The Spat Upon Vet Revisited

Back in mid-April, the phone rang one evening.  You have a call from Bob, the woman’s voice said.  I was in end-of-day mode, not the best time for a tele-scammer to invade my home life.  I hung up, and the phone rang again almost immediately.  That dance took two more turns, before I switched to sardonic.  Bob’s not here, I answered in my most blandly convivial voice, but she insisted.  It’s a call from Bob.

The next call I let the answering machine pick up.  The good nurse must have finally figured, “screw the privacy policy,” and she gave Bob’s last name, and a call back number.  Like I said, end of the day, I’m in fade out.  Unless you’re identifiably one of my closer friends or a family member, and you want the verbal me, you gotta call before six, after which I’m mixing my martini, and starting to prepare for dinner and an evening that does not include talking on the phone.

Anyway, I snapped to.  Christ, what a jerk I’m swearing at myself, as I rush to the phone.  It’s Bobby, a dear friend, old comrade from the day, the GI project in Wrightstown outside Fort Dix, and then part of our activist circle on the deserter amnesty issue before he took the union buy-out and fled to the hills of Vermont.  Bobby, who took his first plane ride at 19 en route to Vietnam, schlepped an M-60 all over the Delta with the 9th Division.  He was third generation printer’s union at the Daily News, and had barely ever traveled from Brooklyn past Manhattan – maybe a time or two over to Jersey.  Bob is one of those rare Brooklyn Yankees’ fans, worshiped the Mick, day dreamed about playing center field in the house that Ruth built while gazing out the window in grammar school until Sister Mary Malpractice put a knuckle sandwich upside his head.

Bobby wasn’t much of a student.  If he survived Nam, there was Charlotte, his HS sweetheart waiting at home in Sheepshead Bay, and the union card as a legacy from his grandfather’s own bashed head when the newspaper workers battled the publishers’ goons for the right to organize.   It was one of those womb-to-tomb life plans, and if that wasn’t the American Dream for the average working stiff, nothing was.  I don’t need to tell you that Nam pretty much put a major crimp in that scenario for my friend Bob.  As I dialed the phone, I feared the worse.  But the voice was the same old Bob, and it’s not that we’ve ever been out of touch for very long since the early 70s, never more than a couple of months at a time.  Sometimes he’d come to Maine, or I’d go see him.

The news was that Bob was in the psych ward at the VA in White River Junction, about an hour and a half from his place in Vermont’s so-called Northest Kingdom.  PTSD became a ratable service-connected disability by the VA in the early 80s, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Bob had been among the first to get his diagnosis and his hundred percent.  He’s been through all the substance programs, the in-patient clinics, with their twin accents on group therapy and meds.

Alcohol is how Bob deals with his demons.  And Dames.  Charlotte divorced him, but they remained neighbors and stayed close; when a brain tumor took her, Bobby lost his best friend, the one he could always lean on to regain some semblance of balance after each bounce off the wagon, and each prolonged binge into oblivion that followed.  Bob tried and tried to build another relationship.   But he smothered women with kindness – No, Michael, really, this is the one, I know it – and in succession, they would flee, breaking his heart and, in some cases ripping him off in the bargain.  It was the latest broken heart that sent him back to White River Junction, that and the open casket funeral of a local boy one town over who’d been killed in Afghanistan.

I’d always get on his case about his thing with women.  Take it slow, I’d say.  Don’t try to rescue her and the two kids, or get involved with the scum bag dead beat dad, all in the first month.  Or whatever.  About the dead kid in the casket, that registered on me.  Bobby is a sweetheart and a funny, sensitive guy, a softy.  But when he offered that dead boy as causa prima for his latest bout with the deep, deep blues, it caught in my throat too, and I could feel the mist starting to rise.  It’s that deep, unappeasable thing that makes a Nam vet bawl whenever he goes to the Wall in DC.

Anyway, Bob hadn’t tried to hurt himself.  I was thankful for that.  He was feeling better and was going to check himself out in a day or two against the advice of his keepers, but that was to be expected.  None of them can imagine, given their own far less turbulent heads, how any of these toxic grade PTSD guys ever survive from one day to the next.  But I knew Bob’s resilience, and could hear in his voice that he’d landed on his feet again, and still had some rounds left in him.

