Reflections on My Vietnam Service
I graduated from college on May 9, 1971, and was in Navy boot camp in Orlando, Florida, on June 1. At that time, it was not an “All-Volunteer Military”—every able-bodied man was given a number in the draft “lottery.” If you ended up with a high number, you could feel fairly safe that you wouldn’t be drafted and could continue to make school/career plans. If you had a low number, you could expect to end up in the infantry in Vietnam. Some men enlisted because they wanted to serve in the war.
I had a “medium” number, which left me in limbo, so I decided to enlist in the U.S. Naval Reserves, which would require me to spend two years on a ship followed by three years of Reserve training, one weekend a month. In order to get into the Reserves I had to choose between training to be a “Boilerman” or a “Torpedoman”—their currently needed skills. I chose to be a Torpedoman (quite possibly the only one in the entire fleet who had a B.A. in English). Torpedoes are fired from tubes up on the bow of a destroyer, not underwater
Although my ship ended up going to Vietnam, and our ship was occasionally fired upon as we shelled the coast, I use the title “Vietnam Vet” with some reservations, because I believe that the guys who earned that distinction were the ones on the ground dodging bullets. My “war stories” come from life aboard the relative safety of an old WWII-class destroyer.
When the war officially ended for the U.S. by the Paris Peace Treaty on January 27, 1973, my ship was sent home a month early. (The South Vietnamese didn’t lose the war until Saigon fell on April 30, 1975.)
Although I didn’t experience the abuse personally, the way Americans treated returning Vietnam veterans remains a national disgrace that deeply wounded those who risked their lives in the war. People in the Anti-War Movement labeled anyone who served in the war a “baby killer.” The threat of harm to us was so bad that the admiral in charge of the Navy ordered us not to travel in uniform while in the states. We had to travel in civilian clothes while on leave.
Every time I see how the current vets returning from combat are greeted at the airport by crowds of total strangers (even in the middle of the night) I have to hold back tears (1) because the country finally got it right, and (2) because this was the way returning Vietnam vets should have been treated.
I can’t honestly say that I am proud that I served in the Vietnam War. It didn’t seem to me that our country “was in it to win it.” I am proud that I served my country and didn’t dodge the draft by going to Canada. The many foreign ports I visited as a sailor were an eye-opener for a small-town boy who had seldom traveled beyond the borders of his state.
Copyright © 2017 by John Arthur Robinson