Vietnam: A shared Experience

“To be an American, and to declare yourself a Conscientious Objector is to enter into a life-long meditation upon good and evil; upon what is strength and what is weakness; what is cowardice and what is heroism. Each has to answer for himself and then live with his decision.”  (Jeffrey Porteous in:  Gerald Gioglio, ed., Days of Decision; an Oral History of Conscientious Objectors in the Military during the Vietnam War, Trenton, N.J.: Broken Rifle Press, 1989, 264.)

During my undergraduate days at the University of Texas my doubting nature led me to become skeptical about what our government was telling us about Vietnam, and the more I educated myself about the situation, the more skeptical I became, which  began to put me odds with my own family and community.  Faced with the draft,  I resolved that I could only serve in the military as a 1AO conscientious objector, that is as someone who was willing to serve in the military but could not be legally compelled to carry or use a weapon, and if this were not possible, to flee to Canada, even though this might mean severing the bonds that held me to family, place, and country. In line with this I applied for graduate school and a teaching assistantship at the University of British Columbia and was accepted. I also applied to my local draft board for 1AO status with not much hope for success, but to my great surprise was approved, the only person from my county to ever have been granted such a classification. I felt we had reached a compromise and made a deal, the government and I, so from that point on I resolved to hold up my share of the bargain. I was inducted into the Army in the summer of 1969 and trained as a combat medic at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio in a special section reserved for COs. I have to say in retrospect that the army also lived up to its side of the bargain. My status as CO was well understood and accepted. After all, COs had served with distinction and died alongside their comrades by the hundreds, if not thousands, in both WWII and Korea, and the institutional memory of this fact was still very much alive in the Army. After graduation from Basic Training and A.I.T. (Advanced Individual Training), I received my orders for Vietnam (as did all my classmates) and shipped out the day Neil Armstrong landed the lunar module on the moon, July 20, 1969. There was surely something poignant about this coincidence but I have yet to put my finger on it.

I served as a combat medic in Vietnam from that point until January 1971. All COs, it should be noted, were trained as combat medics at that time. With one small interlude, I served in the field as a frontline combat medic my whole tour. In this capacity I first was attached to 2/34 artillery, 1st Infantry Division out of Lai Khe, then attached to an infantry unit in the 25th Infantry Division during the Cambodian invasion, and finally to 15th Med (Medevac) with the 1st Air Cavalry headquartered at Phuoc Vinh.  With only a few days remaining on my tour of duty, I was wounded in an all-volunteer Medevac rescue operation. For this action Major General George W. Casey, commanding general of the 1st Air Cavalry, personally awarded me a Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross with “V”the following day in the ward of the 25th Surgical Hospital in Saigon. (See picture above.) The good general unfortunately went down with his helicopter a couple of months later and was killed. I felt validated by this recognition and prize the awards because they represent official Army acknowledgement that I had lived up to my side of the bargain.

It is necessary here to mention my comrade, William Clamurro, because Vietnam was very much a shared experience and the story of a wartime friendship that has only gathered meaning with the passage of time. Like me, Bill was a recent college graduate (Amherst) and draftee who had applied for and had been granted CO status by his local draft board. Vietnam began and ended for us together; a most unusual circularity: we met in Basic Training at Ft. Sam Houston and, as luck would have it, he was on duty at the aid station in Phuoc Vinh when I was wounded and was the first to render aid; his initial aid, by the way, a cold beer. We have been fast friends ever since.

I have been approached by several publishers about my Vietnam story. Since our Vietnam experiences were so closely intertwined, I decided I could only attempt it if Bill agreed to collaborate. He has and so we are off to the races.

From the Introduction to our book:

“The American public cannot let the Vietnam War go. It was like a powerful and dangerous rapid in the flow of American history that everybody from our generation was forced to confront. Many opted to beach before the onset of the swift water and seek a safe portage around the dangerous sections; a few scouted out and found a side chute, sneaking through the many features of the rapid with hardly a fright; others deliberately chose the most difficult run and experienced the full fury of a massive head drop. The majority of our generation, however, was simply swept along at the mercy of the current, lurching and tumbling willy-nilly this way or that through the many features of the rapid. Most eventually passed through, bruised, shaken but still of one piece and ready to resume their lives. Not a few got caught in numerous back eddies from which they have never fully escaped. Many thousands, to be sure, did not survive and perished in the swirling hydraulics of the ordeal. Every possible approach provided a unique and personal perspective, and all of these perspectives taken together should describe the experience in its totality. Such a description remains elusive, however, because not every story has been told. We feel that our particular story, our approach to this massive rapid in the stream of American history, which was Vietnam, has yet to be adequately told.

We were by choice conscientious objectors and combat medics, which is to say we chose to pass through a very difficult part of the rapid, not out of some heightened sense of patriotic duty, nor for the thrill of high adventure, but because it appeared the only route open for us that was consistent with our beliefs.

We took a stand and acted in accordance with our consciences, and for this we can be proud. We are also proud to be part of a great tradition, the tradition of the conscientious objector who was willing to don a uniform as long as he did not have to carry a weapon, a tradition that has largely been forgotten in this post-draft era, or, worse yet, deliberately buried, since inconvenient. COs served honorably in all the wars of the twentieth century and perished alongside their comrades by the thousands as front-line combat medics. This was certainly the case in Vietnam where approximately twenty per cent of the medics were COs. We think in retrospect that we were right in our opposition to the war and that history has vindicated our point of view. We recognize, however, that many sincerely believed in our government and thought the cause was noble. Others felt strongly that it was their patriotic duty to serve, even if in a bad cause. It is not our purpose to be righteous or to posture with a “I told you so.” In the Vietnam era everyone had to decide for himself to a degree unmatched in American history, a unique aspect about Vietnam that goes a long way to explaining the war’s extraordinary and continued fascination.

This book presents a series of real-life vignettes that illustrate the different phases of our Vietnam experience, and by extension, that of many hundreds, if not thousands, of fellow COs. These begin with life as a student, the process of growing political awareness and activism, dealing with the draft, basic training at Ft Sam Houston where all 1-A-Os were trained, the beginning of a friendship, being shipped out to Vietnam, first assignments, life in the base camp, life in the field and in the boonies, theCambodia invasion, becoming a seasoned medic, serving in an armored unit, serving in an artillery unit, ending up in the same outfit 15th Med, Medevac, wounded, back to civilian life, a long friendship. Interspersed among these vignettes will be short informative essays like road signs to steer the reader along.