By Stanley Campbell
Here’s the final installment of my friend Steve Bea’s reminiscences about the Vietnam War. After serving four months putting up radio towers, he breaks his leg spear fishing in Cam Ranh Bay:
“The army medics held up the X-ray and said, ‘Oh, look, there’s a fractured…a fractured…’ And I said, ‘That’s a fibula,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, a fractured fibula.’ I’d had a plastic skeleton when I was 12 years old; if that was my education, what was theirs?
“The military sent me out of Vietnam in case they had to place a screw in my bone. I told them the break was up the shaft, they could just put me in an office for six weeks and I’d heal fine. But I lost the debate, and was sent to a military hospital in Japan. No screw ever had to be placed in my bone.
“Around me were guys with horrible wounds. The nurses would come for one guy to change his dressing, and he’d start begging, ‘No, no, please no,’ and then begin screaming. His leg was strips of meat bound around the bone.
“The nurse told me this wasn’t bad, I should see the burn ward. There was only one guy hurt less than me. I asked him the problem, and he held up his bandaged thumb, and just shook his head.
“I was sent home to heal, where I removed the cast and spent some weeks relaxing before returning to a Signal School to finish my Army career.
“In the movie Deer hunter, Robert DeNiro comes home from Vietnam; his expression is flat, he hardly speaks. I think that’s the best war movie I’ve seen. For a while, I felt the same, like life around me was a black-and-white movie that I was watching; a depression that eventually went away. I spent the next eight months in New Jersey at a Signal School.
“The war got going big when I was 14 years old. I was shocked seeing anti-war demonstrations on TV. I didn’t know it was possible to oppose a war. I was even more shocked when my hometown newspaper wondered why these protesters weren’t shot for ‘aiding the enemy.’ I’ve always taken our free speech pronouncements seriously.
“But America’s devotion to free speech is a lot weaker than touted. By the time I got in the Army, I was anti-war. I began attending, with fellow soldiers, anti-war activities in New York City. We joined the ‘American Servicemen’s Union,’ which never amounted to much. Other guys joined ‘Vietnam Veterans Against the War,’ which was better known. That’s as close to a ‘veteran’s organization’ as I’ve ever joined. Think it counts?
“So, it may seem a surprise that late in 1971, I applied to the Pentagon to go back to Vietnam. Early in 1972, a captain called me in and said he had two orders: one to send me to Vietnam, the second to get me out of the Army. He had an order in both hands. Funny, you seldom get a fork in the road of life like that. I picked ‘go home.’ I then enrolled in spring semester of college.
“My best friend since second grade, Stanley Campbell, was in I Corps when I was in ’Nam, and we never knew it. Later, he was my best man at my wedding, and we’re still in touch, but not because of the Army. Our political opinions formed at that time and have remained much the same.
“I used the G.I. Bill for college, and Illinois veterans’ aid to finish nursing school. VA benefits helped get my family’s first house. Education and homeownership are very valuable benefits, but I don’t support militarism. I figure if we can afford those benefits plus a war, we should afford those benefits without a war.
“Saigon ‘fell’ in April 1975. It didn’t distress me at all; it was long overdue, and I was glad to see the war end. My Uncle Jeff was in Vietnam about 1968; 173rd Airborne, I think. His experience was utterly unlike mine. He was in combat, and most of the men he knew were killed while he was in the hospital. Might as well have been a different war.
“Thanks again, Adam [and The Rock River Times], for the chance to remember and ramble on. Hope it is useful to your class. Uncle Steve.”
I want to thank The Times for printing my friend Steve Bea’s memoirs of his service to America. I hope that one day we will never have any more war stories.
Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.
from the Aug. 26-Sept. 1, 2009 issue