Vietnam vet's bitterness rains on gulf war parades


May 22, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

He knows he should not be saying this. He knows America does not want to hear it. Not now, not while we are all so happy.

"I see all these parades for the gulf war vets," he said. "I see all the TV specials. I see the ads about how they can get cheap airline tickets and all the rest. And it makes me sick. It just makes me sick."

His war was Vietnam, and he didn't get any parades or airline tickets. What he got from his service to his country was a drug and alcohol problem that he now says he has licked.

He is out of work. He gets his last unemployment check on June 9. He and his wife have three small children. They are getting government-subsidized food for the kids. He says their savings are gone. And his nightmare is falling over the edge and becoming homeless.

His name is Robert A. Pearson. He has 20 years of experience in construction and a college degree. He lived in Maryland for 12 years and a few years ago moved to the town of Berwick, Pa., on the Susquehanna River. He reads The Sun and looks for jobs. He has been down for job interviews in Baltimore twice but didn't get hired.

In the last 10 months he has written 200 resumes and filled out 100 job applications. He has received 22 responses. One offered a job, but only if he paid $2,000 up front.

Just down the river from Berwick is the town of Bloomsburg, Pa., and they are going to have a big parade for the returning gulf war vets there soon. Robert Pearson is not going to be one of those lining the streets.

"It's going to be a huge party," he said. "Bloomsburg has $H something like 15,000 people in it, and they are expecting 50,000 to 70,000 at this parade. I'm not kidding. The whole place is awash in yellow ribbons.

"When I came back from Vietnam, we got fruit thrown at us, not parades. I'm not kidding. It was San Francisco, 1970, and they threw fruit at us.

"Now, it's these gulf war guys who are getting the jobs, the free trips, the free rent. Do I resent them? No. I resent the idea of them getting everything. It makes me sick, to be perfectly honest. They went to Saudi Arabia and sat around for eight months. Some of them fought for 40 days. And now they are the heroes. And we are still the rejects."

His wife recently found work for about half the salary she used to earn. He stays home with the kids, writing letters, sending out resumes. Their medical insurance ran out eight months ago.

"But, hey," he said. "A lot of people are worse off. I'll make it. I've made it before, and I'll make it again."

He was born Christmas Day, 1950, and when he graduated from high school in Cocoa, Fla., in 1968, he was neither a flower child nor a rebel with a cause. He was just a kid who had gotten into a bunch of minor trouble and had no idea what to do with his life. So he joined the Army.

"I had never heard of Vietnam," he said. "I joined the Army to learn construction."

You never heard of Vietnam? It was 1968 and you never heard of Vietnam?

"I didn't read newspapers," he said. "I lived on the streets. I ran away a lot. I didn't watch TV. I was 17. My mother signed the papers for me. I had signed up to be a construction utilities engineer. It sounded important. I mean it wasn't the infantry or something like that."

Not that it made much difference. On Feb. 4, 1969, he stepped off the plane in Saigon in that country he had never heard of. "I reported to the 9th Infantry at Dong Tam," he said. "I was in a construction unit, assigned to build barracks, retaining walls, helipads. I was there for a Tet offensive. You know, incoming rockets, attacks on the perimeter. That's when I first got concerned. It finally hit me: I was going to be shot at."

In a strange way, however, he liked it. For the first time, he felt a kinship, a sense of family.

"I was driving 10-ton trucks by then, and all the truck drivers were comrades," he said. "It was exciting to carry around a gun all day and run amok in the truck. We were like cowboys.

"Drugs? Oh, yeah. Most of time we were driving we were high, mostly on pot. I started smoking pot a month after I got in country. Couldn't avoid it. Never done it in the U.S. There were two little clubs in camp: the Heads and the Juicers. The pot smokers and the drinkers. You were one or the other."

He got into some trouble, giving the officers a hard time and getting into fights. He never got into court-martial trouble, but trouble enough that the Army decided he needed "counseling," which amounted to prescribing 500-milligram doses of Valium for him.

"So I'm in Vietnam, taking Valium, drinking, going on R&R to Bangkok [in Thailand] and smoking opium, and I'm all of 19," he said. "By now, we're getting rocketed regularly and the NVA [North Vietnamese Army soldiers] are coming through the perimeter at night and I'm firing off my weapon mainly out of fear and I'm a teen-ager."

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