Alabama Veterans’ Museum and their Director, Sandy Thompson, do a bang up job every year in March, when they put on a luncheon for the vets community in North Alabama. This year was no exception. Sandy had graciously invited me to attend, and I had gladly accepted, but I knew that because it was publication day for the March 31st edition of Athens Now, I was going to be pedal to the metal, and perhaps a touch pre-occupied with getting the paper to bed before midnight.
Sandy has a real gift in finding outstanding speakers for events at the Museum, and this year the guest speaker was Brigadier General Robert Stewart, (RET). General Stewart is a legend amongst Army aviators, and has a distinguished service record that is a mile long. I knew he would be good, I just didn’t expect to have my jaw drop open and my life to radically change yet another time as the result of a soldier’s willingness to speak the truth and set the record straight.
For those of you who are reading this column for the first time, “in another life” I was a radical, socialist, “Jane Fonda”-type feminist ‘70s college student who tried to shut down Wright Patterson Air Force Base while attending Oberlin College in Ohio. I bought into the idea that Vietnam vets were “baby killers,” and it took years of conscious, spiritual, voluntary, personal “re-education” to dump those beliefs. I went to Iraq from ’04 to ’07 and lived amongst soldiers for the sole purpose of saying, “I’m sorry,” “Please forgive me,” and “Thank you for your service,” and it was one of the most transformational things I have ever experienced. I recorded my adventures and theirs in the book A Ballad For Baghdad: An Ex-Hippie Chick VietNam War Protestor’s Three Years In Iraq, and honestly, I thought I had put the entire matter of Vietnam to rest.
Enter General Stewart, who in his presentation began to systematically dismantle many of the myths that remain to this day about both the Vietnam War and those who fought in it. While I had long ago come to the place that I no longer looked down on ‘Nam vets, I had somewhat looked upon them as pawns who had been caught in a pointless war, and felt pity for them. This is something I learned during my time in Iraq that they don’t need, and understandably despise with a passion. But, I needed some facts, and the General most definitely supplied them.
Did you know that:
• In WWII, (which most think of as a “good war”), 33% of soldiers enlisted, and 67% were drafted, but in Vietnam, 67% enlisted, and 33% were drafted? I had always thought it was the opposite.
• Vietnam was NOT the conflict where the poor man, the black man, the brown man were used as fodder, but that the casualty as well as the death rate reflected the population at large across the board? I had been told that if you were poor, brown, or black, you were expendable, and automatically sent to the front first.
• The level of education amongst Viet Nam vets is the highest of any war in U.S. History? I used to think that anyone with an education would have sat it out in Canada, thus demonstrating their superior intelligence.
• WWII vets who served in the Pacific theatre saw an average of 40 days of combat in 4 years, compared with Vietnam vets who saw an average of 240 days of combat in one year? The movies tell us that the majority of the time, soldiers spent their tours in Vietnam ripped on gonja, and sitting on their keesters for days at a time, when they weren’t setting the innocents on fire.
I am just getting started, here, and I don’t know many Soldier columns it is going to take for me to get through all of this, so I thank you in advance for your patience. See you in two weeks, when we will talk about “stolen valor.” And thank you again, General Stewart, for welcoming our troops back home, 50 years later. It means the world to them, and to me.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner