Copyright (c) 1980, 1987, The Vietnam War Library

Chapter 19 - MY COUNTRY 'TIS OF THEE....

It was after 6 in the evening when my plane from Bien Hoa began its final descent over Oakland Army Base in California. The sky was overcast and a nest of beautiful, dark rain clouds were on the distant horizon. When we left Bien Hoa just after 8pm, 22 hours ago, the temperature was 102 in the shade and the cooling monsoons were 7 months away.

On our arrival Oakland was visible only on the right side of the plane. The ground below seemed almost deserted. Taps had sounded a little over an hour before, ending the 9 to 5 business day. Returning to an 8 hour work day was going to be like a vacation to all of us.

I was both fortunate and unfortunate in choosing a window seat on the right side of the bird, my view of the base was unimpaired. When boarding, the guys who left from Oakland for 'Nam a year ago were quick to grab a window seat on the left side. That was because Oakland was visible on that side. They forgot the base would be on the opposite side coming back.

Despite offers of up to $50 I refused to sell my seat. Although the closer we got to the runway, I wished I had. By the time the wheels touched down I had 4 other people sitting on my lap. I couldn't help but wonder if planes behaved as boats did when everyone flocked to one side. Fortunately we landed so quickly my fear of a roll-over was short lived.

It must've been an incredible sight to the stewardesses watching all of us as we tried to get a glimpse of America. But the excitement of returning was too much for some of us. While we were in 'Nam all we thought about was getting back home and whether we'd make it. Now, finally coming home was a shock. Immediately after feeling happy, we were overwhelmed by the fear of both seeing things differently, and being seen as different. I began to envy the Marines and the Navy guys who came home on troop ships that took almost a month to cross the Pacific. They had time to fully adjust to the idea of returning. The 3 days it took for us to get from Bien Hoa to Oakland was a little too fast. But the sound of the bird's wheels scorching into the runway signaled there was no turning back.

As the plane taxied closer to the brightly lit incoming hangar, I quickly tried to remember as much as I could about what this place called America was like before I left it. My memory was sketchy. Having completely adjusted to V'nam for the last year, almost everything about home had been erased.

Gradually, I began to remember America was a world where there were as many diversions as there were people. I had just left a world where the only diversion was war and come home to a world of television commercials, all-night hamburger stands, drive-up bank tellers, pool parties, Saturday weddings, Hollywood movies, vitamin pills, and flushing toilets. I began to remember the terror some of us felt in leaving this madness a year ago for the insanity of Vietnam. But that was nothing compared to the terror of returning to it.

Everyone watched the ramp as it rolled up to the bird. Following the footsteps of a steward as he pulled himself up each stair, we watched as he grabbed the handle outside the hatch and gave it a sharp turn. We listened to the hiss of the air pressure escaping the plane as the hatch cracked open. The sound was like the twist-top of a huge beer can being pulled back and ripped off. I remembered that sound when the hatch was opened in Cam Rahn Bay. This time, however, no one pinched their noses. We all sat back and took a long, deep breath.

Although Oakland smelled different than Ogden, New York City, Phoenix, or Boston, it still smelled like America. For all the guys who had to catch another plane to go across country, that first breath in Oakland was the one they'd remember for a long time.

As we exited the plane, some of the guys were able to maintain their cool and patiently run down the ramp, others however, couldn't wait to touch home base so they jumped the fifteen feet. Still others must have flown because by the time I got inside the terminal, they were already processing in and changing clothes. If not for the fact that I recognized some of them having been on my bird, I would have thought they arrived on a flight that had landed before ours.

After I touched ground, I fulfilled a promise I made to myself on August 2, 12 months ago. I got down on my knees, pressed my lips to the ground, and kissed it. As I got back to my feet one of the Air Force attendants who helped roll the ramp to the plane asked me if I was worried about getting sick from the oil and dirt on the runway. I smiled and replied that the taste of American oil and dirt was a lot more enjoyable than some of the food I had to eat for the last year. He smiled back.

The Army kept a 24 hour cafeteria going at the air terminal offering a free steak dinner for V'nam returnees. Very few people, however, took them up on it. Most guys considered it an unnecessary delay in getting through the tedious 2 hours of processing ahead of us, while others wanted to wait until they got home and have a steak made their way.

