As a nineteen-year-old college drop out, forty years ago on this past August 18th, I was being pushed and shoved off a bus at MCRD, San Diego, California, as we ‘boots’ were trying desperately to move as fast was we could for what we were all sure was a bunch of rabid DI’s. They were after all, foaming at the mouth. With my voluntary three year enlistment, when I placed my feet upon those famous yellow footprints I had willingly entered a world of controlled chaos for the next thirteen weeks. But it was thirteen weeks of an organized, skillfully planned, detailed and time tested mayhem that were necessary to prepare me for the thirteen months of the hell on earth called Vietnam.
In the days and weeks prior to my arrival at Marine Corps boot camp in that August of 1969, an American had walked on the moon for the first time, the Manson Family had committed their evil senseless murders and five hundred thousand drugged upped Americans had partied at Woodstock. In the fifteen years prior to my arrival almost fifty thousand Americans had died in Vietnam.
At nineteen, I was a bit older than most of my fellow recruits as I had stumbled through a year of indecision before I finally did what I knew I had always intended to do. Even as a young boy I had wanted to someday be a Marine. I fully understand that most people, even when they are young, do not actively place themselves in life threatening situations. Still, as foolish as this may seem to many of you, I vividly remember sitting in my high school library during my senior year looking at the graphic pictures in Time magazine of the embattled Marines of Hue and Khe Sanh during the 1968 Tet offensive, and thinking that these were the men I wanted to join.
Besides, serving in the Armed Forces was somewhat of a family tradition, and I came from a big family. My father had been in the Navy during WW II. On the destroyer USS Shubrick, he and his shipmates were in action as one of those now famous ‘Gallant Destroyers’ at Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Weeks later this proud ship was once again supporting the lesser-known, but just as treacherous and important landings in Southern France. Dad was one of the few men who stayed on board his crippled ship after it had been hit by a Kamikaze during the Battle of Okinawa. Of my four older uncles of that generation, three had served in either the Army or Navy, while the fourth had been turned down for medical reasons when he tried to enlist. Of my father’s six cousins all had served in combat including a young 26 year old Marine named Harlan Tank who was killed on the bloody beaches of Iwo Jima. My three remaining younger uncles had also all served after WW II. Yet I was never pushed in that direction, in fact as the oldest son of six children in a middle class family it was unanimously understood that I should attend college. But in living among such heroes, I was divided in what everyone expected me to do and in what I believed was my duty to serve.
So it was that after high school graduation I took a summer job working with a construction company for which my father was a superintendent, proving that at times nepotism even benefits the working classes. As this was a union job I made more money as a laborer than most other eighteen year olds. I bought my first car, a white, 1962 small block 327 Chevy Impala with a red interior and a red stripe down her sides for $800 bucks, then I spent that much again tricking her out. Cruising around on those hot Illinois’ summer nights, listening to Rock ‘n Roll, well, I had it made in the shade. At the end of the summer I enrolled at Black Hawk Community College, but I was soon gone after just one disastrous, boring semester. Restless and unable to find the self-discipline it takes to advance in the academic world, and much to my parents’ dismay, I voluntarily enlisted in the Marine Corps on their delayed entry program. I then spent a couple of months working the late night shift at a factory in Moline. Two weeks before I departed I quit that job to have a little last minute fun before I shoved off for Boot Camp.
Once in boot camp my biggest fear was that I could not ‘hack it’ and would be sent home in disgrace. Those recruits who could not complete the rigorous training due to some mental or physical “malfunction” were contemptuously known as non-hackers. The result was that I placed as much pressure upon myself to succeed as my seemingly, constantly, and extremely irritated DI’s, as the thought of returning home, as a washed out, malfunctioning non-hacker, was unbearable. Many of the anti-war distracters will tell you that during this time of the Vietnam War, and the draft, that the Marine Corps was not all that particular about who got to wear their uniform since they badly needed bodies to ship off to the war. But I am here to tell you that was not the case, as more than just a few of the men who started out with our platoon did not make it to graduation.
