They left Vietnam, but Vietnam never left them

A feature on the experiences of veterans during the Vietnam conflict and after


From left to right, Bill Green, Kasey Warner (standing), Joe Roberts (sitting) and Mike Martin.

Amanda Su, Editor-in-Chief

2,594,000 personnel served within the borders of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Of those who served, only approximately 850,000 veterans are still alive today. Of those who served, 97 percent were honorably discharged. Of those who served, 91 percent are proud to have served their country (Veterans of Foreign Wars Magazine).

The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War, the Resistance War Against America or simply, the American War, was an armed conflict that lasted for roughly 20 years (1955-1975).

It was divisive. It was long, costly, widely controversial and unpopular. It ended with the withdrawal of U.S. forces under President Richard Nixon’s plan of Vietnamization, leaving the brunt of fighting to South Vietnam towards the end of the war. It resulted in the unification on of Vietnam under Communist rule. It resulted in the loss of millions of lives.

Decades later, textbooks now outline the key events of the Vietnam War, as well as the history of the counterculture, student protest movement and changing political atmosphere that resulted from it. Students read about the war, do projects about the war, simulate historical student protests to better understand the impact of the war.

“[But] no one understands war better than someone who has fought in one,” said Bill Green, a Bay Area resident, the father of two children and a Vietnam War Army veteran.

Green and Mike Martin, President and the Director of Speakers of the Vietnam Veterans of Diablo Valley (VNVDV), along with visiting veterans Joe Roberts and Kasey Warner, spoke to Dougherty Valley High School’s junior class on May 19 for the U.S. History department’s Vietnam War protests simulation.

For an hour and a half, Green and Martin recounted their wartime and postwar experiences, starting with the moment that changed their lives forever — getting drafted.

Martin began college — summer school — after graduating from high school in June 1965 and received his draft notice the same week. After being given a deferment allowing him to continue his higher education, he was informed that the next time he received a notice, he was “going whether [he] liked it or not.”

Coming from a military family, Martin knew the differences in privileges between being an enlistee and an officer and took the opportunity during this window of time to finish college, knowing that being an officer required a four-year college degree. After finishing his university work at the end of August 1968, he was on a plane to Officer Candidate School by the Friday of the same week.

From then on, he was designated to be a Navy Supply Officer, more specifically a freight expedite officer. His responsibilities included serving as a foreman for unloading supplies and weapons from ships and dispersing those goods to the troops. He was 22 when he landed “boots on the ground” in Da Nang, where he was stationed.

After showing a photo of himself, from when he was in Vietnam, to the students, Martin joked, “This was 50 years and 50 pounds ago.” At which Green laughed, “Ha! Just 50 pounds?”

Despite their similar wartime experiences, Green’s background is a bit different.

After graduating from high school in 1965, he decided to go to college as well but dropped out by December of the same year.

Why? Because he majored in “fast cars, pretty girls and beer,” stating that there was only one reason he went to college: to party hearty.

In May 1967, Green attempted to enlist in the Army Special Forces but was refused enlistment because he had asthma and was informed that an asthmatic could not survive the war. Ironically two months later, he received his draft notice in the mail, warranting his joke about his favorite oxymoron: military intelligence.

On Jan. 13, 1968, he landed in Vietnam and flew up to Chu Lai, where he was stationed and assigned to the 198th Light Infantry — which he claimed to be another oxymoron since the Light Infantry was anything but “light.” Soldiers had to carry up to 100 pounds of equipment and walk everywhere they went.

Green was a point man. His responsibilities included guiding the rest of his men to their target location, clearing booby traps and “not leading people into an ambush.” After six months, he rose to the rank of sergeant.

During his childhood, Green was raised by his stepfather, who worked as a San Francisco taxi cab driver at the time and was a Navy World War II veteran and was the one who drove Green to the draft board when it was his time to report.

As they pulled up to their destination, his stepfather, a “hardened veteran,” turned and looked back at Green, with tears in his eyes and said, “I didn’t raise you all these years for cannon fire.”

That was the first time Green can remember his father ever crying.

Many years later, when Green’s son Marty reached military age, his house received a phone call from a marine recruiter hoping to speak with his son.

After Green asked who was calling, the recruiter said, “Sergeant ‘so-and-so’ of the U.S. Marine Corps.”

