Legacies of the War: The Perspective of a Veteran's Daughter
Profilers: Jackson Bishop, Madeline Lilley, Sophia Clements
(0:00) What is your name?
My name is Sandra Libbey.
(0:05) What’s your connection to the Vietnam war?
My father was a sergeant in the marine corps and he served over in Okinawa. He joined when he was nineteen.
(0:17) What year were you born in?
I was born in 1970.
(0:21) How did growing up in a community of veterans affect your upbringing?
I would say that we had a lot of dads that weren’t mentally there. They were pretty unhappy people in a lot of ways. They were still stressed by the war. They weren’t really focused a lot. They would be.. I don’t know, it’s hard to say… I mean some dads were working like my dad did. Some dads didn’t work. Some dads just weren’t there, they left their families. It wasn’t necessarily always a bad time, but it was hard to feel like you had a normal family.
(1:14) What’s the most memorable story you have from your dad or from his friends about the war?
Well, there’s a lot of stories. My dad in particular, I think that, I think my most memorable story with him is talking about when he had to go on duty with his mobile computer units. Let me think of the best one, probably would be when he and another marine had to head out into the jungle – they had just moved the mobile computer units, and they were driving out in their little car and they got lost, and instead of going left they went right, and they ended up in an artillery field where they were practicing dropping bombs and there were mines and stuff. So they noticed all of the sudden that things were blowing up around them, and they needed to get out of there.
(2:14) Any stories about your father’s friends that you remember?
They would talk about, like one of them was a helicopter gunner, so they would go in to pick up troops or to drop them off out in Vietnam, so in country, and yeah, I think that one of the biggest ones that stuck with me was one of the guys was talking about just opening the door and just shooting. Just taking his machine gun and just shooting at whatever he could see and find down there and that landing sometimes was a really hairy experience where they came down when people were shooting at them.
(2:55) How does being the child of a veteran shape your identity as a person?
I can double time with the best of them. (Chuckles). I was an only child, so my dad raised me almost like he was talking to another boot in boot camp sometimes. And he had a really harsh disposition at times, kind of high expectations. But it was this combination where my dad would work really super hard and then he would “work hard, play hard” was always what he said. And, so then you know, it would be that he would get really wild or he would get really depressed sometimes, and that was hard. You know, you’d want to hang out with your dad or something and he was just, I don’t wanna say spaced out or zoned out, but he just kind of mentally checked out.
(3:49) Did the veteran community around you share their political beliefs and opinions about the war with you, and if so, what did they think about the war?
I think a lot of the veterans that I remember talking about stuff, and my dad in particular, they were not happy about the war. The impression I got as a kid was like my dad, many of them were very patriotic and young. Like I said earlier my dad was 19, and in college he volunteered for the Marine Corps. He really went into it with an idea that he was doing the right thing. He was helping his country and supporting what his country wanted. But many of the men talked about the idea that once they got there and once they got in the middle of everything – be it in country or like my dad in Okinawa – they weren’t happy about why they had gone to war and they were really hurt about how they were treated when they got home. A lot of people back in the United States didn’t support why they were there and that hurt those men a lot. I do remember a lot of them were; they were angry.
(5:15) I know you were very young during the war, but do you know how the members of the veteran community changed from their service in the war?
I read my dad’s journal, I found it, I don’t know, about ten years ago and this was a journal he kept before he left when he was in college and then he picked it up again after he came back from the war. He was a completely different person. He went from being young and naive and lighthearted and very optimistic and positive to being emotionally strained and I don’t know, I mean in some ways he was kind of, he was unstable.
A lot of the men, they were just more violent. A lot of the moms, they would talk about how “that’s not the man that they married.” That was not the man that they dated before the war, that he was a completely different person. I didn’t know him before he left, but listening to the moms around me, the person that I knew was completely different than the person that my mom knew when she married him. And I think that there was always this level of underlying anger and violence. They would get really aggressive and so I think that exposure to the war and then their regrets about what they went through just left a lot of those men really… really unstable emotionally.
(7:01) Do you feel as though the war and its aftermath still have an effect on you to this day?
