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November 7, 2013 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Ten years ago at a Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial service in Washington D.C., Lieutenant General Barry McCaffrey, Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stood before the crowd and announced that 85 percent of Vietnam veterans had made a successful transition into civilian life.
Despite the chairman’s cheery statement, the reality for many Vietnam vets wasn’t at all easy. Contrary to the immense public support for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, when much of America thinks of Vietnam-era veterans, there’s a sense of remorse for the generation of service members who have been called “forgotten.”
Yet the reality many American Vietnam veterans experienced is more complex than the stereotype. These are the stories of three Vietnam veterans and their return home from an unpopular war.
Prisoners of War
Retired Colonel John Clark ejected from his F-4 Phantom II aircraft just four seconds before it hit the side of a nearby mountain and exploded into a ball of fire.
An Air Force pilot, Clark flew his 86th counter mission on March 12, 1967. He was only 14 counter missions away from being able to return to his wife, young daughter and 3-month-old son in Missouri when he was shot down over North Vietnam.
His parachute led him into an open valley where a mob of armed tribesman and Viet Cong soldiers combed the area for Clark and his co-pilot.
“I hit the ground, and I ran,” Clark says. “I ran into a ditch covered by all of these vines, kind of like ivy. But the vines were covering a log, which I landed on and broke a few bones in my chest. But, of course, that was the last thing on my mind.” He concealed himself in the ditch and waited quietly for the men to pass. They did, and he began to crawl for the opposite end. “I looked up, and sure enough there were two men on either side of the ditch holding M-1 Garand rifles. They called the rest of their guys and dragged me out.”
Clark’s right eye began to twitch as he recounted his capture in detail. He was 27 years old in 1967. Clark is now 73, living on the west side of Columbia.
The men took most of Clark’s possessions, including his shoes and sent him to Hoa Lò Prison,“Hanoi Hilton,” barefoot, forced to hide from U.S. search planes along the way.
Clark fidgeted in his chair as he told the story. “After flight school, I went to survival training, and that had a lot to do with the way I dealt with being in prison,” Clark says. He ate bugs and stale bread and chewed on eggshells to stay as healthy as he could, but he still contracted malaria near the end of his six years as a prisoner of war.
Back home, Hanoi prisoners’ families were coping with news from the Department of Defense that their loved ones were presumed dead — until one day, three and a half years later, the prisoners got to write a post card.
“My family wasn’t sure it was me,” Clark says. “I mean, I had been missing for more than three years, so it must have been unreal. Of course, Department of Defense agencies were involved in all of this and took the postcards to be analyzed. When I got back, I got to read it — a report that went back to my family. It was so weird, it said: ‘Yes, to all of our analysis, we can only say that this postcard was written by Captain John Clark. He does, however, appear to be somewhat stressed.’” He laughed. “Stressed. That’s what they said.”
Throughout their imprisonment, the men occupied their minds by designing their dream homes, talking about their families and expressing worries about going home.
Going home. Clark stiffened.
For many veterans of the Vietnam War, returning was the hardest part. Bill Nix entered the Army in 1967 by an appointment from the Surgeon General. Nix had experience as an undergraduate and graduate teaching assistant in psychology, physiology and chemistry. He taught physiology at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.
On the last year of his contract, Nix received orders to enter South Vietnam as a 9th Infantry Division surgeon’s assistant in an area regularly assaulted by sniper fire. After the 9th Division, Nix was sent to Cam Ranh Bay to help run the 6th Convalescent Center, a hospital that cared for about 700 U.S. service members.
Viet Cong commandos, called sappers, targeted the hospital. “They’d strip naked and paint themselves black with grease so you couldn’t see them, and they carried bombs and machine guns,” Nix says. “One night we were overrun. They came in one door and went through to the opposite door, just shooting indiscriminately into the hospital.” The Vietnamese sappers threw satchel charges into the wards and shot anyone who tried to run out.
That night, the sappers killed 13 people and injured more than 60. Nix was unharmed.
When Nix completed his orders, his command offered him a promotion to major, a high achievement for an officer in his late 20s. But he turned it down to get out of the service and go home.
Sitting in an aircraft on the tarmac at the end of his deployment in March 1970, Nix recalls holding his breath until the plane took off and he could see clouds. This began his transition from the war in Vietnam to the quieter conflict he and many veterans returned to at home.
After his tour in Vietnam, Nix gave up medicine forever. “I never wanted to see another body again, no more blood, not one more body,” Nix says. “I was just ready to forget the whole mess.”
He made a stop in San Francisco to see his sister and then flew to Bethalto, Ill., to stay with his parents. When he got there, he found his neighbors had been ostracizing his parents for his involvement in the war.
“They’d make snide remarks to them, too,” Nix says. “They’d tell them that I was a baby killer.” His parents stood up for him, but Nix felt horrible that they were being punished because of his service. He moved back to San Antonio to be closer to a military community he could relate to before beginning a Wall Street career. Nix, now 71, currently works as a commercial real estate agent in Columbia and lives with his wife in northern Columbia.
Checking out of the Hanoi Hilton
In fighting a war that a vocal population of American citizens did not support, many returning Vietnam veterans had unique experiences.
The rising anti-war sentiment led President Nixon to institute a policy called “Vietnamization,” in which the U.S. military began to turn over its combat role to South Vietnamese allies and gradually pull out of the country. Near the end of 1972, only about 26,000 U.S. combat troops remained on the ground in Vietnam. This painted a bleak picture for the prisoners still at Hanoi.
