Left Justified: Vietnam revisited, part two

My Vietnam veteran friend Steve Bea, formerly of Rockford, now in Seattle, reminisces for his nephew’s term paper:

“I was trained as a microwave radio technician in the fall of 1970, then home briefly and ordered to report to Oakland to be flown to Vietnam. I flew to California, and spent the night with my uncle. Next morning, they drove me to the base, but I told them, ‘Turn around, I’m not going in.’ I spent two days trying to make up my mind to go to Canada like a lot of draft resisters. I finally admitted I had no plans, no prospects, and didn’t know anyone in Canada. So, I showed up at the base two days late, AWOL.

“I was court-martialed, along with about 30 other guys. Apparently, this happened a lot. We stood in formation; I in the middle. The first soldier was asked his excuse. Something about his sick mother. He was sent to jail for a week, or demoted a rank, which means smaller paychecks for months and months until you get promoted again. ‘Next!’ He’d been stuck in snow in the Sierras (it was January). Demoted two ranks. ‘Next!’ So it went. It didn’t matter if your plane crashed in the mountains, and you had to eat dead passengers to stay alive, and crawled out on your hands and knees, you still went to jail. They came to me, and I had an inspiration. ‘What’s your excuse, soldier?’ ‘No excuse, Sir.’ Well, that was the answer they were looking for. I was fined $100, and the paymaster in Vietnam would deduct it from my next paycheck when I myself gave him a piece of paper with the court’s judgment. After me, everyone said ‘no excuse.’

“Guess I’d have to be pretty dumb to give the paymaster that paper, huh? Well, I did. The payroll guy looked at my paper, said, ‘Aw, crap,’ and tore it up.

“They don’t make movies about soldiers like me, and we were the majority in Vietnam. At the peak of the war, in 1968, the U.S. had 550,000 soldiers there, and only 70,000 were combat troops. The rest were support. Today in Iraq, they contract out to private companies what soldiers did in Vietnam.

“There were many soldiers with torn bodies and minds, but I wasn’t one of them. Soldiers with bad experiences don’t like to talk, and, as you see, I talk plenty. For me, Vietnam was the best adventure I ever had.

“‘We don’t need radio technicians right now,’ they said to me. ‘We’ll assign you to microwave tower building. That’s connected to the radio.’

“You may have heard that soldiers in ’Nam were on drugs a lot. I walked in to my little tower construction team and asked if they used pot. They gave me a frozen stare. ‘We climb 200 feet up skinny towers. We don’t like to impair our brains with drugs.’ Oops. As it turned out, they didn’t like to impair their judgment with drugs, but they liked to get drunk all the time. So I fit right in!

“I knew I would be OK when I got off the plane and the ground was solid. News reports from Vietnam always seemed to show soldiers wading up to their armpits in a black swamp with snakes swimming by. I stomped on the solid ground, and then got in a truck to leave the airport. We went through swarming narrow streets. I saw a big, yellow Shell Oil sign there on the other side of the road, and thought, ‘So that’s what this is all about.’

“Everywhere was barbed wire. I came out of the mess hall after my first meal with an orange in my hand. There were kids on the other side of the razor wire, holding their hands out saying, ‘G.I., G.I.’ I started to throw the orange over the wire, when suddenly a kid was standing right next to me. She had come through like a sparrow. In the next few months, I would be driven through towns big and small, but always crowded, past rice fields and forests of waving palm fronds and hills, through checkpoints and past temples, and I would no longer notice the barbed wire, just as I don’t notice telephone wires and poles now. Green and beautiful, that’s Vietnam, with people that had some inner toughness, simple morals and basic honesty, and lots of sentimental love songs just as crappy as our own country and Western.”

Two more weeks worth of columns, next week part three. Thanks for reading my friend’s account of his time in service to the USA.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

from the August 5 – 11, 2009 issue

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