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We Have to Speak the Truth
By Patrick Finnegan
I read a piece in The New York Times the other day. It was a piece about a guy looking into his grandfather's stories about the Korean war. His grandfather claimed to be in a major tank battle on Okinawa in the spring of 1945. There was blood, guts, entrails, death, and defecation everywhere and there was Gran-Pop right in the middle of everything, killing zips and pulling grenade pins with his teeth. Gran-Pop was a miserable son-of-a-bitch and nobody missed him when he died.
He use to get drunk and beat Gramma and anyone else he had control over on a regular basis. Besides Gramp's tales of unequaled heroism, usually from him, all this guy heard was what a mean bastard gramps was and it was all because of the shit he went thru in the "Big One." This guy decided to look into his Gramp's war and found a whole different story. Turns out Gramps was assigned to the Army tank battalion that suffered horrific losses one murderous day on Okinawa in 1945. The problem as far as his stories go is that Gramps got assigned to the battalion a month after that terrible day. Gramps heard stories and adopted the story's reality as his own. He went off to the war as a prick and came back the same.
Many years ago in the spring of 1980, I went to a local American Legion Post that was hosting a DAV presentation about the problems and possible solutions to the just emerging Agent Orange problems. I met a vet there that claimed to be old VVAW and also a paratrooper grunt, same as myself. He told me about the forming meetings that were happening for a new Vietnam Veterans organization—Vietnam Veterans of America. He mentioned Bobby Mueller as the founder of VVA. I had pushed Bobby up Collins Blvd. back in August of 1972, so I figured I'd check out this VVA. I go to the meetings and become one of the 8 founders of one of VVA's most powerful chapters. That's a whole separate story.
Turns out the vet I ran into at the DVA Agent Orange session was a wife beater. He'd get drunk, beat his wife, and terrorize his two young children. As a chapter we demanded DD 214's from all the chapter officers. This wife beater kept coming up with lame reasons why he couldn't produce a DD 214. He got really plastered. Beat his wife and hung himself in his low ceilinged basement. I had to go retrieve chapter paperwork from his house. We'd just buried him and his wife was still showing bruises from his final beating of her. She told me that he was doctoring his DD 214 because he was embarrassed by all his valorous awards.
One of my values to the newly formed VVA chapter was my Army trained clerical ability to decipher Military paperwork. If the wife beater was what he said he was, his DD 214 would give some indications to back up his story. If you are an airborne grunt, your DD 214 should somewhere have your MOS as an 11B p series. Your rank would fill in the blank before the p that designated your parachute qualified status. Either a 1,2,3,4, etc. My MOS's started as an 11B10. Anyway, I knew paperwork The DD 214 I got from the self-claimed jumping grunt showed that he was a non-jumping wheeled vehicle mechanic with no valorous awards. He wasn't a bad guy, but he wasn't a good guy. He obviously was troubled.
If nothing else , we as Vietnam Veterans have to be honest about what we did in the war. If you spent your year getting a tan and humping Saigon bar girls. Stand up and claim it. Let America know that Vietnam wasn't a land filled with suicidal 5 year olds with grenade laden shoe-shine boxes. I did both. I humped 40 lbs of canned belted M-60 ammo up and down the Central Highlands. I also spent 2-3 hours a day pushing papers from one desk to another and the rest of my day playing basketball, swimming, smoking dope and eating very cheap, very tasty hamburgers at the An Khe snack shack. It was two opposite ends of a confusing universe.
You come back home and people want to know what it was like.They have their preconceived ideas and your reality doesn't ring true. You can tell them what they want to hear. You can drop the issue. Or else you tell them some Ia Drang level of shit that they definitely ain't ready to hear and you don't know how to tell.
My oldest son had a high school class on Lt. Calley's trial and sentence. Mike, my son, came home with the idea that Calley spent 20 years at hard labor in a federal prison. That's where his high school history wrapped up the Calley My Lai episode. I told him that the fable of 20 years at hard labor was Calley's sentence. Calley didn't spend a day at hard labor anywhere. The bottom line is he spent 3 years at house arrest in a two bedroom officer house at Fort Benning, Georgia. A base that held parades in his honor while he was serving his Hard Labor sentence after being convicted of the premeditated first degree murders of 22 unarmed Vietnamese civilians. Calley ran down a Vietnamese toddler who crawled out of a pile of dead and dying friends, relatives and neighbors and tried to escape back to the non-existent safety of his thatched home. He ran the kid down. Grabbed the kid, brought the child back to the heap of death, threw the kid on the pile and put a burst into him. This was all testified to by many people in open court. Calley spent not a day in prison. That's not my America.
We have to speak the truth. Painful as it may be. The truth is the truth. Whether people want to hear it or not. America lied to us. It used and abused us. We were chumps. The powers that be took our good intentions and used them for not good reasons. Sad but so very, very true. Vietnam Veteran suicide rates are off the charts and I believe that a major factor contributing to that reality is the lack of truth that has been spoken about Our War. No matter how far to the right you go, you know that war was wrong, How can the most technologically advanced nation our planet has ever seen fight a war against a people living for the most part in homes made out of local vegetation and live in communities around a hand drawn communal well, and say this war is a just war.
The dust settles, you're home for awhile. No one is speaking the truth and the demons are running amok in your head. All of a sudden a single round, a rope tied, a jump from a chair seems like a quick solution. I had the opportunity back in the early 80's to hand over my own hand written apology to Nyugen Co Thach, a senior official of the United Vietnamese Government. My older brother Dennis was killed on the last day of his 4th tour, 10/31/72. I never blamed the Vietnamese and told them so in my letter. My family at that time had come around to not blaming the Vietnamese for Dennis's death. I recommend a personal apology to any vet still troubled by the war. It may not cure everything but I guarantee that just the fact of writing an apology will quiet some of the demons.
Patrick Finnegan, 3rd platoon, D Company 1/503rd 173 rd Abn Bde., USA 8/1/66-10/4/68.