Haunting memories of the Vietnam era run deep

We stood in front of the granite wall, the names of young men who died in the most controversial war in American history rising before us. Not more than 6 years old, I held my dad’s hand as we walked past the names of 58,000 lost souls.
He stopped and ran his finger down the wall. He paused. Richard Carson. Bowing his head, the image was forever branded in my youthful memory as he began to sob.
I have not seen my father cry in the 15 years since.
On the breach of turning 50, my father saw his generation defined by the Vietnam War. And as the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon approached on Sunday, his memories went back to those days when college campuses were up in arms, he thought he had a date with destiny in the jungle of Vietnam and an old friend died in a war he could neither support nor condemn.
My dad, General College professor David Ghere, grew up in Arcola, Ill. — a small farming community three hours south of Chicago famous for its broomcorn and the Lawn Rangers, a mock precision lawn mower-riding team that performs during city festivals and parades. The community was built on local farming industry and still has horse and buggy parking signs for the Amish community that resides on its borders.
My father was an active youth: an Eagle Scout, part of his high school football team and a strong member of his Presbyterian church. His parents worked several jobs to make ends meet, as both had little or no higher education.
The second of three children, my father had to make some hard decisions about how to pay for college. He knew it was important to get an education, so he applied for an ROTC scholarship — his ticket to higher education.
Growing up in a lower-class family from rural Illinois, my dad assumed he would end up fighting in Vietnam. It was more a matter of time than anything else, he said.
If he didn’t go to college, he would be drafted immediately. By joining the ROTC, he could put off the war for a few years and become an officer rather than just an infantryman.
Having a base interest in military history and now an aspiring ROTC student, my dad paid attention throughout the war. Today a history professor, he was especially interested in military tactics when the United States got involved in Vietnam during his high school years.
While he didn’t consider himself pro- or anti-war, he disagreed with the government’s military strategies. “I had read a lot about guerrilla warfare and was concerned our policy wouldn’t work,” he said. “There were some huge military and political contradictions.
“I had some real dilemmas with regard to the war,” he added. “I had difficulty protesting and supporting the war.”
My grandparents were still very pro-war at the time. Six of my grandfather’s brothers, plus himself, served in World War II; one was killed in action.
“They knew I had reservations and questions about the war,” my dad explained. “But they really couldn’t understand why people would be draft-dodgers, and they really trusted the government.” His parents felt if your country called, you served, and that if you didn’t, you were a coward, he said.
The Tet Offensive changed all that.

Vietnamese New Year
Prior to the Tet Offensive, politicians highlighted news that made the war sound good, my dad said. “Some people realized it was all PR,” but others didn’t.
Then, on Jan. 30, 1968 — when the United States had more than 500,000 troops in Vietnam — the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched a surprise attack on cities considered deep within U.S. control on Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Although the U.S. military considered Tet a victory, the incident showed the public for the first time that America wasn’t winning the war.
The loss of public support was furthered when popular news anchor Walter Cronkite told viewers the government had been misleading them. At that moment, President Johnson reportedly turned to his advisors and said “we have just lost the American people.”
My dad, a high school senior at the time, said Johnson was right.
The Tet Offensive changed the views in his parents’ house. “They still wouldn’t have wanted me to go to Canada, but after the Tet Offensive, they were more cynical of the war,” my dad explained.
Prior to the public shift, his parents could understand why people would be scared to go, but afterward they were aware of moral oppositions to the war as well.
They realized it took courage to be a protester, as well as a soldier, he said.

A college freshman
The draft was stepped up while my dad was a freshman at the University of Illinois- Champaign/Urbana, and educational deferments became null and void.
He remembers sitting in the rec room in his dorm with a large group of guys and some of their girlfriends, watching the national draft lottery decide their fate. While my dad was there out of curiosity, many men watched to find out where they would be in a month or a year.
A machine with likenesses to a lotto machine spit out birth date after birth date, the order in which men born on those dates would be drafted. Some elicited sighs of relief; others were followed by anger or depression as the men reacted to the knowledge they could be drafted any day.
Some friends’ birthdays were picked early.
“The air would go out of them, and it’s like, `Oh my God. What am I going to do?'” he said. Most men would just try to stay alive, but others would flee to Canada to avoid the draft.
My dad’s birthday was 120, he remembers; had he not been in ROTC, he would have gone to war without a doubt.
The young men didn’t know when their number would be up, but they knew it could be soon. The country draft board took the list of eligible men in order of birth date and keep going down the list until it had filled that month’s quota.

ROTC days
Although he was not a direct supporter or dissenter of the war, my dad still felt the effects of being a member of the campus ROTC.
After the University of Wisconsin-Madison ROTC building was bombed, his superiors told my dad and his classmates not to wear their uniforms on campus for six weeks.
Although he never felt any direct danger, he vividly remembers walking to his class in the armory and being taunted by students sitting on the building’s steps. But most times, he said, students saw him as just another victim of the war.
Even high-ranking officials were aware of the pressure ROTC students were receiving on their campuses. In the early 1970s, the Pentagon instructed ROTC officers to be more sensitive to what their students might be going through.
At the same time, my dad had started to grow his hair longer. With a shaggy haircut, he and his friend with an afro were having trouble fitting their army caps over their heads. In a last-ditch effort, they appealed to the head of the University of Illinois’ ROTC to change its hair-length requirements.
Much to their surprise, the superior officer was receptive and the haircut policy was liberalized. They thought they had accomplished the impossible. They did not find out until later the officer thought my dad and his friend were upset they would be targeted for being ROTC members if they were forced to cut their hair, and obliged their request.
My dad was not the only member of the ROTC questioning America’s war decisions.
“Outsiders would have been surprised at how cynical most ROTC students were and how openly we criticized government policies,” he explained. “Even some ROTC officers were sympathetic.”
My dad said the officers’ sympathy was probably the result of having the gruesome duty of informing area families when their sons were killed in the war. There were no army bases close by, so his commanding officers were assigned the duty of going to the families houses and delivering the heart-breaking news.

