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Collateral Damage

By Wendell Affield
6/7/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

A wounded vet’s odyssey home began four decades ago on an egg-splattered bus.

I was wounded on August 18, 1968, in an ambush while at the helm of an armored troop carrier heading north on Hai Muoi Tam Canal in the Mekong Delta. With a platoon from the 9th Infantry Division aboard, our Mobile Riverine Force boat was mid-column when hit with automatic weapons fire and seven rockets. One of the three rockets that struck the cox’n flat penetrated the 1-inch armor, wounding the navy radioman and myself. I was sprayed with shrapnel, my ears were damaged, and my eyes severely burned.

My long and surreal journey home began immediately, on a medevac chopper lifting off from a helo-decked troop carrier. In a sense, it wasn’t completed until nearly 40 years later.

I spent the first night on board USS Colleton, where I was cleaned up and stabilized. The next two days I was at Army 3rd Surgical Hospital in Saigon, and on August 22, I was transferred to 106th General Army Hospital in Yokohama, Japan. Finally, on the 28th, I boarded a C-141 StarLifter for the long flight back to the United States. The front of the cargo hold was filled with the walking wounded, like myself, and in the center were men in stretchers; the back third of the aircraft was packed with coffins.

During the long hours of the flight, sitting backwards facing the severely wounded and the dead, I drifted in and out of sleep. Dreams came and went—nightmares of lost limbs, blindness, bodies burned beyond recognition, yet living. Awake, I wondered why I wasn’t among those amputees and heavily swathed heads, or trussed on a pallet at the rear of the plane. Guilt consumed me—being sent home rather than returned to my boat. I knew I was incredibly lucky. During the ambush, when our port .50-caliber machine gunner abandoned his mount, an Army sergeant heroically came up from the well deck and manned it. Moments later a rocket burned through the turret armor and shredded his chest, blowing him into the cox’n flat where he lay on his back screaming, clawing at my legs as I struggled to stay on my feet at the helm. That image of shattered humanity had been seared into my mind. Now, metaphorically—and in reality—we were on a flight from death to life. I struggled with this concept too huge to grasp; any sense of future was dead.

In twilight we landed in Fairbanks, Alaska, where casualties and coffins destined for the west coast were off-loaded. We then proceeded to Scott Air Force Base, Ill., again lightening the load. Later that day, August 29, we landed at the Glenview Naval Air Station (GNAS) near Chicago. We debarked the aircraft and boarded gray Navy buses for the short trip north to Great Lakes Naval Hospital.

The moment the buses were beyond the base security, however, something unexpected happened. The bus slowed and a ripple of noise washed over us. Antiwar protesters blocked the street, in front and behind the bus. We couldn’t move—we were surrounded by a mob. They screamed and waved signs and threw eggs, rotten fruit, tomatoes and bricks. As they gained courage, they began hitting the bus windows with clubs, fists and protest signs, yelling obscenities and lies. Confused by this bizarre, frightening incident, I felt something die in me that day, and wondered whether I would ever be able to forgive or trust my fellow citizens again.

For the next 30 years I buried that life—that experience. But, after retiring in May 2001, I realized I must tell my Vietnam stories before I too was gone. I began taking writing classes at a local university. Soon, as essays accumulated, my professor encouraged me to develop them into a memoir, which I did.

I met Steve Almond, author and professor, in 2007 at a writers conference in Minnesota, where he taught a creative nonfiction workshop. Almond’s radical reputation preceded him. In May 2006, he very publicly quit his teaching position at Boston College in an open letter to the school’s president, published in the Boston Globe, protesting the school’s selection of Condoleezza Rice as its commencement guest speaker. He then appeared on Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes show, to defend his position.

When Almond critiqued an excerpt from my unpublished memoir, in which I told the story of my return home from Vietnam, I was startled at the sincerity of his naïveté:

…I don’t really believe that a group of antiwar protesters are going to storm a bus full of wounded veterans and do them physical harm. I believe that it might have felt that way for you, in that moment. I believe that you felt abused by them. But I can’t quite buy that they intended to perpetrate violence.

In fact, the violence that’s been done to the veterans, it seems to me, is what they’ve had to do and see over in Vietnam, the beloved comrades they lost in the war, those soul-crushing moments in which they lost their innocence. Is that anyone’s fault? It seems to me that this is the fault of those politicians who sent young boys over to that country, not the civilians who wanted to end the war. After all, if the protesters had their way, the war would end, and there wouldn’t be any more dead soldiers.

I’m not trying to render a political judgment on the war here, but a moral one. Even those soldiers who believed in the mission of Vietnam, who wanted “peace with honor,” cannot have wanted more soldiers to die, though they clearly wanted the cause for which they suffered to feel “honorable.” Of course they did.

My point is that these final pages [of the memoir] are so sad and truthful and right—except when I feel you trying to make the antiwar protesters the villains. There is no doubt that Vietnam vets were victimized. But it wasn’t entirely, or even most centrally, by those who opposed the war, but by those who planned and executed it, who placed loyal young Americans in an unbearable situation.

