War, From the Outside Looking In


Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan – War As Usual


by Michael Chester

This is my first article for this publication, and I thought that I would start with a brief introduction of myself. I have been asked to write from a sort of “every man” point of view.

That is if every man were over 60, retired, and extremely frustrated with the direction I see the world heading in. I have been asked to write about what interests me and what I believe would interest others.

In the future, I plan to write about some lighter subjects, but today I thought that I would start out by dealing with an issue that should be important to all Americans, particularly veterans. I am now close to 62 years old, so that means that I was of draft age during the height of the Viet Nam War. When I graduated from high school, I went on to college, not to avoid the draft, but to get skills to hopefully get a good job.

I always figured I would serve after college and as I approached graduation, I began to look into the various branches of the military with the intent of enlisting. I had pretty much decided on my choice, when I was called for my draft physical. I ended up not passing the physical due to the fact that at that time, I was legally blind without my glasses.

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In recent years, I have benefited from modern eye surgery and could now pass the eye test, but they don’t want recruits over 60 with round being the only shape they are in. I had several friends that did go to Viet Nam, a couple came back in body bags, and the rest alive, but no one was remotely the same. Even one friend who worked well behind the front lines repairing electronics, had a near death experience. He left the shop to get a cup of coffee and while he was gone, it was hit by a rocket and destroyed.

The ones who served on the front lines, of course, had it much worse. Some PTSD stories sound almost clichéd, but I have personally seen friends leave where we were physically and have their minds return to Viet Nam.

I will give one example, though I have seen several. I was out fishing with a friend in his boat and while putting the boat on the trailer, the winch hook fell and hit his hand. He immediately took cover behind the boat and shouted to get down as there was a sniper on the hill shooting at us, and luckily the bullet had only grazed his hand.

At first, I thought he was joking, but a quick look at his eyes and I knew he was deadly serious. Another friend who happened to be at the launch and I tried to calm him down without much luck. We finally planned and executed our “escape from the sniper.” A couple of hours later when he returned to the present, he was completely embarrassed and apologetic. I am sure that many of you have seen similar flashbacks happen or it might have happened to you.

Two other friends, one Marine, and one Army, both spent time at the front lines. When they returned home, they were discharged in less than a month. There was no attempt made to bring them back to the “real” world. They were simply thrown in the deep end and told to swim or die.

Both of my friends seemed to be able to adjust back and, at least, appear to be “normal”, until one day about ten years after he got home the Army guy put a bullet in his head.  VT Senior Editor Gordon Duff put it this way.

This describes Vietnam, describes the Marine Corps pretty well. 90% acting, 90% phony and 10% doing the fighting and dying. With that came exhaustion, thirst, starvation and some anger. We could feel how much the Marine Corps hated us, how much America hated us.
No military was ever sent to perform a more corrupt and stupid task than ours at that time, or so I believed then. History has, of course, proven me wrong.
Through training in California, you could feel it, the hate. Nobody would look us in the eye, other than the wonderful people at the USO, San Clemente, Los Angeles. Thanks. I remember you guys. Everyone else, looking at us made people feel uncomfortable. Marines didn’t come back. Being in a combat unit in Vietnam, one of the 9%, was a death sentence.
Vietnam was, like the wars of today, one fought by the few.
In some ways, the returning soldiers of that era had it worse and in some ways, today’s soldier has it worse.  Many of the Viet Nam era soldiers were drafted, so most people in the US had friends and relatives serving. News coverage was closer to real then with videos of fighting and coffins allowed; not like today where the news is “sanitized for our protection.”
The unlucky troops come home

Everyone knew there was a war going on. On the other side of the coin, some anti-war groups blamed the troops for the war which was particularly silly considering most troops were draftees who had only three choices, go to war, go to prison, or flee the country. One advantage they had is that with the draft, there was a steady stream of “new meat” to feed into the grinder, so when their tour was up, it was up, unless they volunteered for more.

Today’s troops are better equipped and have much better medical care for physical injuries, but not much has been done to improve mental health care. Many are alive that would have died from their injuries previously. For the most part, no one blames the troops for the wars. Even the most intense anti-war groups say they are trying to save our soldiers from being killed and maimed.

