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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

"Bullets Have No Eyes" Part 2 - Reflections on "The Vietnam War"

I was a high school student from 1964 – 1968, a college student from 1968 – 1972, and a young married adult for the remainder of the Vietnam War years. Only my parents and my education had more influence on shaping me than that war.

I remember one Marquette University silent peace march in downtown Milwaukee. It was raining and we all carried candles. The song playing in my head was Melanie’s “Candles in the Rain.” I was walking next to my boyfriend Mike Sweet. Mike was in the Air National Guard; he had taken a semester off from his studies at Marquette to go through basic training. His dad and his uncles served in the Guard. It was a family thing. But Mike didn’t believe in the Vietnam War. I didn’t either. I didn’t believe everything the pompous campus peace leaders said at their microphones, either, but I sure didn’t believe in the war. I looked at Mike that night as we walked quietly in the dark and the rain. I whispered, “Our kids will probably join the Army.”

Well, almost. Mike and I got married right after we graduated in 1972, and 24 years later, our son Brian joined the Marines. What I learned as a Marine mom is that the Marines do good all over the world. Brian always had the option, during his travels for the Marines, to do volunteer work at orphanages and other places that needed help. And he helped. I am very proud of him. And I understand that our nation needs defense. Every nation has its warriors.

Tonight, I’ll watch the fourth episode of “The Vietnam War” series created by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. In the first three episodes, they have taken us from French Colonial days in Vietnam to about 1965. I’m thinking that maybe tonight, we’ll see images from the years I remember living through.

During my high school years, a boy I dated graduated and went to Vietnam. I wrote to him and his buddy there. When they returned, they came to visit me at my parents’ house. They were sitting together on a couch in the living room drinking beer that I most grown-uppedly served them. I had added ice cubes to the warm beer, because I didn’t know any better. They had a good laugh at that. We were chatting and joking around when my brother, who was shooting buckets outside, happened to lob the basketball onto the roof right above where the two guys sat. BAM. They both jumped clear off the couch.

I wonder if Burns and Novick will show things like that. They did already film the Marine who, years later, is still afraid of the dark and sleeps with a night light.

In the years since the war, I never miss a chance to ask a Viet vet about his experience. I thank them all for their service. I’m so ashamed that people spat on them when they returned. Many of them don’t want to talk about their time in country. But in recent years, there has a been a movement to have Vietnam veterans speak at schools. . . and to speak, in general.

I wonder if Burns and Novick will show the “war back home” that I knew. . .

*  Protesters blocking the library and other buildings at universities, so students couldn’t get in

*  “Strikes” at universities

*  Sit-ins at university deans’ offices

*  The rite of spring at universities in the north: peace marches

*  The endless blather at microphones of peace rally “leaders”

* Young men burning their draft cards 

I was really bugged by the blather of peace rally leaders. All I could see was their egos. At Marquette, they were all male. I didn’t believe half of what they said. Now, watching “The Vietnam War” on TV, I see that they were speaking the truth. The people who were lying or hiding the truth were Kennedy, Johnson, and McNamara. As one of the Marines interviewed said (I believe he’s the one who still sleeps with the night light on), “We were the last generation who believed our government wouldn’t lie to us.”

I wonder if Burns and Novick will show some of the things I’ve heard. These are quotations from Vietnam veterans who have talked to me over the years . . .

*  “We Marines were always running out of supplies. We used to make night raids on the U.S. Army bases nearby to get supplies we needed.”

*  “We couldn’t keep our feet dry. We got terrible jungle rot on our feet.”

*  “The Viet Cong had tiny tunnels everywhere. The smaller guys like me could get inside.”

*  “When we flew above the rice paddies, we shot water buffaloes for target practice.”

*  “A lot of guys had their first sexual experience with Vietnamese prostitutes.”

*  “I don’t remember much. I was stoned all the time.”

*  “I shot at Vietnamese outhouses and they’d tip over. The people inside would run away.”

"What it came down to was we were fighting for our lives."

*  “I didn’t see any action. I was in the motor pool.”

*  “When I arrived in Vietnam, there was road kill. It was human. People just kept driving over.”

*  “They didn’t ship us out together in our units. We had no camaraderie going over there.”

*  “It was so boring. We had nothing to do. But it was tense too. We had to be ready for action at any moment.”

*  “When I returned to the States, I got a wig. Everyone did. We didn’t want to look like soldiers. We recognized each other on the bus, lifted our wigs, and laughed at each other.”

 Gail Grenier is the author of Don't Worry Baby, Dog Woman, Dessert First, and Calling All Horses, all available at

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