To which Green responded, “Well this is Sergeant Green of the U.S. Army. Don’t you EVER call my son again” and he hung up the phone.

They never called again.

In response to a question asked about whether his parents supported his attempt to enlist in the army, Green paused, then said, “No parent ever wants their child to go to war… But most will respect their choice and decision to serve their country.”

While many young men evaded the draft by getting braces, “blowing their toes off,” fleeing the country — often to Canada — or going underground, many others also took equally drastic measures just to enlist due to their determination to help in the war effort, even if they were underage.

While many students today may forge parents’ signatures on permission slips, young men during the Vietnam conflict forged parents’ signatures to enlist if they were younger than 18. It was only until these young men were killed in action that people found out they were underage, with some being as young as 15 years old — the age of some freshmen in high school.

During the war

Once stationed in Vietnam, soldiers had to quickly adjust to fit in and fight in an environment far different from the one they came from.

“In the course of a year, I took approximately five showers and slept in a bed approximately five times, Green said. “There are no beds or showers in the jungle.”

What the jungle did have, however, was “every living creature possible,” including some that Green absolutely detested: monkeys and snakes.

Monkeys — or as he referred to them, “stinking monkeys” — posed a bit of a problem for Green because each time he went through the dense jungle, they sat in the canopies and started “squawking”, alerting the Viet Cong that he was there and blowing his cover.

As for snakes, many of which were venomous, Green, who was looking out for booby traps ahead of everyone else, would often be the first to unluckily encounter them.

The only creature Green admitted to having any fondness for was his buddy George, a young mongoose with whom Green had a special relationship. This was because of George’s very fitting job: he ate snakes.

But of course, the most meaningful friendships he developed were with the men he served with.

“[The original 10 men of my squad] were my family. I ate with them, I slept with them, I fought with them. I tried to keep them alive, they tried to keep me alive,” Green said. “I could tell you the first name, the last name, the nickname of every single one of [them]. I could tell you what state they were from, what town they were born in. I could tell you how many brothers and sisters they had. I could even tell you what each of their girlfriend’s looked like, because God knows they told me enough times.”

Unfortunately, many of the men who built inseparable bonds were not able to stay together for an entire year due to injuries, wounds and fatalities.

Of the 10 men that “started [their] journey” with Green in January 1968, nine were wounded. Of those nine, two were amputees, five were wounded multiple times on multiple occasions, including Green, and seven never completed their tour in Vietnam due to the severity of their wounds.

“Every time I lost one of these men, I got a replacement troop. We called them NFGs — New Effing Guys,” he said. “My attitude changed by the time I made sergeant. At some point, I realized I didn’t want people’s personal information. I didn’t care what state you were from, what town you were born in. I didn’t care about how many brothers or sisters you had, I didn’t care about what school what you went. Now you can always tell me what your girlfriend looked like because for that I’m all ears.”

“But all the rest of that information, I didn’t want to know. Because I didn’t want to get close to you. Because I was close to the guy that you replaced. And it hurt when I lost him. I was under the stupid impression that if I don’t get to know you, then when I lost you, there’ll just be another NFG to replace you. But it didn’t work that way. Because that NFG kept me alive and I kept him alive and we ate together and we slept together and we fought together. And when I did lose that young soldier, it hurt. As bad as the man that he replaced.”

Until today, Green still remembers every detail about each of the men he served with and unhesitatingly recounted the fact that only one man in his squad, from New Jersey, was an only child.

The memories and pain never dissipated.

But in spite of these difficult experiences, there were some admittedly happier moments during the war.

An R&R (Rest and Recuperation) is a period of time during which every sailor or soldier is allowed to take a trip of their choice to a location of their choice.

Martin did his research as a 23-year-old at the time and chose Sydney, Australia after reading about its beautiful beaches and equally “beautiful women.”

But most of all, it was the allure of the “three main drinking establishments in the King’s Cross area” — and their staggered happy hours — that sealed the deal. After getting on a plane with 250 other men to Sydney, the rest of the trip was a blur.

At the end of his R&R, Martin said that “the other guys had to pour me back into the airplane. But, they told me that I had a very, very good time.”

About 15 years later, Martin came across a canister with a roll of film inside, to which he exclaimed: “Oh my sweet Jesus.”

