A Vietnam War Story
A Vietnam War Story
Toccoa is a small town in the middle of pretty much nowhere Georgia. You wouldn’t go there unless you had a reason, and in 2015 I did — I was housesitting for some friends who were on a three-week trip to Europe. One day I wandered into town and visited Toccoa’s only tourist attraction — the Currahee Military Museum, featuring memorabilia from nearby Camp Toccoa, where thousands of paratroopers trained for active service in WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.
Little remains of the actual Camp except for some roads and curbs, fire hydrants, the old well house, a water tank, and a block building used as a bunk house. Most of the Camp’s history is now told in the small museum. I was alone there one afternoon except for the receptionist and one other visitor, a man a few years older than me.
“Hello,” I said since it seemed more awkward to not say something than to say. “What brings you to Toccoa?”
“I’m, er, just looking around,” he said. I could sense his reticence. We made a bit of small talk, about nothing really, and then he began to open up.
“I trained here, in prep for ‘Nam,” he said, looking around. “But I live in Arizona now.”
“Wow,” I said. “This place must bring back quite a few memories for you.”
The man looked at me for a long time before answering. There was a hollow sadness in his eyes. “Well, actually yes,” he said, fidgeting with his museum ticket. “That’s why I’m here. To deal with the memories.”
Slowly, cautiously, his story came out. He was a veteran of the Vietnam war. He suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD), an ailment common to many battle-weary soldiers, but that was only recently named and diagnosed. His therapist advised him to confront his terrible memories rather than run from them.
“She told me to write my story on paper,” he said. “She thinks it will help.”
Now I was the hesitant one. Since I was born in 1956, the Vietnam war had been a dominant part of my young life. I grew up with the body counts, the grainy black and white images on the nightly news, with Mỹ Lai.
I escaped the war by a whisker. I was assigned a number by the Draft Board, but the war ended before I was called. Fate had decided I would live, but I had come close enough to Vietnam to smell it. I knew it was bad. I knew unspeakable horrors took place there, horrors that must now be spoken of if there is ever to be healing. I, we all, have an obligation to listen without judgment.
“Are you willing to share your story with me?” I asked the man. “Would that be helpful to you?”
“I guess so,” he said, and we exchanged email addresses. “As long as you promise not to reveal my name or identity in any way.” I promised him I would not, and eight typewritten pages arrived in my mailbox a few hours later.
To say his story was harrowing would be an understatement. Creeping through snake-ridden, swampy jungles in the night. The killing of innocents. Watching a fellow serviceman die. Beheadings. It was no wonder to me that he had nightmares.
He struggled with the insanity of it all, with the horrible violence, and with the dishonesty. The U.S. Military was not supposed to be in Cambodia at that time. It was illegal, so the man could not fulfill all the duties and promises he had vowed to keep. He had become part of the bright and shining lie Neil Sheehan wrote about in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name, part of a war of lies and betrayal.
I kept my promise to this Vet. You will never know his name. But now you know a little bit of his story. Just a little bit. But it’s enough.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” Ian Maclaren
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