Vietnam Stories: UI professor emeritus recalls time served in battle zone

Vietnam Stories: UI professor emeritus recalls time served in battle zone


I was in ROTC at Rutgers University during my undergraduate degree days (bachelor of science in 1968). Despite a degree in food science, I was assigned to the combat engineers as a second lieutenant.

Following a year in the U.S., I spent my year in Vietnam from the summer of 1969 to the summer of 1970, which was the height of the U.S. troop involvement and the height of the anti-war demonstrations — think Kent State.

I was a platoon leader and then company commander of a combat engineering company mostly at Landing Zone Dottie near Quang Ngai in the central part of the country — very near the My Lai hamlets where the infamous massacre occurred. We did mine sweeps every morning before breakfast and then a full day working on roads, culverts and even built a bridge. At night, there was guarding the barbed-wire perimeter. Not much sleep that year.

None of us were "gung-ho," but we made sure that we took care of business, were vigilant, and all hoped that everyone would return home all in one piece. I am happy to say that most did.

I also spent five years in the Army Reserve, all during grad school — also at Rutgers.

In his Oct. 1 column, Dan Corkery mostly used bullet points and short sentences, so I will as well.

Many stupid decisions by senior leadership were made by the French and by our country through many presidents. Escalation upon escalation was like throwing good money (men's lives) after bad money (men's lives).

Gen. William Westmoreland deserves the criticism that he has received as he continually misled the public and Congress and never really figured out how to fight in that country. He was the one pushing "body counts."

The Viet Cong were extremely smart and only attacked when it was to their complete advantage. They picked on the most vulnerable. Hard to fight when everyone wore the same thing during the day.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's objective clearly was to show the horrors of war — which he did over and over. This was overdone. How many bodies and wounded men did we really need to see?

Not every person in a decision-making position was stupid, nor did they always make the wrong decision. I felt that the documentary was insulting to any soldier above the rank of sergeant. I have not looked for reviews of the 18-hour special, but I cannot be alone with this feeling. In my 12 hours-plus of watching, I saw mostly examples of poor decisions.

Coming home — I started graduate school a week after departing Vietnam — was exceedingly difficult. It was hard to blend back into the culture, especially when fellow graduate students told you how foolish you were for serving and for not going to Canada instead. My own mother had suggested that I consider going to Canada before going overseas.

Most vets received welcoming only from their families. No one else "thanked us." They do now, but for 30 to 40 years, we mostly tried to not think or talk about that part of our lives. My uncle was in D-Day, and I once asked him about it. He said that he just tried to forget it.

I found it really strange for an anti-war activist to wear Army fatigues all the time.

The final night of the documentary did move me, too, as one anti-war activist apologized for her harsh words and actions against U.S. soldiers.

Jane Fonda was exceedingly hurtful and will never be forgiven by most who served.

I visit the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. often out of respect for the tens of thousands who gave their lives.

No one had a chance to thank them.

John Erdman is a professor emeritus in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois.