By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Reflections on the brutality of serving during Vietnam
Stephen Saunders, a 1965 graduate of Brodhead High School, is shown in a photo taken just before he left for Vietnam on May 30, 1966. (Photo supplied)
Editor's note: The following essay was submitted by Stephen Saunders, who joined the Army after graduating from Brodhead High School in 1965. He left for Vietnam on May 30, 1966.

The Vietnam War was brutal for those of us who fought it on the ground. Our military performed with tenacity and distinction little understood. Many people, however, blamed us warriors for an unpopular war waged half-heartedly and unsuccessfully from Washington. They clearly demonstrated what they thought of the war and those who fought it for them. Academia, the media and the elites spurned our service while glorifying the enemy. Right had become wrong. Vocal and subtle slurs and jibes subjected Vietnam veterans to antagonism and loathing. The stigma tore open the wounds and spit on the graves of my buddies. These blows to my dignity as a young combat veteran remain tender even after 50 years. I survived one solid year of war, then my countrymen shot me in the back. Fire of such caliber tore a jagged hole through me.

We were castaways, marked as crazed pariahs, lepers afflicted with a nitro-glycerine menace - "post-Vietnam syndrome" was the smear. We were the refuse of a lost war, unexploded ordnance, duds to be sidestepped. Today those who branded us will not look us in the eye.

Vietnam veterans returned confused from the war in which we had invested our young lives and sought no return. Many reacted to the homegrown incoming fire like an in-country firefight - we went to ground. It jinxed a homecoming of the spirit. Peace is more than just the absence of war. I rode the brakes on my sensibilities and resolved not to squander a life that had been spared, eager to harness the opportunities of America the beautiful. My country right or wrong; I love her so - for keeps.

Contrary to the shrill scorn for Vietnam veterans, most had met severe tests there and scored well. Many years after the war, a placid pride crept into me. It balanced the comedown, embarrassment and guilt plaguing me from public disdain and because, unlike so many I had known, I survived with all working body parts and a full tank of blood. It joined other unspoken attitudes shaped by wartime. I harbor no regrets that I fought there or for what I did there, but bear some for what I did not do.

As a 19-year-old in Vietnam, I took for granted the vivid camaraderie borne of war's wild circumstances. I was blind to many sentiments under death's cold stare. Later I learned that these attachments were priceless beyond compare. In Vietnam we haggard grunts supposed we were the lowest of wretches on the planet, but we never stood so tall.

A few of my platoon survivors of the war and its shameful aftermath gather in our old age, bonded in the past and in a powerful fellowship borne of the inexpressible experience of war. We know each other's dark place. None can articulate the sentiment, but all feel its muscle. It is an elegy to and a celebration of forlorn sacrifices.

In 1967, as I left the "bush" for the last time, whopping chopper blades drowned my elated shout of "Airborne." They lifted me upward, homeward, away from my rifle platoon forever. As the Huey slowly rose, my right arm went up in salute to those left behind, to those gone before, to all that we had been and done, to our teenage savvy of a world of suffering, injustice, evil and love - and to all that we had risked and endured that none can say. I was buoyant; the moment seemed as an ascent to heaven. But it was to be a low height. I would be anchored there always.

The shooting stopped, but there was no cease-fire. I hold that salute. My body left that doomful place, but my youth and its unbroken heart never boarded that helicopter.

- Stephen Saunders, C/2/8 (Abn), 1st Cav. Div., 1966-67