Yes, I do. I think that being a child of the Vietnam vets made us – those in my generation – made us really independent because our dads weren’t around, our moms were working really hard, some of the kids just plain didn’t have a dad around. Their dads left. For me, my dad was always there but because he was… he was there physically, but he wasn’t always there mentally. And then to this day, I’m very independent, I have a tendency to be a “good soldier” because that’s how I was brought up. Oh heck, I still like guns, I still love to go shooting at target ranges. That was something I always found myself doing with the men. They would get stressed and they drank a lot. So, I know that there was a lot of exposure to that, and that was the way that a lot of them dealt with their emotions and I think that rubbed off.
Yeah, I mean, I don’t remember having anybody that I could really emotionally lean on and I think to this day I still don’t do that. I lean on myself a lot more. It’s been a hard habit to break because my dad came home and stayed around us whereas some of my friends, their dads left. I think that that also affected me. And I hate war. I really do. I’m the kind of person that grew up thinking that that was never the answer. I was told by a lot of those men that they felt as though they murdered people, so my opinion about it has always been that if you’re gonna go do this you’re gonna kill somebody at the orders of someone else, and can you live with yourself for that? I try to be positive and optimistic, but I think somehow someway some of that rubbed off on me. I have a tendency to be kind of an emotional roller coaster.
(9:09) Was it difficult to focus on school growing up with this community of veterans and your father?
No one asked me about school (chuckles) oddly enough. I was just expected to go. I would say that there’s a huge difference in today’s world. I’m usually very interactive with my kids about school, but for my world, yeah no one was there, no one asked me, no one helped me with homework. They just expected me to go and do.
So at a certain point I myself didn’t have a dedication to being in school. It wasn’t significant to me. So I left school when I was about 16 and a half I think, partway through my junior year. I got my GED, I worked, that was something that I always did. And so I moved out of my folks place when I was, yeah, about the same age, 16 and a half and started fending for myself largely. They just put expectations out for school but nobody was there to actually support me through it. And so yeah, I would say that you need your parent to be there emotionally and you need your parent to be there and support you and be mentally interactive with you. School wasn’t important, working was important. That was something that I was taught to do by my dad and the veterans.
(10:40) Did you make friends with other students who had dads in the war?
Not on purpose. I mean I had friends whose dads were in the war, but it wasn’t something that any of us kids talked about. Yeah, it was not a subject of conversation for any of us. Yeah, I mean I knew a fair number of kids whose dads just left for whatever reason, but it wasn’t something that we talked about.
(11:07) Did you know what the war was about when you were younger?
The men always talked about it, so maybe I didn’t know what it was about. It was just common knowledge amongst the men, they would just talk about it, but I never really thought about what it was about. I started learning about the war when I got older, when I could study about it on my own when I was in college and stuff. So for me, I think I learned the politics of the war more from the educational side. You know, I knew the effect it had on the men around me and as I got older and studied it more I understood better. And then at that point, there was hindsight. So the things that I learned about the war at that time were people looking back on the war and saying well this happened or maybe new information was released by the government. One thing I did learn, though, was that my dad’s generation promised us that that wouldn’t happen again, and yet my generation ended up in war anyway.
(12:17) Growing up and when you got older, did you tell people that your dad was in the war or was it more of a hush-hush topic?
The time when I grew up, people changed about talking about things. So I don’t know how much, like the World War II veterans talked about war, but it seemed like all the Vietnam vets, they talked about it.
You know, my dad wasn’t necessarily ashamed that he was a Marine and that he served for his country, so it wasn’t something where I wouldn’t mention it. He was not happy about what his job was and so he didn’t always talk about, like, other than the fact that he ran mobile computer units. I don’t wanna say he was embarrassed, but he wasn’t proud of the fact that the planes that his computers ran dropped napalm on people and so, it wasn’t, you didn’t brag about that. You did talk about the fact that your dad was part of the military. That he was a Marine because once a Marine always a Marine, but what he actually did over there… yeah, no I didn’t talk about that a lot.
(13:33) Were you proud of what your dad did in the war or not at all?
I would say I understood. I don’t know if I was necessarily proud or ashamed or any of that. I would say that I empathized a lot. I understood that being patriotic, you know he felt like he was doing… doing his duty. Back in those days in that time of life, that’s what you did, but was I proud of my dad? Yeah… I just never really thought about it from that angle. I would say that what he did as a job, I was sad for what he did. Because it broke his spirit.
