George is a retired N.Y. firefighter and father of two children, ages 30 and 34. His son lives with him in Northampton, MA and his daughter lives in Brooklyn. He is active in 2 local veterans groups, Veterans Education Project and Veterans for Peace. He visits area high schools as a representative of these groups to speak to students about his Vietnam experience. Most recently he was asked to mediate a dispute between recruiters and students on the Holyoke Community College campus where he has spoken numerous times in the past. George is also a visual artist.
I grew up in Brooklyn. I got my first real job while I was in high school working for Hayden Stone in 1965. It was a great job. I was a market collector. My mother was very proud – there was a black man on Wall St. I had the California office, which was interesting and I enjoyed it. I was living a fairly good life. I had three sisters and two brothers at the time, an older brother, an older sister, a younger brother and two younger sisters. My mother was a single parent and my money helped out the family. I took it as just something that was a part of my life. I didn’t see it as any hardship. I was always
Working. I had always been working since I was sixteen years old delivering groceries. I was just living a good life, though I hadn’t traveled out of the US. Then I got drafted in 1966.
I was aware of the war because Martin Luther King was speaking out more and more against it. At that time I remember there were maybe two hundred people protesting in Washington, D.C. That was really the only thing I could pinpoint. It wasn’t really much of a protest in ’65 and ’66. My father had served in World War II and my older brother was in the Air Force when I was drafted so I took it as a responsibility to do something. It was just my turn to go into the military. I didn’t really think of fighting it. I couldn’t imagine myself going underground. I knew I had choices. I could have gone underground. I could have gotten a phony ID and gone to Canada. I could have gone to jail, but I just accepted it. In a way it gave me a chance to get away from a situation of being at home and being responsible for the family.
When the letter came, it came with a small subway token on it, taped to the top of it saying, “Report to Whitehall St.” in downtown Manhattan. I went down there where they sent me through some basic overall physical, but it wasn’t in depth at all. Once you went through that they said they’d be in contact with you again. You didn’t know if you passed or failed or not. During the exam you felt like you were part of a buffalo herd, just one of many and you just went along with it. People who were going along with the program just went along with it. There were a couple of people who probably took LSD or something because they were bouncing off the walls. Some people were gay and they pushed that issue right out in front. In all though, there were just a handful of people who seemed to be fighting what was happening.
There were two people I knew from high school there with me. One guy was talking to me and he was saying it was either do six months in prison or go into the military so he chose to go into the military. It was almost a reunion of at the physical because I knew a lot of people who I knew in high school and I hadn’t seen them in a couple of years. We were all going in together.
When I finished the physical I remember thinking, “This is overdoing the reality of being in the military. Like, oh man this is going to be strict.” But really I thought of it more as, “Oh, man, this is something I just have to do, you know.” There wasn’t any plan to try and get out of it. It was the type of thing where I felt like I was in another dimension because I wasn’t yet in the military and I sure wasn’t safe at home.
After my physical I started to hear more and more about the war and suddenly I became more interested in it. Despite what I was hearing and even though all my family was hesitant about me going, especially my sisters, it was just something I felt like I had to do; like a rite of passage. I don’t think I thought of not fighting at all.
It took about six months before they told me to go down and report. I knew I passed the physical by then, but there was still a month after I found out before they told me to report. When I went down the next time it was to get all my gear, get sized up, jump on a bus and get a haircut. Then they shuffled us back to our homes to say our good-byes. My father was home and it was the first time he ever hugged me. I didn’t even know how to react to that because he was always very standoffish, a disciplinarian. I thought it was just him doing what he needed to do, but I was surprised. I almost couldn’t feel anything, it was such a foreign thing.
In basic training we were holed up in Georgia. The drill instructors were all white southerners. They hated New Yorkers so they had all of us in one barracks and the southerners in another barracks. Our drill instructors were so harsh and not everyone was used to it. They told us, “We’re going to break you guys from New York. We’re going to break you.” I guess we were more free thinkers than the southerners were. They wanted to break our spirits so they did things to us that were inhumane to say the least. There was one guy who couldn’t do enough pushups. They said to him that he was a monkey and needed to go climb a tree. They actually had this guy hugging a tree, humping a tree. One guy had a book with him, a paperback with a picture of his family tucked into it and the drill sergeant just took the book and ripped it in half. The guy just broke down and cried. Everything they did was harsh like yelling in your face. All the stuff you see in the movies was true.
There was a time when we were out in a field and we were looking at these rolling hills of Georgia. Everything was so green. I was saying how beautiful the country was because not many of us had traveled outside of our own area in Brooklyn. This one
Southern soldier came up from behind us and said, “Hey niggers, get off my property.”
The guys from New York didn’t want to accept this mistreatment. It seemed like I was
always the one who was targeted “to break ‘em up or pound ‘em down.” The drill
instructors themselves would try and push you. They hated all New Yorkers. Coming
from New York we had all dealt with so many different types of people. They had not.
For us in the City it wasn’t that irregular to find somebody who was racist and usually we could go on our own way but being in the military you had to deal with it in other ways. One way we dealt with it was to be the best that we could be so they couldn’t say anything to us. If we were faster than everyone else was and did more pushups and chin ups we were less likely to get mistreated. Or we could join one of the clubs. We could join the boxing club or something like that because if you were in a club they treated you differently. The base needed you to represent the base. It was one way to deal with the racism; to elevate yourself above and away from it.
The drill sergeant drove into us the point that we better learn our stuff now because we were going to be using it in Vietnam. That’s what the whole thing was, but I could really march and I used to create songs for the military and march the soldiers to them. I knew I was heading off to lead a life of danger and do everything but march once I got there. But it was more that. For me it was, “Of course I can do this. I can march better than anyone else and I can keep cadence and count off a song.” I knew the drill sergeants wouldn’t bother me because once again they needed me, they used to call on me to come on and keep cadence. I had found another way of avoiding more conflict
After basic training we went to advanced training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. That’s where the training got more intense and more specific about weapons like the Claymore Mine rather than just about the M-14. The Claymore Mine is an explosive device. It’s about the size of a Frisbee, but it’s rectangular and concave so when all the little pellets exploded out of it, they shot outwards. You would use it to clear away the enemy from in front of your fox hole. It had a wire attached and you just squeezed the trigger. The rifle we first learned on was the M-14, which was before the M-16. It was actually a better weapon because it had a wooden stop. It was a real down to earth weapon. You could drop it and pick it up and it would still work. When they gave us the M-16 everyone used to call it a Mattel toy because it would jam up at the drop of a hat. You got one little grain of sand in it and it would jam up. Everyone knew it wasn’t made for Vietnam. A lot of guys, when they got to Vietnam, said either you give me an AK-47 or you take me home. When you got there you could pretty much use anything you wanted to.
When I was in South Carolina we were put in barracks where, for the first time, instead of being with the whole group in one huge room we were stuck in a dorm situation. There was one guy who had never been more than 25 miles from his house. He was the real country boy, the big guy but we got along well because of his size. He was about 6’2 and weighed about 200 pounds and we used to always wrestle together because he was the only guy who didn’t care about racism. He used to talk about it, about how his family reacted but he wasn’t racist. He was down to earth and he was on the wrestling team so we wound up wrestling.. He kept offering to run down and get us some moonshine. We used to steal milk from the kitchen and bring it to a rural community around where he lived. Those people were really poor. They were really mountain people. They accepted me because I was in the military. It was automatic acceptance. The kids always got a kick out of me; I’ve always had a thing with kids.
