When we collect oral histories, we do future generations a favor. Recordings of those who lived through a major event can help us understand how life was during an earlier, different era. On this episode of KBIA's Thinking Out Loud, we hear from a pair of veterans who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War era.
Westminster College associate professor of history Mark Boulton gathers oral histories from U.S. veterans who served during the Vietnam War era. Through these stories, Boulton better understands the issues in play during an earlier era in America. He is interested especially in how the veterans of the Vietnam era were treated upon their return.
"I keep coming back to the Vietnam era because it is just endlessly fascinating to me in terms of the personal stories and the issues that were raised," said Boulton.
Terry Neason was one of those veterans who was, according to Mark Boulton "asked to do absolutely extraordinary things. They [Veterans such as Neason] have been through training, which completely strips them away from civilian life. They are asked to do the most awesome and awful things. For us on the outside looking in, to try and understand what they went through - talking to them and getting their experiences down is essential."
Neason was drafted after he completed a Masters Degree in English at the University of Missouri. He served largely in South Korea near the Demilitarized Zone during his 1971 service.
There was one little box on the back of one of the forms that said 'Is there any reason that think you should not be inducted into the military?' and I just said "I do not know if I could actually kill somebody even if my life or my buddies' life depended on it." That got me an interview with a shrink. I just explained my position. I don't know if that kept me out of Vietnam or not. I've often wondered that. That little burst of honesty kept me out of Vietnam.
Neason talked about how his service in South Korea during Vietnam left him with survivor's guilt. "I got orders for Korea. Not good duty. Not easy duty. easy duty was to stay stateside or go to Germany. My little comment during my induction got me dirty duty. According to the scuttlebutt, Korea was full of screw ups, people who were being punished for whatever or out of favor... My experience really screwed me up. It changed my entire lifestyle. It changed my notions about my country, about war, about everything and I don't regret one moment of it."
Columbia veteran John Betz also talked with Westminster College's Mark Boulton about his 1967 service in Vietnam. Betz served as an infantryman in Vietnam. Betz saw conflict in that role. Lots of conflict.
Mark Boulton: So you job is just to try and locate the enemy then, try and draw them out then?
John Betz: Yeah, it takes a while to figure out what was really going on with the infantrymen. Duh. They walk and somebody shoots them. And then they call in air strikes, jets, all the rest of it. They were using you pretty much as the guinea pig to draw the fire.
After his service, Betz returned to Columbia. He processed the events he saw in Vietnam. Eventually, Betz found veterans and others who questioned the morality of the Vietnam War. Talk with Vietnam veteran John Betz today and he is clear about what his service meant:
Some of my friends that I was in the Second Platoon with in Vietnam are, like, "Man, we served our country when we were called and other people ran."
Hey, those people have the right to think anything they want. I don't agree with them, but I really have a thing about people who weren't, like, my friends in the Second Platoon preaching to me about the morality of "Well, we had to do it." No, no, no, no. You obviously have not read a single history book. That's what I can do as a veteran. If it's the right time and the right place, I talk to the other person: Do not thank me for my service. I ain't proud of it at all.
Listen to new episodes of Thinking Out Loud each Tuesday evening at 6:30 on 91.3FM KBIA.