(14:21) Can we talk more about your father’s specific role in the war? Like what did he do when he was there?
Well my dad was – this is what he told me – he said that he was a “new era soldier.” He was very intelligent, so when he joined the Marine Corps, he got through boot camp and they had… they do tests, you know, like physical tests, mental tests, things like that. And they discovered that he was really smart.
So, they sent him to this brand new kind of school that they had and it was called “computer training.” So he went from boot camp over to that and he spent like three or four months being trained in this whole new area of the military which was running computers. So, after that then he was sent over and he thought that he was just going to be a regular, as he said it, just a normal grunt and he was given his gun, and he was flying over to Vietnam, and he figured he was gonna be like any other Marine on the front lines, but he said that once he got to Okinawa where they were fueling up the plane to fly them in country, his orders were changed and they came and said you know, Private Libbey – at that time he was a Private – you’re gonna stay here. We have mobile computer units that you’re gonna run. He had told me at the time, when I was little, that he was ready to go. He was ready to be over in Vietnam, he was ready to do his duty, and you know, shoot some enemy and then he said they just kind of took away his gun and gave him paperwork and computers.
And at first he didn’t like it, he didn’t wanna be there for that. He felt like he wasn’t doing his job, but he said within 2 weeks to a month he started understanding that he really was a new kind of soldier and in that he explained to me that when he ran the mobile computer units, they ran the planes that dropped napalm. So he was fighting the war, you know, not from America but from a distance. He was in Okinawa, and his job was to make sure that those planes dropped the napalm on the right target. He saw soldiers come in that’d been wounded by the napalm. He knew of civilians that had gotten hurt or killed. Villages that were taken out. And yeah, I think he always felt a little guilty that he wasn’t there in person. That he felt like fighting from a distance maybe wasn’t as honorable.
(17:30) Did your father ever visit Vietnam during or after the war or did he express any desire to?
You know, I don’t recall him ever telling me that he actually went over in country. His time was spent exclusively in Okinawa, so no, my dad never actually went over to Vietnam itself before or after or during. I think that he… he carried a lot of guilt and a lot of shame in certain ways and so he didn’t… I don’t think [he] wanted to go and witness in person what happened. He had a hard enough time living with what he knew those planes did.
(18:18) Do you think that your father wanting to move on was part of what inspired you and your family to move to Alaska?
I don’t know if I would – that’s kind of an interesting question because part of moving to Alaska was that my dad followed a career throughout his life that was involving computers.
And so after he got out of the Marine Corps, he was honorably discharged and I was, I don’t know, probably a year, year and a half old. He went and finished up college because he had left college before he was done. That was at NAU, and then graduate school didn’t work out, so he… he moved us to San Francisco where Burroughs, one of the first big computer companies, was. I actually lived in Oakland; my dad worked over in San Francisco proper, and my mom worked, and he had a really good career in computers. So, I think that what actually moved us on in life quite often was him following his computer career. The military, you know, it gave him a skill that opened him up to having a future that he could support his family with.
I don’t know if I would say he was necessarily running away from having been a soldier. I think that, because he continued to work in the computer fields, once we moved to Alaska it would be in 1975 (when I was five years old.) Yeah, he just one day decided we were moving to Alaska, so I got in the truck, took the cat, and we drove to Alaska from Oakland. And once he got up into Anchorage there was the pipeline [which] was going, so they were looking for people to run their new computer systems up on the pipeline and eventually my dad took a job running, actually he put in the computer system that runs the oil through the pipeline. Eventually, he hired on with IBM, and my dad worked on computers for another 25 years out of Juneau. Then he retired from IBM. So he never actually got away from… from it. It always went with us.
(20:57) What type of chemicals did your father work with during and after the war and do you think they had any effect on his health in the long term?
He didn’t load the planes…that carried the napalm or the Agent Orange, but I think that his computer – the mobile units and the computer rooms in the future that he worked on – had asbestos in them, and as we’ve learned through my lifetime, asbestos is a really harmful harmful insulation. And I know that there were a number – throughout my life watching my dad do his job – I knew there were a number of times when he crawled all around in those computer rooms, and I’m pretty sure that the asbestos had an effect. He died of lung cancer and had a brain tumor.