When it was finally time to go to ‘Nam, just stepping off the plane was a situation in itself. You were in an activation plane, an air-conditioned jet and all of a sudden you walked off and got hit with this hot wind. It was really tough to breath for a couple of seconds before you got used to it and it was only the beginning of a really long twelve months. When the plane was coming in, it had to turn at an angle, a really sharp angle they said because there was mortar being fired. So even before we landed, we had this really sharp turn and the engine was shaking, the plane was shaking. All of a sudden it really hit home. Then when you opened the doors you got this hit of air and it was like 100 degrees. As we were walking along on the runway the guys who were going home were passing us and saying how we were probably going to go home with fewer guys and how guys they knew had gotten wiped out so we were probably the replacements, but how we should look on the bright side. “You’ve only got 364 more days to go,” one of them said.
We jumped into a bus that was reinforced. Itt was pitifully reinforced. It looked like somebody from a shop class just put some wire mesh on the outside, but we jumped on this bus and went into the station where they told you where you were going. They just basically numbered us off and said all the ones are going there; all the twos are going there and so on. I wound up going with the first infantry division, which was a rifle division where you went into the jungles. You fly out on helicopters on some missions and look for the enemy.
The experience was a little bit of everything. The fear was always a common denominator no matter where you were, no matter what you were doing. Even when we were back in base camp we weren’t safe. We had been mortared a couple of times and somebody was blown up by a mortar round. That would keep the fear with you. There were so many emotions though that it’s hard to pinpoint any one. Sometimes we’d get into a firefight and it was so chaotic. We’d get mortared and at one point a mortar landed behind me in a tree and that’s how I got some of the shrapnel in my buttocks. I was treated in the field and was seen by a battalion doctor when I got back to the base camp, but for some reason the army messed up my records and didn’t have it written down. To this day I’m still trying to get my Purple Heart. The army says I have to find the medic who treated me because even though the battalion doctor treated me, the battalion doctor says he doesn’t know how I got the wound. He says he can’t say how I got the wound. I say, “I was in Vietnam. I got wounded. Where do you think it came from.”
But I think also at that time a lot of guys were wounding themselves trying to get out. I mean I’ve seen guys cut themselves on the shoulder so they wouldn’t have to carry a backpack. One guy I know drank a bottle of booze or something and told another guy to smash his hand. The range in people’s attitudes was unbelievable. There were people who loved it, really to the point that I thought they were psychotic. They loved the act of killing. That was what they were made for. They were trying to glorify it, to be proud over who killed how many. They even cut off ears and stuff like that. Then there were guys who wanted to get out and who would do anything to get out.
I was somewhere in the middle. I was trying to do my job. The fear was there all the time. It was almost strangling.I just wanted to get my time of serving over with.
Everybody had a different day that they were going out. I mean you knew exactly how long you were going to stay there. You knew exactly twelve months from the day you’d arrived you were going to be leaving and that was a big countdown. There used to be a calendar with a Playboy type model posing and it was a line drawing with 365 little blocks in the woman’s body. Each day you would shade in the block and where the vagina was was home. Everybody had one of these, marking the days off. Every day was just another day that you marked off.
There were a lot of children there. One day I noticed that no matter where you went there were kids running around all over the place. As I child I wasn’t well off. My family was on welfare, but when I was in Vietnam what I had thought of as the poverty level was blown away. One little boy was holding his sister who was eating out of a sandbag that we threw our food away in. It was a really dirty sandbag and he was just feeding her out of it. His clothes were all tattered. More and more I saw those kids around. There was one ten year old boy and he was able to speak four languages besides Vietnamese. He spoke German, French, English and Korean, and another dialect I didn’t even understand. If you wanted any pot he’d bring you pot. He would ride around on a little motor scooter and if you wanted a girl, he would bring a girl. He was like a little pimp. I saw how war just affected these children.
More and more I realized we weren’t there for a legitimate reason. Even the way we fought the war showed how crazy it was. We would fight and take over certain areas and we’d go back and have to take the same place over again. It just didn’t make sense, strategically, militarily, the way we were fighting it, we didn’t see any end to it. It felt like we could have been there forever; it wasn’t like we were moving up or taking over places. It was taking it one step at a time. It didn’t make sense to a lot of soldiers, to a lot of ground soldiers at least. Basically we felt we needed to be medicated just to get through it.
