On Memorial Day, while addressing a crowd at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, President Obama criticized the way returning servicemembers from that conflict were treated calling it a “national shame” and vowing not to send troops into harm’s way unless absolutely necessary.
For Vietnam vets in Queens, the memories of combat remain as vivid as ever, even now, nearly 50 years after the war began.
“They would call us baby killers and drug addicts,” recalled Stephen Smith, a resident of Rockaway Beach, who served in the Army from 1967 to 1969. “We were just there to do a job. We didn’t start the war. We didn’t get the respect that people coming home today receive.”
At the age of 23, Smith was drafted and soon found himself in boot camp at Fort Jackson, in North Carolina, where it became clear that things were about to change in his life. For eight weeks he lived in a tent town on the base with his fellow soldiers.
“They stripped you naked, shaved your head and gave you a uniform,” Smith said. “They made us all look the same. They took away our civilian identity.”
While in the thick of the Vietnam War, Smith feared for his life nearly every single day. Although he returned from battle without injury, for which he considers himself very lucky, he was forever changed.
“It makes you grow up,” Smith said. “My mom would say ‘You’re not the same as you were when you left.’ It hardens you. You learn to survive with a lot less.”
Some 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War, compared to 4,000 who were killed in Iraq and nearly 2,000 who have lost their lives so far in Afghanistan.
In 2007, Smith, who wanted to give back to his fellow servicemen and women, founded Vets Helping Vets Inc., a nonprofit organization based in South Ozone Park, aimed at informing veterans of their rights and helping them navigate through the often complicated process of acquiring medical compensation for their battle-related injuries.
For former Marine Pat Toro Jr., the time he spent in the service during the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1970 is too painful to talk about, even decades later. He said he still can’t watch any type of war movie and suffers from “survivor’s guilt.”
“I don’t want to talk about Vietnam,” he said. “I don’t want to remember. I don’t want to try to think about the frame of mind I was in back then.”
Toro, formerly of Forest Hills, now of Narrowsburg, NY, said he doesn’t regret enlisting in the service or the time he spent in the war, and he praised Obama for thanking Vietnam vets for their service during his Memorial Day speech.
“It wasn’t pleasant,” Toro said of his time in Vietnam. “And that was compounded by the way we were received when we came home.”
Toro takes comfort in helping other veterans and said it has helped put an end to the nightmares he suffered in the years after the war. He is the former president of Chapter 32 of the Vietnam Veterans of American based in Glendale, and now sits on the organization’s board of directors.
When Al Cavallo, of Glendale, a former Marine, returned from Vietnam in 1965, he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and had terrible nightmares, reliving his time in the war. He doesn’t like to talk about his military service with anyone except a few close friends and relatives.
“There are a lot of things that the public is better off not knowing,” said Cavallo, who served from 1961 to 1965. “We did of job. A lot of us got killed. It was a dirty place.”
Vietnam was a dangerous place, but Steve Epps of St. Albans made it out in one piece. He served in the Air Force from 1962 to 1971, reaching the rank of staff sergeant. Epps now helps other vets as the community service officer at the Proctor-Hopson VFW Post in Jamaica.
He said he is not surprised that many servicemembers don’t like talking about their experiences in Vietnam, having himself seen fellow soldiers blown to pieces by enemy fire.
“It brings horrific scenes to mind,” he said. “There were periods of boredom combined with moments of sheer panic and hell.”