Last weekend was the long-delayed welcome home for Vietnam veterans held at Lambeau Stadium in Green Bay. Billed as LZ Lambeau, it was a three-day extravaganza where Vietnam vets could reconnect and receive the thanks from the public they were denied 40 years earlier. I arrived with my wife Judi and my baggage of disillusionment and doubt wearing three hats -- Vietnam veteran, peace activist and freelance writer for Isthmus.
Three years ago I published a memoir called Hitchhiking from Vietnam: Seeking the Ox, about trying to make sense of my life after Vietnam. I was still harboring a lot of resentment toward my government. Though the names of the presidents changed, my anger continued to simmer. I became active with the Madison branch of Veterans for Peace to channel my rage against other wars that should not have been fought and the deaths of other soldiers that did not need to happen.
For the past three years, VFP has set up the "Memorial Mile," a display of tombstones in Madison parks to honor U.S. soldiers who have died in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars. Last fall Wisconsin Public Television asked VFP to consider setting up the display at LZ Lambeau. We decided to go ahead with it only to learn in March that the plan been shot down due to "security concerns."
Although the event was being organized by Wisconsin Public Television, some of us suspected that the corporate interests of many of defense contractors who donated heavily to the event had influenced the decision to scrap the "Memorial Mile." I was steamed, expecting that LZ Lambeau would be nothing more than a glorification of the military and a justification of the U.S. government's past and present interventionist policies.
In order to counter this, VFP gave some workshops at the library and the Labor Temple in Green Bay. The first seminar began with a special screening of the documentary, The Good Soldier, which followed the experiences of five combat veterans from different generations. About 60 people showed up. Before the movie, Will Williams, a decorated Madison combat veteran and member of VFP who had made several promotional spots for public TV, told the audience that he had asked LZ Lambeau to stop using his name and image to promote it. "Going to war for corporate interests in not in the best interests of the country," he said.
In 1966 I dropped out of college in my junior year and chose to enlist in the Navy, rather than take my chances with the draft. After boot camp I was assigned to Naval Construction Battalion 74. We made two deployments to Vietnam with the Seabees from 1967-68, where I worked as a storekeeper handling supplies. At first I believed in the war but later came to realize that it was a huge mistake.
I had planned to sell copies of my book at LZ Lambeau using a couple signs on iridescent paper that I stuck to my vest. One said "Vietnam Veteran" and the other read "Buy my Book." I planned to walk around with my Vets for Peace shirt, Vietnam Service Medal, "Peace is Patriotic" button and Seabees hat to see if anyone would stop to talk with me about my book -- an experiment in marketing. I just hoped no one would banish me from the grounds because I wasn't an authorized vendor. I'd be inconspicuous yet visible.
Saturday morning we got to LZ Lambeau and I put on my outfit. We began walking around. People would see me coming, then averted their eyes when I looked at them and smiled. I walked on. We went over to large floor map of Southeast Asia that was crowded with vets who were writing their names and units on it.
The area around DaNang, where I had been stationed, was full of signatures but I managed to squeeze one in. I moved down the coast and found a spot near Chu Lai where I wrote my name and "MCB-74." I looked around and my eyes settled on Quang Nai.
Judi and I had visited the site of the My Lai massacre, where more than 500 Vietnamese civilians had been killed by American troops, of the event's 40th anniversary in 2008. I looked at the bare spot where My Lai should have been. I felt it deserved a spot on the map. I knelt down and wrote "My Lai, site of the My Lai Massacre in 1968." I got up and a woman was staring at me. "Thank you," was all she said.
Next we checked out the military equipment display where Will Williams said there were modern machines of death. There was an ambulance with a red cross on it, some jeeps and a Vietnam era rocket firing piece but nothing modern. Later Will saw the same display and came to the same conclusion. "Maybe they heard we were coming and decided to tone it down," he said.
A program called "The Deadly Writers Patrol: Writing That Gives Voice to the Vietnam Feelings" was being held in the Atrium. Writers were encouraged to bring a sample of their writings. I was late for the event but managed to read the part of my book about arriving in Vietnam. After the seminar I sold a couple books and talked with some vets who were trying to write memoirs but were having trouble dredging up the past. I offered some advice. Find something you were moved by and then expand on it.
Judi and I were both wearing Vets for Peace shirts but she had a newer one with a quote from General Dwight Eisenhower: "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, as only one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity..." A woman came up to her and said, "I read the back of your shirt and liked what it said. Everybody here should have that on."
Encounters like these were turning my mind around. Perhaps this wasn't really a celebration of war. Later an Air Force veteran noticed my shirt and said, "You know, I don't think anybody here would disagree with you. We were lied into war by two Texans and that's enough. Just don't get in anyone's face about it." I said no, I wasn't about to get in anyone's face.
We scoured some free tickets for the 7:30 p.m. tribute ceremony and took the elevator to the third deck. The stadium began filling up. On the field were 1,244 white chairs lined up to resemble a cemetery. Each chair was for a Wisconsin veteran dead or missing from the war. A big screen atop the end zones showed the action down on the stage.
Kimo Williams and his group the Kimotions lit up the stadium with Jimi Hendrix's' "Purple Haze" and "Foxy Lady." Williams used to play his guitar in Vietnam. Someone suggested he get a band together and play for some of the units in the field. He said they sent him out with an M-16 and a Stratocaster and told him to use each one in the appropriate situation.
A woman from his group performed a number she had written called "Empty Boots." It went: "Don't give us empty boots, don't make more empty boots we are weeping for our empty boots." For the first time I choked back a tear.
That was followed by another veteran named Rockie Lynne with a country western song that went, "I want to thank you from my heart, want to say the words we should have said, it's been too long overdue I want to say thank you." I teared up and felt a lump in my throat.
After the show was over and we were walking to the car, a young man shook my hand. "Thank you for your service," he said. In the past I would think, "Yeah, you mean thank you for my dis-service," because that's what I thought about my service. Now I came to realize that it didn't have anything to do with actual service.
It was just appreciation that we willingly or unwillingly sacrificed part of our lives -- a period of time we will never be able to reclaim for money or honor or any of the other things people say we sacrificed for. We did what many others did not have to do, especially now when there is no draft. We said, "Yes we will. Yes we will serve for better or for worse."
We deserved better from our country. We deserved to be sent somewhere to do some good. We deserved careful reflection from our leaders before risking our lives. We didn't get that. So to that man who shook my hand I said the only thing I could say: "You're welcome."