A couple of days later Bobby called to tell me he was back home.  He became uncharacteristically talkative about his time in Nam.  All the years I’ve known him, he’d never go into detail, not even with me.  He didn’t have to.  I could read between the lines.  The 9th Infantry Division was based in the northern Mekong Delta, some forty miles below Saigon.  Till the late sixties, American units only operated sporadically there, and the South Vietnamese Army hardly at all.  This warren of waterways, rice paddies and canopied woodlands was densely populated and traditionally a stronghold of the Vietnamese resistance, the guerrilla forces of the Viet Cong.  I always figured Bob had gotten into some heavy shit, and just couldn’t bring himself to talk about it.

Suddenly, I couldn’t get him off the phone.  He’d started looking through old boxes he’d dragged from the barn to his living room, mostly articles Charlotte had clipped every day while waiting for her soldier to get home, from the Daily News and the Times, particularly if they mentioned the 9th.   Bob was rambling on about some home coming parade involving his unit, and how they’d been attacked by antiwar protesters.

Bob, I interrupted, what the hell are you talking about.  That welcome home shit was something Reagan’s people manufactured trying to get Americans to stop feeling bad about Vietnam so they could stick it to the rebels in Central America, go from covert to overt, which the public wasn’t buying.  There were a lot of cry-baby vets, who couldn’t get their dad’s “good”  war out of their imaginations, and who knew goddamned well that Vietnam was no noble cause, the pap Reagan was doling out, but who couldn’t make the emotional break because to them, if the war was bad, it meant they were bad too.  The hat vet organizations like the Legion and the VFW are filled with vets who think like that – or who don’t do a lot of independent thinking about their war experiences, or the world in general, is the way I view it.

A robust antiwar protest during the Vietnam War

No, no, no… Michael, Bob persisted, we had a parade.  I’ve got it right in front of me.  They jeered at us, it says.  Again, I jumped his train of thought, onto a digression about how the whole spat-upon vet thing was an urban myth.  No documented evidence has been produced, and besides, I said, how did all those GI-hating hippies get on the tarmac of a U.S. air base to sling their spit at guys just getting back to the World?  And even when you out-processed, and left the base, it’s not like you were in uniform, even if you hadn’t been discharged yet.  The average GI hated the uniform by then, and couldn’t wait to get it off when on his own time.  But Bob was still adamant.  He just couldn’t string it out in a way that made any sense.  Finally, I said, make some copies of what you’re talking about, and send them to me, okay?  And, listen man, those clips sound interesting; they should go to a library.

When the clips came I could see immediately that Bob had sent me something important.  It was a copy of a very brief AP story, only three paragraphs, datelined Seattle July 10, 1969, under the heading, “Returning GIs, Hailed, Jeered.”  The other clips Bob included tell the whole story.

In the ‘68 presidential run up, Richard Nixon promised, if elected, to begin withdrawal of American troops from active combat in Vietnam, to be replaced by the forces of South Vietnam.  This strategy quickly became dubbed in the media as, “changing the color of the corpses,” because the American Air War, and presumably the war itself, was on the books to continue indefinitely.  Nixon, in fact, would fulfill this promise, and, in doing so, unwittingly set the stage for the victory of the Vietnamese people and the reunification of their country.

To implement Nixon’s policy, the Pentagon chose a battalion of the 9th Division to play the public role of being the first homecoming unit, first among 25,000 U.S. troops that would be rotated home over a seven week period.  On July 8, 1969, 814 GIs, “draped in leis and grinning broadly,” stood at attention for two hours at Tan Son Nhut air base just outside Saigon, participating in a farewell ceremony that saw them harangued by the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams, as well as South Vietnam’s president, Nguyen Van Thieu, “a late arrival,” according to the story in the Times.

After the ceremony, the GIs boarded the giant C-141 transports that would, after 18 hours, return them to the World.  A few GIs are quoted in clippings from the New York papers. The men are understandably ecstatic, since for many of them it means cutting short, if only by a month in one case, their one year combat tours.  Most of them have seen heavy action in the Delta, which is also described in many articles Camilla had saved for Bob.  And I know from my own experiences, some of horrors they’d dealt with, and, one guys says it all, “I’m just lucky to be getting home alive.”

When the transports landed at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, another dog and pony show awaited the returning heroes, 3000 people, some of them relatives, and a brass band.  The men off the first plane got a hand shake from former Vietnam commander, now Army Chief of Staff, General William Westmoreland.  The South Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S. is also there, as are 100 little leaguers in uniform.  The battalion is due to be deactivated, and many of the men will be discharged.  But not quite yet.  Two days later there’s an official home coming parade in downtown Seattle.  And that’s where it happens.  The AP story reports “the jeers of antiwar protestors who demanded, “Bring them all home now.”  So, it appears from the slogan quoted that the protestors weren’t “jeering” at the GIs, but at the likes of Secretary of Army Stanley Resor, and the other pro-war officials, who watched them march past from the reviewing stand.