My dad also started smoking, so I guess you could consider that a chemical. He hadn’t smoked before the war, before he was in the military, but he smoked right up until his death. He drank a lot, and I would say that would be another chemical that my dad was exposed to. That started in the military, and that led until I was probably 10 or 11. He died at 62 from lung cancer and brain tumors and I would say that that definitely affected him.
(22:23) How was your mother affected by the events of the war?
My mom was angry. That’s one thing that I noticed about my mom. My mom was angry that – she would tell me – “they took my husband away. That’s not the person that I married.” They were married before, before he went over to serve in Okinawa. They’d met when he was in computer training in Southern California and she was young. I think they got married when they were 21, both of them, and yeah, I can just remember her always telling me that that just was not the man she married. They stayed together 40 years and then my dad passed away, but I think she felt like she lost her husband and he just never came back from the war. So “angry” would be the word for my mom.
(23:28) What did your father do in order to manage his memories and stress after the war?
He drank a lot. Yeah I mean, [he] drank a lot. Him and the guys, his friends, the other soldiers, they drank a lot. They partied a lot. I remember a lot of partying when I was a kid. Yeah that was… The big thing is that I think they tried to drown it out, their pain, and they went and shot guns a lot at target ranges and that was another thing they would do if the men would get too stressed. I remember going with them. That’s how I got my skills. I guess you could say they would rant and rave. When they get really drunk and stuff and they would tell stories and, you know, I guess it was their way of supporting each other. He smoked a lot of pot. That helped him, I think, emotionally.
He always went to work; he always did a good job. I’m trying to… I’d love to say that, you know, I know of them going to therapy or something, but that wasn’t a thing that they did yet. Therapy kind of came along later, like in the ‘90s and stuff, and by then the men had been home 20 years and it just wasn’t something that they did.
(24:53) How prevalent was drug use in the veteran community around you?
I don’t remember any of them who weren’t (chuckles). As a kid, I mean, that’s just kind of the way it went. They all, they all drank, did a lot of cocaine when I was little. Eventually, as they got older, they would sort of mellow out, smoke pot. Yeah, it was just what, what our dads did. It’s so – I don’t know if it was normal or not normal – it’s just that’s the way they were. When he was in Okinawa, there was a certain amount of things that were legal that were not legal in the United States, and so I know that it was very easy for them to go and get like amphetamines was a big one because they had to stay up, take care of the computer systems. As I got older, and we moved into the ‘90s, etc. I noticed that a lot of that died away, and mostly they were still smoking cigarettes and they were still, a lot of them still drank and then there was a lot of pot smoking.
(26:02) How do you feel about the media portrayal of the Vietnam War, like in the various movies that came out following it?
You know, it was the first war that was on TV all the time. So I know that there are the news reports when I was really little. I know that the women and stuff were watching what happened, so it was live or it was recorded, but it wasn’t something that was done, you know… It wasn’t a movie. Then as I got older, they… like Apocalypse Now, they made movies about it. I think that being Hollywood, you know, sometimes things are glorified. At the same time, I think that they made efforts to try to show what the men went through, but I would say that they… I don’t know, I mean, I don’t think it was as glorified as it was for World War II. I would almost say that I lived in a society that was… that was almost ashamed of what they did in some ways. At least that’s my impression as a kid. Things changed a lot between World War II, Korea, and then Vietnam.
(27:26) I know we touched on this a little bit already, but how has the Vietnam War affected your outlook on war in general, especially regarding the United States’ involvement in foreign affairs?
When I got older I learned in college that… that the Vietnam War was not really a war against communism (which is what everybody was told, that we were fighting the communists. So that, you know, we didn’t have the communists spread throughout the… the country and the world.) I was told that it was actually a political war that was fought for oil. It gave the United States an upper hand politically.
My generation was told we weren’t going to have any more war (chuckles) and they did anyway. You know, we ended up in Iraq and I hate it. I hate war. I’m broken-hearted about what’s going on in Ukraine right now. I don’t support my country going in and getting into war. I think that my country could do more. It could be more civilized; it could find ways to use those experiences that those men went through as an example of what not to do. My country America has the ability to make better choices.