Introduction by JoAnn Forrester
Vietnam, the war of the Baby Boomer generation has left a multitude of raw scars on our national conscience. A war, where 9.2 million American men and women served through-out the world during an eleven year period (Jan. 1, 1965 – March 28, 1973), as warriors and peace keepers. Of that number, 2,709, 918 Americans, or about 3.5 percent of the boomer generation served in Vietnam, leaving 58,228 killed, 304,705 wounded and 2,400 listed as missing at the end of the war.
For those who came home from the war…it really never ended. There were no parades, no thank you’s, no you did a great job…for most there was rejection, blame and hostility. Coming home and adjusting to an uncivil world took its toll on our men, women and their families. Many problems resulting from PTSD were ignored and or denied by the Veteran Administration and US government thus creating more hardships resulting in early deaths, suicide, disabilities, and alienation.
Slowly we have begun to deal with our past and try to soothe the wounds. Each man and woman who served has a story to be told and to be listened too.
Below is the story of Joe Campolo, Jr.
My Experience upon my return from Vietnam
Joe Campolo Jr.
I enlisted and served in the United States Air Force from 1968-1972. I served in the Vietnam War from January of 1970 to January of 1971. In Vietnam I was assigned to the Phu Cat Airbase in the province of Binh Dinh in what was designated as the II corps military region.
Assigned to base supply, my duties included the warehousing of material on base and, on occasion, the transport of materials, by motor vehicle, to other military facilities in the general area. I also flew missions, humping cargo on C-130 and C-47 aircraft for a short time.
During my time there, Phu Cat was the home of the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing. The mission of the 12th was primarily combat support in the Central Highlands, the area surrounding the base. The primary aircraft for this mission was the F-4 Phantom Fighter Bomber. The base was also home to AC-47 and AC-130 gunships, Huey helicopters, and several different types of cargo aircraft.
My duty at Phu Cat though laborious and exhausting at times was much easier and safer than the duty experienced by U.S. Army and Marine grunts out in the bush. I highly respected the men who handled that treacherous duty. I was also in awe of the pilots who flew long and dangerous missions throughout their tours of duty.
The Phu Cat airbase was not safe either, however, as it was subjected to Vietcong Mortar and Rocket barrages every two or three weeks. These attacks would often wound and occasionally kill people on the base. I witnessed the death of a friend during one of these attacks, and lost the hearing in my right ear. Material transports taking us off base in one or two vehicle convoys were significantly more dangerous, with several of these trips encountering hostilities.
The Ride Back Home
When my tour of duty was finally over I flew out of Vietnam the same way I flew in. On a U.S. military Flying Tiger DC Stretch Eight at Cam Rhan Bay, Vietnam. Leaving Vietnam was by far the happiest event of my life up until that point. The flight, full of Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and a few Sailors fairly erupted with hysteria upon departure. We held our breaths until the plane left Vietnam’s airspace as we were fearful of a last minute attack from a Vietcong surface to air weapon. As the plane soared, we were suddenly free; and we celebrated. The long flight felt endless as the plane had to stop in Japan and Alaska to refuel before landing at McCord Air Force Base in Seattle, Washington.
As the plane finally landed in the continental United States we once again erupted in hysteria. When the passenger doors opened and we walked down the stairways to the tarmac, we were absolutely jubilant. Most cheered, many cried and some got down and kissed the ground at their feet.
The Airport… Joy and Despair
Ushered into a large hangar, an Air Force officer gave us a short briefing. In his briefing he encouraged us to change from our military uniforms to civilian clothes. Most of us ignored him; many did not even have a set of civilian clothes with them to change in. We were then taken for a short bus ride to Seattle International Airport where we would book a commercial flight for our journey home. At the airport we walked briskly through a long entry way before going our separate ways to find the concourse our flight home required. Like the others, I was euphoric, however midway through the entry way my condition of euphoria came to a sudden end by something that was striking me in the back. Looking around and behind us, we stood in dismay as civilians on each side of the entry way threw garbage at us.