We drank and we smoked pot. Pot was probably the biggest drug of choice, but there were some people who went to Saigon and got opium and heroin. They used to say “If you’re going into an opium den, don’t go in alone,” because some soldiers would go in and get killed. If you were going for a night out you had to be wary because the Viet Cong were all over the place. Once we were out on patrol and “Mamason” came on this little motorized scooter with four girls on the back. One guy picked up one of the girls while we were on patrol! I told this story once and one of the Vietnam veterans in the audience said, “Oh, that would never happen. We would never do that,” but that’s my story. I’m not making it up. If you want to believe it it’s up to you but everyone has his own story.
I guess the only thing I was really opposed to was the way the war itself was being fought. There were the zippo raids. I didn’t like them at all. Even if the Viet Cong were around the area, why burn a whole village? Often it was after the fact. If we got shot at we used mortars until we could get an air strike, but a lot of the time it was innocent villages. That’s what the Viet Cong did. They hid behind the villages.
The more I was there the more I understood them though. I felt like they were doing a better job than we were and a lot of soldiers, not a lot, but some soldiers felt that way too. In fact I just got a call from this guy who I was with and we felt the same back then. I have been trying to contact him to see if he knew who the medic was who treated me so I could get my medal. We have been in contact since our time in Vietnam and he called me last night. We talked about lots of things that happened, like how people always got separated after a firefight and we had to go look for them. Guys next to me got blown up, but I couldn’t feel angry; I mean I understood it too well. I understood the whole war. There were a handful of people who felt the same way, but what the officers normally did to avoid having men refuse to follow orders was let you dehumanize the Vietnamese.
When I was there they wouldn’t let the first infantry division into Saigon at all. If you did go in you’d have to wear a shirt with no identifying patch. What had happened was a small group of guys from the first division, two or three guys, were in an opium den and they were killed, so their buddies came back and shot up the whole place. The punishment was, don’t come back. You could do about anything you wanted. There were people who got away with murder and they were told, “Don’t return to Saigon.” That was their punishment, not to go back to Saigon. But you could just go in without your patches. You’re obviously an American, but they couldn’t tell what division you were from and they didn’t care as long as you weren’t with the first infantry division.
Something I didn’t realize until I got back was the proportion of blacks on the front line. 25% of the soldiers on the front lines were black. There was one incident where this black guy was test firing a rocket launcher. There’s always a backfire behind so you’re always supposed to keep twelve feet clear behind you so there would always be two people there; one firing and one to hit you on the helmet and tell you it’s okay to fire. So this one guy fired and a white guy was walking behind him and got hit with it and said “Oh, you stupid nigger I’m gonna get my gun. I’m gonna blow you up like you tried to blow me up.” He was going for his weapon so the black guy took out his bayonet and stabbed him. That was the only incident I saw. The only people who were promoted though were white guys. I was an acting jack, which means that a couple of sergeants want a guy killed so they either can get promoted or go to another unit so they give you a band with sergeant stripes as a temporary thing. Usually when you get that you get promoted and I was waiting for my promotion, but it never came in. Instead a white guy got promoted who got his acting jack stripes after me. After that I said, “Either promote me or take these stripes.” I wasn’t promoted.
It’s hard to say which things that happened were products of racism. I know that while I was there serving on the front line, being a black guy on the front line, I didn’t always realize it. It’s still hard for me to say that still not receiving my Purple Heart and not getting promoted to sergeant resulted from racism, but it sure looks like it. But I didn’t really realize how unfair things had been until I got home and saw the numbers that came out about who fought and how many casualties were suffered. I do know that when folks came back from World War II the whole town came out to meet and welcome them home. They got all these benefits. Then when we came home from Vietnam we couldn’t even get regular VA benefits. The VFW wouldn’t allow us to join because they said Vietnam wasn’t a declared war so we couldn’t even have a beer in the VFW. I don’t think the white guys were always treated better. I don’t think any of us got anything.