Now, here’s the tough part.  Bob felt like he was being jeered at, and I’ll bet that was how most of the other GIs that day felt too.  When we talked Bob told me that, not only had his unit been verbally abused by protestors in Seattle, but he’d experienced similar treatment when he went to Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn to report for his induction physical.   But Bob, I reminded him, that happened everywhere.  The antiwar movement was all over the inductions centers, in the major cities anyway.  They were protesting the war and the draft, not the draftees.  Besides, I added weakly, you weren’t even in the Army yet.

I was missing the point.  Most of the protestors had enough middle class privilege to avoid military service.  Blue collar guys like Bob didn’t get that option; they went to war.  The fact that Bob misunderstood the words the protestors were yelling that day in Seattle is disturbing; what’s even more disturbing is that he’s still misinterpreting them after all these years.  Class resentment runs deep and gets tragically misplaced in this society, while divide and rule fuels the myth that vets were spat upon, even when they weren’t.

About Michael Uhl

Michael Uhl’s writing has appeared in national magazines like Forbes, GEO, House Beautiful, Travel and Leisure, the Nation, and the Progressive. He has contributed regularly to the Sunday Boston Globe Book Review. Uhl holds a PhD in American Studies. He is the author of Vietnam Awakening, and is now working on a second memoir. His website is at: www.veteranscholar.com .

Comments

  1. Ken Mayers says:

    Terrific piece, Michael. I especially appreciate the “Runyonesque” flavor in the first several paragraphs. I had never seen that in your writings before. It is a strong hook ! I hope everyone on this list reads the piece.

  2. This subject is discussed at lenght in the wonderful documentary Sir!” No Sir!”

  3. John G Organ Jr says:

    Very good article. I was in the Delta with the 3rd Brigade of the 9th Infantry Division from September 1969 to November 1970. The Division colors went home but many guys stayed behind for another year with the 3rd Brigade or were moved to other units. I never had any bad experiences when I came home and, of late, have had many positive experiences with strangers if I am wearing my old 9th Division/Vietnam Vet baseball cap. Next time you speak to Bob, tell him welcome home, brother, from me.

  4. Maureen O'Connor says:

    Good piece. I was in my early 20s when I first met a Vietnam veteran. Although I knew of no vets who were dissed (or spat upon), I did know that some didn’t want to deal with the Vets’ experiences there. As a peace activist, I met some members of VVAW at the American Friends headquarters in Cambridge. However, in East Boston in early seventies I met a nurse who served in Vietnam at aged 19. Later I learned that she had been raped by US. soldiers. When I asked why she’d never talked about her experiences to us, etc. she answered, “Nobody ever asked.” Not dissed, but dismissed.

    Some on the left (I was radicalized as a VISTA volunteer in 1968-69, I think, decided not to ask questions about vets’ experiences in Vietnam. I, for one, wanted the nightmare to go away–a form of denial or cowardice?

  5. Pragmatic Realist says:

    I am very glad to read this article and to gain some understanding of this difficult situation. I was a smart kid born into a working class family. By pure dumb luck I was born late enough to have been already in college with a deferment for a couple of years and then to get a moderately high lottery number ( I still remember it: #188.) College was cheap and nearby so I could live at home. I got a small scholarship because I was a math major. At that time I supported the war but did not want to go. It scared me to death. I developed an idea then that I have stuck with, and I wish the chicken-hawks like Bush and Cheney had adopted: You can oppose the war and demonstrate; or you can support the war and volunteer. But if you support the war and don’t go, you can keep our mouth shut about ever sending anyone else to war for the rest of your life.

  6. Working class anti-warrior says:

    I would like to comment on the ‘Spat Upon Vet, Revisited. I was at that demonstration in Seattle as an antiwar activist. No one was ‘jeering’ the parading troops. We were, however protesting the war in Vietnam in the way we always did, chanting “Bring the troops home now!” In fact, we in the antiwar movement took great pains to separate the workers in uniform who make up the bulk of the U.S. military from the officer corps and civilian leadership who plan these wars. We talked to and helped to organize G.I. resistance to the war and championed G.I. who stood their ground in the military for free speech and the right to organize. We strongly promoted the idea that wearing a uniform did not take away your rights as a citizen. and speaking of urban myths, Mr. Uhl seems to be operating with one of his own; that the antiwar movement was made up of pampered privileged college kids with a deferment in their hip pocket. I myself am a working class kid who only went to college well after the war was over. Most of the people who I worked with in the movement were workers or the children of workers. I did not go into the military only because of being rejected twice in the draft because of physical problems. This myth of the effete snob middle class anti war activists who looks down their nose at soldiers is just that: a myth.

