Veteran Bob Washington is one of many Southwest Georgia veterans who served active duty in Vietnam. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)
ALBANY — Neil Thompson doesn’t even pause as he responds to a question with a complex number that’s seared into his memory.
“The most depressing thing, the biggest tragedy of Vietnam for Americans, is that 58,456 of our men died fighting in a war that very few, if any, really understood,” Thompson, a retired Terrell County insurance agent and Vietnam veteran said. “Like every war, Vietnam was about economic issues. But mostly it was about politics.
“America got involved in Vietnam for all the wrong reasons. And then we handled it wrong when we got there.”
Like hundreds of thousands of Baby Boomers who are now easing into their golden years, Thompson has a definite point of reference for his take on the war that divided America when it was fought and continues to confound modern-day historians. A Canadian citizen who was “conned” into enlisting in the U.S. Army when he went with a friend to an induction center in 1961, Thompson lives daily with the horrors of Vietnam, his health impacted by the Agent Orange chemical defoliant dropped on acres of lush Vietnam jungle land and his sleep haunted by nightmares of friends killed in battle.
“You do your best to think of more pleasant things,” Thompson says. “But as you get older, it actually gets worse. You just don’t get better.”
Thompson is one of hundreds of Southwest Georgia veterans who engaged in what many say in retrospect was misguided involvement in another country’s war a half-continent away. And while Memorial Day 2014 is being commemorated in the shadow of a growing scandal involving mistreatment of ailing veterans by the country’s Veterans Administration, such indignity is nothing new to Vietnam vets.
“I’m proud of my service to my country,” combat veteran Bob Washington of Albany said. “To be honest, most of us had no idea why were fighting there. We just did our job, did what we were told to do. Even now, though, I still don’t see the purpose. We sent our own young men to die for other countries’ problems.”
Factions in communist North Vietnam and anti-communist South Vietnam had fought over rule of their country as early as the 1940s, while Vietnam was still a French territory. French rule in the country ended in 1954 with the signing of the Geneva Accords. Part of that agreement was that Vietnam would be divided along the 17th Parallel.
American involvement in the Southeast Asian country’s ongoing civil war started as early as 1950, when the U.S. sent military “advisors” to help the anti-communist South. America’s presence in the country, which escalated gradually before full-scale military intervention in 1964 after the USS Maddox was attacked by North Vietnamese fast boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, was based on the so-called “domino theory.” The prevailing concern was that if Vietnam fell to communist rule, other nearby countries in the region would follow, like dominoes.
The number of Americans in Vietnam escalated in the early 1960s under newly elected president John F. Kennedy. Smarting from his stark failure with the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba, Kennedy — whose writings later revealed that he did not want American troops involved in Vietnam — nevertheless tripled the number of advisors in the country in 1961 and again in 1962. Kennedy’s writings showed that he was compelled to show the rest of the world that America was a viable power.
After Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson initially indicated he did not plan to add to the 16,000 U.S. advisors in Vietnam, saying, “I’m not interested in committing American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia.”
Thompson, for one, says history has proved that Johnson may have had a hidden incentive for further American involvement.
“Like Afghanistan and Iraq with their oil, Vietnam was a tremendous producer of rubber and rice,” the Terrell County veteran said. “Economics is always a factor. But I read a great deal, and one of the things I read about Vietnam was that Johnson owned a construction company under his wife’s name, and the company specialized in building military bases.
“I believe that’s one of the main ingredients in America’s involvement in Vietnam.”
In the aftermath of the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, America became fully engaged in the conflict, gearing for war. In March of ‘65, Johnson ordered the deployment of 3,500 Marines. By the end of December, more than 200,000 U.S. troops were engaged.
An uneasy ceasefire settled over Vietnam in 1967, and leaders of the countries involved — the Soviet Union, China and the Viet Cong, South Vietnamese communist sympathizers, in support of North Vietnam and the United States and other world anti-communist allies in support of South Vietnam — talked of peace in the region. But that peace was shattered in January of 1968, during celebration of the lunar new year (Tet) in the country.
“It’s now declassified, but North Vietnamese generals have said the war was all but over after the U.S. bombing escalated in the mid-60s,” Thompson said. “But during the ceasefire that settled over the country, North Vietnam was secretly rebuilding its army, preparing for an all-out engagement.”
History shows that the South Vietnamese and their American allies eventually “won” the Tet showdown. But the cost of that devastating offensive — 4,100 Americans were killed, and an estimated 45,000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives — led the American public and many of South Vietnam’s other allies to re-evaluate their involvement in the war.
The burgeoning American anti-war movement exploded onto college campuses across the country and spilled into every facet of the country’s establishment. When four protesters were fired upon and killed by the Ohio National Guard during a protest at Kent State University, public support for the war took a direct and devastating hit.
When Richard Nixon moved into the White House in 1969, he started a slow withdrawal of American ground troops but actually escalated bombing runs, leading to the deaths of scores of civilians, women and children.
“I was raised on John Wayne movies and ‘Sgt. Rock’ comics,” Albany veteran David Fuller, who lost a leg in Vietnam, said. “I enlisted to go to Vietnam because I thought it was the right thing to do. I believe now we made a mistake going to Vietnam, but that’s easy enough to say using 20-20 hindsight.
“Do I regret going? No, because if I hadn’t gone, I don’t know who I’d be as a person today. But as the news came out of Iraq, and the body count started rising, it affected me. I couldn’t sleep. It brought Vietnam back to me.”
Despite the signing of the Peace Accords in January of 1973, fighting continued in Vietnam. Nixon never got his “withdrawal with dignity,” and he ordered an end to American involvement in August of ‘73. By April of 1975, the North Vietnamese army had overrun Saigon, and Vietnam was united as the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The cost of the war was significant: loss of those 58,000-plus American lives and devastating injuries to tens of thousands more, billions of dollars spent on the war effort, deaths of almost 4 million Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian soldiers and civilians and a laundry list of health problems — from post-traumatic stress disorder, which went generally undiagnosed for decades, to diseases complicated by exposure to Agent Orange and other chemical weapons.
“The biggest question I’ve had about Vietnam since the day I returned is ‘Why?’” Albany veteran Charles Holsey said. “I got to see my 20th birthday in Vietnam, and I saw things no normal 19-year-old should ever see. They took these scared kids and sent them over to a foreign country that was like no place they’d ever seen. And they put all our lives in danger.
“It’s been more than 40 years since I came home from Vietnam. I still don’t have an answer to my question.”
Frank Mills, who served in Vietnam and is now involved in the Army National Guard as a recruiting specialist, shares Holsey’s frustration.
“We’ve all watched the films, heard LBJ tell us why it was important that we go and serve,” Albany veteran Mills said. “But I didn’t know why we went there to start with, and I still don’t know.”
With death a constant part of their reality in Vietnam, and those horrors that Holsey correctly said no kid should be witness to, the survivors of America’s most notorious war relied on various coping mechanisms to maintain their sanity and to live with the atrocities.
“We had a mantra that we said all the time,” Fuller noted. “Sure, it was a coping mechanism and it was cruel, but we constantly told each other ‘It don’t mean nothing.’ If it happened in Vietnam, it simply had no meaning.”
TOMORROW: Soldiers’ stories.