Reflections of Guilt
I've always wanted to write a book about my year in Vietnam, and someday I might. If I do, its title will be "My Favorite Year." The title itself would certainly stir up considerable controversy, which is always nice if you are trying to sell a book. But that would not be the motivation for its title. Unlike most book titles, the impetus for this title is simply the fact that it was my favorite year. If I could repeat any 12-month period in my life, I would choose my year in Vietnam.
For many Vietnam veterans, especially the disabled ones, and for the families and friends of those men and women who went to Vietnam but did not return, this claim is probably incomprehensible. I can empathize with them. However, just because it may have been their worst year, that does not mean it cant have been my best one -- and I refuse to have any more than mild guilt about it. If I had no guilt at all, I wouldnt be writing this.
I was a pilot in Vietnam from December 1969 to December 1970. During that period several close pilot friends of mine were killed. My own plane was shot up once, and I received several Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross for various situations which I wouldnt care to repeat, experientially, verbally, or any other way. The weather was so hot and humid that all my non-military clothes and shoes mildewed to the point that I had to throw them away before I ever got to wear them. I got the only social disease I have ever had -- for which I received the undistinguished Red Cross -- and my return to the United States wasnt exactly a heros welcome. So how could this have been my favorite year?
There can be no argument that it was a most exciting and most unusual year. I love flying, and it was the most unencumbered, unregulated, enjoyable flying I have ever experienced, in spite of a few bullets. I didnt kill anyone, although I scared the daylights out of a number of people -- including myself. I flew small cargo planes that carried people, food, ammunition, supplies, and just about anything that someone might need. At one time or another my planes cargo included a water tank with live fish, various live barnyard animals, dead bodies, enemy prisoners, and sexy young women on USO show tours. I even airdropped a live cow - but Im saving that story for my book.
I didnt live on a military base. I lived in a coastal fishing village where I made lots of Vietnamese friends. My cultural exposure and experiences in living and eating with the indigenous population was a key ingredient in making the year outstanding. The strong camaraderie with my fellow pilots remains unmatched. The friends I made and the people I was able to help are treasures from that year. On days when I wasnt flying, I spent time with my Vietnamese friends at the beach, eating in local restaurants, and visiting in their homes -- homes where beds were straw mats on floors in rooms that also served as dining rooms and living rooms for families of as many as six people. I went to cricket fights (the insect, not the game), waded in rice paddies, ate dog meat, and learned how to not be afraid of a water buffalo.
During that year I went on vacation to Australia where I chased roos in the out-back and was wined and dined in Sidney. I also had a weeks R&R in Japan where I visited the worlds fair and traveled around the country. I had a wonderful two-week working visit to Thailand which took me all over the country from the Malaysian border in the South to the Burmese border in the North. I had a week in the Philippines where I stayed with a local family, and several days in Okinawa where I also stayed with a local family. I saw Cambodia and got to barter with loin-clothed Montagnard tribesmen in the mountains of Laos while their bare-breasted women and children watched with curiosity.
It was a year so diverse, so different, so exciting, and so culturally, philosophically and experientially broadening for me that the other years of my life pale in comparison. If you still dont understand why it was my favorite year, then we need to sit down and talk. I want to make you understand why, and to have you agree with me. Only then can I not feel guilty about it -- at least until my next visit to "The Wall" in Washington.