Saturday, September 23, 2017

Vietnam: So far away, yet so close to home...

I’ve been watching the gripping PBS documentary “The Vietnam War.” I might have been drafted to serve in Vietnam — I was the right age — but I escaped that through a college student deferment and later enlistment in the Minnesota Army National Guard.

So I am able to sit here today, now a senior citizen, unscathed by direct involvement in that terrible war, a war so vividly and unsettlingly recalled nightly on the television documentary and fought by so many of my contemporaries.

For the most part, I also missed the gravity of the goings on in Southeast Asia at the time, but not entirely. I was in my mid-20s in the mid-1960s, a fledgling journalist, still single, intent on having a good time, although I was obligated to be a “weekend warrior,” as National Guard personnel were often called.

Still, there was the niggling concern throughout that President Lyndon Johnson, so intent on “winning” in Vietnam, might actually resort to activating National Guard and Army Reserve personnel, safely training in their home towns — towns like Duluth. He never did call us up, though, much to our relief. The PBS documentary pointed out that he didn’t dare: opposition to the war, already mounting, would become too great.

So we — the we being those of us in uniform one evening a week or one weekend a month and for two weeks of active duty camp in the summer — rode out the war safely at home while many others of our generation were wading through rice paddies and crawling through jungles and dying on battlefields half a world away. There’s a wall in Washington bearing the names of the 58,000-plus Americans who didn’t make it. 
One segment of the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC
with names of fallen servicemen (Source: Wikipedia)

But the war did hit me in a striking manner during one period of my home-front military service. Midway through my six-year obligation, I transferred from the Army National Guard unit operating out of the Duluth Armory to a U.S. Army Reserve unit headquartered on Park Point (in a building still in use).

Because my work as a newspaper reporter often conflicted with regular unit meetings, I was allowed to make up those meetings at various other times, working in the unit’s office with permanent reserve personnel for a few hours. I was a typist in my regular duties, and the Army always had plenty of typing to do. More typing than shooting.

Off in a corner of our “orderly room” (Army jargon for office) was a desk occupied by an officer not directly associated with our unit. He was a regular Army officer, a career man with the rank of captain, assigned to the Duluth-Superior area to carry out a grisly task.

His last name was Wood (I don’t recall his first name), known to us and addressed by us as Captain Wood. Captain Wood kept largely to himself, not mixing it up much with the Reserve troops. And he’d be there sporadically when I was, his desk occasionally empty for the day. I learned quickly why Captain Wood was often missing. It was his job to inform immediate survivors — usually parents of soldiers from this area who had been killed in Vietnam — of the deaths of their sons.

In that period of our military history, parents of soldiers were not told of the deaths of their sons by telegram or other means. An Army officer, usually accompanied by a regular-army sergeant, drove to the homes of the dead soldiers’ parents and other loved ones to inform them in person.

That was what Captain Wood was assigned to do in this region, along with helping survivors arrange for burial and other details. And during the time I was an observer of his activities, he was kept plenty busy. Someone in the orderly room would inquire about Captain Wood’s absence on any given day and be told he had gone to Ashland or Hibbing or Ely or to homes in Duluth or Superior to tell parents that their sons had lost their lives in Vietnam.

While I didn’t get to know Captain Wood well, I being a flunky enlisted man and he being an officer, I was in his presence quite often and I don’t think I ever saw him smile. A small man, with dark hair and eyes, always in a neatly pressed Class A (dress) uniform, he had good reason to be somber, to be reticent.

Away from the battlefield itself, I can’t imagine a more stressful military duty. And it showed on Captain Wood.

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