“Kent State was huge”
The University of Illinois had its share of Vietnam War protests before 12 Ohio National Guard members opened fire at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine students, on May 4, 1970.
But after Kent State, my dad said, “the protests went from 400 students to 8,000 students.”
He watched the Kent State coverage from his dorm room at the end of his sophomore year and remembers first shock, then anger. Students asked how this could happen, he said. Why did the guardsmen have ammunition? Why did they open fire?
“Kent State was huge,” my dad said. Student anger was fueled as details of the shootings surfaced, including a report that the Kent State protesters were in the process of breaking up when they were shot. “That’s what other college students couldn’t believe … that their right to protest could lead to them getting shot,” my dad explained.
For the first time in his college career, my dad participated in a protest after the Kent State massacre. But even that did not go off unfettered.
As 8,000 students began to march, one of the leaders unfurled a Viet Cong flag at the front of the crowd. The Viet Cong were South Vietnamese rebels who fought for North Vietnam. The flag-touting student began to lead the crowd, but only a few students followed, my dad said. They were there to protest the Kent State shootings, not support the opposition.
Eventually, the student put the flag away and 8,000 students marched united against the Kent State shootings.
“There was excitement in terms of how many students were there,” my dad said of the protest, “but I think most of us were feeling anger. The right to protest and voice your anger with the government was being curtailed, and people were even getting shot for it.”

The fall of Saigon
My father thought he would have to go to Vietnam after he graduated college in 1972, but the war was winding down and the Army did not need all of the officers the ROTC was graduating.
Instead, the Army allowed him to go to graduate school, which postponed his entry into the Army until 1974. He would later go back to get his doctorate in American history.
On April 30, 1975, my dad watched the fall of Saigon on television at Fort Hood, Texas, where he was stationed in the Army.
He thought of all the soldiers who had died and felt “anguish that we were leaving a bunch of people behind that had risked their lives defending our position in the war.” His sentiments were felt all over the country.
Saigon’s defeat and the North Vietnamese take-over of its counterpart were vividly depicted on the news, with stinging images of Vietnamese citizens climbing the walls of the American embassy plastered all over the television.
And as the capital city a world away fell to communist rule, a “real sense of depression” settled over the country, my dad said. The United States had never lost a war before; the unsinkable had been sunk.
American citizens also had a lot of guilt. Guilt for abandoning the South Vietnamese; guilt for all the young men who died when we lost the war anyway; and guilt over who held what position during the war. Anti-war demonstrators blamed supporters and supporters blamed protesters for the loss.
“1975 was a year of a lot of real emotion,” my dad said, “a lot of guilt, depression, anger and finger-pointing.”

Richard Carson
In junior high, Richard Carson and my dad were two kids in a group of seven good friends; they ran track and played football together. And while his memories of good times with Richard are fresh in his mind today, his memory of the day he learned Richard had been killed in the war is not.
My grandmother told him, but it did not sink in, my dad said, because it was fairly routine to hear about people dying in the war. Just three weeks earlier, another guy he graduated with had been killed. “It prepared me a little for Richard’s death,” my dad said. “Maybe Richard would have hit me harder without it.”
Instead, it hit him later. Richard was killed in 1972, when less than one-fifth of U.S. troops remained in Vietnam and the war was winding down. “I thought the killing and risk to my friends was over,” he said of the time, “and then it wasn’t.” When my dad joined the Army in 1974 and talked with other officers who had lost friends in the war, Richard’s death continued to bore into him, he said.
And when Saigon fell in 1975, the guilt the rest of the country felt, my dad felt for Richard. “If he had just not gone over there so quickly or if the war had just ended a little earlier … it seemed like such a waste,” he said. “It made the tragedy worse.”
The guilt also ate at my dad because it was just before hearing of Richard’s death he learned he would not have to go to Vietnam. The questions of why Richard died when he didn’t have to go to war added to his guilt.
And nine years later, when he took his young daughter and even younger son to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. for the first time, “I broke down and cried,” he said. “I didn’t expect that.” All of the guilt, sadness and anger about how and why Richard had died came back and he was overcome.
Twenty-five years after the last troops pulled out of Vietnam, the memories my dad reflects on most are those of his lost friend and his own youthful fears about going to war. “On one hand, I didn’t agree with communism and I was prepared to serve my country,” he said, “but I had severe reservations.”
But his greatest concerns came back to the personal connections he will always have with the Vietnam War — he worried he would have to kill another person. “I didn’t focus on the fact that I could have died,” he said, “I didn’t want to have to kill someone else.”

Erin Ghere is an associate editor and welcomes comments at [email protected]