Thursday, September 26, 2013

Understanding The Meaning of a Bumper Sticker and The Vietnam War

    In the '60s during the height of the U.S. troop escalation in the Vietnam War, my father placed a big bumper sticker on the front storm door of our Pottstown home with the following words - I SUPPORT THE TROOPS IN VIETNAM.
     It didn't say he supported the war or the politicians whose bidding these drafted soldiers were sent to do. It simply stated he supported the troops. My father was ahead of his time in this way. Many people around the country blamed these men and women for the battle they were told to fight. But the servicemen performed their patriotic duty and came home to a boiling society that wouldn't allow them to return with the dignity they deserved.
     My father was a career soldier who fought in World War II and Korea. He was in the Army reserves at the end of his last year when the fight in Vietnam was raging.  One of my older cousins and a U.S. Marine told me that my Master Sergeant dad couldn't lead any more young men off to war. So he retired in 1967. He served more than two decades and within a year he died at the age of forty-six.
     I looked at that sticker every day when I walked into our north end home wondering what it meant. And I'd think of the war protestors on college campuses trying to put the pieces together. How does my dad support these guys when everyone else seems to be at each others throat.
     Several of my friends had older brothers who went off to Southeast Asia. I remember talking to them and how down they were when the one they looked up to had to leave home with a duffle bag hanging from their shoulder. They were proud and afraid at the same time. I never saw a protest in Pottstown as a kid, there may have been one but people in this blue collar area were busy making a living at one of the many factories in town trying to pay the bills more than to make a political statement. I'm sure there was talk and fear but people had to keep on working.
     After the death of my father I'd accompany my mother to Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville on a weekly basis. At times my brother Gary and sister Lisa would be along. I saw the wounded suffering from amputations and other serious injuries.
     When you are born into a culture as an army brat, you are part of a family that extended far past your own. I could walk down the halls of the army hospital alone, without fear. These hurt men waiting in the halls to see a doctor would look up at me a twelve years old and say a couple words and give me a smile. And I'd answer them back as best as a preteen could. I never witnessed the worst of those who suffered but watched some who were recovering hobble by on crutches or sitting in wheelchairs wearing those baby blue colored pajamas.
     We'd go into the commissary and my mom would buy groceries or other goods at the Post Exchange. There were always soldiers around us. We went as a family to see the doctors for inoculations or dental checkups. I spent many days at the post in my youth. I liked being there and around those heroes.
     Every visit before heading home, I'd ask my mom to drive over to the landing pad to watch the military helicopters bringing in the wounded. They were transferred to a hospital truck with a big red cross painted on the side. My mom never hid this from me. It was part of the real world growing up in a military family.
     Seeing this would get to my mom, but it wouldn't stop her from taking me there. We'd sit in the car quietly together and took it all in. I'm not sure how I felt watching the injured carefully tended to by other soldiers and nurses. But I now understood the meaning of the sticker on the door.
      The Vietnam veterans weren't welcomed home after their days of combat were over. It took years for that to happen. The first time I photographed Vietnam vets at home was in Reading, Pa. 25 years ago this month when thousands lined the streets for a welcome home parade and then dedicated a new memorial in a city park.
      I've had the honor of accompanying them to The Wall in Washington, D.C. The bus was silent on the way, veterans deep in thought. There were hugs and tears shed and flowers placed on graves. But it seemed like a healing process that day as the ride home was filled with loud chatter and laughter.
     The dedication of the statue and memorial in Pottstown's Memorial Park was a great event back in 1989. I shot one of my favorite photos of an Airborne Ranger who had fought in Vietnam shaking the hand of the soldier statue. Sadly this veteran passed away last month. I knew him since I was a boy growing up in the same neighborhood.
      They came home changed men forever, some were okay and got back to work while others continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. I've gotten to know the local veterans from all wars and have the privilege of telling their stories working for The Mercury.
     This past week was the latest welcome home held in Pottstown with veterans opening up about their daily lives fighting in Vietnam. Warriors Watch Riders motorcyclists made their way down High Street to show their respect along with the speeches, hand shakes and thanks to the men. It was a long time coming for some of these guys.
     I will continue to cover the services and homecoming for veterans past and future because they deserve our thanks knowing we are behind them no matter our personal feelings. And I will support the troops wherever they go.
     Because that is what I have learned after looking at a bumper sticker placed on a door forty-five years ago.


  1. John, this post reminded me of a letter my brother, a VN Vet, sent back to me after I thanked him & my other brother for their service on Vet Day. I asked them how Mom & Dad reacted at their sons being drafted. (Jim's a good writer but a lousy speller!)

    Jim said:
    "I'm sure mom and dad were not particularly happy about the deal, but both were patriotic, and when the nation calls, people went to serve. What they did not know was how much things had changed since WW2. At that time, and continuing through today, the wars our leaders get US in have nothing to do with freedom and liberty, or service to our country. The wars make the corporations, the ones with good relations with the politicians, (Who gave them lot's of money), very wealthy. Very wealthy.
    Me, I was just a kid who thought much like mom and dad, let's go and get the job done. I went with the flag in one hand, and a paryer that I would not be a coward, when things got bad. Took only about 3 weeks to understand that we were not there to win anything. Rolled the flag up and put it away, and the friends I made over their was what keep me from being a coward. We bonded in that situation, and had each others back. There was no way I would let my people down, and I knew they felt the same way about me. There was nothing heroic or patriotic about it, just the way we got through the situation. Not only us, but most all people who go to war. Folks who have not experienced it don't really "know" what that bond is. But it was strong, and I knew I would not let my friends down. That's what keep people from being a coward.
    I am still in touch with some of those people today.
    When I got off the airplane, a Flying Tiger Airlines, (They had a big contract to haul freight and personal back and forth), first thing I saw at the DaNang air port was a construction co. called RMK. They had the contract to make the airport bigger. They had the finest equipment, that they wilded a bar across the shifter so the operator could only shift up to 3rd gear, instead of 8th, and maned the stuff with local people for 50 cents a hr. RMK was part owned by Lady Bird Johnson.
    The wars go on and on, with no goal or will to win, just make money. Have you ever wondered why all our politicians
    are so wealthy? All of them! It's not just wars, but utter and compleat corruption.
    Any way, I had my eyes open by the whole thing. April of 1975, as I watched the North Vietnames tank bust through the embassy gate on TV, I had tears in my eyes, All the people who lost their lives, (My observation was that people lost their lives, they did not give their lives like our gov. people are so app to say), were for NOTHING!
    It's even worst today. Jess was in Iraq, he told me every thing was contracted. Food perp, laundry, cleaning, whearhousing, tranportation, everything, contracts for all.$$$$$$$$ The contractors used 3rd world labor and payed them peanuts. And more of our soldiers commit suicide today then are killed in combat! Some are on the 3rd and 4th deployments!
    I have a very low opinion of politicians since then, and hold my nose when I vote to this day."

    When Jim got home from his tour, he took a year to travel around the West & Alaska. I'm guessing it was a purification for his head type of trip. He also said that when VN Vets flew home, they would head for the bathrooms to quick change into civilian clothes because the American public mostly hated them. So sad & what a difference from todays reactions. What has changed?