He then locked it away in his safety deposit, stating, “I don’t want my daughter to EVER see it.”

After that, he divulged no more.

R&R’s provided brief periods of relaxation and fun amid the ongoing war. Martin was actually lucky enough to get a second one, during which he went to Bangkok, Thailand.

But the brief joy that resulted from R&Rs was incomparable to the joy of finally being able to return home. Or so they had thought.

Coming home

While Martin was on his way to the Los Angeles International Airport after being discharged, he never forgot the memory of hearing the other men cheering and rejoicing on the plane, happy to be home.

But as they walked into the airport concourse, the excitement immediately died as they were greeted by an anti-war protest. Around 200 young people were dressed in tie-dye shirts, sandals and peace medals.

One of these young people was a woman who saw Martin’s officer insignia and proceeded to confront and violently yell at him.

She was only 17 or 18 years old.

“She called me a baby killer and spit in my face,” Martin said. “But here’s the cool part of the story. While I was in Vietnam for 366 days, I never pulled the trigger on anything. And she called me a baby killer… It’s fine to protest against a war. But don’t protest against the warriors who are just doing their jobs for their country and are proud of doing them.”

Roberts, an Army veteran, recounted a similar experience: “As I walked off the plane on my flight home to San Francisco in my dress green [uniform], the first thing I ran into was this young girl… who slapped me in the face. I then went home, after finishing my service to my country. And I — ” he paused. “I took my uniform off.”

Decades later, as Roberts remembered and described this experience in our interview, his voice still cracked while he choked back tears.

“Our fathers came home from World War II as national heroes. We didn’t get that welcome and greeting,” Green said, patting Roberts on the back and echoing all these sentiments during the interview.

After Green was discharged, he returned to the same college he dropped out of in hopes to get a college education again but didn’t tell any of his peers that he was a veteran, attempting to protect himself from persecution.

He was just there to “get grades, get a diploma and get out.”

But despite his attempts to keep his head down, while most of the other students, according to Green, looked like “refugees from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’,” Green obviously stood out. He was fresh out of the war and had extremely short hair — a military cut — and very little facial hair.

“It’s difficult when you see some of your peers demonstrating in anti-war protests. I could never demonstrate against the war because my brothers were still there fighting in that war and I could never turn my back on them. But nobody hates war more than someone who has fought in one because we understand it,” he said.

“When someone finds out I’m a Vietnam vet, they will come up and say ‘Let me tell you about Vietnam!’” To which Green would respond, “What the hell do you know about Vietnam? When’s the last time you were in Vietnam?”

Inevitably, he didn’t finish college the second time either because he “failed the attitude test” — meaning he didn’t get along with the other students. He instead decided to take an apprenticeship in San Francisco and became a successful electrician until he retired.

After that, Green grew out his hair long and grew out his beard to blend into society. Then time went on.

Unfortunately, time never healed some of the lasting traumas from Vietnam. Despite attempts to adjust back into civilian life, long-term effects of the war still impact the daily lives of many veterans.

Agent Orange is an herbicide that was widely used by the U.S. during the Vietnam War to clear out dense forests, in attempts to take away the Viet Cong’s hiding spots. As planes flew over the forests, they would spray the herbicide on the trees below.

Agent Orange, however, also produced a harmful byproduct called dioxin that seeped into water systems, which people bathed and drank from. Exposure to dioxin resulted in many Vietnam soldiers and Vietnamese civilians running the risk of obtaining diseases such as respiratory cancers, Parkinson’s Disease, Ischemic Heart Disease, AL Amyloidosis, Chronic B-cell Leukemia, Diabetes Mellitus Type 2, to name a few.

Decades later, people are still losing their lives due to the adverse effects of Agent Orange resulting from their exposure in the 1960s and 70s.

Many of the veterans who lost their lives due to terminal diseases caused by their subjection to dioxin never had their names inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., which commemorates those who died in service during the Vietnam conflict.

To Green that doesn’t matter. As far as he’s concerned, despite the fact that they did not die in combat, “Vietnam killed them.”

But not all scars from the Vietnam War are visible or physical.

Green was diagnosed with PTSD in 2002 but has been suffering from it since 1968. Martin was diagnosed in 1996 and had five PTSD episodes the same year.

