Thank you for your service: a ‘Nam vet’s candid reply

“THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE”

A well-meaning phrase, appreciated and deserved by our military men and women, but one heard with mixed feelings by some, perhaps most, Vietnam veterans.

October, 1969, Travis Air Force Base, California. 

Down the steps of the “Freedom Bird” that brought us back to the US.  Picked up my duffel bag and carried it outside the terminal for a cab ride to San Francisco International Airport and the flight back home.  In semi-dress, khaki uniform adorned with some of my awards and decorations.

I had literally just stepped out of the jungle after one year with the First Cavalry Division which included more than six months as an infantry company commander.  Down to 137 pounds with jungle rot on my right arm and the left side of my neck and, though not realizing it at the time, I was in shock from my combat experiences.

A parked Yellow Cab was empty, trunk open.  Three of us threw our duffel bags into the trunk.  One of us sat in the passenger seat up front, two of us got on the back seat.  A big, fat, ugly, white, female cab driver got behind the wheel and started cursing us.  Think of every foul word you have ever heard or read, and that is the substance of what she shouted, along with, “I don’t want to hear a $%^&* word about your &^%$$ firefights.  Just keep your *&&^^% mouths shut, or I won’t drive you to SFI.”  I sat there stunned and silent.

On the flight from SFI to Love Field in Dallas for a flight change, only the stewardess spoke to me and that was the obligatory questions about peanuts, sandwiches, and drinks.  From Love Field to Jackson it was the same lack of conversation with anyone, even the persons sitting beside me.

My mother, father, and aunt met me at Jackson International Airport.  We hugged, laughed, cried, drove home, and I ate supper, bathed, and went to bed. That was it.

“Thank you for your service.”

The next day I walked the streets of Forest.  My impression was that no one knew I had been in Vietnam.  I don’t remember any conversations with anyone except in Builders Hardware where I knew the family exceptionally well.  After a few minutes of awkwardly trying to answer their questions and share my experiences, I excused myself and walked away.

Sundays always included the Forest Baptist Church, and on my first Sunday home  I attended only the morning service.  FBC had been very faithful, mailing a church bulletin to me every week of my tour.  Amusingly, the bulletin was always addressed “First Calvary” rather than First Cavalry Division.  I remembered going to FBC before I left for ‘Nam to arrange my funeral service with the secretary should I fail to make it home alive.

That first Sunday in church was uneventful.  I did not expect and thus thought nothing of it at the time when there was no announcement or mention by anyone at church of my safe return.

The Scott County Times has always been a constant staple of information for our community, but I expected nothing in it about me, so again I was not surprised or disappointed.

And, I thought nothing of it when The Clarion-Ledger and The Jackson Daily News did not bring to the public’s attention anything about any of our service men and women, including me, returning home from an unjust, immoral, unpopular war that we apparently were losing.

It was my good fortune to have six months of active duty left when I returned.  I say good fortune because those few months gave me a degree of detoxification, a chance to come down from combat and re-inter the civilian world, albeit while still being on active duty.  Tens of thousands of our military had no such chance to normalize.  When their boots hit the tarmac at Travis Air Force Base they were civilians again.  What a shock to have been a squad leader or tank commander giving life and death orders, and a short time later manager of the produce section in a grocery store listening to someone complain about stale lettuce.

For the next six months I was Chief of the General Subjects Committee, US Army Basic Training Center, Fort Bragg, NC,  responsible for six training programs, three ranges, and 60 instructors.  Almost all were Vietnam vets and almost all had experienced the same welcoming, lack thereof, or worse, as I had, upon their return.  After a few weeks of hearing their stories and at one of our monthly concaves I addressed their disappointments and anger.  Briefly, I told them it was called military service for a reason.  It was a duty thing, and if our service was appreciated, then we would accept the recognition gladly.  But if we were insulted or ignored, we would continue to do our duty regardless and to serve with honor.  They accepted my comments, and their expressed disappointments and anger seemed to diminish with time, as did mine.

Which provides entrée to two contentious issues of the Vietnam War:  we did not lose the war, and the war was not immoral.

In 1996, the Hanoi Government reluctantly admitted that more than 1.1 million of their soldiers were killed during the war contrasted with our 58,272 deaths.  At one point during the Christmas Bombing of 1972, they were at the point of surrendering.  We won the war, but then gave it away.

In the 1980s, I worked for Hughes Aircraft in Forest and Richland where I became friends with a Vietnamese who was actually Chinese.  His personal story is riveting and germane to this article.

In 1945, China fell to the Mao Communists.  His grandparents, who lived in China, left their parents in China and fled with their children to the northern part of Vietnam.  In 1954, when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu and the northern half of Vietnam fell to the Viet Minh Communists, his parents left their parents in North Vietnam and fled to South Vietnam with their children.  In 1975, when South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese Communists, my friend and his wife left their parents in South Vietnam and fled with their children to America.

Unjust, immoral war?  Tell that to my Chinese friend!

All wars are wars of conquest — for land, resources, or people — except the Vietnam War, which will go down in history as the most altruistic war ever fought.  The United States did not want their water buffalo, rice paddies, rubber plantations, or people.  We fought valiantly to save 17 to 19 million people from communism.  We fought for South Vietnam’s freedom.

All of this remained buried in my psyche until two years ago.  I was at the Scott County Courthouse for Memorial Day and happened to notice an attractive monument dedicated to our military men and women who died serving our nation.  Except, there were no names on the monument.  None.  Only blank spaces!  Suddenly a strange, cold feeling came over me knowing that had I died in Vietnam forty-five years ago my name would not even be on the memorial erected on my behalf.  The words, “Thank you for your service.” suddenly became meaningless, almost glib.  Easy to say,  hard to do.

My mother, father, and sister are no longer alive, but while they lived, and had I died in Vietnam, they would have received some solace knowing my name was on that monument, visiting it, and remembering me.  Our parents loved us and showed their love by caring for us, but I never heard my father say those words of love.  On the other hand, I saw him cry only twice — once at his mother’s funeral and once at Jackson International Airport when I came home.  Words are cheap; it is action that counts.

My plea to fellow Scott County citizens is to put meaning behind the words on that monument.  Show our veterans that you really do appreciate their service.  The hardest part, the erection of the monument, has already been accomplished.  The easier part will be to add to the monument the names of our men and women who have died in our wars.  We do that for them and for their loved ones.

  • PFC Ralph Idom; Forest, MS; United State Marine Corps; 9 November, 1967; Republic of Vietnam.
  • PFC Eric Ficklin; Morton, MS; United States Army; 25 April, 1968; Republic of Vietnam.
  • SSG Excell Ficklin; Morton, MS; United States Army; 16 May, 1968; Republic of Vietnam.
  • SSG William Charles Williams; Morton, MS; United States Army; 4 December, 1968; Republic of Vietnam.
  • CPL Canoy Lewis Sistrunk; Sebastopol, MS; United States Army; 11 July, 1969; Republic of Vietnam.

“Thank you for your service.”

Clyde H. Morgan, LTC, USAR, IN-MP (Ret);  October, 1968-October, 1969; Bn S-2 & C.O., B Co., 2/12th Battalion, First Cavalry Division-Airmobile; Republic of Vietnam.

Permission was granted by Clyde H. Morgan to post on 2A News.

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