I Really Am A Vietnam Veteran

After a rather long, frustrating effort I recently started receiving Veterans Benefits with a 30% disability rating.  I originally applied nearly ten years ago after suffering from throat cancer and prostate cancer, two cancers commonly attributed to exposure to Agent Orange.  

Although I took several people’s advice and applied through a local VFW, I never heard back from them or the Veteran’s Administration.  When I applied, the Veteran’s Administration was underfunded and overworked, so I didn’t think too much about it when I hadn’t heard from them for six months.  Finally, I reached out to the VFW retired colonel who was handling my case.  Turns out he had suffered a stroke and seemed unclear what the status of my application was.  The initial process of gathering materials and writing about my time in Vietnam had been stressful enough that I was unwilling to start all over again.

Flash forward ten years.  While trying to figure out what would be the best Plan D insurance policy, our agent suggested that as a Vietnam Veteran I was entitled to prescriptions through VA.  I decided that my copay was high enough that was worth applying again, and it seemed relatively straightforward, relatively, as it turned out.  After all. I had my discharge papers and that’s all that I seemed to need to get the benefit.  Nope.  Not true.  

The proverbial Catch-22 revealed itself. I couldn’t be sent to Vietnam if I had less than six months of service left, but since the boat took nearly a month to get there I wasn’t in-country for six months and wasn’t eligible for the Vietnam Service award.  I thought that the phrase “Vietnam Veteran” on my discharge papers meant that I had served in Vietnam.  The VA department didn’t think so and told me I wasn’t eligible for the prescription benefit because I hadn’t proved I served in-country.

If I had appealed they would have had to dig out my service records, but they told me there was a six-month delay because of Covid-19.  Luckily, when I explained that I had symptoms of Agent Orange Exposure, the VA worker referred me to my local AmVets center.  What a difference they made. It turned out the most convincing proof I had that I had served in Vietnam wasn’t the APO of the unit I was released from (which was Vung Tao province) , it was the photos I am posting here (and the newsletters Sgt Desmond sent me after I returned home).

Though I have no memory of ever looking like this, this is, indeed, a photo of me holding a “grease gun” taken from the FDC because there was no way in hell I was going to be stuck with nothing but my assigned 45 when we got fired on during the night.

We were officially a heavy mortar platoon, but, in reality, the tracks were set up to function as a recon platoon with machine guns mounted on the sides.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, my platoon was assigned to protecting the engineers who were preparing our site for the battalion barracks and headquarters and, later, assembling the building ourselves.   Fortunately, because we weren’t required to provide convoy escort like the tank platoons and recon platoon were. Unfortunately, because we didn’t see any real action other than serving as target practice for the Viet Cong that lived in the village we were “protecting.”  We caught enough fire initially that they finally assigned two tanks to our unit, which effectively deterred the nighttime attacks.

So, we spent the entire five-plus months I was there putting up buildings during the day and standing guard duty at night.  

It was definitely grunt work, but someone had to do it, and I was proud of how hard my platoon worked to get it done.  

I even pitched in and helped with the construction, though I’m sure my company commander wouldn’t have approved since I had been reprimanded back in the states for helping maintain our equipment instead of just supervising.

If we hadn’t been shot at regularly and if I hadn’t been on duty 24 hours a day because I was the only officer on the premises, I think this would have been my favorite time in the army. I know it’s a cliche, but I have never felt closer to a group than I did there.  I felt so close that I volunteered to extend my duty until the whole unit could return to the states; when I was told that my replacement was already on the way and that I would be reassigned to a unit in Saigon if I extended I was on my way home.

For better and worse, those five-plus months were the most influential in my life. 

6 thoughts on “I Really Am A Vietnam Veteran”

  1. Uylsses S. Grant’s given name was Hyrem Ulysses Grant, but the Army somehow got it wrong in their paperwork. He tried for three years to get the error corrected, then gave up and legally changed his name.

    So Army bureaucracy is not a new problem. Good luck!

  2. That is quite a story to read on Veteran’s Day. I thank you for your duty and your efforts. I am a pacifist, but I do absolutely recognize the need for a strong military presence especially in these times. Thank you.

    1. I’m not a pacifist, but I think the only war I’ve approved of since Vietnam was our entry into the Bosnian War, ironically, in hindsight, to aid the Muslims.

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