WHY DID WE FIGHT? A Letter to Gretchen and Tesa

Gretchen and Tesa,

I was asked by a relative of yours to write this in hopes that it would help you understand what your Dad was going through when he returned from Vietnam.

A little about myself: my name is Phil and I joined the army in 1967. A lot of boys joined, and a lot of boys were drafted. Whatever the reason we wound up in the military during this time period, we knew that most of us would end up in Vietnam. Now when I say “boys” I mean that most of us were fresh out of high school, but we would soon become men in a very short time after stepping off the plane in ‘Nam. I can’t give you a good explanation why I joined the army. I was too young to understand what war was all about and while I may or may not have agreed with the politics at the time, it was the right thing to do. I did not want to die nor, did I want to kill, but these are the things that happen in war. When you go into combat, you learn very quickly that you either pull the trigger or you die.

The Vietnam War was a very long political war. We were put into a country that did not necessarily want us there. Our government at the time was playing political games using soldiers as the game pieces. Unfortunately, a lot of good soldiers lost their lives in this war. The ones that made it home were spat on, called baby killers, we were shunned by our government and the people of the United States; basically, we were outcasts. I can’t explain why this happened. The 60’s were a period of time that was filled with war, anti-war protesters, civil rights movements and a lot of other political events that made our country turn its back on the fighting man. It wasn’t until recent years that the Vietnam veteran was recognized for the struggles that we faced both in a foreign land and the years after our return.

The war in the Middle East is not un-like the Vietnam War. I think people have forgotten the reason that we went into this war. Unlike Vietnam, the people of the United States support our troops, but just as it was in our time, the government is turning its back on our soldiers again. The war in Iraq has turned into a political football game with soldiers paying the price for the fight against terrorism.

I do not agree with the politics involving this war, but I can say that I have met a lot of soldiers that were going to Iraq and they were just like we were going to Vietnam. They are full of pride and patriotism and feel that this is the right thing we are doing and while they also do not want to die or to kill, it is what we must do to ensure that our country remains free.

I did not know your Dad and I don’t pretend to know what he went through personally. I can say that each of us played an important role in this conflict, and we have paid the price with death in combat and mental anguish upon our return. Vietnam Veterans have a bond that is stronger than anyone can understand. We have endured and seen things that they do not show you on the news, some of us could deal with it and some of us could not. I wrote a story based on my experiences during the war and it applies to every Vietnam Veteran, we all have fought an invisible battle against what I call the “Demons of War” since coming home.

I will tell you of some of my experiences and perhaps you can relate them to your Dad. I do not know what his job was in the “Nam” but evidently it drove him down a path of destruction that none of you can understand. In my mind as a vet, I am sure that he witnessed death up close and personal. He most likely saw his friends killed and I have no doubt that he killed others.When you kill someone, even in battle; it is the most horrible thing that the mind can encounter and it will haunt you for the rest of your life, as is evident with your Dad.

I was stationed with an artillery unit in Pleiku in the central highlands of Vietnam. I arrived during the TET offensive of 1968. This was the time when the enemy tried to take over the southern part of the country. This meant constant battles day in and day out for weeks. A lot soldiers and civilians were killed during this time. We drove the enemy back to the north and kept communism out of the south – at least for the meantime. This was an extremely deadly but important time during the war.

I was an armorer, which means I worked on the soldier’s rifles and machine guns. I traveled to our isolated field outposts in the jungles of Dak-To, Ben-Het, Plejerang, and Kontum. I traveled on many convoys into enemy infested areas driving over mines and risking being shot by snipers. I went on many jungle patrols during the night looking for the enemy to destroy him. I was fortunate that I did not get involved in as much fighting as some of our soldiers did, however; what I did witness and did has stayed with me.

One night I was on guard duty around the perimeter of our base camp. It was very quite and you could feel that something bad was going to happen. There was stillness in the air, and you could sense the fear all around us. We were soldiers trained to kill if we had to but coming right down to it there is an uncontrollable feeling of fear and anxiety. Little did I know that this would be a night that would change my life forever. I was sitting on top of the guard tower with two soldiers asleep down below waiting for their shift. I heard something in the perimeter. I waited a few moments and then I sent up a flare. In our perimeter was a group of what we called “Zappers.” These were North Vietnamese soldiers that were similar to the Kamikaze pilots of WWII, in that they believed that to die (commit suicide) for Ho Chi Minh was to die with honor. They wore what was call a satchel pack around their mid-section and once they got into the perimeter, they would pull a cord and detonate the pack, killing them and everyone around them… us. It was at this time that I yelled for the other two guys to wake up and start firing. I grabbed an M-60 machine gun and started shooting. Let me say this, what I was doing was killing people that were going to kill me and my comrades. You see this in the movies and Hollywood makes it look like we were a bunch of murderers. We were survivors. Eleven zappers were killed; with at least five of them being young boys around the ages of 15 and 16, hence I became a baby killer. These “babies” were carrying explosives and AK-47 rifles with the intent to kill us. According to the nightly news I was a baby killer, but the nightly news forgot to tell the whole story, this is what the public fed off, incorrectly reporting of the actual events of the war, similar to the reporting of the war in Iraq. All the media shows are the death and destruction of innocent civilians, but in most cases, they forget to tell you that these so-called innocent civilians would kill you if they had a chance. This was the first and the last time that I killed while in Vietnam. This was what I had to do, I did not want to, I did not enjoy it, I was not Rambo; I was a nineteen-year-old that had just become a man in the worse kind of way.

