Over the years, I have had a number of people say to me that being in the Army must be just like having any other job. Of course, these are people who never served—and likely never would have if called upon to do so. There is no feeling like the despair in having absolutely no choice but to do your duty, no matter how distasteful. And when there is no choice, despair can be tough to avoid.
One day, years later, when I worked for the State of California, one of my fellow employees said something like the above-mentioned comment. I explained to her it would be like taking everyone on the same floor of our office, and for the next year eating with them, showering with them, partying with them—in other words being with them 24/7. And you could not disobey your supervisor without going to jail. She admitted she would not like that at all, and I said, “Well, that’s the service.”
Perhaps this is a good place to discuss the gap between GIs and civilians, and the almost contempt in which we were held. Maybe contempt is too strong a word, but all I know is that it was a lot different then than it is today. I laugh out loud today when I see people talk about the troops and heap accolades upon them when given half a chance. Back then, I had a friend who, upon returning from Vietnam, could not even get a cab home from the airport. Finally, somebody who was there to drop off his mother gave him a ride home. So when I see people today talk about the troops or see advertisements on TV, I don’t know whether to gag, or cry, or cuss and shout.
So, it was almost us versus them back then. And everyone was apparently comfortable with the fact that we lived in crowded conditions, with none of the amenities of the surrounding area. That was OK because we were GIs. I have always found it odd that, during those days when people seemed so upset about the war in Vietnam and the men who were dying there, they treated the GIs in their own hometowns so poorly, as if the war were our fault. Back then, it was a true dichotomy if I ever saw one. So when I talk about the gap between civilians and GIs, it was more of a gulf, almost a culture clash. I mean, it is nice to see GIs today receive what is due them, but it still hurts sometimes.
And we wanted to join the other side and be called “PFCs,” which stands for “proud fucking civilians”—but our service had forever changed us, and there would always be a chasm between us and those who had not served. We wanted to join the other side and they would not let us because of our past.
And of course, the Army did not help men who came back from Vietnam. To expect men to come from one Army in Vietnam to another Army Stateside was asking a lot. I’m really surprised that so many men accomplished the transition fairly smoothly. But no thought was ever given to what had happened to us during our tours overseas. We were just expected to switch over, and that was that. But some men had a hard time just getting used to civilian life, much less the Stateside Army, with all of its spit and polish. They ended up paying a pretty heavy price for it; ultimately we all did.
McCormick, William B.. Time to Serve: Or…Was There Life After Vietnam?. Hellgate Press, available on Amazon