Clark and some of the other prisoners at Hanoi began to feel abandoned as the war appeared to wind down. “For six years, you live with a lot of thoughts,” he says. “Are we going to die here? Are we going to be abandoned? You’re thinking, ‘Why wouldn’t they?’ I didn’t really believe that America had abandoned its warriors. But think of the cost to our government to get us back. It’s very expensive. It’s going to cost maybe more lives than ours.”
In the fall1972, the Hanoi guards moved all but 35 of the 591 prisoners to the northern border with China. Clark and the other prisoners remaining at Hanoi began to worry why they had been separated from the rest.
“But then the B-52’s came in, and they just lit Hanoi up,” Clark recalls, his eyes shining with excitement.
On Dec. 18, the U.S. launched Operation Linebacker II, an 11-day bombing campaign that would bring the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table and mark the end of the prisoners’ time in Vietnam.
“Hanoi was just ablaze,” Clark says. “We were standing on each others’ shoulders watching the explosions from the windows, and the prison guards were ducked down in their foxholes yelling at us to get down,” he says laughing. “But we weren’t scared. No, we were enjoying it. Our B-52’s, all our aircrews, all our airplanes knew exactly where that prison was. The last thing that they wanted to do was put a bomb in that prison.”
Following the B-52 attack, the North Vietnamese began releasing the POWs in groups. Clark was in the second group to be released, on Feb. 18, 1973, as a gift of faith to the visiting U.S. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. The men in Clark’s group were not released in any particular order though, so Clark and the men in his group refused to go until all those who were shot down before them were released. The Vietnamese threatened to keep them for the rest of their lives, until the men’s superiors ordered them to go for diplomatic reasons. The rest of the prisoners were later released in similar fashion, group by group.
Before Clark could return to Columbia, his group went through a debriefing period in the Philippines. On the way to their next layover in Hawaii, Clark started experiencing symptoms of malaria and was sent to Scott Air Base in Illinois for several weeks of treatment. At the air base, Clark got to see his wife and daughter and meet his son for the first time.
“Everything was just a blur at that point,” he says. “There was a lot going on that I had not been associated with before: welcoming home from lots of people and organizations, people wanting speeches and interviews, dealing with my own personal difficulties, and then deciding what my future would be in or out of the military.”
Veterans who remained in active military, such as Ernie Allen, agree there was a disparity between their experiences and those of individuals who left the service immediately after the war, whether by disability, finishing their contracts or exiting the draft.
Allen boarded a plane to Vietnam alone just before Christmas 1971 as a battalion advisor to the South Vietnamese infantry units. At 22, he had been in the Army for more than three years. As an officer, he served in a supervisory role, directing U.S. air strikes. But in the years after his deployment to Vietnam, he served as a company commander and observed the challenges some service members faced in transitioning both into their units in Vietnam and back into their communities upon their return.
“Today, when troops deploy, they go as a unit and come back as a unit,” Allen says. “The first wave or so of U.S. forces in Vietnam was like that. Whole units went and set up. They were mostly aviation. They did their tour and all came back together.”
But with 25 percent of U.S. forces entering Vietnam by the draft, troop conscription created a very individual war. “After the first ones, everyone who got ordered to Vietnam went by themselves,” he says. “So there wasn’t that camaraderie going or coming back.”
As the war escalated, draftees were increasingly sent to Vietnam to “fill in the ranks,” to replace someone who had been killed or injured. “Even when they got there, they were still very isolated,” Allen says. “No one wanted to bond, you know, in case it happened again.”
After his tour in Vietnam, Allen was reunited with his family and moved to his next duty station in California.
“I personally never ran into any animosity when I got back, but again, I stayed on active duty and made a career out of it.” Allen, now 64, went on to fill several staff officer positions during his military career and retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He then taught ROTC at Michigan Technical University for three years and later JROTC at the Missouri Military Academy for six years.
Other active duty service members received orders to Europe where the American anti-war sentiment did not exist. But immediately after serving their obligations, most draftees left the service, along with more than 75,000 service members medically discharged with severe disabilities.
Assimilation for many of these soldiers, even in their own hometowns, introduced them to a new form of isolation.
“The culture then was just very different,” Allen says. “It wasn’t all because of the protests either. They’d go home with all that they’d experienced, and things just weren’t quite the same. They changed, and some of their communities had changed too.”
The Home Front
Clark swallowed hard and sat straighter in his chair as he went on about his return to Columbia. “Just because you leave doesn’t mean life stops for the people you leave behind,” Clark says. Soldiers’ wives and dependents had to learn to adjust to life without them.
“The guys would come home, and here are the women who have become so independent,” Clark says. “She’s been driving the car, she’s been paying the bills, and she’s been doing all of these things, making ends meet all by herself. So, they would grow, and over there you would grow, too, but you didn’t always grow together.”
Shortly after his return, Clark and his first wife divorced.
The Department of Defense provided him with two counselors, a married couple, to help him transition into the civilian world that had changed so much in his absence. “When my marriage began to look like it was going to end, they helped me prepare,” he says. “It was a lot of simple things, really. They had me buy a color TV. That was kind of a new thing to me.”
Clark, who received his Air Force commission through the MU’s ROTC program, briefly moved in with another veteran and went back to school two years after he returned to the States to earn a master’s degree in business administration.
Clark remarried and moved back to Columbia, his hometown. He regularly participates in reunions with several of his fellow former POWs.
He began to take up offers to give speeches about his experiences and became a kind of advocate for Vietnam veterans, a generation that, apart from seeking each other out, spent a number of years feeling very much alone.
“When I speak to these groups of veterans, I tell them that people don’t approach them — not because they aren’t grateful for their service, but because after so many years, people just aren’t sure how to begin that conversation.”