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Pat Wilson: “They treat the veterans so much better nowadays… back then, they gave me an honorable discharge and I got $12 in gasoline money to get home.”

Pat Wilson speaks with KBIA's Rebecca Smith at Daniel Boone Regional Library on February 19th. He is wearing a gray zip up hoodie and a Marines ball cap.
Becca Newton

Pat Wilson is 76 and has lived the majority of his life in mid-Missouri – born in Moberly, grew up in Columbia, and now that he's retired, he and his wife bought some land and built a house out in Fulton.

Pat spoke with the Missouri on Mic team at the Daniel Boone Regional Library in February about his time as a soldier during the Vietnam War, and how things have changes for veterans today.

Missouri on Mic is an oral history and journalism project documenting stories from around the state in its 200th year.

Pat Wilson: I graduated from Hickman, and I was at the wrong place, at the wrong time. So, Vietnam got me. I went into four years in the Marine Corps, and so, that was before the lottery, but I had, of course – you had to sign up for the draft when you turned 18.

So, I knew. I had already gotten my letter, pre-draft letter, yada, yada… So, I just joined the Marine Corps, and they were going to get me anyway, so…

I was lucky. I was in the infantry for a very short time and saw the writing on the wall. So, I went to school and ended up a mechanic on an airplane – patching bullet holes and flew as a mechanic, and we flew all around little dirt airfields and hauled people around.

And it was a lot better than the alternative in the bush, in the jungle. Comparatively speaking – I had it made.

I was in a transport squad. The Marine Corps – we had one transport squad in Da Nang, the base in Vietnam, and we'd fly out of there all the supplies and the troops surrounding the dirt airfields and [then] haul wounded back.

And so, I don't want to get to be a flag waiver and all that, but I wonder if kids – I was 19 then – I don't think they understand that you didn't have a choice then.

Well, you had a choice, I guess? If you want to go to Canada or something, but you know, you signed up for the selective service and you went. There was no – it wasn't an all-volunteer force.

And it was just, it's hard… So, a younger person asked me nowadays and they don't understand that at all.

You know, you hear the stories about servicemen sitting in airports – getting spit on and called “baby killer” – it didn't happen to me.

I can say when I got, flew back from Okinawa – that was a big staging area for the Marine Corps. You flew into Okinawa, then were processed, and went on to Vietnam – and same way coming back.

So, we flew into LAX – La International. I was waiting for my flight to get back to Kansas City and into Columbia. I was in my uniform, and nobody said anything, but I could see the looks in their eyes as they’d walk by.

And folks – not everybody, but some people gave me that look, but nobody called me names, spit on me or anything like that. But I'm not saying it didn't happen.

When I came home, I flew Ozark Airlines then was flying into Columbia, and you probably don't know where the airport is, but it was out of where Cosmo Park is. That was the airport then.

So, I flew into there – in an old propeller driven plane, and I had one person there to meet me. There was no bands and flags waving and parades, but I can say they treat the veterans so much better nowadays when they get out. So much better.

I retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs, so I know a little bit what I'm talking about.

But back then they gave me an honorable discharge and I got $12 in gasoline money to get home from where I was, but now they have classes before ya get out – the VA gives you classes on what your benefits are, how to apply for benefits, what you're eligible for.

There was nothing like that, unfortunately.

Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.
Becca Newton is a student reporter and producer at KBIA. They will graduate from the University of Missouri in spring 2022 with a degree in Multimedia Convergence Journalism and minors in Peace Studies and History.