Reflections on Being in the Military during the Viet Nam Era

The PA system blared out the call to board my flight to Chicago. I am late, but running through SeaTac International airport would not dignify the US Navy uniform nor accommodate the spit and polish, shipshape demeanor being arrogantly displayed to my fellow travelers moving hither and yon via the crowded aisles of the busy facility.

People’s eyes were following my movements. Some expressed surprise. Some looked guiltily away to the ground. Others expressed disdain. It is Lieutenant, United States Naval Reserve to all of you!

It is a deliberate act of arrogance on my part as I am not carrying active duty orders, but only returning to COMCARIBSEAFRONTIER following a few weeks of well deserved vacation mixed with fact finding. There was risk of confrontation. It is not a popular time for those wearing the uniform.

Memories of several weeks ago flashed before me. The Methodist minister of my home town church was denouncing the use of violence to solve disputes and decried those who were continuing to plunder and murder in the far away jungles of Viet Nam. Mom glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. I should have worn my uniform this Sunday morning, I thought. It would have been another, defiant challenge to all in the Congregation.

I am not serving in Viet Nam nor am I stationed anywhere close to the Asia Theater, but I am bonded with all my brothers and sisters in uniform because we were volunteered by our citizenry. Emma Hugh is right over there. She serves on the draft board which initiated the call up of the low lottery number assigned to my date of birth. No more deferments. University is over. I chose the Navy and four years.

You people asked us to go. Now, you link and blame us for your doubts about the policy and the objective. What is the objective? People are dying, and we are being dishonored everywhere we turn when we come home. If you put us in harm’s way, then do so to win!

“Good afternoon Lieutenant!” The short, brisk greeting brings me back. It is an older man who I quickly decide is military or a veteran. There is an appropriately aged woman by his side. I pause and turn to face them. There is understanding in their eyes. I smile firmly and nod my appreciation bringing two fingers to the brim of my hat.

“I am running late so please accept my apology for not being able to properly give you my sincere thank you.” He respectfully nods, and I turn to continue my journey to the gate. I will be on time.

There have been witnesses, and the mood of those around me seems to change. The change is rippling away in all directions like a wave created by a dropped pebble into a still pool of water beneath which is the potential of turmoil. There will be no confrontation this day.

I am probably pushing the limits by my military demeanor, but I am proud of my training and responsibilities. I have been blessed with this opportunity. I have learned organization and leadership. I have grown up. But do I go too far?

Dorsey and I are in full dress whites leading two young ladies around the dance floor of the El Convento following a large, social event at the Admiral’s compound in honor of the visiting officers of the Colombian ship anchored in the harbor. We met them last Sunday afternoon on Condado Beach. They were snow birds, and I think they are now quite surprised to find themselves being entertained by two, young naval officers in an exotic setting on an exciting island in the Caribbean. All of the dress uniforms complete with swords and starched gloves, the meeting/mixing with important people of the Commonwealth government and the consular diplomatic core from Spain and many Latin America countries, the wine, the tropical heat, and the pulsating music emanating from the steel drums have pushed political prejudices far into the background. And now, in the Old city at a very sophisticated, enchanting night spot converted from an old Spanish convent, we dance. What would their fellow students think of consorting with awful military people!

Within, such mental images create a quiet, private mirth. We are pushing the envelope! The uniform is not popular here either. Some are not happy to see “gringos” period, and the flaunting of the uniform just adds to the unease.

My mind slips to another time over a year ago. I am the Officer of the Deck on a large amphibious ship which has just completed Ref Tra in Guantanamo; the ship’s company is enjoying shore leave following the embarkation of a full complement of marines and equipment in Roosevelt Roads prior to our six month deployment as a part of the Caribbean Amphibious Ready Group.

A general recall has gone out to bring all liberty personnel back to ship because ashore there has been a serious altercation between some celebrating naval personnel and local young men aligned with the Independence Party.

I am watching a group of Marines poised at the far end of the helo deck. These are the Special Forces contingent of the 500 newly embarked Marines. They have dutifully reported back in, but they are not happy about not being allowed to return to their shore leave activities.

The leader, a Lieutenant, is rather diminutive in stature, but a Marine to the core. Maybe, even younger than I. He has a small diamond stud in his left ear. That jewelry has created much speculation among the crew and officers of the ship. Unheard of! But he has been in frequent, long conferences with the Old Man for the past 48 hours. Things are not going well in Curacao. Who is he? What is going to happen when we leave port?
A senior officer has been called, and a very lively, animated discussion is unfolding. The chain of command with Special Forces is not so clear. There is a sudden flurry of orders to which the civilian clad Marine contingent responds with precision. Form up, attention, remove shoes, forward march and off into the wild, black yonder of the tropical night. It’s a long drop, multiple stories, to the harbor waters below, but soon I see all accounted for as they clamor up the ladders and ropes to the pier. They are, after all, highly trained Special Forces.

Quickly forming up and replacing footwear, the group, dripping wet is off down the pier at double time. There will be no further containment actions this night as the Marine officer at the far end of the helo deck waves off the MPs awaiting my orders-judgment will be deferred. I see relief in the eyes of the MPs.

The music ends. Time is up. My drivers need to get back to the barracks. This night is a favor they have granted to me. The Cubre libres are finished off, the bill paid, and a quick, orderly retreat is made to the waiting Navy vehicles attended by my men. Snap to attention, doors opened, “Madam/Sir” greetings, entry to spotlessly white, starched seat covers, doors closed, and departure through a very professional use of the manual transmission.

I reflect. There had been some applause. Yes, we were happy, polite, fun loving-just young kids serving in very adult roles enjoying a brief fling or respite from the serious assignments which have prematurely ended our youth.

The final boarding call for Chicago rips through the memories. Just in time. Being in uniform does have advantages. Priority to military personnel is given by most airlines so I quickly pass through boarding formalities and find my aisle seat.

I wonder what will unfold with my seatmates over the next several hours. What will the uniform generate? At least, the fact finding mission is completed. I do not think the relationship will go forward at this time. The uniform was a hindrance-the distance too great-the maturity gap too wide.

I am actually looking forward to my return to the routine of military life. I have enjoyed my time with friends and family in the civilian world, but it is not the same. I am not the same. I have made my positions very clear. No need to hide or shrink away. Be friendly, honest, and polite. But don’t push me. I have responsibilities and completion of a commitment.

Tomorrow night I will be on duty in the Communications Center, and I, albeit the junior officer, will be wearing one of the keys through a night of continuous alerts, countdowns, and verifications from the SACLANT code books.

John S. Westcott
Waterbury, CT © 2012

Add your story to this page!

Comment on this Story

Add a New Comment

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License