Charles McCollum

Charles McCollum

“And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?”

That song lyric and a rapid-fire succession of other sounds and images flashed through my head last week while visiting a website called “The Wall of Faces” that displays photos and remembrances of U.S. soldiers killed in the Vietnam War.

Woodstock, Kent State, My Lai, the Hanoi Hilton, the Viet Cong, guerrilla warfare, booby traps, napalm, Agent Orange, Jane Fonda, Bob Hope, Muhammad Ali, Sgt. Barry Sadler, body counts, MIAs, POWs, draft-card burnings, “America: Love it or leave it” bumper stickers, shirtless soldiers, the Tet Offensive, Army helicopters, veteran suicides, the Pentagon Papers, love-ins, boat people, “fragging.”

For those who weren’t alive at the time, many of these references mean nothing, but for baby boomers like me, they present a minefield of emotional triggers. Quite by surprise, I stepped on one of those triggers while visiting the memorial website. Suddenly it hit me that I have survivor’s guilt — not guilt over fighting and surviving the war but guilt over not having to fight at all.

Why this pent-up emotion took nearly five decades to resurface, I don’t know. But while looking at the faces of all those fallen soldiers — many still teenagers or in their early 20s — my eyes watered up, and I found myself silently sending them each an apology from the future that they had to be the ones to die in what our entire nation eventually realized was a futile and senseless war.

Heck, we were in such collective denial about the horrors of Vietnam that we didn’t even call it a “war” for many years.

I went to the The Wall of Faces website specifically to see the pictures and information posted for Cache Valley’s Vietnam War casualties, thinking it might provide some material for a Veterans’ Day article. I counted eight soldiers from the valley on the website and read a variety of eulogies to each one from friends, relatives and fellow soldiers.

The Wall of Faces gives every soldier’s date of birth, date of death, location of death, military rank and hometown. It doesn’t specify whether a soldier enlisted or was drafted into the military, but if national statistics on Vietnam War casualties are reflected locally, about 30% were conscripted.

When I turned 18 in November of 1972, I had no intention of enlisting in the military and going to “Nam,” but like all of my peers I was required to register in the Selective Service System and was issued a draft card.

By that time, the draft lottery had been established and college-student deferments were no longer allowed. My two older brothers had drawn high numbers in previous lotteries and were not drafted, and even though I drew a fairly low number (128), I too got lucky. Between my birthday and next lottery on March 8, 1973, a ceasefire was declared and a U.S. withdrawal was underway.

A lot of people probably don’t remember this, but drug use was so rampant among our disillusioned soldiers that the military required each GI to pass a drug test before being allowed to come home from overseas bases. The use of psychedelics and marijuana by soldiers in the war zone was well-known. It wasn’t until after the war that Americans learned that some 20% of our troops were hooked on heroin, with countless others addicted to amphetamines distributed by none other than their commanding officers.

That’s the kind of war Vietnam was. It shattered many of our myths about duty and fighting for “just” causes.

Being a spoiled suburban kid raised on Beatles music and childishly searching for the meaning of life, I was in no way mentally equipped to serve as a soldier in the Vietnam War and would likely have wound up heavily medicated. And had I made it home, there’s a good chance I’d have been damaged goods.

I think back to a neighbor of my grandmother who returned from the war only a shadow of his once-jovial self. Beau and I had a long talk and a couple of beers one night after the war. His speech had slowed dramatically, and during pauses in our conversation, he repeatedly pointed a finger at me like a gun, pulled a mock trigger and announced, “Bang, you’re dead.”

That might be where my survivor’s guilt began, because up until that time, I was too preoccupied with my own trivial concerns to really notice what the war had wrought for some of the young men forced to fight it. Pretty soon, our whole society would know these aftereffects, as Vietnam veterans started filling the homeless ranks, committing suicide in high-profile ways and showing other signs of severe disturbance.

So the tears came — tears for the lottery losers and the underprivileged young men (many black and Hispanic) who couldn’t afford college to gain a draft deferment. Tears, too, for the proud and patriotic soldiers who signed up voluntarily to serve our country, only to get caught up in such a convoluted cause.

One person leaving a remembrance on a Cache Valley soldier’s Wall of Faces page made this comment: “He gave his life while many at home were protesting and hollering ‘baby killer’ at heroes who were paying the price that the freedom to scream ‘baby killer’ cost.”

This represents another ugly aspect of the Vietnam era that still echoes loudly today — a blanket disrespect of our soldiers shown by some war protesters. But having come of age through those times, I would say that the anti-GI attitude was by far an exception among people questioning the wisdom of the war and even among those who took to the streets. So many had brothers, cousins, friends and neighbors sent home in coffins. They didn’t disrespect the soldiers but rather saw them as victims of an ill-conceived and disastrous military mission “halfway around the world.”

At least that’s my take on those times.

The young men from Cache Valley whose profiles I found at the Wall of Faces include Jerry Newbrand, 22, of Hyrum; Bob Layne, 19, of Lewiston; Gerald Ryan, 20, of Richmond; Peter Krusi, 37, and Richard Noble, 21, of Smithfield; Randall Saunders, 20, George Economous, 21, and Ray Jenkins, 22, of Logan.

If you visit the site, prepare to be moved.

Charlie McCollum is the managing editor of The Herald Journal. He can be reached at cmccollum@hjnews.com or 435-792-7220.

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