Through the unrelenting, unforgiving, and sometimes unmentionable, process of the Marine Corps’ Boot Camp we recruits were transformed from what our deranged DI’s had so degradingly referred to us upon our arrival as “maggots” into Marines. Throughout this process we were instilled with the traditions, history and pride of what was now “Our Corps.” We had inherited a heavy responsibility in that it was now up to us to uphold these traditions and to preserve the honor of our Corps by upholding the Oath we had all been sworn to in defending our Country against all Her enemies, foreign and domestic.
To accomplish these formidable tasks we were to live by such mottos as “God, Country, Corps”, “Honor, Courage, and Commitment”, and “Semper Fidelis.” We were told that “Once a Marine, Always a Marine.” All of this fit perfectly into my young, and perhaps a bit too idealistic mind, with the words of a slain leader echoing on from years past of asking what I could do for my country, and of fighting every foe. As Marines we were now members of an elite Brotherhood and while to some extent we all had come to understand this Brotherhood through our shared experiences and hardships in boot camp, this concept of a Brotherhood would be driven home even more deeply by those of us who went on to see combat.
Upon graduation I was assigned the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) of 0311 or Rifleman. This is more proudly referred to in the Corps as being a “Grunt.” It was also to say that I was pretty sure I had just gotten a ticket to Vietnam. But just to make it absolutely positive that a year in Nam was in my future I volunteered for the Scout/Sniper School after completing the advanced infantry training in the Infantry Training Regiment (ITR). After a month in Scout/Sniper School I now had an MOS of 0311/8541, or Grunt-Scout/Sniper. I received orders to report to the Scout/Sniper Platoon, HQ Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines in Da Nang, South Vietnam. I was finally going to join those brave men that I had worshiped in my childhood.
It should not be said that those of us who were on our way to Vietnam did not worry about getting killed. Going into the unknown we did have second thoughts, but we didn’t exactly dwell on it much either. For one there is always that all too human belief that bad things always happen to ‘the other guy.’ Besides as with most young men who join the Marines I was looking to get into the fight. The Marine Corps has a Warrior Tradition, every Marine is a rifleman first and foremost; in other words, men do not join the Marines unless they are willing to go to war, or at least they shouldn’t. So my biggest concern was not of living or dying, for I was too young and inexperienced to worry about all that. After all I was only nineteen, physically fit, and at nineteen you think you will live forever. Even I knew from watching the movies that you never show your buddy a picture of your Sweetheart just before you go into a fight, and you never, ever tell anyone on the eve of a battle that you have “a real bad feeling about this one.” Besides in the movies the main characters rarely, if ever, get killed off, and in each of our lives, or our own personal little movies, we are the main characters. So even though I was confident in my own abilities, one concern was the question of being able to live up to the high standards of the US military fighting men, and in particular those of the United States Marines’; centuries’ old standards which had been set extremely high by all those who had gone before.
Back in boot camp the idea was for the crazed DI’s to strip the soft, undisciplined civilian “maggots” down to their foundation, leaving only the individuals’ basic values and morality, and then through a detailed core curriculum, these same meticulous DI’s would rebuild those individuals into hard, disciplined, highly motivated Marines with a well defined set of values. In Vietnam the war once again stripped us down, only now it was to the bone. Even more so than any boot camp specialists could ever hope to achieve, war strips a man down to his soul leaving only his core values, beliefs and morality. Some men lose even those.
War breaks everything down into its simplest form. Young men who had always had some form of protection from the elements now found themselves at the mercy of nature’s most abject conditions with nowhere to seek refuge. When you are hungry, and I mean stomach rumbling, painful, I’m feeling weak hungry, whenever possible you eat whatever is available. When you are dead tired, whenever and wherever possible you sleep. And when you are thirsty, dried out and can’t spit you will drink whatever you can find.