  7. George Fleming says:

    I am also missing the point here, Michael. I can’t figure out what you mean by this article. You note that most protesters were exempted from the draft by privilege. How does this show that Ed misunderstood what he heard?

    I was in uniform in downtown LA in early 1968, just before I shipped out to Vietnam. I was crossing a street legally. When I got in front of the line of stopped cars, the lead car gunned it and stopped just short of hitting me. I didn’t miss the point.

  8. In response to the comments from Working Class Warrior and George Fleming:

    In my article I make the point that most GIs who went to war in Vietnam (and the same applies to Iraq and Afghanistan today) were working class. Christian Appy makes this case convincingly and statistically in Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. I just have to look at my HS year book to confirm that the majority of those I graduated with who served in the military were working class, and the majority of those who didn’t had class based options that allowed them to avoid service. There are always exceptions. 10% of the draft age military during Vietnam were junior officers, like me. Virtually everyone in that category that I knew was college educated middle class, defined vaguely by some marker like upward mobility or professional family background.

    I also clearly make the point that my protagonist in the article misheard what the protesters were chanting, and misunderstood to whom it was directed. And that his emotional response had a class component to it. Whether or not an individual serving in the military, like Mr. Fleming, was aggressed upon by some GI hating civilian does not alter the point I’m making, that the Movement generally supported GIs while opposing the war. I have no problem conceding, moreover, that at some time, and in some place, an individual GI was spat upon and called a baby killer by a war protester. The fact that such behavior escaped documentation (not to mention, say, prosecution) suggests that, however odious we may judge such an act, it was rare and exceptional to the point of being a statistical artifact, and that the basis of the myth of the spat upon vet is political, not statistical.

  9. Jim says:

    I worked for a number of years as a psychotherapist with Vietnam vets, and often heard the claim of being spit on. What I saw and heard was quite different from the statements above. For one, it was the families of many vets who “spit” on them. Some returned home to find their parents had sold or given away their possessions and no longer wanted them around; and it is certainly true that the decompression from combat, meaning acting out in ways that were extremely disturbing to family members caused some of this rejection. My mother threw my brother out of the house when he got home we started dropping a lot of acid, riding our motorcycles around and telling her to fuck off when she complained about full volume rock music and pot. When I eventually became a therapist, I faced a VA all too willing to screw around with vets who desperately needed benefits, and they still are, and I don’t see anyone doing much about it. And as many vets are aware, the close brotherhood some experience in combat is hardly available in the society to which they return. So of course they were “spit on,” and they’re still being spit on. And so was I. I was so good at getting benefits for vets, that the VA simply stopped paying for the therapy they’d already approved, and I was burnt out and out of a job. My only solution is what I witnessed: vets must organize and take care of other vets, just as they did in the Sixties. Without Vietnam Vets, we wouldn’t even have a PTSD diagnosis.

  10. Dale says:

    Before I went to Vietnam in April of 1968 I was stationed at Fort Hamilton, NY. For more than 30 days I was on burial detail where I traveled around the New York area firing salutes at funerals.

    I remember particularly an incident when our honor guard stopped in a small Connecticut town where a funeral for a soldier was happening. When we ordered our breakfast at a local eating establishment, a customer came over to our table and picked up the check and paid for all our meals.

    When I returned from Vietnam in 1969 after 19 months, I was at the Tacoma, Wa processing center and was told that all planes were booked up until the day after Christmas. I bought a Grey Hound bus ticket for Chicago. After about 7 hours of riding we were no further than Spokane. When I was in side the Spokane Greyhound bus terminal, I suddenly got the idea of calling the Spokane Airport to see if any seats were available on the next flight to Chicago. I was told that a flight was departing in about 30 minutes and there were several available seats. I asked the ticket clerk how to get to the airport. He told me it was down the expressway and he pointed to it which was down the hill. I grabbed by duffel bag and ran down the hill, climbed over the fence and stuck out my thumb. Within a few seconds a motorist stopped and picked me up in my dress greens. We sped to the airport and he dropped me off with about 10 minutes to spare. They told me to grab my bags and run to the gate (This was before airport security and scanners) and I did. They immediately put me on the aircraft and I was in Chicago three hours later.

