Good or bad, I am who I am because of Vietnam
March 29 marked the first anniversary of the dedication of our Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument here in Austin. And as I reflect on that nine-year journey from concept to creation, I’m reminded of the turbulent history that led to that eventful day, the controversial war and our less than warm homecoming. If war is hell, peace for many of us was far worse. It’s been 35 years now since my return from combat duty in Vietnam, and much of that experience still lives within me. The sights. The sounds. The smells. It’s all still here. But no longer hostile, these ghosts are now my friends. I learned years ago that if I was to survive the peace, I had no choice but to dance with the devil. Good or bad, I am who I am because of Vietnam. To serve my country was an honor. To survive the war was a gift.
Somehow, that has to suffice. For many of you, our monument represents closure. But for me, it’s merely a validation of our generation’s patriotic response to America’s call. And to have played roles in both the war and the creation of this tribute will forever be sources of personal pride. This newest of Texas monuments is a monument for all times to the veterans of our time. It’s our Texas welcome home.
By the time my tour had ended in 1970, I was fairly fearless. With a bounty on my head, I’d been running killer teams and reconnaissance missions for a year as a Marine scout sniper. I’d learned to dodge bullets from friends and foe alike, and survival in the bush had become second nature. But as my rotation date approached, I began to experience a sense of dread. Recognizing that I had become less civilized and more insensitive, I feared that my combat service had perhaps rendered me unfit for civilian life. Coming home would be difficult at best. I knew how to fight a war. But would I be able to fight a peace?
I returned from Vietnam dazed and confused. Though I wanted no part of the war, it had become a major part of me. From beginning to end, from enlistment to discharge, my military experience had lasted all of 19 months. With less than six months of infantry training, I was sent into 12 months of combat. My specialty training had consisted of only two separate sniper schools, one stateside, one in DaNang. I never had a duty station; never sailed on a military ship; never flew in a military fixed wing aircraft. Except for chopper insertions, I mostly walked through the war. I knew almost nothing about the military.
Cut short by the Early-Out Program, my two-year enlistment included no psychological evaluation, no decompression, no down time. My military service was over as quickly as it began, short but intense. Six days after the completion of my tour, I was honorably discharged and sent home. Suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, I was on my own. I’d been a Sergeant, a leader in an elite Marine combat unit with the tools of war at my disposal and lives in my care. But here at home, I was an undesirable. From combat to peacetime, my body arrived light years ahead of my sanity, and although I tried to assimilate into civilian culture, I wanted nothing to do with the ungrateful people whom I had once sworn to defend. Other than a flag, the American people and I had nothing in common. But unlike the flag of the protected, mine had been bloodied. And the skills I’d learned serving this nation no longer had relevance. I could fieldstrip a weapon, disarm a booby trap, read a map, estimate ranges, coordinate artillery and air support, set up an ambush, and treat a sucking chest wound. I could also stalk and kill. But so what? Armed with now useless abilities, I had to restart my life is a country that no longer welcomed me. Those were truly dark days. But I wasn’t alone. Many of you shared those same readjustment blues.
But time was on our side. When it became obvious that I’d never outrun my past, I chose to put my anger to use by becoming a veterans’ activist. I’d found a way to fight the peace. And when the idea of a monument to Texas Vietnam veterans became a State resolution in 2005, I joined with others in what was to become the monument’s official Design Committee. After a final design had been accepted and the Design Committee dissolved, I stayed on as a member of the Executive Committee, a humbling and deeply meaningful experience.
To bring this project to fruition took the combined skills of a very determined Executive Committee. There were trip wires, ambushes, and mine fields at every turn. There was even friendly fire. But under the able leadership of Chairman Robert Floyd, the Committee never wavered. Terry Burkett, Al Erwin, Kinnan Golemon, Richard McBride, John Miterko, Pat Nugent, Kerry Orr, Phil Price, Michael Wright, and I represented the Vietnam veteran community. But equally important were our civilian counterparts Brian Archimbaud, Tamara Burkett, and Cheryl Fries. Our generation of warriors could never have found a more able group of people in which to entrust a tribute to their service. And when the monument was officially presented to the State, 4500 of you were there to share the moment. Happy Anniversary, Texas Vietnam veterans! I hope that you approve of what was created in your honor. We earned it.
Don Dorsey, President
The Austin Chapter of Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans (TAVV) meets Thursday, April 9, 2015 - 7:00 pm at VFW Post 856 — 406 E Alpine Rd - Austin, Texas 78704.