As I spoke with Willard and Cathy Mears about their life as young acquaintances, and a married couple, they spoke of Willard’s service in Vietnam, a war that eventually divided the nation.
I tried to imagine how he looked as a 20-something in his combat gear, scrambling through the jungles of Southeast Asia, trying to stay alive. He did survive, but he suffered serious after-effects later, as many combat survivors have.
The first mention of Vietnam for me was in the 1950s. I had no understanding of it when we started to get involved in 1954. I was 9.
I knew it was out there, but I knew more about the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
When I graduated from Granger High in 1963, Vietnam started to come into focus. At any time, Uncle Sam could have conscripted me and sent me there.
I was a terribly undisciplined student my first shot at college in 1963-64 at Central Washington University. I dropped out, and early in 1965, I was ordered to take an induction physical. I knew what that meant.
I was never part of the anti-war forces in this country. I was not going to run to Canada. If Uncle Sam would order me to Vietnam, then that’s what I would do.
But I went to Yakima’s military recruitment center to check out my options with the Marines, Army, Navy and Air Force. I was told by all the recruiters that once I was in either branch, Uncle Sam owned me. No matter my job, I could be ordered to fight.
The best deal I found was with the Air Force. I passed an audition at McChord AFB near Tacoma in 1965 and became part of the USAF Band of the Pacific Northwest until January of 1969, when I was discharged.
Sometime later, I started to receive correspondence — junk mail mostly — referring to me as a Vietnam vet. I was a Vietnam era vet but not a Vietnam vet. I left that designation for guys like Willard Mears, who put everything on the line.
One of those was a brother of one of my best friends, Norman Cochran of Norman, Okla., who sat beside me at concerts playing tuba while I played baritone.
Like Willard, Norman’s brother Glen was not hit by enemy fire, but he was an emotional wreck when he returned.
Glen is still among the living, Norm told me recently, but he’s had mental challenges ever since. He’s wheelchair-bound, “in terrible shape now,” Norm said.
My brother-in-law Richard “Butch” Butler served. Like Willard, he was at the DMZ, the most dangerous place on earth at that time. One of his duties was to jump out of helicopters and clear landing zones for medevac operations.
His sister Pat, my wife, remembers Butch sending recorded letters to their mother saying things were just fine in Vietnam. He came back safe and sound.
My brother Richard, also nick-named Butch, was in Vietnam in the 1967 time frame. He had what most guys in the Army called soft duty, handling mail at a base near Cam Ranh Bay.
“It was pretty safe,” Rich said. “Except when we went out in the field to deliver mail. We ran into ambushes sometimes. The drivers of the trucks (deuce-and-a-half) would step on it, and I would grab a machine gun on the corner of the tank (truck bed), duck below the steel wall and spray bullets in every direction (except front and back), until we were clear.”
Wherever Rich was, I was always confident he would survive. He was hard-headed. Brother Bob proved it one day when he hit Rich in the head with a rock. It split in two, and Rich just laughed.
Richard did come back. He owns a medical supply company and has learned a lot from doctors. I often call him first, before my doctor, when I’m experiencing something new.
These stories all had happy endings, even Glen’s.
But there were a lot of sad endings. The worst was when the boys came home to experience physical abuse at the hands of anti-war protestors. To this day, I have no use for protest marchers.
On the other hand, I understood where they were coming from. I actually defended them during a conversation with my sister and brother-in-law in Florida. They disliked the protestors more than I did.
What were they thinking, Fran wanted to know. I didn’t know, but I asked her to consider Vietnam from another viewpoint. Her 12-year-old son was only six years from being eligible to fight in the never-ending war.
She said: “Oh, I never thought of it that way.”
Thank God for her and the rest of us, Vietnam ended two years later.