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Every morning at 8 a.m., retired Navy Capt. Eric Jensen raises a large American flag on a tall pole secured with an anchor in front of his Laguna Beach home in California. When Old Glory unfurls, so does the Navy flag.
“I raise the flags in memory of my best friend, Robin Pearce, and all the other veterans that didn’t come home,” Jensen said. “Some gave some, some gave it all, but everybody did their part.”
The daily ritual is cathartic for Jensen, who said he spent 23 years internalizing his emotions after coming home from Vietnam, where he was a combat pilot with Attack Squadron 82 aboard the USS Coral Sea aircraft carrier.
It took him decades, he said, to learn “there is a life.” He now proudly puts his Navy service out there, and with therapy, he’s realized his time in the Vietnam War is “nothing to be ashamed of.”
The 80-year-old flew 113 combat missions over Laos, South Vietnam and North Vietnam in 1969 and 1970 after joining the Navy Reserves and then going into active duty for 11 years, he said. “When I came back to San Francisco, they said don’t wear your uniform if you go ashore. I came home to my country, and they didn’t give a (expletive) for me defending their freedom.”
“I self-isolated,” he added. “No one understood what happened with me. I carried the war’s expense with me and had no place to dump it.”
Now, nearing the 50th anniversary on Wednesday, March 29, of the last American troops withdrawing from the Vietnam War, Jensen and other veterans look back across the decades and reflect on what the divisive war meant to them personally and to their country.
More than 3 million Americans served in Vietnam – 58,000 died and 150,000 were wounded – and today, more than 1,500 are still listed as missing.
A lack of respect at home for many of those returning caused them to hide their pain by, as Jensen called it, “bunkering up.” Few discussed their service with family and friends. Instead, they tried to get on with life, many going quickly back to jobs they had before the war or to college without the benefits of the GI Bill that helped servicemembers who followed them. It would take decades for many to ask for help.
“For the vast majority of Vietnam veterans, I believe they made the transition back to civilian life in productive, fulfilling ways,” said Gregory Daddis, a retired Army colonel who is now director of the Center for War and Society and the USS Midway Chair in Modern U.S. Military History at San Diego State University. “Still, I think many continue to wrestle with reconciling the past, asking whether their sacrifices in Southeast Asia were worth the costs in blood and treasure.”
Wayne Yost, an Army sergeant in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, still can’t reconcile the sacrifices with the war he called a “waste, a war we should have never gotten involved with.
“It was such a waste of human, military and civilians there,” he said. “I carry that animosity even today, for wars such as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, where lives and American treasure are sacrificed with no chance of a positive outcome.”
Daddis, who has studied the history of the Vietnam War, agreed and said there is much to learn from Vietnam.
“There are a number of perspectives we can gain,” he said. “That armed forces cannot solve all political problems abroad. That outsiders cannot always settle local issues over national identity and political communities. And that there are limits to what US military power can achieve overseas.
“Even after our incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan, I’m not sure we’ve thought deeply enough about these issues and what they mean for the future of how we employ military force abroad,” he added.
Remembering those lost in Vietnam is the memorial in Washington, D.C., now the most visited among the war monuments on the National Mall. Its shiny black granite lists the names of service members who died or are still missing.
It took Jensen three tries to get the strength to visit and look for his best friend’s name.
“The first two trips, I just couldn’t do it,” he said, adding that he was a commercial pilot for Western Airlines and had been on a layover in D.C. “It was so much emotion. Then, I thought, this is the last time this month I’ll be here. I found his name and had a long conversation with him. I went back to my room, wrote a really long letter, and told him how much I missed him and all that had happened since I last saw him.”
Yost, too, found a lot of meaning at the wall because the names of five of his friends are inscribed there, he said.
Yost spent most of his time in the jungles of Vietnam helping small units of South Vietnamese Army Special Forces seek out North Vietnamese fighters.
“We’d be flown into an area, call in support troops, the artillery, or a gunship, and then we were supposed to get out of there,” said Yost, a Dana Point resident who served from 1967 to 1969 and lived in villages with the South Vietnamese while on missions. “Whenever they were in trouble and needed special help,” about five to eight American soldiers would help out.
Yost, 76, who was in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, the largest battle of the war, recalled a specific mission where he and his unit helped find North Vietnamese that still makes him laugh today about how it managed to work out.
They were in a rice field, hiding among the paddies and waiting for air support. Yost said he removed his helmet and put it on the tip of his rifle to draw enemy fire so the pilot could pin the enemy down quicker.