When I came back from Vietnam, there were no parades; there were no cheers of joy celebrating my return. The only person meeting me at the airport was my wife. We got married right before I left to go to Vietnam. I was not the same person that left her standing at the airport a year earlier. She did not know what I had done or what I had been through, however she knew that something was wrong. Most Vietnam veterans do not confide in anybody about what happened over there, so she never knew that I had killed people. When you told people that you had just returned from Vietnam, they turned their backs and walked away; to them I was nothing but a psycho that had spent a year killing and maiming. I received no help from my government and I received no sympathy from the American people.

I spent countless sleepless nights replaying the events of that awful night, waking up screaming and crying and the woman that I loved and cared for could do nothing but watch; for she did not know what to do, she could not comfort me because she did not understand, but she still loved me and did her best to stand by me during these times… this was all she could do.

After a while I was able to suppress these “demons” and put them in the back of my mind. Not all soldiers were able to do this, as was probably the case with your Dad. I went on with my life and never thought about Vietnam again, until 1992. This was the year that my eleven-year-old daughter died from complications from pneumonia. This traumatic event caused the “demons” of Vietnam to return to haunt me and drive me almost to the point of suicide. I battled these “demons” with drugs and alcohol almost to the point of self-destruction. One day I decided that I could not deal with the torture of my daughter’s death and the war, so I decided to end it all by killing myself. I placed a shotgun under my chin and was about to pull the trigger when God sent a messenger in the form of my cousin who grabbed the gun from me just before I put my finger on the trigger. I am not a religious person, but I believe that my daughter sent him to rescue me from this terrible fate. He took me to his church and his preacher prayed with me and lifted this burden off my shoulder.

My battle with the “demons” was still not over, even though God had intervened. I experienced many, many “flashbacks” where I would replay the events of that night in Vietnam countless times over the next few years. Finally, I started seeing doctors who prescribed ant-depressants and ant-psychotic medications to rid me of this torment. I am still on this medication and will have to remain on it for the rest of my life.

There is another “demon of war” out there that comes back to kill a veteran. During the war, a defoliant was sprayed over most of the country to destroy the jungles so that we could find the enemy. This defoliant was known as “Agent Orange” and veterans that came in contact with it in the jungles have suffered many diseases and their children have suffered many illnesses and birth defects. Many soldiers survived their tour of duty only to be struck down thirty-plus years later by this “demon.” One such soldier was a good friend of mine who passed away this September from leukemia as a result of being exposed to Agent Orange while in Vietnam. He was shot once or twice while in combat but he came home and lived a wonderful life until this hellish demon came to take him away from the people that he loved and who loved him. All of us around him watched him fight this battle for two long years in and out of the hospital. He loved his motorcycle as we all loved ours, and the enjoyment of being on the open road together. He was so weak from cancer treatments that he could not ride like he wanted to, but all of his friends (mostly Vietnam veterans) stayed with him and supported him and his family right up to the end. The week before he died, he felt really good; so about twenty of us along with our wives enjoyed a beautiful day and a long ride together with our friend. Three days later, he started what would be the journey to the end of his life. We were all there with him in the early morning hours and were gathered around holding his hand when he took his last breath. We watched as this “demon of war” took our friend from us.

I have used my war experiences to educate students in the various schools in my area. I feel that it is very important that you understand what the war was about. It is important that you know that we (your Dad) were not murderers, baby killers, or psychos, we were young men sent off to war in the prime of our life to do things and see things that movies can’t portray. The schools do not teach the real and human side of war, only what the politicians and media want you to know. You can’t understand the torture in the minds of some veterans such as your Dad. I can only guess what he went through in Vietnam, but I will say this… continue to keep him in your heart and love him. Forgive him for the pain he may have brought into your lives, it was not his intention. Obviously, he could not leave the horrors of Vietnam behind and the “demons of war” destroyed him through the abuse of alcohol, and by destroying him, they also destroyed his family.

I hope this has helped in some way to make you better understand what your Dad went through. It is painfully obvious that the “demons” followed him home and he could not rid himself of them. In the end, he found peace; a peace that came after many years of suffering. If you get nothing else out of what I have told you, know that your Dad loved you and it was not his intention to bring pain and suffering into anyone’s life. What he did and saw while in combat drove him down a path of self-destruction; not only for himself, but for the people that he loved and loved him. Find it in your heart to remember the good times you had with your Dad, and forget and forgive the horrible things that destroyed him.

Phil “Country” Crowley

(Author's Note: I also dedicate this story to Tina. Her Dad served in Vietnam and she has tried to understand him and his demons. I hope this helps, Tina.)

@Copyright 2018 by Phil 'Country' Crowley