Shocked beyond belief, we stood numb, not fully comprehending what was happening. We all realized the war was unpopular and none of us expected a marching band in our honor, but this was beyond belief. Some men yelled in shock and anger but sadly, most of us held our heads down and ran or walked hurriedly to escape the barrage. Instinctively many of us felt shame, regretting anything we may have done to incur such wrath from of our countrymen; some men cried.
After escaping the garbage barrage, many went into restrooms and changed clothing. Humiliated, most of us just went on to our passenger gates and sat with our heads down, waiting for our flights. The rest of my flight home was uneventful. My flight from Seattle to Chicago was on one of the brand new 747’s which had been just brought into service, and was only filled to about half of capacity. I could not enjoy the experience, however, as I sat by myself, still in my military uniform in the middle row of group seats, as if on an island, surrounded by civilian passengers who did not feel comfortable enough to sit near me. What had previously been the happiest day of my life now became the worst day of my life.
In Chicago I had a happy reunion with my family who came to pick me up at O’ Hare International Airport. The next few days were a bit awkward as my experiences in Vietnam had irreversibly changed whoever I was before I went over there, to a person who I myself did not even know.
Thankfully my close friends were also very welcoming and I reconnected with them gradually over the month I would be home, prior to leaving for my next duty station at March Air Force Base near Riverside, California. Some friends and acquaintances, however, had no idea what I had been doing for the past thirteen months. “Where ya been?” was a common reaction. Or the more discouraging types of response, “You were in Vietnam, huh? I heard of that place; looks like more snow on the way”.
VFW…The Bitter Welcome
Aside from the garbage barrage at the airport, the homecoming event which disturbs me the most to this very day is the reception at our local VFW. A close friend who had also just returned from Vietnam called me one day. He also had some discouraging experiences regarding his return and suggested we go to the VFW for some more understanding companionship. However this was to be an extremely rude awakening. Upon our arrival at the VFW, patrons at the bar looked at us with what could only be described as disdain. Mostly World War II vets, with a few Korean vets among them, we were informed in no uncertain terms that Vietnam Vets were not welcome there. Some of them implied that Vietnam was not a “real war”, while others hinted because we were losing we hadn’t done our jobs. Rather than getting into a fight, we finished our beers and left in a state of anger; more humiliation. I felt particularly bad for my friend, who was wounded twice in Vietnam and had been awarded the Silver Star for gallantry. It was many years before I would set foot in another VFW.
After these initial experiences, my expectations about my return from the war diminished. Upon arriving at my next duty station at March Air Force Base I was awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal for my performance in the war, and was treated with respect by my fellow military personnel. Off base, however, the local hippie culture had little regard for my military exploits and was often vocal in voicing their disapproval. One week, while off duty, I hiked through the desert with some other GI’s from the base. We came upon an isolated hippie commune who had set up residency along a small stream. While some of the hippies welcomed us, some ignored us, however after a short time, what could only be described as a vigilante mob took after us with homemade spears and chased us until we were far away from the commune. It was another unforgettable and painful experience.
I quickly learned to keep a low profile regarding my military status when off duty and things went OK until my discharge. I went home to Wisconsin but with a poor economic climate and restlessness I moved back out to Southern California and looked for work. After a long and difficult search I did find a full time job, however during my job search I discovered that my military service was a negative asset, not a positive one. The sour climate regarding the Vietnam War and the U.S. military had permeated all aspects of our society.
I stayed in Southern California for about another year, but with no formal skills and carrying an unfavorable military background, I could not maintain steady employment. After an earthquake damaged my place of employment I was laid off with no notice. Returning to Wisconsin, I moved in with my parents intending to move into a place of my own as soon as I was able. I again sought employment, and again ran into businesses that were either ambivalent or opposed to hiring Vietnam veterans. (Some came right out and admitted this)
Eventually I found a company about twenty five miles from my home that would hire me. The owner was a very decent man who actually went out of his way to hire Vietnam veterans; understanding what they were going through. I started out in the factory and worked in an assembly area with about a dozen other young men. About seven of us had served in Vietnam, but you would hardly know it as we avoided the topic like the plague. On those occasions when we did speak about it, it was only to each other in hushed tones. We would look around furtively, fearing our conversation would be overheard and we would be subjected to more abuse or scrutiny.
