My dad was a member of the Pershing Rifles military fraternity and the Reserve Officers' Training Corps at the University of Maryland. He was heavily involved in the Pershing Rifles' acclaimed drill team, and also served as unit chaplain. (Among his other duties, he would occasionally "bless" a ham sandwich for his friend David Skillman, who was widely but incorrectly assumed to be Jewish.) He married his college sweetheart, Jo Ann Grammer, at the University chapel, and I was born in January 1967. Upon his graduation later that year, Dad was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force. Subsequent postings included Texas and Indiana, where my brother Greg was born. Then, in 1970, he was sent to Vietnam, assigned to the 8th Aerial Port Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon.
Vietnam, the Un-War: Where the unable lead the unwilling to do the unnecessary for the ungrateful.
—unknown graffitist at Tan Son Nhut
War has been described as "long periods of boredom interrupted by brief moments of terror", and that description would be apt for my dad's tour in Southeast Asia. He endured hot, humid weather; semi-regular rocket attacks; and a brief, accidental visit to an apparent Viet Cong depot (a story I may tell later). Then, of course, there was the separation from his young family.
Much of his time off-duty was spent keeping up contact any way he could. He recorded and mailed cassette tapes as well as letters and postcards. (Many of the latter I still have). Often, after a duty shift, he would wait in line at the comm office for hours to place a five-minute radio-relay telephone call to my mom. There was always someone else on the line, a necessity which made any sort of intimacy difficult, and the connection was not always good. Once, after several requests to "Please repeat, over," an airman at the relay station broke his silence to clarify what had been said: "She said she loves you, sir." Dad said the sentiment lost a lot in translation.
Otherwise, off-duty hours were spent in Saigon; at the officers' club, where a Filipino cover band might give Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Beatles a cruel battering; or just hanging out at the BOQ. Occasionally, there would be parties with the Australian contingent—the Yanks provided the steaks, the Aussies the beer, which represented a welcome change. Normally, the only beer available was Black Label; rumor had it that soldiers at a forward operating base once cheered the downing of a C-7 Caribou because its cargo consisted entirely of Black Label beer.
Sometime in 1970, Dad's idealism was challenged when he was ordered to supervise the loading, without paperwork, of a suspiciously unmarked black plane—his first direct contact with the reality of the secret war in Cambodia. (This would have been before the overt Cambodian Incursion, and probably represented either a ground component to the "secret war" or a preliminary operation by special-ops forces in advance of the Incursion.) His cynicism increased when he had to ship home the body of a friend killed in combat.
Dad was proud of his military service, but considered his time in Vietnam a wasted year. I'm not so sure about that. The war itself may have been a mistake, but I believe his essential decency made him a force for good and an ambassador for the American people. At a time when many servicemen treated Vietnamese people with suspicion and contempt, and ethnic slurs were applied to enemies and allies alike, Dad saw himself as a guest in Vietnam and treated its citizens accordingly. He and some friends stocked a refrigerator in the operations office with Coca-Cola and put up a sign: "Cokes 25 cents, or 10 dong for our Vietnamese friends." (I may have the conversion backwards; it might have been 10 cents and 25 dong.) This simple gesture earned him the respect and friendship of the Vietnamese civilians working there, and set an example for the men of his command.
For a recent birthday, our family gave Dad a Pendleton blanket entitled "Grateful Nation" in recognition of his service to country. In my mind, this includes not just his time in the Air Force (even after Vietnam, he kept his name on the rolls of the inactive reserves in case he was needed in uniform once again) but also his subsequent career as a teacher and his life as a true family man. As my brother and I today began the long and difficult task of sorting through his belongings—a task that could take months, as Dad was both a collector and a packrat; I once told him that when I thought about clearing out his house, I prayed I would go first—this was one of the first items I secured. Another: the Akubra hat with RAAF insignia given to Dad by an Australian officer in Vietnam in a gesture of friendship and solidarity.
If you have the chance, or can make a chance, thank a veteran today. Or anytime. I'll likely be on hiatus a few more days at least, but I'll get back online when I can. Peace to all.
Update: More on Dad from The Baker Street Blog, The Baltimore Sun, and The Carroll County Times.