Instead, the North Vietnamese “launched a rocket-propelled grenade, and another soldier and I flew into the air,” he said of the impact of the blast. “Just as that happened, the pilot was able to attack the enemy position and illuminate them, and we were just laughing hysterically.”
But that laughter didn’t continue when Yost came back to the states, he said.
“I was a jokester and I came back sedate,” he said. “The experience of war, seeing people wounded and killed … I carry those memories.”
The negative response at home only made it worse.
“For 50 years, I suppressed all the different feelings raging in my brain and soul,” Yost said. “I never discussed anything with my family or my wife and kids. Six years ago, those feelings came out, and I was having nightmares and flashbacks, and I knew something was wrong.”
Yost joined a Vietnam veterans group at the South Orange County Veterans Center in Mission Viejo.
“We’re still in counseling six years later,” he said.
Yost said he also gets some solace from helping younger veterans who may have served in Iraq and Afghanistan navigate the services available through the Veterans Administration. As former commander of the Dana Point Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9934, and now senior vice commander of 15 VFW posts in the region, he’s organized bi-monthly clinics, which have helped 6,300 veterans get benefits and have “never had a claim denied.”
“It’s been wonderful therapy,” he said. “Every time someone comes in and says ‘Thanks, guys, I just got my disability.’ It’s great knowing we were able to help, so they don’t feel alone and have someone to hold on to.”
Kolin Williams, who chairs the VETS program at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, said many of the programs that benefit more recent veterans come on the backs of the Vietnam veterans.
“The Veterans Administration was not able to handle what they brought back,” Williams said. “And, they were also the last folks to walk into a VA and ask for mental health adjustments. They hid it and went back to their families and went to work. Veteran centers now are a response to that.”
The thinking was, Williams said, “Let’s put these centers into communities and see if veterans respond.”
The evolution in public sentiment also made a huge difference in veterans seeking help, Williams said. After the Gulf War, 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan, “there was a ton of support for returning veterans,” he said, adding that at first, many of the Vietnam veterans resented that, wondering why they didn’t get a similar response.
“That resentment was misplaced,” Williams said. “Because by shining the light on these service members, it de-stigmatized the whole conversation about mental health. It was being encouraged, ‘Go get support.’ The Vietnam veterans noticed that and appreciated the services.”
In addition to getting help with post-traumatic stress, Vietnam veterans are registering for service disabilities because of exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide used between 1961 and 1971 to kill vegetation in Vietnam for tactical warfare. The exposure has led to cancers and heart conditions for tens of thousands of veterans.
Frank Marcello, a 1st Air Calvary Division sergeant, knows a thing or two about Agent Orange. During his service between 1966 and 1967, the Purple Heart decorated soldier, who was part of a reconnaissance unit, spent most of his time in the central highlands of Vietnam. He was always the point man, he said, leading his squad, and during his time served there, “never had a soldier die.”
“We’d hump for 10 to 15 miles and do ambushes,” he said of his squad of eight. “The chopper would pick us up, drop us off again, and pick us up. I did over 125 air assaults. We were always on the go. Landing zones were all over the place and were cleared with Agent Orange.”
Marcello, 79, of Walnut, California, is receiving 100% disability benefits because of his exposure and, like Jensen and Yost, has been diagnosed with PTSD. For 25 years, he said, he woke up with nightmares and cold and hot sweats.
“I’d be hollering and wake up my wife,” he said, adding that he went to the VA for help but “they didn’t have anything that worked.” So, like a good cavalry soldier, he gutted it out and dealt with it, he said.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in U.S. political history and later a master’s degree and an MBA. He credits God, along with his “cool and calm” demeanor, with helping him have the grit to make it through the last half-century.
Like the others, he didn’t speak of his service publicly and never mentioned it to college classmates or friends.
“In all the other wars, people were treated with respect, but we couldn’t speak about it because we were in Vietnam,” he said.
More recently though, Marcello said he has had a different experience. He was among a group of veterans invited to the Hoag Classic at the Newport Beach Country Club in California. Marcello attended wearing fatigues and his stack of medals, including the Purple Heart.
“I had 200 people coming up to me,” he said, choking up with emotion. “I had men shaking my hand, and women would hug me. At a Fourth of July parade in Catalina, I wore my medals and everyone, grandmothers, little kids and men and women, they all cheered for me. Now, no matter what, I go to parades and universities and people are wanting to talk to me.”
“I’m reliving what should have happened,” he said of this newer support he wished he and other veterans deserved. “I wear the medals with pride for the guys who died.”
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