In war you find that when it comes down to it, there is nothing more simple than choosing between life and death. So the man shooting at you is your enemy and he wants to kill you, thus he has no value and he must be killed in your stead. The man next to you is your Brother and like you, must not be allowed to die.
Once men start dying in the most gruesome ways imaginable, you realize that your own personal little movie just might have that all too tragic and abrupt ending after all. You come to understand that you are no longer fighting for Mom, apple pie, or The Flag. Gone are the more or less abstract, noble ideals of fighting for one’s freedoms and prosperity or in trying to preserve the honor of anything. For what it finally comes down to is simply survival and so what you end up fighting for is your life and the lives of your fellow Marines, while hoping and praying for the chance that all of you will live long enough to get the hell out of there. And the best way of improving that possibility is to kill as many of your enemy as you can. War at its worst is simple simplicity.
By living in such an absolute nightmare, war has a way of defining your religion. Some of us found God like never before, or again. Others lost Him completely, or blamed Him for what we humans had brought upon ourselves, or just simply abandoned all hope. But whatever is lost or remains, if you survive, it is then left up to each of us to rebuild ourselves as there are no longer any capable, highly trained and caring DI’s around with an explicit syllabus to once again show us the way back.
Throughout our lives everyone changes over time through maturity, and knowledge gained from education and life experiences. The difference in someone who has survived a war is that these changes are not allowed to progress over the usual period of time and in the natural rhythm of our controlled existence. Instead when you go to war these changes are thrust upon you in a compressed time frame while very often they arrive violently and unexpected. Often, because of your youth and inexperience, and the utter unexpected violence of the episode, you lack the necessary tools to absorb the information and experiences in a positive or un-harmful manner. You also do not have the luxuries of time to evaluate the information or anyone who can help you in that evaluation.
This metamorphosis is not a visible or conscious transformation. It is not universal in its degree or complications for every Veteran. But it is real and every combat Veteran goes through some degree of personal change. We don’t see or feel it actually happening because at the time we don’t even know that it is happening and it may even be years before we realize that it has happened at all. Basically, at the end of our trial by fire we all look the same, a bit older, always a lot thinner, more callused, but outwardly we still seem to be the same young man that first came aboard.
But I know that the boy I was who went to Vietnam is no longer with us. He had just turned twenty years old but then on one violent, hot, sunny day he was gone, and yet no one had even fired a shot. He perished just as surely as those Vietnamese civilians that were so brutally murdered that day by the VC. I know where, when, how and why that young man perished, but it took me some thirty years to come to that realization. Now those memories that he held of his younger life seem to belong to some one else, because in truth they do. I am just the keeper of those youthful memories. It was through the next eleven months in country that I became me. Like nothing before or after, the war made me who I am today and that is why Vietnam never leaves us. War is a Veteran’s defining moment, his death and rebirth, and that is what most people will never understand.
So in April 1971, after three years had passed since that innocent and naive kid sat in the United Township High School’s South Campus library looking at pictures of my Brother Marines fighting in Hue and Khe Sahn, I was sitting half way around the world on a bunker pulling guard duty the night before I was to leave Vietnam. I clearly remember my anxiety in wondering if I was going to be able to even leave as through the night sky could be seen the occasional VC rockets aimed at the Da Nang airport, from which I was soon due to depart. As part of Nixon’s new pullout strategy I had been given an early rotation date back to The World.
Without ever looking square into the eyes of a terrified Vietnamese civilian whom we had promised to defend, in never having to lay in the soaking mud, cold, frightened and miserable in an all night ambush or sitting back to back with a Brother Marine on a listening post staring into the blinding emptiness of a silent, pitch black night, without ever enduring the rain soaked, freezing monsoons, or the humid, blistering heat, in never feeling the mind shattering, abject fear of near death by an exploding incoming round, by never squeezing off a single shot at the enemy, or narrowly escaping one of their own, in never having to watch helplessly as a fellow Marine died or watching a Corpsman weep because he could not save him, and without ever having to witness the sickening aftermath of the VC’s butchery on the innocents, now Nixon, his fellow spineless politicians, and the Left’s elitists, self absorbed, anti-war groupies had had enough and were calling it quits.
