The Definition of a Hero
Profilers: Alex Beaton, Wei Ren and Yifan Yang
The First Experience In the Vietnam War
Michael: Well. I got out of high school in June of 1966, I kind of goofed off during the summer, but I knew the way things were going in Vietnam, it was starting to escalate or everything, 65, 66 or everything, and I figured it if I didn’t enlist in the service, I would end up being drafted.
There wasn’t any real objection. There was the concern because of what was going on, as I mentioned, Vietnam starting to escalate. But, we kind of thought, well, you know, at least I am enlisting, hopefully getting a choice, having more options than just ending up going to the army or marine corps, and pretty much knowing being a ground soldier, that was where I would end up.
I was at band wire base. The first post that I stood the year before I got there was the focal point of a major attack on the base, and there were two security policemen that were killed there. I didn’t know them, because I wasn’t there yet, but I knew before going to Vietnam, I knew the stories about that, that attack during the Tet Offensive and everything.
When you get right down to it, the individual soldier that in the field was fighting for his or her life, some of the rules, they wanted to follow them, but you know, you tried to stay alive, so you did what you got to do. I was lucky in the sense that I wasn’t out in the jungles, the rice paddies, or whatever, trying to fight enemy soldiers or anything. In some respect, even though it was terrible for the guys going out to the field, and chasing after the enemy or something…not terrifying, but it was not an easy feeling of sitting there where we were , because we just had to sit there and wait for something happen. You don’t know when it’s going to happen, but you know something is going to happen sometime, so the sense is always in the back of your mind. Are they are going to shoot rockets tonight, or they are trying to penetrate the parameter or something. There was a stress level that was always there. If it would be a rocket attack on the base or something , as it is going on, or immediately after, everybody’s joking, ok, well, they didn’t get me this time, you know, whatever the comments would be or something. And then there was just a way of trying to deal with the stress of, you know, I got lucky it didn’t hit me this time.
And then you will see things that will occur near you, particularly like that in the air base when there was a rocket attack or something, and that is you see something that would get blown up or something and that was fairly close to you, this just missed me. There are a couple of cases I can recall. I was working one bunker and one night, it was probably 100 yards or 150 yards or something away from me, there was a fuel truck that had been parked on the ramp behind where the bunker was at, and the fuel truck was hit by one of the rockets and blew up. As soon as we could, everybody kind of, let’s go and do what we need to do, these people will take care of this guy, we need to get back to our job, get back to our post and so on. And obviously I don’t want to make the light of the fact of someone losing their life or anything. But you know everybody probably, I can’t remember specific about that particular incident. But everybody was probably trying to come up with something that they could do to kind of joke about the way the night had gone or something, and to deal with the stress.
Why I Am Proud of My Service ?
Michael: The people we dealt with, as far as we knew, were on our side or we were on their side, however you want to look at it. There were always rumors that some of them probably worked both sides and there were a couple of instances I know of where we joked often about a middle aged Vietnamese male that we would see out on one of the taxi ways next to the runways every couple days or so. He was just out there sweeping and everybody kind of joked that well, he is probably not sweeping, he’s probably counting steps and turning the information over to the Viet Cong who are going to be shooting rockets at us tomorrow night or something. He basically is figuring out where they need to aim or something, and I’m sure that happens in some cases. I have got no evidence that’s what it was but that was kind of the joke that went on because we were always seeing the same guy who was kind of doing the same stuff in different places.
One of the things that struck me and I’ve talked about it with people, was that I was there in 1969, 1970 and the Vietnamese people, whether it was considered the north or the south, they have been living with conflict, most of them for their entire lives. That’s all they’ve known, some battle going on between two different factions as to who was going to control the country and everything. So I think the feeling that I had in a lot of respects was kind of sorry that they were enduring everything that they had, and in a way it didn’t seem as though things were ever going to change for them.
Well, with Vietnam, whether it’s right or whether it was successful or not, was the idea of trying to prevent communism from spreading. As the individual soldier, you know when you are there, the purpose is to stay alive and keep your buddies alive if you can. I don’t know that when you are in the field, you really pay attention or care about the politics that may have caused you to be where you’re at.
I feel proud of my service because I was doing the job that I supposed to be doing and I didn’t do anything wrong, I didn’t see anybody that did anything wrong. I know there were a lot of people that claim that our people were doing horrendous thing and there were some isolated incidents. Looking at from the standpoint of the people that protest the troops, I went and did the job that I was asked to do.
About the time I was coming home from Vietnam, when there were students and other people here in the States really starting to protest the war, a lot of those people were taking their frustration with the politics, I think, out on the soldiers. I didn’t experience it personally, but I know of some people. You probably hear from people that say you know I came back from Vietnam, I got off from the plane at the airport, and people were spitting at me, and they were calling me names and all of this other stuff or anything. I didn’t specifically experience that, but I did get to the point after coming back that with the exception of family and some very close friends, it was many, many years before anybody knew I served in Vietnam or even served in the military, because it was, it was not popular in those days.
What Defines a Hero ?
Michael: Ironically in some respects, there has been a turnaround and a lot of us that are veterans, particularly of Vietnam, are concerned about the fact that we got people going around these days and claiming they are combat veterans and they got all kinds of medals, decorations and everything, and most of those people never served in the military. It’s hard to explain how it affects me, thinking about it, but these people during Vietnam were probably protesting what was going on.
Kind of my soapbox…I can’t stand it. And I, with my stuff, I was there, I didn’t do anything spectacular, I did my job. There were people did some really amazing and heroic things, but that’s what frustrates me about some of these people. They call it stolen valor.
Actually, it’s an interesting dynamic in a sense. I belong to the Vietnam Veterans of America, a national organization. I belong to this specific chapter here in California and so on. But the organization is open to membership for people that actually served in Vietnam, or people that served during Vietnam but may not have served in country, and they got different criteria as the membership is for either of those two groups. And we’ve had a number of people that have said that they felt guilty because they served during Vietnam but they didn’t actually go to Vietnam, and they felt guilty themselves about being a member of the organization and kind of the way I have approached it is, it wasn’t necessarily their choice. They volunteered or they got drafted, but the government, the military made the decision as where they were going to go. Some of the people that did not go to Vietnam may have the feeling that they don’t feel that they necessarily rate the respect that the people that actually served in country get or deserved and..again, when I talk to some of these people, I just try to make sure you know the message gets across, you may have wanted to go, but Uncle Sam decided, ok, instead of going to Vietnam, you had to go to the Germany or something, or you gonna go wherever or you are not going to leave the States, you got to stay in theSstates. But, that’s the decision of the military, not the individual.
To me, the idea of the people, particularly people that may have received the Medal of Honor, or you know some of the immediate lower medals, the Air Force Cross or Bronze Star, Silver Star, or something like that were, I think, the fact of those people being considered heroes is the perception of the people that witness whatever it was they did to receive those medals. I don’t think that something, particularly when, in the heat of battle or something, that’s the intent on the part of the people who got those medals. Their idea, they are doing what they need to do, to stay alive themselves, and/or protect other people who they are with, or to rescue someone, and I doubt seriously they are going out to doing that, whatever their actions may be. with the ideas of getting a medal. And as I mentioned, I think that the fact of being considered a hero , I don’t think they would consider themselves heroes. I think that’s the perception of people that observed whatever the act was.