July 4, 2008 – People nationwide will celebrate our nation’s independence this weekend. There will also be hundreds of thousands of U.S. Servicemen and women hunkered down in Afghanistan and Iraq this Fourth of July. While life on the war-front is harrowing and unpredictable, the transition back to civilian life is one of the most difficult things about military service. In this latest installment of our series “This Weekend in 1968,” two veterans of two different wars discuss their experiences of serving in, and returning to home from an unpopular war.
Ed Vick: I’m Ed Vick, I’m a Vietnam vet. I served with the navy’s river patrol force in Vietnam in 1968.
Paul Reickhoff: My name is Paul Reickhoff. I served with the U.S. Army in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 as a rifle platoon leader in the 3rd Infantry in the 1st Armored Divisions.
Ed Vick: The Fourth of July in Vietnam was just like every other day. You know, when you’re there in the middle of it, it’s not so much about patriotism. Things like the Fourth of July… just had a lot less meaning than they would have to a civilian.
Paul Reickhoff: Fourth of July in Iraq sucked. A lot of days in Iraq sucked, but I think holidays are especially tough. Because you know so much is going on back home and you’re stuck, sweating your butt off in a war zone getting shot at. So it was especially tough in my unit because we were told after the invasion that we’d we home by the Fourth of July. So I remember writing a letter to my brother saying “Hey, Fourth of July’s coming up. We’ll get together, go to a Yankee game, you know, check out the fireworks.” I didn’t think it would be the same type of fireworks I ended up seeing in Baghdad for the next couple of months.
Ed Vick: Every day and every night was a huge stress mentally, just like it is, I think, for these guys and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. You know, we would go out at dusk in these 35-foot patrol boats. And we would usually set up our boats and shut everything down and stay there all night long by the light of the stars. Pretty much everywhere you were you were at risk. The whole river bank erupts in gunfire and you just never know where it’s coming from. You’re going out at night and the sun’s going down and it’s getting dark and you just sort of go through your mind, I wonder if I’m going to die tonight. And then you just sort of go “What the hell. Let’s go.”
Paul Reickhoff: Our days in Iraq were pretty chaotic. If there was an average day, it was usually spent working 18-20 hour days, looking for insurgents, doing a ton of searches through homes and businesses looking for weapons caches and thinking about all the possibilities that can happen, so you’re prepared, whether it’s a car bomb or a sniper, or a kid with a grenade in his hand. You’re just trying to think about all of the possibilities constantly. One of my old soldiers told me once that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not trying to kill you. My lasting memory of the average day in Iraq is walking with my guys through the narrow streets, sweating, with a ton of gear, waiting to get blown up.
Ed Vick: I remember getting ready to go out on a patrol one day and this petty officer comes out and says that one of his guys just can’t go out. The officer said “What do you mean he can’t go out?” “He just can’t go out. He just can’t do it.” It was viewed as a disgrace, he got no treatment whatsoever. He was mustered out of the service and got no treatment whatsoever. And he got a discharge other than honorable. And that’s what happened in those days to these guys who today would be known as having post-traumatic stress.
Paul Reickhoff: There were a couple of moments that were really tough emotionally, but on Christmas Eve, our sergeant major was killed in a roadside attack. The sergeant major is an enlisted guy for a couple hundred folks and he is kind of like the Grandpa Bear for all the soldiers in the unit. And that was really a tough hit on morale. And my unit had been extended to I don’t know, three or four times already. The number of divorces in my unit stacked up. Guys were getting wounded, the insurgency was really starting to grow and we had had enough. It was time to be out of there.
I think part of the emotional impact of this war that’s unique is that you don’t know when you’re coming home. You hope your higher headquarters will at least tell you, amidst all of this chaos and carnage and frustration and the flood of emotions, that at least you could at least pick a day when you could come home and start planning the rest of your life. And I think it’s an especially tough part of this war that’s unique and that’s different from Vietnam.
When we found out that we were coming home we didn’t believe it at all. I mean, we had been told we were coming home, five, six times prior to that and the rug had got jerked out from under us. So when we finally got to that point where we were flying out of Baghdad the guys were giddy, it was like they all smoked weed before they got on the plane or something. I remember at some point, a pillow fight broke out. Like the most random thing, we were on the corkscrew plane going up and the guys just started throwing pillows at each other, these cheap airline pillows that somehow the Air Force got, and then it just kind of sank in. But when you come home it’s just a total overwhelming flood of emotion. You know the families are waiting for you there at the parade field and it’s almost surreal.
Ed Vick: I’ll tell you how I came home. I was patrolling up near the Cambodian border, and we were in a night patrol and we had some contact with some North Vietnamese, a little bit of a firefight, it wasn’t anything terrible. The sun was coming up and we took our boats in. Took a shower, got my gear packed, and a chopper came and took me to Saigon and within 24 hours, I was in Philadelphia. And that was it.
When I got back, I couldn’t get a job. I was a highly educated naval officer and nobody cared. I could barely get a job. I moved to Texas because I thought that I would be more respected there because it’s more of a right-wing state, and I got a job, finally, as a bill collector. It was about the best I could do. I went to graduate school. I went to Northwestern. The very first day I drove on campus there was a demonstration. They were burning books and desks right in the street and they were protesting the war. So I knew enough to not talk about having been in Vietnam.
My first day in class, a professor was going around saying, “OK, everybody, let’s everybody introduce themselves. Tell a little bit about yourself.” So we went around, did that. I said where I had gone to college and that’s about all I said. He was a reserve naval officer himself, so he said, “Oh, you’re forgetting something. Tell us about where you were for the past year.” So I sort of said something like, well, “I was in Vietnam for a year and I just got back.” And there was sort of silence around the room. And for several months thereafter, no one in this class would speak to me. No one would say hello, no one would say goodbye. I was completely ostracized by people I didn’t even know for no reason other than that I had been a Vietnam veteran.
Paul Reickhoff: My first week we were in Georgia at Fort Stewart and we had about a week of out-processing. I knew that if I came right back to New York City, it would be too much for me. I needed some time away from my family. I needed some time to just unwind my mind. My girlfriend drove my jeep down to Fort Stewart where she met me and we spent about a week-and-a-half staying in little hotels by the beach and just trying to absorb being home.
I remember wireless Internet was something that didn’t exist before I left. I came back and blogs, and all this new music and stuff had happened while I was gone. It just seemed like I was Rip Van Winkle and I just woke up and all of this stuff had been going on.
I remember that the week that I got home, the biggest story in America was Janet Jackson’s exposed breast at the Superbowl. It was kind of jarring to come home and see, “Wow, this is what people are focused on. This is what people are talking about.” The apathy is really what hits me in the gut.
I have a good friend got home in 2004 and called me two weeks ago and said, “I am really messed up. I need to see somebody.” It took four years and his girlfriend left him and he said, “I never realized it. I never realized how much pain I was in. I never realized how much I was going through until four years after coming home.” Thank God he got to that point, for some people it might take 40 years.
Ed Vick: Most Iraq Veterans say “I don’t want to be another Vietnam Veteran.” It’s hard for me to hear that, because for all of my experience, I’m a relatively high-functioning Vietnam veteran, and I know exactly what they mean. Because I’ve spent a lot of time trying to help those kind of Vietnam veterans. And what I think when I hear one of them say it is “God, I hope you’re right.” I hope you don’t end up like the stereotypical Vietnam veteran and I’ll do everything that I can to help make that be the case.