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Vietnam marked its veterans for life

PART 4: American soldiers’ Vietnam legacy includes painful memories

Frank Mills of Albany spent almost 15 years away from the Army after Vietnam but eventually signed up with the Georgia National Guard to find what was missing in his life. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

Frank Mills of Albany spent almost 15 years away from the Army after Vietnam but eventually signed up with the Georgia National Guard to find what was missing in his life. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

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Neil Thompson still has health issues related to his service in Vietnam, but he finds peace on property he recently bought in Terrell County. (Staff photo: Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — America’s participation in the Vietnam War will long be debated among historians and war strategists, but there is no question that the conflict changed the America psyche as it relates to the right or wrong of taking up arms.

Following the American-led Allied victory in World War II, the United States was universally lauded as the world’s peacekeeper and became the pre-eminent world superpower. But after Vietnam, its pride wounded by what was generally considered a staggering defeat, America’s golden image was tarnished to the extent that it has never fully recovered.

The spectre of Vietnam remained so ingrained in world geopolitics, the small Asian country’s name was invoked as U.S. involvement in the Middle East escalated for reasons that ultimately proved to be unfounded.

“When we got involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, I saw the parallels to Vietnam,” Albany veteran David Fuller, who lost a leg in Vietnam, said. “I had trouble sleeping at night. As the death toll rose, it made me think of Vietnam.”

The toll on human life in the Vietnam conflict was astronomical. More than 4 million lost their lives as a direct result of fighting in the country, including 2 million Vietnamese civilians, more than a million North Vietnamese troops and around 58,500 U.S. soldiers.

Billions of U.S. tax dollars went into the 8 million tons of bombs that were dropped by American warplanes from 1965 to 1973, and more than 6 million acres of Vietnamese jungle land was destroyed by defoliants such as Agent Orange. Equally as devastating for natives of the agricultural villages in Vietnam were the 688,000 acres of farmland whose crops were destroyed by the Agent Blue chemical agent.

Another casualty of the war was the innocence of a generation of young Americans, many of whom gave their lives or had them significantly altered in the Asian jungles and many more who turned the home front into another battleground with sometimes violent anti-war demonstrations. The names of four young protesters were added to the list of Vietnam-related deaths when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire and killed them during a demonstration at Kent State University.

And the returning soldier as national hero became a thing of the past.

“For years, I didn’t talk about Vietnam,” Terrell County veteran Neil Thompson said. “When we were released, we had to wear our uniforms when we traveled. But things had gotten so bad at home, we were advised to change out of our uniforms as soon as we got on American soil and just forget about Vietnam. But that was something we couldn’t forget, it never went away.”

Like thousands of other veterans who were suffering from the then-undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, local war veterans were left to cope with various levels of PTSD on their own.

“I got a great job at the Firestone (tire) plant when I got home from Vietnam, but I couldn’t deal with the changes,” Albany veteran Bob Washington said. “I’d go to work, but when I got home all I wanted to do was lie in my bed and sleep. After six months, I quit the job. Even though I said I’d never do it again, I re-enlisted because, frankly, I didn’t know how to cope with the world.”

Frank Mills, who enlisted in the Army at age 17 and still works as a career training specialist with the Georgia Army National Guard despite having retired from active duty in 2007, stayed away from the Army for almost 15 years before deciding the Guard would provide the something that was missing in his life after Vietnam.

“I was angry, and I came home to a world I didn’t recognize,” Mills said. “The country was in turmoil. There was Kent State, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, and riots almost every day. Unlike when the soldiers came home from World War II, we didn’t get a hero’s welcome. In fact, it got to the point that I’d almost rather tell people I’d been in jail the last year rather than tell them I’d been fighting in Vietnam.

“I grew my hair down to my ass and basically spent a lot of time hating the Army until I realized that it was the circumstances I hated, not the Army. I eventually joined the National Guard and found something that had been missing in my life since Vietnam.”

For black soldiers who’d put their lives on the line in service to America and “saw things no normal 19-year-old kid should ever have to see,” according to Albany veteran Charles Holsey, the return home was even more bitter.

“I’d just faced death for this country a half a world away, and I came back to face racism on the streets where I grew up,” Holsey said. “It was OK for me to fight for America in a country that I’d never even heard of, but I was called vile names at home, faced jail if I was in the ‘wrong’ place, and I couldn’t get a job … all because my skin was black.

“That’s one of the most disheartening things about my Vietnam experience. I met some wonderful friends who taught me the concept of brotherhood, but I had to wonder why I’d put my life on the line for a country that turned its back on me when I came home.”

Fuller, who admits that he “never really mourned the loss of my leg” after Vietnam, spent two decades dealing with the experience on his own terms.

“Oh, yes, I self-medicated for about the first 20 years I was back in the world,” he said. “I drank, I took every kind of drug you can name. It was 1968, and no one had ever heard of post-traumatic stress disorder. We just had to cope the best way we could. For so long, I was basically working to get drunk. I’d function, barely, but once I got off work, it was Katy, bar the door.

“A lot of veterans who came back from Afghanistan say they smoke pot because it helps them not to remember their dreams. Whiskey doesn’t make you forget, though.”

That’s perhaps the greatest tragedy of the legacy of the men who fought in Vietnam and lived to tell about it. They’ve spent the rest of their lives back in the world trying to survive the endless nightmares and forget the atrocities that they, often unwittingly, were a part of.