Vietnam Stories: What war does to the boy

For the Monitor
Wednesday, September 27, 2017

My story really begins in the fall of 1966. It was a beautiful fall day. I had started my second year in college at Northern Michigan University having gotten off to a very poor start the previous year.

My class ranking was low, so I knew I was vulnerable to the draft, but I didn’t think about it too much. My good friend Duane and I were planning our weekend escapades over a couple of beers in his dorm room. This was strictly against the rules.

We were both 18, the beer had come from Wisconsin, where its purchase was legal, but this was Michigan and the minimum age was 21.

A knock on the door was immediately followed by the entrance of the R.A., who promptly reported our offense to the dean. We were summarily expelled from the university for the school year. I was drafted soon after.

I’m not certain the draft board even knew of my expulsion, but I took my U.S. Army draft physical, passed and promptly joined the U.S. Air Force. I never considered fleeing to nearby Canada, although this was discussed.

My father was a World War II veteran who was present at the Battle of the Bulge, and I could only imagine how he might have reacted to such an act. Also, I wasn’t against the war at that time. I just knew I didn’t want to shoot a gun at anybody.

After basic training and tech school, I was stationed with the 355th Tactical Air Squadron at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan.

After more training, we shipped out to Takhli AFB north of Bangkok, Thailand.

I met many soldiers serving in Vietnam on “R&R” (rest and recuperation) in Bangkok. The stories they told were horrific, and they envied my “easy duty,” telling me I was smart to have become a “prop-head.”

It was the fall of 1969, and they knew the war was hopeless by then. Nixon was telling the American people that the bombing of the north had stopped and peace was coming, but I worked in air navigation and we could tell where the planes had gone and it was clear he was lying.

After my 12 months of 12-hour days, 6 days a week, I was given an “early out” for serving in the “war zone.”

I left my uniforms in the trash cans at Edwards AFB and headed home.

Duane and I had lost track of each other, but I finally caught up with him when I got my first job as a clinical psychologist in Wisconsin. He didn’t get drafted, tried to go back to school and finally enlisted in the Army. He told me he saw a lot of combat in Vietnam, was drinking a lot and not sleeping well. He told me a story of a “white guy who was fighting on the other side.” This man had killed some of his friends and they were determined to kill him. He told me of a Green Beret crying “like a baby” in his bunker one night.

This boy who was my closest friend had become a battle-hardened man I barely recognized. We said we would stay in touch, but we haven’t. I miss that boy.

(Philip Mead lives in Concord. To read other war remembrances, click the “Vietnam Stories” button on the “Monitor” homepage at concordmonitor.com.)