College and other disappointments
I also started attending college at this time. I took advantage of the GI bill and went to school about three nights a week at the local university. Becoming smarter, I kept my military service to myself except for occasional discussions with other veterans, and as we did at work, we only spoke to each other during breaks about it; and quietly.
The American Legion at the time wasn’t any more welcoming to Vietnam Vets than the VFW, so there were few options for those who wanted to connect with other veterans. I joined one organization called VietNow, but found them to be a bit too radical for my taste and allowed my membership to lapse. My friend with the Silver Star and I stayed close and we would discuss the war on occasion.
A bad experience at the university ended my college career for a time. A young woman in one of my classes found out I was a Vietnam vet and started harassing me, directly and indirectly. The professor warned her about it but she kept it up and finally drummed me out of the class. No other students joined in these attacks, nor did they defend me.
The remainder of the seventies was a bleak time for me as like many other Nam vets, I had no one to talk to regarding my experiences. The VA at the time was not receptive to us either, most of their programs having been groomed for aging WWII vets. (Korean vets fared better than us, but not much) As time passed and more unpleasant incidents occurred relating to my service in Vietnam, I, like many of my peers, started denying my military service. If it came up, I would dodge the issue; if a stranger or work related individual asked, I would not admit to having served. I felt somewhat guilty about this; almost like a traitor. The fall of Saigon in 1975 was a particularly bad time as many of us silently experienced guilt and humiliation regarding the catastrophe. It was a shock, to later learn, that thousands of other Vietnam vets had been doing the same thing and having the same experiences I was.
Vietnam War Memorial…“The Wall”… The beginning of Healing
In 1982 the Vietnam War Memorial, now known as “The Wall” was unveiled in Washington D.C. Conceived by a Vietnam War veteran named Jan Scruggs, and largely funded by donations from Vietnam War Veterans, “The Wall” brought together thousands of Vietnam War veterans who had previously been isolated and drifting. The men, who had been dealing with the impact of the war and the negative homecoming on their own, now came together and formed bonds based upon their mutual experiences. Ronald Reagan, for one, championed the striking memorial and spoke at the dedication ceremony upon its opening.
Soon other politicians, news media personnel, and other persons of note fell in line as well. The floodgates had now opened; after many years, Vietnam Veterans could come finally out of the shadows; they could leave their hiding places and come out into the open. They no longer had to wince, and cringe upon any mention of the Vietnam War. A nation who had previously shunned them, finally opened their arms to them. Movies were produced, more monuments were put up and parades were held. It was the dawn of a new era.
A group of Vietnam Veterans in my hometown started meeting in a park. Because of our bitter experience with the local VFW and American Legion we shunned those two institutions like the plague. After a time, a local private institution allowed us the use of a small building where we gathered for many years after. We formally created an organization and named it “The Kenosha Area Vietnam Vets”, or KAVV. We developed by-laws, elected officers, and collected dues, much of which we donated to local civic organizations in need. Every year since forming we have had a float in our Fourth of July civic veteran’s parade. We win the Blue Ribbon almost every year. Our comradery is bonded in steel. At one of our meetings a delegation from the local VFW visited and made a formal apology for the treatment we had received there upon our return. Times had indeed changed.
After the Gulf War in the early nineties and continuing on through the current Iraq and Afghanistan wars, our group makes a pointed effort to welcome all Veterans home; no matter what the circumstances. Our motto is “Never Again”.
Our membership is dwindling rapidly these days; Agent Orange, old war injuries, PTSD and age have taken a heavy toll on our close little group. We mourn each member who passes and pledge to keep them in our memory. These days are good days for veterans, and I wear my “Vietnam Vet” hat proudly. (I have even joined the VFW and American Legion) I still feel the sting of that garbage hitting my back in 1971, but have found therapy in my children, grandchildren and my writing. God Bless America.