The Vietnam veteran who taught me what serving in the US military really means

As Pete ran back to the hotel away from the fireworks on Independence Day, a man with miniature American flags sticking out of his hat yelled, 'Hey jerk, what the hell's your problem?'

Ed Manning
New York
Monday 11 November 2019 17:42
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Donald Trump speaks at the Veterans Day Parade

“I was in Vietnam,” was what he said.

“I was a vitamin,” is what I heard.

You need to speak loudly on a 39-foot sailboat reaching downwind in a heavy sea. And Pete, who rarely spoke, had shouted. Though he looked older, he was only in his mid-thirties, wiry and deceptively strong. His words shattered the blustery cadence of our midnight watch with such suddenness that I nearly jumped into the roiling Pacific.

“WHAT?” I said.

“I WAS A VIT-A-MIN FOR TWO YEARS.”

“OK?!” I shouted back, clueless.

On June 15, 1980, forty boats began their crossing from San Francisco to Kauai. It was my 22nd birthday and the day of my college graduation. I was literally setting sail on the uncharted waters of my post-college life with seven crew members living in a space about the size of a minivan. Pete and I were watch partners.

On our night watch, I took Pete’s silence as an invitation to talk. I recounted the rigors of college life, my “nightmares” of term papers and sleepless nights preparing for finals. I mused about a comatose friend who had been tragically hit in the head with a strawberry milkshake heaved from a passing car. I talked politics, family, religion, and a love lost. I hung on my every word. As Pete told me later, he spent our first nights together torn between tossing me overboard or jumping in himself.

“I was in Vietnam.” On the fourth night, he started talking.

He detailed his multiple tours there, the first starting when he was 19. At the age I had been choosing a major, dating, and pondering Shakespeare, Pete was a radio operator in a platoon running patrols in Vietnam.

He spoke in an unhurried monotone, clearer each night as the weather calmed. His nightmares were harrowingly different than mine. With emotions only apparent in his long pauses, he painted a collage of horrors. He spoke of the brutal suddenness of friends shot. Of hiding under corpses. Of our Long-Range Reconnaissance Patrols he witnessed dragging Vietcong bodies behind jeeps. Of oppressive heat, rain, and sickness. Of screams. Of body bags. Of lifeless, limbless men, women and children.

I heard the words and intellectually registered his pain. But we were sailing, bonding, sipping coffee, and racing toward Kauai. The horror was nautical miles and many years removed. Listening to him was akin to reading about the brutal cold of Everest from the confines of an overstuffed chair by a roaring fire.

After three nights reliving ambushes, corpses, and firefights, we and the fleet were becalmed. At night, the Pacific was so still and the stars so bright, it was impossible to tell where the ocean ended, and the night sky began. In that calm, and as the night watch changed, we heard a “MAYDAY!” It crackled over the radio drawing all of us, shirtless and sweaty around the dim amber night lights of the navigation table. We huddled by the radio listening to the drama unfold. Another boat’s captain was having a psychotic break. A frightened voice faded in and out over the static, reporting how the skipper had wielded a knife, attacked the crew, and then leapt overboard.

We listened as the transmissions with the Coast Guard devolved to clicks from a handset. Two for “no” and one for “yes,” the final click acknowledging a safe recovery. And then everything fell silent. Those of us not on watch turned in for the night. Just before 4am, I stepped forward to the V-Berth and gently shook Pete’s shoulder to wake him for our watch.

He screamed. Not a short “hey, you startled me” scream. He screamed in long, blood-curdling blasts. He kicked me backwards, and with eyes wide, he slammed his way far into the nose of the boat. He bellowed with such loud terror that I sat on the floor with my hands pressed against my ears. Then he began slamming his fists against the inside of the hull, each punch accentuated with a scream. It took three of us to get him to stop the pounding, his yells clashing with the shouts from the skipper to wake up. When he finally did, he curled into a fetal position, trembling, sobbing, knuckles bleeding. He didn’t move again for hours.

Shaken, I scurried to the cockpit. Three of us sat there silently, the boat drifting imperceptibly on the current.

“He was in Vietnam,” someone whispered. “He wakes up there sometimes. His wife said he sleeps with a loaded pistol under his pillow.”

I sat shivering in the heat. I had mercifully run out of words.

It took us just over two weeks to complete the crossing and anchor in Nawiliwili Harbor. In the twilight on July 4th, Pete and I walked through thick tropical foliage along a dimly lit path leading to a highly acclaimed pig roast on the beach. The trail was illuminated by the torches and bonfire flickering up from the shore. Firecrackers and bottle rockets exploded in loud bursts from the bay. Revelers shouted. Pete stopped. He crouched, staring at the path in front of us.

“Hey,” he said. “This isn’t for me.”

He stood, patted my shoulder and bolted for the hotel. In his haste, he inadvertently collided with a trio of partygoers that had appeared behind us. One guy lost his balance and fell, his beer spilling over his undersized tank top. He wore a cap with miniature American flags sticking out the sides. Holding the remnants of his drink upright, he shouted, “Hey jerk, what the hell is your problem?”

I bristled, intent to tell Pete’s story and explain those terrifying seconds when I had come as close to Vietnam as anyone should ever get. How after over a decade, part of Pete was still fighting to finish the passage home. How so many of us use the term “veteran” too casually or even carelessly. I got as far as repeating “hey” twice before the guy was up and staggering toward the beach in his fog of booze.

As he and his pals neared a bend in the path, I shouted, “He was in Vietnam,” hoping they didn’t hear “vitamin” and that the words might somehow resonate before they were swallowed up in the night’s festivities.

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