Very little separates the different generations of American GIs

In August of this year I retired from the Army of the United States, just short of 41 years after first enlisting in September 1966. Back then there were more World War II and Korean War veterans in the Army than there were Vietnam veterans. On the day I retired, only a small handful of Vietnam veterans were still in uniform, and I was one of the very last of those in U.S. Army, Europe.

In early June I went to Landstuhl Regional Army Medical Center for my final evaluation from the Veterans Administration doctors. I’m still in pretty good shape for 60— I passed my last Army PT test in February—but all those years of humping rucksacks, sleeping on the ground and bumping around in armored vehicles have taken their toll. On top of that, the many years I spent on artillery gun lines have left me just about deaf, and the malaria I picked up in the Mekong Delta still comes back to haunt me. Nonetheless, I’m still luckier than most three guys combined deserve to be.

I took the advantage of being in Landstuhl to visit the wounded. I’ve done that many times in the past couple years, and it always leaves me humbled. More than once I’ve walked into the hospital room of some GI who is all shot-up, only to see him try to get on his feet and stand at attention just because some old fat guy with a couple stars on his collar happened to walk in. Every time that happens I can barely maintain my composure.

That particular visit was one of the worst. It seemed that this time there were more seriously busted-up soldiers and Marines than usual, although it looked as if they were all going to make it. (Those magnificent heroes at Landstuhl almost never lose anybody.) Later that day with the VA doctors, all I could feel was an overwhelming sense of guilt because I was filing a claim for some aches and pains and a bit of lost hearing.

My last official mission for the Army was in July, when, along with a full honors team, I accompanied the body of a GI killed in Iraq to the Ivory Coast for burial. He was an American citizen when he died, but his family wanted him buried in the land of his birth. He was a son of the Ivory Coast, but he was also our brother and an American hero, and we brought him home. It was a sad duty, but I can’t think of a more honorable thing to have done to end my military career.

Many comparisons have been made between the various generations of Americans: the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers and Generations X and Y. For the broader population as a whole, there are big differences, and I won’t even attempt to address those. The differences among the American soldiers produced by those generations are almost negligible. I’ve had the great privilege of spending a lot of time in uniform with all three groups. Today’s generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines is better educated and better trained than those of the Vietnam Generation, just as we were better educated and trained than the GIs of World War II. But at their very cores, all three of those generations still possess the heart and the steel of the American GI.

The one big difference in our respective histories is the way that the Vietnam Generation was treated by our fellow citizens. When the American people turned against the Vietnam War, an all-too large percentage of them also turned against those of us who were sent to fight it. It remains to this day one of the ugliest stains on the pages of American history. Fortunately, that isn’t happening today. Although public support for the war in Iraq is in a state of free-fall, we haven’t turned on our own soldiers—so far. Those of us who endured that 30 years ago and more have a special obligation to make sure that our sons and daughters and even our grandchildren in uniform today never have a similar experience. We owe it to them, but even more, we owe it to ourselves.

 

Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here