With an all volunteer military, most of the country is carrying on like there is no war. President Bush told us to fight the terrorists by going shopping. Many Americans don’t know any active military personnel. Most of the troops come from lower middle class and poorer backgrounds, though there are certainly a few exceptions to that rule.

They enlist because they are the only jobs available, to get training they can use in civilian jobs, or money for college. Since there is no longer an unlimited supply of new draftees, many are sent back over and over. Men and women who are clearly suffering from PTSD are sent back to the front where they either kill themselves or they go go completely off the deep end, are dishonorably discharged for bad behavior and are then denied the retirement and medical benefits they have rightfully earned. This is one of many secret disgraces that we share. If they are lucky enough to get an honorable discharge, they return home to find that there are no jobs available.

There are other similarities, between then and now. The goal of the wars are not really clear to those fighting. Looking at the locals, it is impossible to know friend from foe. Some may be friend by day, and enemy by night. Corruption is rampant and can be easily seen. There is no end game and the current wars will probably end as unsatisfactorily as Viet Nam, with the only “winners” being the military contractors who have made huge profits. There are many thousands of troops who will come home and be dumped on the street without as much as a thank you, their only skill being able to kill; a skill with limited use in the civilian world.

Many will still be on the street 20 years from now, some will be in prison, and many will, at least appear to be normal, but all will have effects from having served. A friend’s son who is now 40 wanted to be a Marine all of his life. From the time he was pre-school until he enlisted at 17, that was what he wanted. He planned to make a career out of the Marine Corps. He went to Iraq during Desert Shield and Desert Storm and was part of the flanking group that was supposed to be a diversion, but ended up going all the way to Kuwait City. He did the job he was trained to do, shooting the .50 caliber machine gun mounted on a Humvee.

After that experience, he only wanted one thing; to get out of the Corps. Active combat was less than two weeks, but he sat in the desert for about six months waiting to fight and another 3-4 months after the fighting. Upon his return, he began to suffer many unexplained medical symptoms, which have come to be called Gulf War Syndrome. Of course the military denies its very existence, much as it did with Agent Orange in Viet Nam.

No one knows exactly what combined to create these problems, but it is believed to be a combination of experimental vaccines they took “voluntarily” (Yeah sure) to resist chemical weapons, but which actually made them more sensitive to them, exposure to these chemicals when the weapons were blown up (What did they expect would happen to the chemicals when then were blown up) desert parasites, and diseases that Americans are not normally exposed to and have no natural defense against.

Probably even more important was the mental damage he suffered. He feels totally betrayed by the country that he loved so much. He had put his trust into the righteousness of being a US Marine and serving the people of this country. He realized that he was, in fact, serving special interests that did not give a damn about him, even whether he lived or died. He was repeatedly lied to and came to recognize the lies.

When he got out, he bounced around from one part time job to another. He did not fit in anywhere. He had spent 8 years as a Marine and they refused to give him any help, mental or physical. He longed for the camaraderie of the Corps and found it in a militia group.

This group got together on a regular basis, swapped war stories and bitched about the state of things. They held military style maneuvers in the woods and drank beer. Two years ago, this group was accused of plotting the murder of police officers. He has been held in Federal Prison since then without bail or trial. The evidence against him is quite thin and that is why he has not gone to trial. They say that he was the group’s weapons expert, which he learned in the Marines.

They call him “Big Gunner”, the nickname he got in the Marines because he operated the .50 caliber, but they attempt to make him appear more sinister by using that name. So basically they are using his excellent record of service to this country against him. (The Marines gave him comendations for his service) Is he guilty? I doubt it, but I really have no way of knowing for sure. Either way he deserves his day in court and he has, thus far, been denied it.


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Michael Chester is retired from his career in industrial technology. After graduating from college, he taught this subject until deciding that he preferred doing the job himself more than teaching it. At various times during his career, he has designed, built, installed, and repaired industrial manufacturing machinery. His specialty was in electrical and electronics controls. After retiring, he concentrated more on his hobby of cooking and attended one of the top culinary schools in the US. Mike competed in bass fishing tournaments for several years, but had to leave the sport due to an injury. As a certified barbecue judge he gets to taste some of the best BBQ in the country and help select the winner. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it. He lives with his wife of over 30 years, has 3 adult children and 2 grandchildren.