When I reflect on my service in Vietnam in 1968, I see myself as a 20-year-old medic in the Air Force who had no thoughts of ever being recognized as a “veteran.” A veteran in my mind, way back then, was someone who served in WWII or Korea.
I enlisted into the U.S. Air Force on Nov. 8, 1965. Fresh out of high school, I had seen the rumblings of the war intensifying in Vietnam. But when you are young and believe in invincibility, you can easily cast aside the seriousness of events.
After my initial assignment to Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, N.Y., I volunteered for assignment to Vietnam in 1968 and was sent to Tan Son Nhut Air Base on the outskirts of Saigon. Assigned to the emergency room, we worked six days a week, 15 hours a day. I believe that was intentionally designed to keep us young guys out of trouble.
I was exposed to the horrific end-game inflicted by war. Not in combat, but seeing the combat-related casualties churned out by that efficient grinder of men. The Army mortuary was next door to our clinic and the smell of “crispy critters” (burned bodies) and “floaters” (rice paddy casualties) was constant.
As a Vietnam veteran, I was a ghost. Like most returning vets from the war, we kept a very low profile. A lot of my brothers were spat upon in the airports and bus terminals across America. Vets were vilified as “baby-killers” and worse. If anyone bothered to ask, I told them I was in the military for four years and left it at that.
I’m proud of my contributions during that period, but it forged a personal hatred for war, for the wasted lives and cost to our nation. “In the national interest” is an excuse that’s used too many times to justify and rationalize the killing machine.
Flash forward to recent years, certainly since the Iraq invasion. Society’s acceptance of vets, particularly those men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, is radically different from 1969 and most appropriate.
The American public finally got it right: Separate the war and politics from the soldiers. We now honor these men and women for their unselfish service, giving back to them what wasn’t done in the 1960s. It’s a most welcome departure — from baby-killer to hero. Witness the events around the country that honor veterans with unabashed enthusiasm.
And it’s not just those soldiers returning from war. Every single man and woman who served in the military and was honorably discharged is a vet, regardless of where and how they served, and whether they were in a war zone or not. They took time out of their lives to serve our country and deserve our respect and gratitude.
I served a total of 35 years in the Air Force, stationed at a number of bases, had the opportunity to be assigned to the Pentagon for over four years and retired as a Chief Master Sergeant (E-9). I’m now retired and support veterans organizations with membership in the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
On Veterans Day, I think about my dad, Douglas Powell, who served during the entire period of WWII in the engine rooms of U.S. Navy destroyers. He was a Pearl Harbor survivor. And my Uncle Jim Enright, who enlisted in WWII while in his 40s and served in the Army Combat Engineering field.
If you meet someone who is a vet, thank them for their service. If I spot a person with a ball-cap that has a military insignia, especially those elderly WWII folks, I personally stop and thank them. And feel free to do this any time of the year, not just on Veterans Day.