I knew Almond was wrong about antiwar protesters being nonviolent, but I was troubled by the sincerity of his belief. In his critique, he had written with authority about events that transpired before he was born. I figured he had been taught this airbrushed truth by revisionist historians—and now was in the position to teach it to younger generations. Like bile, that bitter taste of betrayal again rose in my throat. What I had written about was, as the World War I poet Wilfred Owen called it, “the pity of war,” not the grand schemes and political intrigue Almond brought into his observations. How could a man with his depth of knowledge be so poorly informed?

In seeking to answer that question, I realized I needed to reexamine what exactly did happen that day on the bus four decades earlier that still haunted me. So I decided to return to the scene. I had replayed the day countless times. If one does the math, and the reels spin only once a day, that’s thousands of replays. And each time I see a long-haired young man, or listen to a middle-aged man explain about an old football injury, or how close he came in the draft lottery (of course, he would have happily served), or see a bus pass by—or a thousand other little triggers like fruit or tomatoes or eggs, or the stones my granddaughter tosses in our pond—the reel again begins to roll.

On August 22, 2007, I took off from Minnesota and drove south on Interstate 94 toward Chicago, the same route I had traveled north on 39 years earlier—almost to the day. I drove through North Chicago, past Buckley Road, beneath its pitted steel girders with the sign pointing toward Great Lakes Naval Center. I vividly recalled the first time I’d seen that sign—a bandaged, confused kid on an egg-splattered gray bus.

In Glenview, I went to the public library, and several volunteers helped me find microfiche of August 1968 Glenview Announcements newspapers. It didn’t take long before I discovered the real reason for the events of that long-ago day.

On page 4A of the August 29, 1968, edition, was a photo of stacked rifles with troops in the background. The caption read: “Security measures for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago were evident at the Glenview Naval Air Station, where Army troops from Ft. Sill, Okla.; Ft. Hood, Tex.; and Ft. Carson, Col.; are encamped. The troops, which were to be employed only if requested to aid the Illinois National Guard and Chicago police, began arriving at Glenview and O’Hare and are bivouacked at the Naval Air Station and Great Lakes Training Center.”

Hollowness filled my chest when I realized the truth of what happened that day—that we, wounded soldiers returning from Vietnam, were not the protesters’ real target. For almost 40 years, while my mind was locked on the images of the bus assault, I never thought past what I saw as betrayal radiating from those hate-filled faces. On Wednesday, August 28, 1968, the day I was flying back to the United States, a violent confrontation occurred between protesters and Chicago police. As chaos was engulfing the convention, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley reacted with force against antiwar protesters. It appeared that the protest organizers had made a preemptive move. Expecting an escalation of violence on August 29, they positioned their “troops” to block Mayor Daley’s reinforcements bivouacked at GNAS.

I now believe that on the day our plane landed at GNAS, the protesters who had massed outside the gates could not have known we were wounded and being transported north to a hospital. They assumed we were the bivouacked Army troops, being sent south, into Chicago, to reinforce the National Guard and Chicago police. The protesters were no doubt intent on stopping troops being transported off the base. In the passion of confrontation, in their collective rage, they were striking not at us, but at the faceless establishment they were rebelling against. Unwittingly, Steve Almond had made an astute observation when he stated that the [U.S. government had]…placed loyal young Americans in an unbearable situation.

From the library, I went to the Glenview Area Historical Society, where Beverly Roberts Dawson, past president and librarian, greeted me. Dawson wrote and compiled Images of America, Glenview Naval Air Station, a pictorial narrative documenting the history of the base. We had spoken on the telephone a few weeks prior to my visit, and in her research she had come to the same conclusion about why our bus was attacked. She gave me copies of a Chicago Tribune article detailing the arrival of thousands of Army troops at GNAS, but nothing about the assault on our bus. In retrospect, that relatively brief and insignificant confrontation did not warrant media attention; the world’s eyes were on events unfolding in the streets of downtown Chicago.

At Dawson’s invitation, several Glenview dignitaries stopped by to welcome me. She introduced me as the society’s special guest that day and presented me a signed copy of her book. Lloyd Kuehn, a retired Marine pictured in Dawson’s book, signed his photo. The caption reads: “Wendell, Semper Fi. Welcome back to the real Glenview.” We spent the afternoon reminiscing, recalling the Vietnam era, melancholy in the air. Just as I was leaving, a woman arrived. By a strange roll of fortune, she had been a 2nd grade teacher in Glenview in August 1968 and well remembered the protesters outside the gates of GNAS that day.

During the drive home, I reflected on what I had discovered. I was still struck that I’d never connected the Democratic National Convention demonstrations to the assault on our bus. I recalled those first days at Great Lakes Naval Hospital and how everything blurred—clean sheets, pain, no more fear, guilt about coming home. There was a disconnect, and as weeks became months, the events of that day outside GNAS cocooned beneath scar tissue until Steve Almond’s comments led me to seek some answers.

Today, when I discuss the past with professors, many of whom were student protesters during the Vietnam era, I find that some still carry anger but many realize that it was wrong to have reviled the young men and women in uniform. While we were not the intended targets of the protesters that day, they did assault us nevertheless, and that memory will remain, always. But now, the bitterness is gone, replaced by sadness—for all the lives lost and damaged in the maelstrom of war.

 

Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

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