After all the years of hardship, sacrifice, death and destruction, Nixon and the Left were now finally pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. A victory, that history has shown, was won by those very Marines and soldiers who had so soundly defeated the NVA and the VC in their’ all out gamble at Hue, Khe Sahn and elsewhere around that God forsaken country during the Tet Offensive in 1968. It had been a hard won victory, which was never acknowledged or announced by the American media or our politicians, but a victory all the same.
In leaving Vietnam I will always remember walking up to that big Freedom Bird in a dreamlike trance as it was almost impossible for me to believe that I was actually going home. When the plane lifted off there was a resounding cheer that went up inside that plane the likes of which I have never heard again. Yet almost as immediately as the cheer went up it was followed by what I can only describe as a long sad silence. God help me but as I sat there listening to the engines whine a strange pressure was building up so rapidly in my chest that I at once thought that I was either going to bust out of my clothes or bust out crying. Whether it was stress, sadness, joy or just plain old confusion I could not tell, but it was intense.
This plane took us to Okinawa where we would get cleaned up, change into our traveling uniforms that we had left there on the way over and then fly home. Home, I wonder how many Americans every really get to appreciate what that one simple word means?
During the war most of us went to and left Vietnam alone. There was little full unit movement after the beginning of the war until it was coming to an end. It is strange feeling going to war alone, but even stranger coming home. One night you are sitting on a bunker, locked and loaded watching VC rockets fly through the night sky then three days later you are back on the street in your hometown. I honestly don’t remember even saying one word to anyone from the time I left Vietnam until I got home to Illinois. To say the least, it is surreal.
In November 1970, about halfway through my tour, I had taken R&R to Hawaii to get married. Once there I met my soon to be wife, my younger sister and my best friend. I spent four nights and three days in the World, say hello, get married, say goodbye and then back to Nam. If coming and going to war alone was surreal, than going on R&R to get married only to once again find yourself in the middle of a war has to be phantasmagoric.
As I was rotating home early only my older sister knew I was coming home. She and her husband met me at the Moline Airport and took me to the John Deere factory in East Moline where my wife worked; she didn’t expect me home for another two months. In a scene straight out of a movie, this skinny tanned Marine wearing his winter-greens walked into an office filled with dozens of people. There way in the back sat my beautiful bride, her head down working away at her typewriter. With flowers in my hand I had to traverse the complete length of that huge office to get to her and by the time I arrived, still unnoticed by her, there wasn’t another person in that entire office who wasn’t watching. The only sounds were a few whispered murmurs from the onlookers and the tapping of my wife’s typewriter keys.
I quietly stood in front of her desk and for a moment I didn’t say a word, then I softly said, “Hi Baby” and she looked up. Without saying a word she jumped out of her chair and ran around her desk to me, we embraced, kissed, and embraced some more, then she started to cry as her co-workers applauded and cheered. We then left to surprise my parents and brothers and sisters.
I have often thought of how no matter what many of those strangers in that office may have felt about the Vietnam War, I would have to bet that all of them still remember that day when a Marine came home from Vietnam.
Now I’m not telling you this because I hope you will all think that this is somehow special, or that I am. I am certainly not special although this little movie is special to me because it is mine, I’m the leading man, and it’s the only one I get to make in this life.
I am telling this story because it is so similar to millions of other stories when young men have gone off to war and then returned. The names are different, as are many of the minor details, but our feelings and experiences are all very much the same. I wanted you all to know that those of us who are Veterans are not what many in our society would lead you to believe. We are Veterans, not criminals or murderers. We were the boys who lived next door. We were the young kids who cut your neighbors’ grass, shoveled their snow and delivered your newspapers. We took your daughters and sisters to the dance and played baseball with your sons and brothers. Then one day we found ourselves in a very different world, but we never lost our identity or forgot who we were, America’s sons.
