Veterans of Vietnam recall unpopular war

June 12, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Sun Staff Writer

While the rest of America was honoring D-Day soldiers last week, Fallston High School students were immersed in another war -- the one in Vietnam.

"It's ironic to be celebrating a major event of the most popular war in history and now the most unpopular one in history," said teacher John Holzworth, who invited six Vietnam veterans to the school to talk to students, coincidentally on the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion of World War II.

The daylong assembly gave the students a firsthand glimpse of the war that caused so much divisiveness.

Almost 25 years after the Communists completed their takeover of Vietnam, the panelists -- retired Lt. Col. Elizabeth Kruger, retired Lt. Col. Glenn Brown, Spec. 5 Norman Boskind, retired Lt. Col. Anthony Solberg, Col. Donald Porter and Sgt. Michael McCabe -- still feel the sting of American anti-war sentiment over the Vietnam War. They said had no idea of the intensity of the anti-war movement until they came home.

"I wanted to crawl under a bush," said Mr. McCabe, who served in the tiny Southeast Asian country for 13 months as a prisoner-of-war interrogator. He was told to be "as unobtrusive and unassuming as possible, to blend back into society."

"We had a lot of anger when we saw what was happening," said Mr. Boskind, who was a transportation specialist.

Ms. Kruger, a nurse during the war, was traveling home to Maryland in 1970 after being debriefed in Washington state.

"We were advised not to wear uniforms in the civilian world and that we were coming back to a different country than we had left," she said. But that didn't prepare her for the reaction of a woman who sat next to her on a plane as she was flying home.

"She asked where I had been, and I said, 'Vietnam.' She got up and moved from the seat," said the retired nurse, her voice still tinged with disbelief.

Mr. McCabe said he realizes that the protesters had the right to voice their opinions, but "I don't feel they understood what they were protesting."

The veterans often had no choice but to serve, he said.

"I had a high lottery number," Mr. Boskind said. "I enlisted, so I could pick what I wanted to do and not be an infantryman."

That didn't necessarily keep him safe. "There were no secure areas," said Mr. Boskind, who was stationed near Saigon.

Ms. Kruger said nothing prepared her for the inevitable wounds of war. "A patient is brought in from the field, in battle clothes," she told the Fallston history students. "You never knew exactly what you'd find -- legs crushed, amputated."

"The bottom line was to stay alive and get back home," said Colonel Porter, a platoon leader in Vietnam who now is chief of staff at the Ordnance School at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Mr. Brown, a helicopter pilot, remembers his first combat assault vividly.

"I got shot down," he said. "I thought, if this happens every time, I'm probably not going to go home."

Not everyone did, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington is a jarring reminder of the more than 58,000 soldiers who died in that war. It's also a wall that has created controversy among Vietnam veterans, including some of the panelists at Fallston High.

"It's a fine memorial for what it is, to honor those who fell," said Mr. Solberg, who was an adviser at the South Vietnam Military Academy in Da Lat. "But should it be held up as conciliation?"

"It's not an altar to go worship," said Mr. Boskind, who said he hasn't been able to bring himself to go to see it. "It's not a perpetual crutch."

But talking about the Vietnam War, such as he did to the Fallston students, does help him deal with his bitterness. "This is healing for me," he said.

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