All through the decades, topics about the Vietnam War promoted the negative, touting atrocities on citizens such as burning down villages, and the killings at My Lai; returning soldiers were depicted as trained killers like Rambo and Braddock – many of them also suffering mental issues from the war (ticking time bombs). This stigma followed us over the years and painted everyone with the same brush, and because of this, it was difficult for many of us to get jobs and start families. The word, “Vietnam” was taboo, so veterans kept it to themselves and buried those experiences deep down and moved on with their lives.
Today, I want to turn things around and talk about those “GOOD” things that came from the war. Researching this topic was difficult as very little could be found on the internet – information was sparse, and I think it was because of the number of vets who kept quiet upon their return, and these topics were forgotten over time. So, many of the examples in this post are from my personal experiences and past discussions with other veterans during group rap sessions, veteran outings, and chapter meetings where trust was paramount.
The first positive experience I remember was using the GI Bill. When I got married in 1973, money was tight, and we often dreamed of purchasing a home and starting a family. Michigan is a state associated with the automotive industry and jobs were plentiful. My service record and promotion to sergeant while in Vietnam got me promoted into management upon my return. I soon enlisted in the local Junior college and began studies to help in my career choice.
The government gave me enough money every month through the GI Bill that paid for school and books and left a little extra to help toward our bills. This benefit also rewarded me with a low interest mortgage and almost no down payment to buy our first house. I did eventually graduate, earning an Associate Degree and continued my career in management for various automotive suppliers, then, finally retiring in 2013. A great number of Vietnam Veterans came back and built successful careers and families.
Three and a half million soldiers passed through Vietnam during the war years between 1955 – 1975 and held many occupational specialties; it was mostly the engineers and Seabees who destroyed and rebuilt things throughout the country. Much of it was in support the war, but they also helped the local populace.
The population of Saigon tripled during the American portion of the war, and while growing, began introducing many of the Western ideas and ways of living. This eventually created a new market for luxury items such as cars, motorcycles, televisions and stereo equipment. The citizens found jobs, mostly employed in service industries, that catered to the military and foreigners living in the city. Hotels, bars and restaurants were plentiful in the city. Many were employed on military bases as barbers, laborers, maids, cooks, bartenders, and sanitary workers. Prostitutes found they could make more money in a week than their parents earned in a year working their farms. Of course, black market activities also grew during this same period and many worked in that way of life.
Engineers and Seabees were extremely busy building base camps, bridges, upgrading and paving thousands of miles of roads, improving irrigation systems for the farmers, digging wells in villages, where residents had to travel long distances to bring in water, cleared land, built schools and hospitals, constructed pipelines, power generation centers, drainage ditches, and water purification systems throughout the country.
They built and improved deep-water ports so that ammunition and other supplies could be unloaded to support the war effort. Initially, Saigon and Danang were completed first, then followed by Cam Ranh Bay, Nha Trang, Quy Nhon, and Cua Lo. Saigon soon enjoyed international airports at both Tan Son Nhut and Da Nang, and a national highway that connected the north of South Vietnam to the delta areas in the south.
The health of local villagers were greatly improved as travelling MedCap units visited remote areas of the country. Their plan was to win the hearts and minds of the populace where they were examined and treated for a variety of maladies. It was the first time many of the villagers received shots and/or medication.
One of the things that every Vietnam Vet can attest to is the number of children they saw in country; from those running naked in villages to those, seemingly unsupervised, in the larger towns and cities. Soldiers loved kids and often gave them food, candy, cigarettes, and other treats from home.
They hung around us like we were Pied Pipers, sometimes, getting a little too rambunctious where we had to get stern with them.
Catholic orphanages were a plenty and many were nearby basecamps or in larger cities. Soldiers took it upon themselves to adopt these special places and donated personal funds to help support them. In fact, I know of a few former soldiers who continue their mission to support these orphanages even today; collecting funds year around and visiting them at least annually.
On a more personal note, I remember many good times during the course of my tour:
Mail and surprise packages from home…
Visits from the Red Cross Donut Dollies…
Enjoying in-country R&R at China Beach and Vung Tau..
Battalion bringing hot chow and ice cream to us in the bush
The camaraderie, then…
Going on a week-long R&R’s to places I’m certain I would never have visited otherwise in my lifetime; in my case, Bangkok…
Learning about Asian cultures and traditions…
Seeing the USO shows periodically during stand downs – I didn’t get to see Bob Hope during his Christmas visit, but listened to the show on the radio…
Finally, having a seat on the freedom bird as it lifted off from DaNang and headed home…
It should also be recognized that medical advances and improvements in both emergency response and trauma care techniques vastly improved during this time. The lessons learned were applied to both the civilian world and military afterwards, which helped to reduce the number of deaths at home and during future military engagements.
What about music? Before Vietnam, musicians wrote songs to unite Americans, patriotic tunes garnered the support for the war effort. Vietnam Era music, on the other hand, spoke to the growing numbers of disillusioned citizens and brought attention to the cultural fissures that were beginning to emerge. Songs were able to express feelings of anger and confusion with their lyrics, which helped the anti-war effort gain momentum. Even so, many of us still enjoy listening to the songs of that era.
Finally, in 1975, 125,000 Vietnam refugees arrived in the United States. Today, those families and new generations enjoy freedom from the government that tried to help them gain theirs in another country 10,000 miles away.
So, there you have it. Good stuff that I remember from the top of my head! I’m sure I just touched on some of it. Much of that infrastructure in Vietnam remains fifty years later…the gift that keeps on giving!
Anything you want to add that I might have overlooked or about something you want to expand upon? Have at it in the comment section below.
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