2 of the most memorable instances I had during our brief 2-hour processing period probably said more for my returning home than anything else. One was a Green Beret Lieutenant Colonel who headed the welcoming committee. A V'nam vet himself, he hobbled on a wooden cane. He'd lost a leg in 'Nam a couple years ago.

Although the Army made him learn a corny speech one of its desk-bound junior psychologists prepared for our welcome, he dispensed with it and spoke only a few words of his own.

"Boys, when you get to your various homes I want you to try to be very patient with your families and friends. Until they're satisfied you're not a baby killer, they're all going to ask you how many people you killed. But later on, after the war has ended, they'll forget about the bad things. Then they'll want to know what you think about the latest V'nam movie."

Everyone smiled.

"It's important that you remember, and realize, that for the last year the most important thought in all of your minds was trying to stay alive. For the people here, nothing has changed. Their biggest concern is still what it's always been, what should they wear tomorrow."

Everyone laughed.

"So take your time when you get home. Don't try to rush into getting back into the groove as the hippies say. You don't have to worry anymore about getting shot by a sniper or blown up by a bomb. and being a V'nam veteran doesn't make you different. Almost every American in this country has had some kind of tragedy that equates with the hard times you spent in Vietnam. They're all veterans of one thing or another. The thing that sets you apart from everybody else is that you've been to Vietnam. That means you're a survivor. That makes you special. So take your time getting a feel for things over here. The girls are wearing new clothes these days, they call them mini-skirts and see-through blouses. So take a long walk and check out a few. Then go eat a pizza, see a movie, or swallow a goldfish. Just put the war behind you. Because for you, it's over."

Everyone applauded and thanked him.

As he hobbled away I thought about his words. We all knew he was right. His words were the roots of our past. The insanity some of us came to regard as sanity in V'nam was the way we had to accept life for the last year, but now we were home. I came to the conclusion that the insanity of V'nam really didn't have to be that difficult to overcome. After all, V'nam really couldn't be any more insane than the country that sent us there. I came to realize that life itself may be a little insane. To readjust to America all I had to do was simply exchange one form of insanity for another.

Changing into our brand new Class A's was the last stage of our in-processing. It was then that I encountered the 2d most memorable experience of my return. The music being piped into the dressing area over the wall speakers began to play a song I hadn't heard for a long time. Beginning with orchestral music the tiny voices of kindergarten children slowly began blending in. The song was "My Country 'Tis Of Thee".

As some of us stopped to listen to the children sing, the song seemed to echo our own forgotten past. Although most of us had only recently turned 20, V'nam made the 15 years since we sang that song seem like a 100. Listening to the words helped me to remember those forgotten 15 years.

"My country tis of thee,

sweet land of liberty

for thee I sing.

Land where our fathers died,

land of the Pilgrims pride,

from every mountainside,

Let freedom ring."

As I looked around the room, some of the guys were brushing tears from their faces. I wondered if they were crying because they remembered singing it themselves, or because they were sad the kids we were listening to might one day have to endure what we did. It may have been a little of both.

As the song ended, some of us felt as though a great weight had been lifted. We were the lucky ones. We had survived. and hearing those beautiful words again made all of us realize that even though what we'd been through was probably going to be the worst experience of our lives, we all knew that America must also survive as we had. It was a nice place to be from and a nice place to come home to. It would be an even nicer place if the tiny voices we just heard didn't have to grow up to leave as we had.

The sun was sinking on the horizon as I walked off Oakland Army Base for for the Greyhound Bus Depot that would take me home, and to this new world. I looked back at the deserted terminal and the freedom bird being readied to take on a new load of replacements. I thought about some of the guys who had been forced to make their flight home sooner than they were scheduled to. I thought about the re-adjustment that all of us would have to go through. I thought about the night of February 17th.

For me, there would be 14 more months of military disorganization and disappointment at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California. But after that, I promised myself I would make a life that I would create and choose for myself. I decided I would never forget all the things I had learned, seen, and done.

Someone once said that nobody hates war more than the men who had to fight it. For the men of all the Company A44's all over V'nam we owe something to the kids who sang for us on our return. The greatest honor we can receive in fighting America's worst war must be in trying to prevent it from happening that way again. Those of us who were there know the reality of war. We also know war will never end until we all get together and decide to end it. and it's really quite simple. We just say no.

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