We were on the big jet but then they told us to get off. Quickly, we filed out of the plane and sheltered in the revetment next to the runway. The Viet Cong mortars landed some distance away. Our plane was not touched. We ran up the stairs of the Freedom Bird and took our seats again. The pilots gunned the engines and we were airborne. The men cheered when the wheels left the ground. I sat in my seat silently. My tour of duty was over but I felt a strange emotion: I felt sad—I wanted to stay in Vietnam. I wanted to keep on fighting the war. For me it was not finished. I had come up against the wall, what every combat infantryman faces. I had stood there, pushed against that wall and overcome my fear, I had done my duty. But I had not done enough. I had not gone through the wall. Yes, I had stepped into it but I had not gone far enough into the other side. I had not finished my war. I had not been true to fallen comrades.The other soldiers didn’t see it that way. They were just glad to go back to “the world” but I felt differently. “There must be something very wrong with me because I am not happy.”
In Japan there was a layover. We went to the PX to buy duty-free cameras, radios, and, of course, liquor. The place was full of Marines on their way to Nam. Their uniforms were brand new, their buzz cuts very tight, their faces so young and innocent. “You’ll be sorry,” the other guys said to the youngsters.
It’s been fifty-years but how fresh the memories. We landed at Travis Air Base, late at night, the end of August, 1968. We cleared Customs, dumping the Cambodian Red and other contraband in the amnesty bins. Then they took us to a big warehouse and made us take showers. After that we filed down a row of tables and senior NCO’s dressed us in new Class A uniforms. They had to help us put on the Army insignia, lining it up properly. We didn’t remember how to do that but nobody cared. The sergeants offered us the obligatory steak dinner. I was hungry and wanted it. But all the others loudly refused. Then buses pulled up and we were on our way to the Oakland airport. By this time the sun was up. How different “the world” looked.
In those days you could walk up to any airline counter in any airport and pay cash for a one-way ticket and nobody took you for a terrorist. I paid $80.00 for a ticket to San Antonio. Finally, it started to sink in. I was going home. In the waiting area people were sitting in what looked like school desks, the fronts fitted with single curved arms. At the ends of the arms were small black-and-white televisions. You could put a quarter in a slot and get 15 minutes of TV time. Everybody was staring intently at the TVs. I stood behind one man and looked over his shoulder. Just then on the screen I saw a policeman in a white helmet with a raised club chasing a “hippie,” catching the long-haired young man and beating him mercilessly with the stick. It was a shock. I didn’t know what to think. The violence sucked me in. I didn’t want to but I was compelled to see it. The riot on TV was the scene outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. “My God,” I thought, “I’ve been gone a year and the country is falling to pieces.”
Nobody in the airport talked to me. I was a soldier in uniform and I was invisible. I may as well not have existed. People looked right through me. Later on I realized something. The myth of spit and words in airports was invented by Vietnam veterans to deal with the deep wounds our countrymen gave us. Better to get spit on than to be completely shunned.
The small San Antonio terminal was full of people. I saw a tall soldier in Army green standing in a corner. Around his neck he wore the unmistakable broad blue ribbon of the Medal of Honor. Three or four other soldiers stood around him. The crown ignored them. I joined the soldiers. The man with the medal told us how he had saved the lives of other men in one of those forgotten Vietnam firefights, so bravely won but so uselessly fought. The profile of the ancient Greek warrior on the medal seemed to approve. The word “Valor” was inscribed above the face of the warrior. I turned away, looking for home. My fellow citizens ceaselessly rushed past me, past the tall soldier wearing his nation’s highest award for honor, for courage and devotion. Nobody stopped, nobody cared.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.