrywide offensive – this became known as the Tet Offensive.

My unit was trapped because the closest unit that could help us was also under fire. We were pinned down most of that day, unable to move back or forward. The enemy was trying to overrun the airport and blow up as many planes as they could. It was a tough fight because the enemy had dug in very tight, and we had a hard time spotting their many locations. As darkness started to fall, we knew we had to make a move or be overrun. So we called in the gun ships to help us.

But now we faced another problem. We were so close to the enemy that the door gunners on the helicopters could not fire, for fear of hitting their own men. But late that night, another unit was able to fight their way in to our location and together, we were able to hold our own.

We fought nonstop, until February 13, 1968.

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Induction to the Army

I did not want to go to the army, and I was thinking of all kinds of crazy ways to get out of it. I thought about crossing the border to Canada to get out of it, as some guys were doing. But I knew I could never return to the United States without going to jail for desertion, which would not be good. Then I could never get a job anywhere, among the many other things I would lose. So I accepted the fact that I must report and be inducted.

I was to report on a Friday morning. I drank a lot of cheap wine the night before and woke up stinking, but I washed really fast, kissed Mary and Sheryl good-bye, and rode the train and bus to Fort Hamilton army base in Brooklyn, New York, where I was joined by hundreds of other guys, all 18 to 25-years-old. I was 22 and looked good, with a 29-inch waist and weighing only 140 pounds.

Guys tried everything to fail the test. Some exchanged urine. Some pricked their fingers and let drops of blood drip into their urine cups to offset the test. Some chewed on bits of soap to fake a seizure. No one wanted to go to war. And then there were those who did want to go, just to shoot other people. And there were those who really thought that they were doing the right thing to fight for their country.

I tried to get out of going by telling the instructor that I was near-sighted and cross-eyed and that I saw double. The instructor just said, “That’s all right. You only need one eye to see, so just put a patch over one eye, and you won’t see double anymore.”

I was inducted at noon and took the pledge to defend the United States. By 5:00 p.m. I was on a bus heading to Grand Central Station in New York City to board a railway train to Columbia, South Carolina, to begin training in jungle warfare. There were five busloads heading the same place.

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The Last Day I Had a Cigarette – Thanks to Jehovah God

I had tried many times to stop smoking, but it never lasted more than a day before I was right back to it. I was now having problems breathing or walking up hills without becoming tired. I knew it was because of smoking. But how could I quit?

After all, I was buying two packs a day. I would break the filter off so I could get all the hard taste. Over all, I used 10 different brands during my years of smoking. But I had to find a way to stop.

My brother Willie had died at age 54 from lung cancer in November 1983. This gave me every reason to stop – or it should have.

I told people that I quit smoking cold turkey. That’s true, but where did I get the strength? Jehovah God gave it to me. I could never have done it on my own, because I had already tried many times, and it didn’t work. So surely a higher power was behind my success.

This is how it happened. I came home on Sunday, February 13, 1984, after an all-night drinking tour with so-called friends. It was midday, and my wife and all the kids were just on their way to the congregation meeting. Everyone looked so nice in their suits, and everyone greeted me. The girls all gave me a big hug and kiss on the cheek. So did my wife. She also said that dinner was ready on the stove, if I wanted to eat.

I felt awful watching them leave for the meeting without me. Not only should I have been with them, but I also should have been the leader. I was in a low state and didn’t feel good about not being with them. Now I was out of money, out of liquor, out of smokes.

By the time the family had returned home, I had cleaned myself up, but I could not bring myself to ask my wife for cigarette money. I said to myself, If I can only make it through this night without smoking, I will get money at my job tomorrow.

Well, it was hard. I even remember going out in the hallway, looking for loose butts so I could remove the tobacco and roll a cigarette in paper.

The morning came – I’d made it through the night without smoking. Now I could go to work and get money from the boss. But that did not work out either. My boss was broke; his wife had shopped over the weekend. That day we did not get even one cash-paying customer for the whole day, which was very unusual in that type of business.

The result of the day was that February 13, 1984, was the last day I had a cigarette in my mouth. Thanks to Jehovah God.

He gets credit for helping me quit smoking by the way things went. I may have stopped cold turkey, but he is the one who helped me keep it that way.

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I Moved North. And Stayed.

In 1963, the Jim Crow laws in the South mandated segregation. Coloreds could legally be treated in any way without the perpetrators being punished by the courts. This was the reason for the Great Migration – African Americans leaving the South to escape racism. Race riots erupted all over the country.

I never was beaten up by whites; I was only called names. I picked cotton and worked the farm for a white man, mostly trouble-free. My family was helped in many, many ways by whites, while racism was still going on around us. I believe one reason for this was because we tried to avoid trouble.

We lived deep in the country at this time, with no car, no telephone – just a mother with very young boys in the house. In many black families in the South, after the older boys left home for the large cities, very few returned to stay. They would visit on holidays or if there was a death in the family, but most of them would say, “I am never going back South to live.”

However, in the late 1970s, many did return South to build homes of their own. Even I considered that idea at one time. But city life had transformed me. I was now used to a fast-paced way of life, and returning to a slower lifestyle didn’t appeal to me.

I don’t think I would have been able to return to farm life, not in the way I’d been used to. Everything had taken on such modern ways that I would have been lost.

However, when I did return home for visits, I always found joy in looking over the fields where I once toiled in the cotton from sunup till sundown. I enjoyed hearing the birds sing the lovely songs – and the mockingbird has quite a few songs that are just mind-boggling.

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