The War

On Sat, Nov 21, 2009 at 11:15 PM, <connelly@sfsu.edu> wrote:

Hi Dad,

here are my questions. if you think they’re not the right ones feel free to pose your own. thanks for your help.

s

You were not drafted into the military but joined the Navy in 1965 (? after the 1st Marine Division landed in Danang?). What motivated you to do so? Did those motives dovetail with the official explanations for US involvement in Southeast Asia?

I was sworn into the Navy, 09 FEB 68, in Jacksonville, FL.  I joined the Navy for one tour only.  I wanted to go to Viet Nam because I felt my ecclesiastical deferral wasn’t just.  At night, I’d watch young men dying in Viet Nam and it seemed so unreal, but I knew that it was real.  I felt others were going in my place and that I needed to do what I could to support them.  I wanted to do my part and come home.

I experienced the typical xenophobic paranoia that most people my age felt toward the ‘communists.’  My images of Viet Nam were based on the media and though I knew of the United States foolish decision not to support Ho Chi Min during the early 1940s, I passed it off as just another ‘Ugly American’ episode.  My motives were vague.  War was part of the human condition.  The domino theory made sense to me.  I understood the war in Viet Nam to be principally an issue over natural resources and that we were attempting to deny the Chinese communists access to needed resources.

What is your strongest single memory of being in Vietnam? Can you think of an experience that might act as a kind of summation of the time you spent there?

I was working medevac on the USS Okinawa (LPH-3).  A group of Marines and a Corpsman had been brought aboard following a firefight. Several of the Marines and the Corpsman were going through triage on the hanger deck.  The Combat Cargo Officer came to the hanger deck where I was working in triage and asked me to come out onto one of the flight elevators.  I followed him out to the elevator to where a dead Marine lay.  Just him, the CCO and me:  I knelt and lifted the Marine up into a hug; blest and kissed his bloody forehead.  I cried, thinking how his mom would soon be told about her dead son.  And I thought about the time between my holding him in my arms and when she’d receive official notification of his death.  And I hurt for her.  I hurt so badly for her.

Did your experience in Vietnam change you? Did the war change the United States?

Yeah.  No one really came home, at least I didn’t.  The experience altered me.  I’m no exception, nor is Viet Nam.  Being around trauma, being afraid of pain and maybe death doesn’t have to happen in combat in order to cause persons to change.  You can change due to an event on the interstate highway system, like a smash up.  But being in the areas of combat and fear for substantial periods of time produced changes in my thinking and in my attitude.  I think what caused me the most ache is my loss of innocence.  I failed to be analytical enough.  I didn’t see the falsehoods, the preconceptions (including my own) that prompted our government to engage in such folly.  I tend to be doubtful about almost anything I’m told.  Truth seems to have a mushy quality to it.  As the years have passed I’ve come to believe that life is filled with suffering and that my only reason for being is to help lessen that suffering as best I am able.  Along the way there is beauty and kindness in which to delight.

Viet Nam has not changed the United States, appreciably.  War is part of human activity.  I’m not sure we can ever rid ourselves of war, we merely find differing ways of conducting it.  The present wars being conducted by the United States Government are similar in nature to the ones of the past, including Viet Nam.  I would like to see the wars lessened, but and I think that can only come about by the ‘aggressiveness’ shown by people such as Mohandas Gandhi.  Surgical strikes still result in surgical procedures.

Above: Bert Connelly has crossed the equator.

4 thoughts on “The War

  1. irregardless

    Please pass my thanks on to your father, this was a great read and extremely honest.

    I watched the attack on September 11 during my Junior year of high school; I remember the day very clearly and I remember my senses telling me that some very serious shit will to be going down in response.
    That next summer I spent with the local Marine recruit station because I shared much of the same feelings as Mr. Connelly spoke of: knowing that something is real but so unreal at the same time. Although, this time around the word was terrorism rather than communism. And yes, I definitely feared the idea of terrorism. I had the same sense of duty as noted above.

    I remember the recruiter, his name is Staff Sargeant Lowery, reassuring me that this was NOT the next “Vietnam”. He cited some quotes from the President that explained how this strike would be over within months. In the end, much to the relief of my parents, I decided that enlisting was not the right decision for me, but I often wonder what my answers to Sean’s questions would have been had I joined up. Or if I’d have been the dead Marine that caused so much grief to those who didn’t even know me.

    1. apciv Post author

      I grew up around marines and sailors: Camp Lejeune, Millington NAS, the Naval Academy, etc. And I almost enlisted as well. Got as far as the MEP station in Jacksonville before I decided that I probably wasn’t suited to it.

      Anyway I really think you can do more good here than there. In my view none of this had to happen. But that’s a long conversation.

  2. Deuce

    Thanks for sharing this. I know a couple of friends serving overseas and it is always interesting to hear about the reasons people joined and also their experiences during their service. I have spoken to a couple Vietnam War veterans and they all said they were scared that each day was their last and that their friends and families were back home waiting for them to return would never see them again, but they knew that it was their job to do something. They also said it changed their families because having someone dear to them serve in the military affected their lives directly and I feel the same way about my friends.

    I wish I was able to or even had the guts to join up, but I don’t think that could ever be possible, which is why I have so much respect for all the military men and women out there. They are putting their lives on the line and also enduring so much trauma as they see their fellow soldiers fall or get injured beyond repair. Even though I know I can’t help directly, I definitely feel a calling or “something must be done” feeling.

    1. apciv Post author

      I know what you mean. I’m pulled in two directions. Raised in a military family but convinced that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the wrong decision. Terrorism is a crime. Wars– real wars– are fought between nations. There’s no way to win against an abstract noun. The key for me is to distinguish between ordinary people and government policies.

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