Vietnam Stories: ‘I still cry for my father sometimes, too’

For the Monitor
Wednesday, October 11, 2017

I was drafted into military service in the fall of 1967. I entered the Army a week before the Tet Offensive, in late January 1968.

During my first few months (basic training and advanced training), I had almost no awareness of the reality and consequences of war. In late May, I received orders to go to Vietnam, and I immediately started specific, three-week training in Kentucky.

On the third day of the training, I was called away from the classroom and told my father had suddenly died of a heart attack (age 53). Because of his death, and due to very difficult family circumstances after his death, I was extremely fortunate to spend the rest of my two-year Army life at Fort Devens in Massachusetts.

Since 1968, I have felt both lucky and ashamed/guilty that I didn’t go to Vietnam. Sitting behind a desk at Fort Devens, I read the names of many men (boys) who died there – men I had known during my previous training. Watching the PBS series, I sit and cry for those men. I still cry for my father sometimes, too.

I have sometimes felt that I killed him somehow, that his pain about me going to Vietnam was too much for him. I know it may not be rational to feel guilty about not going, but sometimes when bad things happen, we are not rational.

I went to UNH in January 1970 after being discharged from the Army. The college campus strikes followed that May, after the Kent State shootings. The events were quite difficult for me to process at that point. But, in the end, the growing uproar about the war was helpful to me.

I am very grateful to Ken Burns for the PBS series. It gives me the opportunity to grieve again for my brothers; to understand better what happened in the war and at home; to thank and honor my brothers a little bit; and to process that time in my life a little more.

Finally, thank you to the Concord Monitor for providing the opportunity for us to share our thoughts and stories.

(John Zellers lives in Concord.)