    When I got to the Chicago Airport I walked out side and immediately a trucker asked me where I was headed. I told him Michigan City, Indiana. He told me to jump in, he would take me as far as Gary. When I got to Gary another guy came along and took me to the outskirts of my home town. Several minutes later a police officer stopped and told me to jump in and he took me to right to the front of my home.

    I was never shown ANY disrespect. Just the opposite! I was always disgusted to hear more than a few soldiers claim they were spit at and called Baby Killers.

  11. Howard says:

    Allow me please to offer an outside perspective albeit one of a person who did spend many years in the USA.
    I am British and I am writing from Manchester UK. Firstly I am when I get a chance between life’s constant demands trying to complete a film script about the American Indochina War unlike anything Hollywood ever did.
    Experiences from diverse vantage points especially the always missing from Hollywood Vietnamese view pointS.
    I am very moved and impressed by the article and my touched by the comments of those with experiences from that time. My understanding is that it was the PRO-WAR camp who would get angry and rant about how they won World War 2 so why can’t you win this ? type of crap. Interesting how the pointless escapade in Korea always gets skipped over two Koreas before the war two Koreas after the war only with 3 million dead (2 million from the war and 1 million from post war starvation caused by war damage to farming and infrastructure.). Many of the most brutal American tactics in Vietnam came out of Korea and the early war in The Philippines at the turn of the century. I still think Americans have come no where close to dealing with the slaughter of millions of people in Indochina and the self-glorifying fiction still dominates over honest fact within American society. Germany had come to terms with its wartime crimes against humanity far sooner while the USA from top down to bottom still has mostly not matched that honesty and confession. Despite the decades that has past and the on-going suffering
    of new generations of Vietnamese caused by genetic deformaties from American chemical warfare decades before their own births. There is also an issue of wanting a single and very simple narrative that implies a universal experience to all men in uniform. I hardly see how that is possible. If a guy was a helicopter mechanic and spent his tour on an airbase fixing helicopters he knows little to nothing of torture cells and hamlet massacres. An empire protects its own cult of self perspective and flattery by compartmentalising its loyal servants as disconnected pieces of a grand jigsaw puzzle that is forbidden to be completed in fear of revealing the broader view to a broader populace. Michael understands this clearly in his friend Ed even before leaving the divisions are there and to the sound of it serving their intent very well in the negative sense. As for the age old perplexing sensitivity among Americans about the “baby killers” alleged utterance ; seems to me that this is the heart of the great American denial. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese babies and small children were slaughtered. If no one really is a Baby Killer then who killed them ? Remember the Beslan school seige and massacre ? When it was over then Russian
    President Putin called the terrorists Baby Killers. In factual terms it is true they are though so were the Russian security who went in like Rambo and caused the massacre. The problem however is worse and deeper for yet another denialist country with much in common with the USA. The act was carried out in the name of Chechnya.
    What most Russians and the world did not know was that during the two Chechnya wars one under Yeltsin one under Putin it is estimated more than 40,000 children were killed by Russian army bombardment and shooting. Just as most Americans still don’t know that the pre 9/11 USA/UK Clinton era genocidal sanctions on Iraq killed over 1 million people including at least 480,000 Iraqi infants and small children. So who are the real Baby Killers the terrorists or the nation states or both but if both then who more so ? How much longer before the 5 million Indochinese men, women and children killed by the United States enters an American school text book ? But then again the death of 90 million native Indian peoples across the entire Americas in the America Holocaust remains the herd of Elephants in the room that even after centuries can get museum funding cut off by enraged denialist Congressmen if a word of it is uttered. There is no way that the phrase America Holocaust is coming from the lips of Obama or any establishment figure anytime soon. If you were Germany that would not be a problem it would be said.

    I am very welcoming to hear from anyone and would much appreciate anyone willing to share their war experiences with me. I feel a deep sensitivity toward any such experience. Howard xuanvu@asia.com

  12. Simon: Michael's Son says:

    Great article Dad…I also like the tone you use to introduce Ed and provide his background story. Extremely well written, informative and very entertaining.

  13. Steve says:

    You would think that as an ex-GI living in Berkeley in 1970 I’d have drowned in spit.

  14. Steve says:

    Woops – fat fingers — to finish that thought, it didn’t happen. Not even close.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] treatments of the movement… focused on the elite and out-of-touch nature of the protestors… as ‘spitters’ and ‘haters.’”  In contrast, “war supporters” during that period “are often imagined as ordinary… people [...]

  2. [...] treatments of the movement… focused on the elite and out-of-touch nature of the protestors… as ‘spitters’ and ‘haters.’”  In contrast, “war supporters” during that period “are often imagined as ordinary… people [...]

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