I don’t remember exactly when I heard about some far off Southeast Asian country and the war that would consume the 60s and part of the 70s for the first time. However, when I did, it was when I heard the week’s body count reported on the radio.
It was on the hourly newsbreak on WLS Radio out of Chicago. Right after Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco” and before The Box Tops’ “The Letter” the disc jockey would read some of the news coming off the wire and say something like, “This week in Vietnam ten soldiers were killed, fifteen wounded and five missing in action.” While I wouldn’t know this at the time, (I was eight or nine at the time) it must have seemed so surreal to have the war and body count interspersed between the music.
Although I probably had a hard time understanding terms like guerilla warfare (were gorillas really fighting each other?) body count, KIA and MIA at first, within a couple of years I would know what all those places, words and acronyms meant.
This was not long after Tonkin when Washington upped the ante for our involvement in Vietnam and before Tet when North Vietnam put all their cards on the table. Tet. In many ways the Tet Offensive was the media turning point that really brought the war home to America—into our living rooms every night on the nightly news.
It was Walter Conkrite, David Brinkley, Chet Hundley, Peter Jennings, Bob Young and Frank Reynolds who announced to the nation each night the fighting and the number of killed, wounded, and missing in action.
(Years later, in 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A Television History would show just how important television was in reporting the war and perhaps in galvanizing anti-war protests. What I always found disturbing and ironic was just how important that “body count” was for determining who was winning the war. Of course, a lot had to do with Robert MacNamarra trying to run the war the way he had run Ford.)
Back then I was living in Oglesby, Illinois a town of about 4,200 people (about 80 miles southwest of Chicago) and I knew three young men who were drafted and sent to Vietnam—Jody, our landlady’s son, John, the boyfriend of my Mom’s best friend Barb, and Johnny a drummer and one of my Mom’s friends. They all went to Vietnam around the same time: Jody ended up being a clerk and assigned to some rear echelon desk job. John and Johnny, on the other hand, spent their year trying to stay alive—from one fire camp and fire fight to the next—and counting the days until they returned to the States.
And all three would and try to get on with their lives.
Not long after John had returned from Nam, my Mom invited Barb and him over one Sunday afternoon for dinner. John had been over a few times with Barb before he had gone to Vietnam and he was always quite talkative—cracking jokes, telling stories, and talking about when he and Barb were going to get married and settle down.
For the most of the afternoon he sat quietly on the floor cross-legged just staring—with dark, sunken eyes—straight ahead at the tiny B&W television we had in the living room. When offered a beer he guzzled it quickly, and then another. Dinner was some of my Mom’s famous homemade chili, which he scarfed down quickly.
He had a hunting knife in a leather sheath outside his brown cowboy boots. At one point he took out the knife and began to clean his fingernails.
“He’s like that all the time. Really quiet,” said Barb. “And at night he has nightmares and shouts out names.”
Johnny fared no better. Once a promising young drummer in the Illinois Valley, he had lost interest in playing when he came back and went back to work at the same garage he had worked at before he had gone to Nam.
I once overheard Mom talking to one of her friends how much Johnny had changed since he had been back. I saw him once or twice a few months after his return, but I couldn’t see how he had changed. He had short hair at first, but he grew his long blonde locks back in a few months. He wore his army fatigue shirt a lot with a large peace symbol sewn on the back. I thought that was pretty cool.
Once, when my Mom was talking on the phone with a friend I heard her say “shell shocked” but I didn’t know what that meant.
“He’s not the same Johnny I used to know,” my Mom said.
No one ever talked about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That was not part of the vernacular when used to describe the past generations of fighting men that had defended America’s honor, but which had become more pronounced in veterans returning from Vietnam. It would be years before people started talking about that openly and before it was properly diagnosed and treated.
What was talked or known about returning veterans, at least indirectly, was how some veterans were depicted on television dramas and in the movies—either they were crazed drug addicts getting in trouble with the law or emotional misfits. I still remember one episode of Hawaii Five-O where a returning veteran gets involved with drugs and ends up killing someone.
Later, the first wave of movies about returning veterans like Heroes (starring Henry Winkler, yes the “Fonz” and Harrison Ford), Coming Home and The Deer Hunter reminded viewers of this other kind of “body count” about the difficulties and hardships—both mental and physical—many veterans faced coming back home.
(Ironically, thirty-eight years after the Vietnam War officially ended with the fall of Saigon we are seeing the same kind of “body count” with many veterans returning from Iraq suffering from PTSD.)
I saw John a few times after that Sunday afternoon he came over. Wonder what happened to him and if he made out okay. Jody moved back in with his mom and I would see him on and off for the next couple of years before I finally left home in 1976 (to join the Air Force). I never knew what happened to Johnny after I saw him those few times after he had come back. I often passed the garage where he worked at in LaSalle and I think I heard someone once say that he ended up owning that garage and that he had gotten into customizing cars. I hope he made out okay, too.