by Spencer Ball
My father served in Vietnam. Until recently this was all I knew about the subject of my family’s involvement with war. My father was never one to talk specifically about his experiences overseas and my mother did not care to elaborate on how things went back home in the states. Maybe I was too young or maybe the memories were too painful. In the past, I received vague responses when the subject of Vietnam was approached, so I learned not to ask about it. However, since I have been in college, my parents have begun to share more of their experiences from that time, giving me a window into what it was like for them to live through it. It is a delicate topic for them, especially for my father who was forced to witness the events that transpired there.
According to Ron Ball, a Vietnam veteran and my father, when the war first began, there was little knowledge of what was really happening and how fast the war was escalating. In fact, conflicts happening in other regions, such as Central and South America, were receiving more attention. To most, the war in Vietnam was just another conflict overseas that did not warrant too much concern from the citizens of the United States. My mother, Deborah Ball, also shared her account of the first stages of the Vietnam War. She recalls, “I was in high school and did not know very much about the war. The kids were too young to be drafted and the main interests were music and going to The Back Door and Rose City to hear live groups, dance, and be with friends” (D. Ball).
In the beginning of the war, enlisted men were revered and looked upon as heroes. My mother remembers how many people “claimed to be close to those who were in the Army” (D. Ball). She also states another reason society was so comfortable with young people enlisting. “We were too used to winning and assumed everyone would come home in one piece, no injuries physical or mental, and the United States would be victorious” (D. Ball). Some soldiers, including my dad, enlisted with the military in order to avoid the draft. This, in turn, helped them avoid much of the stress caused by the draft. By enlisting, the young men were more likely to end up in their preferred section of the military. My mother’s father, being a military man himself, supported the draft and believed that “[it] was everyone’s duty to support the country” (D. Ball). But, personally, it was hard for her to be certain that this was true because she kept seeing soldiers return home “injured or dead” (D. Ball).
Dealing with the experience of war was difficult for my dad and his comrades. Many had differing opinions about the war and some of them were greatly changed by the ordeal. He explained to me how “many troops were confused and angry trying to figure out why the war had transpired in the first place and how we could have lost it with our superior weapons and technical know how” (R. Ball). When asked what changes he noticed in some of his friends, he slowly and almost reluctantly told me about a specific change in a close friend:
After returning home and reuniting, of sorts, with my best friend, I noticed changes in his attitude and personality. Prior to Vietnam we were both happy-go-lucky partying college students. But upon return, my friend began to drink much more heavily and had a short temper plus a sort of “I don’t give a damn” attitude. I look back and realize he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but, as far as I know, he was never treated for it. It cost us our friendship. (R. Ball)
Luckily, my dad did not experience any serious symptoms of PTSD while being back in the states. He did have a little trouble coping with being back home, which he tried to mask with drinking, but he came to the conclusion that it was not helping his cause and was able to snap out of it. In this respect he was very lucky to avoid this problem while many others were not. Even though he was not too greatly affected by PTSD, my father had been slightly numbed by his experience. Problems that people have in their daily lives do not seem that bad to him and he has a hard time understanding why some people become depressed with their situation in life. On some occasions, when I was having a hard time with various things going on around me, he would seem a little distant mainly because he did not see it as a large concern. In recent years, however, he has become more open to this type of thing, and we have become much closer because we have been able to open up to each other about our lives.
Many of the soldiers not only had PTSD to worry about but physical problems as well. During the Vietnam War, a chemical called Agent Orange was used to defoliate the jungles so that the Vietcong (enemy forces) could not hide and ambush U.S. troops (R. Ball). While effective against the Vietnamese plant life, this chemical had devastating effects on the soldiers in terms of muscle and spinal diseases and many other defects that veterans are still dealing with today.
Many of the soldiers joined in protests both in Vietnam and back home: “Peace signs and other anti-war slogans and symbols appeared on helmets and elsewhere” (R. Ball). In regard to this, I asked my father to elaborate on his stance towards the war since he experienced it first hand. His response to this was not entirely what I had expected since he had enlisted voluntarily:
Prior to entering the Army and going to Vietnam, I was against it. This was the position of an 18-year-old who had been watching and reading about the war for several years and was of draft age. Once I was there, I felt it was my duty to do my job and support my country. As time wore on and the war dragged, on my anti-war sentiment was reinforced. (R. Ball)
I then asked if the experience changed his outlook in any way, especially when he returned to the states. His response was simple and straightforward: “It is funny, in a way, that once back in the U.S., I found myself defending the war for the simple fact that the returning vets were mistreated and scorned by the public. I also witnessed first hand the affect the war had on friends and family. I still wanted it to stop, but I also wanted recognition of the effort put forth by my comrades.”
A large problem many of the soldiers faced upon returning home was the treatment they received from society. As a soldier, my dad can recount very vividly much “anger and frustration” from society towards the veterans, as if it was their fault that the U.S. lost the war. He also experienced much prejudice from the public; to that he states, “What bothered me the most was not the name calling, i.e. baby killer, war mongers etc. but the silence and the looks plus the questions like ‘how many people did you kill?’” (R. Ball). When I inquired as to what my mother observed she stated, “when the soldiers returned the American Legion and VFW refused to admit them as members and they had difficulty finding a job. No one wanted to hire a vet from Vietnam, he must be a druggie or a coward since we lost the war.” She also stated that many of the veterans “became invisible that way we never lost the conflict” (D. Ball). She seemed almost as pained as my father was about the treatment of the veterans. Before the war, there was a good deal of support for military intervention in Vietnam. Despite popular belief, there was a larger percentage of support from the younger generation than from the old: “In all 14 Gallup Polls taken between March 1966 and October 1969, a higher percentage of those age 50 and over agreed that ‘the U.S. made a mistake sending troops to fight in Vietnam’ than of those age 29 and under (Burris 445). One explanation is that the older generations remembered the horrors of WW I and II and did not want to see them repeated, whereas the younger generations were not alive at that time and did not fully understand the implications of combat (Burris 445).
In knowing that my father’s experiences had been extremely difficult on him, I always avoided asking for details on what he went through overseas. But the more we talked about it over the years, the more he began to tell me about his tour of duty. During the interview, my dad was still reluctant to tell me some of the more personal stories, but he did discuss some of the technical duties he had while serving. He was an infantry MP (military police) in the army and most of the jobs consisted of armed escort missions for convoys, troops, and prisoners of war (POWs) (R. Ball). He told me one story in which he and a few others were sent out in the gun jeeps to escort a supply truck to a base. Since the roads were “code red” after dark because of the heightened possibility of attacks or land mines, the situation was a little tense. The supply truck drivers had decided it would be a good idea to drink some beers during the drive and consequently crashed into a ditch. While they were waiting for assistance in the middle of an empty stretch of road, the drunk truck driver got jumpy and shot his M-16 at some shadows. Luckily, help finally arrived and they were able to transport everyone back to the base (R. Ball).
I wondered how people’s attitudes towards soldiers had changed since Vietnam. To get a better idea I interviewed Logan Herd, a friend of mine from high school who had served a tour of duty in Afghanistan. I asked some questions to get a basic idea of what he experienced and how it had changed him. I asked about his stance on the war before and after going and whether his views were changed by his experience or by society back home (or both)? Logan responded, “Same, I agree we are fighting for a cause, and I support that cause. We know what our duties when we enlist, and it’s our job to protect America’s FREEDOMS” (Herd). In addition, I asked what were some of the things he observed about his comrades? What changes did he notice in them? He responded, “[h]igh hopes about the war, positive attitudes. I did know the people from my unit, and I saw a sense of pride rise in us when we were there and also upon arrival home” (Herd). Logan’s experience was significantly different from that of my father’s in that he and his comrades received support when they returned home and a significant number of people who agreed with their cause. My father, on the other hand, had a much harder time upon returning to the states. By the time the Vietnam veterans had returned, the public was fully aware of how badly the conflict was going and anti-war sentiment was steadily increasing.
Overall this was an extremely difficult time for both of my parents at home and overseas. In the case of my father, it was something that affected him greatly and is still a factor in his life. It is interesting to see how soldiers were viewed and treated during the Vietnam conflict in comparison to how the men and women serving in the Middle East today are treated. Even though there is a large amount of disagreement about the current conflict, the soldiers are widely supported whereas the public literally spit on those who fought in Vietnam.
War has been a very important subject in my family. We were not supposed to talk about Vietnam in great detail, but we were always taught to support those individuals in the armed forces in spite of the conflict they were forced into. While I do not personally support the conflict that is being fought, I have always been in full support of the men and women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. My dad has always supported the people serving overseas because he and his comrades did not receive support while they were in Vietnam or when they returned to the states, and he does not want to see the same thing happen to the men and women today. As I read about all of the horrible ways Vietnam veterans were treated I try to emulate my parents’ mentality towards soldiers currently because I believe they need that support to keep doing their job. Furthermore, if society accepts them with open arms, when they come back it will be much easier for them to get back to a normal life and heal.
I myself have considered enlisting in the military at several points throughout my life. When I consider the possibility, I am always hesitant to bring it up to my father because I am afraid of what he will say in response to the idea. Since I will be receiving a college degree, something he was not able to do before the war began, I would be able to enlist in officer’s training. This has made him more open to the possibility of me joining the military because I would be less likely to experience any heavy combat, especially if I went into intelligence officer training. On one occasion I did ask him what his reaction would be if the United States government decided to institute another draft. To this he simply responded: “I would come pick up your ass from wherever you were and take you to Canada” (R. Ball).
Ball, Deborah. Email interview. Oct. 20, 2009.
Ball, Ronald. Personal interview. Oct. 17, 2009.
Burris, Val. “From Vietnam to Iraq: Continuity and Change in Between-Group Differences in Support for Military Action.” Social Problems 55.4 (2008.): 443-479. ProQuest. Web. Nov. 20, 2009.
Herd, Logan. Email interview. Oct. 29, 2009.