March 17th 2021: DEROS + 50

DEROS=Date Expected Return (from) Overseas

Fifty years ago today I came home from Vietnam. On March 17th 1971 I left Cam Ranh Bay for Seattle, and then a short bus trip to Ft. Lewis where I left the army. My first official act that day, after leaving the plane and finding my duffel bag, was calling my mother. I stood in line waiting for a pay phone to become available. Standing in line had become routine for me; in the military that’s almost a job description. When a phone booth opened up, I called home, and when mom answered I greeted her: ‘Top-o-the-mornin’ to you, mother’. I said. She was, of course, thrilled to hear from her son safely home from the war. I told her I planned to fly to LA, visit with my Uncle Dick, her brother, then come home to Ohio. Above, I’ve just arrived at LAX where my uncle met me, and then it was on to Columbus.

My return from Vietnam was a strange time for me, a time lacking in direction or purpose. As dispiriting as the war had been, at least my tour in South Asia had given me a solid, unwavering purpose, a singular goal that kept me going day after day: Get out of Vietnam alive.

Pictured above, the day before I left Vietnam. I’ve gathered up my military-issue company gear, prepared to hand it in, and leave Vietnam. I’d reached my goal: I’d survived!

Combat assault Vietnam 1970

Back in Ohio I had no goal, no particular purpose. In many ways it feels like that today, almost as if I still seek that purpose. I won’t speak for my Vietnam vet colleagues, but the war left me adrift for a long time. It’s passing strange that a year in the orient should lead to such disorientation. Kipling was right about east and west when he wrote ‘ne’er the twain shall meet’.

One thing my year in Vietnam brought me was an urgency to question everything I’d ever believed, or thought I did, or was told I did. For the past fifty years I’ve questioned everything, abandoned things, embraced others, and still question many more. I wrote about what Vietnam did to and for me. In A Vietnam Anthem, What the War Gave Me, I describe a few of the changes and adjustments the war offered, and the role it played in making me the man I am today, both good and not so good.

The things I’ve discarded I will never miss. The only regret I have about them is the time I wasted trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Those things I’ve retained give me purpose and hope; indeed, those treasured things have steeled and supported me. Here are some of those items, kept and discarded, and my observations on these topics fifty years after Vietnam:

Love: I’ve found the love of my life. That’s all I need to say concerning the woman who shares my life, my bed, my kitchen, my values, my thoughts, and my dreams. I am the richest man alive. Period.

Children: Three beautiful women I’m overjoyed to know, and who rock my world in ways I knew they could. They give me hope that the future is female, and it’s in good hands.

Grandchildren: I have five of them now, and though I can’t begin to match those tiny humans’ energy level, they fill me with wonder as they interact with their world. They’re unencumbered by traditional obstacles and impediments, the myth and magic that constrained me at their age. They’ll have far fewer items to discard, I’m guessing. I marvel as I envision the world they’ll see, the wonders and astonishments that await them.

Religion: Religion’s cultish habits are some of those constraints I endured growing up, and that I’ve discarded. When I was a child, I spake as a child, as 1st Corinthians has it. Now that I’m no longer a child, I’ve unshackled myself from childish beliefs like god, and religion, and make-believe beings adrift in the sky.

For many years I tried to make sense of the religion I was immersed in, but I no longer pretend it makes sense, because it doesn’t. I don’t malign anyone’s beliefs; if religion provides comfort and solace to some, I’m happy for them. Since Vietnam and our subsequent ill-conceived wars, especially since 9/11 and the debacle that followed in Iraq, I’ve abandoned such blind, often fanatical devotion to religion. I now believe it is and has been the single most corrosive and divisive force in human history. Shedding my religious branding was painful, and it didn’t happen overnight, but I’ve broken its chains. The feeling of relief is immense.

Race: W.E.B. DuBois said the twentieth century in America would have race as its principal marker. In this new century, little has changed. Black Americans continue to be marginalized, beaten, and killed solely for having an abundance of melanin. Those people are martyrs—call them what they truly are—in the ongoing battle against Caucasian privilege in America. How Black people continue to maintain their belief and patience in this country is a mystery to me. We should be glad their demand is only for equality, and not for revenge.

The only hope I have that America will finally overcome her race-based madness came to me, ironically, out of the ridiculous ‘birther’ nonsense concerning Barack Obama. Here’s the irony: The theory almost had me convinced of its validity, simply because I’m not at all certain America in its color-phobic state had the capacity to produce such an exemplary human being as Mr. Obama. Thus, I once thought, they’re right; he could not have been born and raised here. But America did produce him. Perhaps we’ll be okay after all?

Equality: Despite our shameful history, and our seeming intransigence toward becoming ‘a more perfect union,’ the U.S. slouches forward toward the nation we’ve long claimed to be, but never have been. Women still lack full equality and agency. LGBTQ+ Americans are still marginalized. Trans Americans still fear for their lives in 21st century America! These egregious sins are both astonishing and dispiriting to me. Surely we’re better than this. Aren’t we? Please tell me we are.