Until today, nightmares, flashbacks and paranoia are unfortunately still prevalent issues among them and other veterans.

“I fondly referred to my wife at a past speaking event as the woman with the longest arms in the world who can reach out to my bed in the deepest darkest jungles of Vietnam out of my dreams and yank me back into reality,” Green said in an interview. “But till today, I still hate to be around a large crowd. I can’t go to sports games anymore. I don’t like to go to Safeway checkout lines or to have people standing behind me. When you see four vets walk into a restaurant, the first thing they do is go to that back table. And all four are trying to get the chair against the wall because no one wants to sit with their back to the door.”

Warner, who served in the Navy added in an interview, “Some certain smells and sounds, such as diesel fuel, can make it feel like you’re back in the jungle. [After getting diagnosed with cancer from exposure to Agent Orange], my PTSD symptoms started when I was on the radiation table.”

The loud sounds and rattling of the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine as it scanned his body were too reminiscent of sounds he heard during the war, and as a result, often too harrowing for him to handle.

From then on, Warner never freed himself from the symptoms and continued to have nightmares, reliving the war every night.

“Once when I was home for about 30 days, my wife and I had an apartment in Hayward. One night, at 3 a.m. I was walking around outside. The sheriff picked me and up and asked me what I was doing. I just said ‘I couldn’t sleep,’” Warner said.

The physical and mental changes Warner underwent during the war made the person who came home unrecognizable to his family. The image of Warner’s infant son looking at him as if he were a stranger never left him.

However, although veterans often struggle with traumatic memories from the war, Martin expressed the undeniable benefits that come with being able to speak to others about their experiences.

“One of our therapists told us that the fact that we tell and share our stories with different groups is a form of therapy as well. So thank you for being our therapist,” Martin said at the end of our interview.

In addition to this, Martin and Green also enjoy providing live history lessons and educating students about the Vietnam War. The purpose of the VNVDV’s Speakers Bureau is to offer the public a source of authentic information about “America’s longest hot war.”

They are in their 14th year of speaking to students and public organizations and have spoken to over 51,000 students and adults. Today, their speakers include combat infantrymen, pilots, sailors, Riverine personnel, nurses and ground support personnel.

For the last several years, Martin and Green’s presentations have become core parts of Dougherty Valley High School’s U.S. History curriculum, which Martin exclaimed is “one of [their] greatest honors.”

As for ways students and others can express their gratitude to those who served their country, on Memorial Day, the VNVDV hosts a memorial service at the Oak Hill Park in remembrance of people who served.

In addition to this, Martin noted that a Veterans Administration hospital in Livermore — which is a geriatric and traumatic brain injury (TBI) center — cares for many veterans who do not have any family members.

Many of these veterans appreciate it when somebody just “sits and talks with them,” Martin said. “Some are more cognizant and aware while some of the TBIs are not so much. But they can nod their head and to just have somebody come to visit and hold their hand is touching either way.”

Due to the controversial nature of the Vietnam conflict, up until a certain point, Green and many other veterans mostly kept quiet about their service in Vietnam, deciding not to tell others about their experiences due to fear of confrontation.

At the time, Vietnam veterans couldn’t publicly express pride in their service to their country without stirring up heated conflicts, putting themselves at risk of persecution or having misplaced anger about the war taken out on them, often violently.

Years after Green was discharged, his 7 year old son, who one day after coming across a box of Green’s war keepsakes, exclaimed, “Daddy was a soldier?”

Green had never mentioned or talked about the war, let alone his service in it, to his children before.

His daughter, who is three years older, asked, “Is the reason you didn’t tell us you were a soldier because you are ashamed?”

“No, I’m extremely proud of my service. In fact, if I had to, I’d do it all over again in a heart,” Green responded.

“My kids bought me this box,” Green stated as he held up and showed Dougherty’s students the said box. “And they asked me to take the awards [which include two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars] I received in service of our country and put them inside, then take the box and hang it up in my favorite room in the house. Hang it up so that every day I walk past that box, I’m reminded to be proud of what I did for my country

…When I started talking to schools about my experiences, my daughter asked, ‘Did you bring the box?’ And I said, ‘Nah.’ She asked again, ‘Are you ashamed of it?’”

He wasn’t.