The day before I was going to leave some of the boys wanted to give me a party. They wanted me to have a bon voyage party. There was drinking, smoking and all of a sudden I realized that I had ten minutes to fly out. I missed my plane! You always feel sorry for people who miss their plane and things get messed up and they get killed. Any delay in Vietnam was like walking on egg shells. You were just waiting for something to happen. Thankfully I got out the next day.
When I came back home it was September of ‘68. By then the protesting was in full bloom. There were hundreds of thousands of people protesting. I didn’t feel part of the protesting. When I got back to Oakland, CA I joined the Veterans Against the War. I was with them in Oakland, but they wanted to blow up places and burn draft headquarters. I didn’t want any part of that. I didn’t want any more violence. When I came back to Brooklyn I had no place to go. The VFW wouldn’t accept us. World War II vets were calling us drug dealers and baby killers and the VA wouldn’t give us the same benefits. There was no place for me to go. I didn’t want to join the protest movement at that point. Once again I self medicated. A couple of vets stayed at the bar all day only to come out afterwards and smoke some pot. I did that for a while. There wasn’t any place for you to go and I wound up doing that for a couple of years. A good friend of mine, John, he had to go to Vietnam after I got back. He was convinced he wasn’t going to come back and I remember being at the bar with him saying, “Listen if I can make it, you can make it.” He ended up dying in Vietnam. His brother gave me one of his dog tags and I gave him one of mine. His brother and I have these dog tags that we always carry around with us. He was one of my best friends at the time.
The neighborhood I was in when I was drafted was a blue collar neighborhood. We had the support of the immediate neighborhood even if there were some protestors. With that and my immediate family behind me, I had a good foundation of good people around me. I wrote a letter from Vietnam to my mother at one point. Years later I went on a T.V. show about the war. There were two Vietnam vets who were in wheelchairs. One was a paraplegic. One was a double amputee. While I was on the show I started reading the letter I had written to my mother. All of a sudden this wave of emotion came over me and I started crying. I had no idea where it came from. I had no idea all this was pent up in me. This was like 1985 or 86. In 85 they held a Vietnam veterans parade. It was the first parade and it had taken 10 years to happen. It was after that that I was on the show. I was reading the letter and got halfway through. It was reading what I wrote about the children that shook me up. A couple of times we almost shot kids and it was just what we saw. We saw kids blown up and they had nothing to do with the war. You just bomb a village and you have no idea who you kill.
I didn’t get into Veterans for Peace or the Veterans Education Project until 1998. I read about the Education Project in the papers and it was the first veterans group I wanted to be a part of. They were doing something positive versus just glorifying war. I couldn’t see anyone glorifying war. So I joined them and through them I joined Veterans for Peace.
That’s when I found out my records were messed up and they owed me a Purple Heart and all this other stuff. When you go to the VA you give them your paperwork, which states everything you have on the records. It’s one sheet about where you’ve been, what your assignments were, what your specialty was. So I gave them this sheet and told them I was a Vietnam and that I was a combat Vietnam vet and they said, “Oh, it states here you weren’t in combat. So I had to send away for my records from the military and have it sent to them. Right now I’m being treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but they said I had to get my records straight before they would treat me. Of course, why would I have PTSD if I weren’t in combat?
So I sent away for my records and when I finally got them – it took almost 3 years – the VA said, “O.K., you’re due a CIB that means you were in combat, a good conduct medal and a couple of Vietnam service medals.” Then, unbelievably, they told me I would have to buy them myself! And that’s when they told me that on the form it said, that even though I was treated by a doctor, there was no proof that I was wounded by shrapnel from a mortar in combat. I’m still fighting them to get what I deserve.