Politics: As a life-long democrat, my position did not change because of Vietnam; it hardened. Recently, I’ve heard fellow progressives like me maligned for our views: Namely that racial & LGBTQ+ equality, fairness, justice, a living wage, sensible gun legislation, quality education, universal healthcare, full voting access, renewable energy, climate equity, criminal justice reform, accessible housing, veterans’ assistance, and transparency in government are radical ideas? I don’t know how else to respond to this indictment except to say that I believe the dismissal of these items is the truly radical idea.

Current affairs: Reading the above one might conclude that I’ve given up on America. I have not. It’s just that, since Vietnam, I truly understand what America means. And it’s not what a lot of people think it does. If people persist in the definition of America as a country, or a jaunty-looking, somewhat priapic-appearing parcel of real estate nestled between two oceans, we’ll never be able to have nice things.

Here’s my definition of America: It is not a country. Yes, there’s a bit of real estate involved, a priapic-shaped slice of dirt tucked underneath Canada, while resting heavily atop Mexico—in more ways than one. But that’s not what/who we are. America is an idea. That’s all it is. I don’t wish to minimize that, because it’s a fine and truly radical idea: Some years past, in the fading years of the eighteenth century, for the first time in human history a group of people decided—decided, mind you, they weren’t forced—decided to gather together, to put aside their tribal, and cultural, and linguistic, and religious, and other divisive aspects and form a collaborative society. They surrendered and discarded previous nationalistic conventions to embrace a whole new label: American. America is an experiment that had never been attempted before, not ever.

Sadly, a few of my fellows apparently nodded off in civics class, and labor under the false belief that America is just another country, a parcel of property like all others, and it ‘belongs’ to them, or folks who think like them at all events. It isn’t a country; America is an idea, and a darned good one. In fact, it’s such a wonderful idea that I think we ought try it sometime. Either that, or we should change the documents we claim to revere, those sacred papers residing in our national archive that speak of life, liberty, equality, the rule of law, and the pursuit of happiness. This may be the most dispiriting thing I’ve encountered since coming home from Vietnam, the hypocrisy of it all, the cognitive dissonance between what those founding documents claim we believe, and what we do in the public street. What was I fighting for and defending half a century ago in Vietnam? Please don’t tell me it was all for nothing.

Fifty years ago today I left Vietnam. In that half century I’ve been filled with hope that we’re progressing. And I’ve been filled with despair that we’re regressing. At times I’ve wondered if perhaps I’m just too damned idealistic, if my yearning for a better, more equal, gentler and fully functioning America is a pipe dream? With our national disgrace of war in South Asia, and the embarrassment and shame I felt from my participation in it, I have no choice but to question everything. We all should.

You could say it took me fifty years to write this piece. Now I must hope that, having lost our way all those years ago, that someday, I hope, in the short years I have remaining to me, that America will find its way, address the unfinished business right here at home, and become the nation we’ve always claimed to be. I hope I didn’t answer the call to fight for a country that won’t look at its own history, and then refuse do the hard work of setting things right for all of its citizens. I hope we can find the courage to finally do that. Fifty years from now my grandkids will know the answer to that question. Here’s hoping the changes are some of those wonders and astonishments that await them.

Thank you for reading my blog. And top-o-the mornin’ to ya!

14 thoughts on “March 17th 2021: DEROS + 50

  1. Thanks for reading this, Kevin. It was good to be home, but as I mentioned, that war really disrupted my sense of who I was. I hope you’re staying well, amigo. Here’s hoping we can catch up (in person) sometime soon.

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  2. dolkowski

    For you it took Vietnam. For me it was just living in a different country. I’m sorry that your journey to this realisation of America was more severe. Perhaps if you or I become president, we should require all citizens to live abroad for just one year. Excellent work Byron!

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    1. When I’m president that’s the first thing I’ll mandate, by executive order. Go live somewhere else for a year, and see what it could be like. You can likely guess which people I’ll start with. I promise I won’t send them to Melbourne…or should I? Thanks for reading.

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  3. Mike Dillard

    One must not forget the 25 years of saving lives flying as a civilian pilot for AirCare. We are much better off from your military service and your civilian Dust Off days. Thanks Buron for what you do and say(write). I was behind you all the way….

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  4. Mike Sheldon

    Thank you for a truly inspirational piece. I come from another country and culture but so believe in the ideals you put forward. I have loved watching America and seeing its progress through my lifetime. My own small country is going through immense changes, ones that will test the very fabric of its being. Thanks again for such a great blog.

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  5. Catching up on my blog reading today 🙂 And sorry I’m just now chiming in. But I have to say this is my favorite post of yours so far. Vietnam shaped your world view in so many fundamental ways, but the evolution you’ve made in the past 50 years — and the self-truths you’ve figured out on the important topics of our times — are so inspiring. (It’s amazing how much we agree on here, but you know you’re singing to the choir!)

    The idea of America as an experiment is a key theme in a book I’ve just started (and John just finished) called The Storm Before the Calm by George Friedman. In it he refers to America as “an invention.” Have you read it? I guess time will tell whether this experiment will be a success – it feels pretty doubtful at the moment.

    Hope you and my sis Mariah are well! Take care.
    s

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