The word nobility is hardly used anymore, and when it is it is usually inappropriately used to describe some lifetime politician. But whenever I think of my fellow Veterans, and because of the bitter criticism of the Vietnam War, in particular those Vietnam Veterans, the word noble always come to mind. Veterans don’t get to pick the fight, or even start it. Politicians always do that. Plain and simple a Veteran’s job is to end the fight by winning it, whether people agree or not that we should even be fighting. Wherever America has fought someone’s freedoms have been at stake.
As I stated earlier once in the fight everything is reduced to its simplest form. But at one time prior to that point a Veteran had to pick up the gauntlet and enter the fray while believing in the cause. To do that while knowingly putting your life on the line for someone else’s freedoms is noble. It doesn’t matter what the critics say while bloviating in their safety on other side of the world, or what the historians will someday explain as to the whys and wherefores of the conflict. By taking up the banner of freedom Veterans are the noblest men I know. Veterans also understand that the Oath to protect our country from all enemies, foreign and domestic, that we were sworn to has no expiration date.
In the past forty years since coming home I have had a lot of time to reflect about my experiences and youthful decisions. Not to mention that way back as a nineteen-year-old “maggot” the idea of being a fifty-nine year-old man was as remote to me as what it would have been like to be Armstrong walking on the Moon.
In the Corps, it is firmly held that upon graduation you automatically become a Marine. It is also true that Once A Marine, Always A Marine, because it never really leaves you. But I understand now that upon graduation, while you have certainly earned the right to be called a Marine, in or out of the Corps, being a Marine is a lifelong endeavor. That living up to the high standards set by the Marine Corps on a daily basis is a lot more difficult than shooting at someone, or even being shot at. Many of us fail at one time or another, but it is only then that we can show what we are really made of by picking ourselves up and continuing on, all the while trying to become a better person, father, husband, Marine.
At this past anniversary of Woodstock we were once again reminded that it was the defining moment of the 60′s generation. But that is simply not true as Vietnam defined my generation more than any single weekend. And although I have never taken illegal drugs, I truly believe that no hippie Woodstock acid trip could have been half as surrealistic as my lonely trips to and from Vietnam or as fantastically illusory as that hell to paradise then back to hell fantasy of my R&R marriage in Hawaii.
Currently there are 58,256 Americans names on the Vietnam War Memorial, and we are still adding names. So please don’t try to tell me that Woodstock was the defining moment of my generation.
During the war I saw things that would have made the most hardened drug crazed Manson Family member cringe with disgust. Forty years later these images still give me some sleepless nights. It would be wrong for me not to tell you that at times I do wonder what my life would be like if I had not gone to war. I would hope that my bouts of depression would not be so severe, or that this anger inside me would have never materialized. Sometimes I imagine what it must be like to go somewhere and not feel the anxiety or fear that something bad is going to happen, even if it was just that little drive to take my granddaughter to school. I wish that I could feel the joy that others seem to, for some reason I can easily hit all the low points but those high happy points elude me. It is also during these times that I mourn the loss of that kid I once knew.
But this daydreaming only last a little while and they are coming more and more rare. I have resigned myself to the fact that my life is what I made it and I realize that there are many reasons that if I had it to do over again I would do the same as before. For one this is who I am. For another I cannot imagine not belonging to the Marine Brotherhood. Such an honored fraternity must surely have a dear admission price to be so special.
But most of all what it always comes down to in answering the question of if I would do it all again, my answer is always the same.
How could I not, for once I walked among Heroes.
How few others can say the same.
Have A Great Veterans’ Day
Pray For and Support Our Troops
God Bless America
“Copyright 2009. Michael E. Tank All rights reserved. No part of this document may be copied, faxed, electronically transmitted, or in any other manner duplicated without express written permission of the author.”