After Vietnam, my expectations may have been a little high. Life would not be perfect nor close to perfect. Ice cream, I’d dreamed of for a year, didn’t even taste as good as I had remembered.
Although I intend to remain faithful in my promise to write honestly and to give you the unvarnished version of how I was feeling, reacting, or coping at any given time, I believe I complained a bit much in the previous chapter.
Rather than sniveling, I should have said: “I’m out of Vietnam, back in the World with no worry of being shot by a Kalashnikov; no booby traps — no incoming. I have no field expedition requirements, and despite my on-call status, I’ve not been apart from my wife for more than 24 hours, and I sleep next to her warm body every night in a comfortable bed.”
SoCal is a Hip-Laid Back megalopolis, and we had already visited Disneyland. Ft. McArthur was a beautiful and historical post, named after one of our most famous generals. It was a great assignment.
I was working in the HQ building on the second floor in the Awards and Decoration section one day in Mid-1968 when I heard raised voices from downstairs, a slight commotion. Someone was yelling, “Where the fuck’s personnel?”
It was a young man in civilian clothes, a bit scruffy with an attitude, standing near the Sergeant Major’s office. With no authority over someone he didn’t know to be in the military, and not in uniform, the senior NCO was in no position to dress him down, but he was doing so anyway. The man had walked into the HQ of an active army post using profanity after all; what gives?
Turns out — I kid you not — he was looking for the personnel office, so he could pick up his Medal Of Honor! We were astonished when we found out he was not joking.
I talked with the former soldier briefly, while the Sergeant Major, both hands covering his face, was hyperventilating. He wanted no ceremony, no publicity. I asked him if he had considered staying in the Army, as the Medal Of Honor (MOH) would surely be a boon to his career. “Fuck no, are you dinky dau?” he snapped, “I’m hanging drywall, making five-dollars an hour.”
I considered telling him the story that I’d heard about President Truman, a combat veteran, who upon presenting a soldier the Medal Of Honor in the White House remarked: “I’d rather have [earned] that medal than be President.”
Oh, well. This superhero, presumably, returned to his apartment in Downey, tossed his MOH in a drawer, got up the next morning, and went to work — hanging more drywall.
On the subject of work, I wondered what plum assignment a warrant officer in our section had. He would come into the office looking sharp is his Class-A uniform, stay a few minutes, and was gone the rest of the day.
Then I found out. He was occupied with notifying LA area next of kin of those killed in Vietnam. When a family is informed, the military member must be at least equal rank as the KIA. Most helicopter pilots in Vietnam were warrant officers. Our soldier of that rank, outside of bloody combat, was fulfilling the worst duty in the military — ringing those doorbells. This dreadful detail would not only continue, but increase. The deadliest year for US troops in Vietnam was this year, 1968, and that included lots of helicopter pilots.
I can imagine him wheeling a big olive drab ’65 Ford Custom 500 staff car, without power steering, around the streets of LA. The yellow three-inch tall lettering on the front doors read: “U.S. Army For Official Only.”
He was a great target for citizens, who occasionally gave him the finger. It may have come from those active in protest movements, or people who just hated the U. S. Army for what it may have done to them or their families.
With likely outdated paper maps, he crept slowly through neighborhoods looking for that address. Spotted by service member wives, daughters, sons, or parents, they pointlessly retreated to the back of their houses, trying to hide from their front doors, but listening still, for that knock and praying that it never came.
Back in the States, away from the war, I hadn’t thought much about General Norton’s declaration. That was until May 1968. I was out with four or five friends from the post, TV playing in the background, when the news came on. I saw Pres. Johnson at the White House place the Medal Of Honor around Hagemeister’s neck!
Excited and surprised, I raised my voice over the din in the club, “Hey, I know this guy, I was out there with him. That’s Chuck Hagemeister!” The guys were twisting their faces, “OK Swan, OK, sure, all right then,” they grumbled — never looking up from their game of pool. I tried once more, “No really,” and then just gave up. (Unfortunately, Hagemeister’s father would not live to see his son receive the monumental honor, he died when his only son was just four-years-old.)
I often think of that day in 1967, about Hagemeister, about the brave men who got no medal at all, and about those who gave it all. Now I live secluded near the ocean, count my blessings every night in a comfortable bed. I’m no longer worried about taunts from my fellow citizens — like those at the airport the day I arrived from Vietnam — or incoming from the enemy we fought for so long, so long ago, so far away.
As for those who may have said, "People who served in Vietnam were Suckers." I disagree. "No Thank you for your Service Suckers" just doesn't have the same appreciatory ring. Instead, it might be appropriate to say of the "leaders" who sent us there: The only domino's that fell were on the 58 thousand plus souls sacrificed and the survivors, many of whom are still suffering.
This concludes my In Country chapters on Vietnam. But it will be a source of discussion in the next two chapters: How We Could Have Won In Vietnam & The 1st Team In Vietnam.