Story by Edward Rivera
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Fort Worth District
Gen. Douglas MacArthur once said, “the soldier above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” From 1775 through 1991, more than 41 million men and women served in our military during times of war.
War has played a prominent role in our nation’s history. From fighting for independence to fighting to preserve a fledgling union. To wars fought in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, our warriors answered the call, as volunteers or conscripted into service as part of a draft.
Most of the veterans departed with cheers and those that returned were welcomed with open arms from a grateful nation. But beginning in November 1955 through April 1975 Military members serving during the Vietnam War were sometimes jeered when they left and subjected to protests upon their return.
During that era it would seem that America and much of the world focused their anger against the politics of the war directly onto the individuals in the actual fight. During the official Vietnam era from August 5, 1964 to May 7, 1975, more than 9 million military personnel served on active duty and more than 2.7 million Americans served in uniform in Vietnam. More than 58,000 laid down their lives during this war and are honored in the black granite of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
March 29th is Vietnam Veterans Day. It is a day to commemorate the sacrifices of Vietnam Veterans and their families. Most states celebrate “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day” on March 29 or 30 of each year. On March 29, 1973, the last combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam and the last prisoners of war held in North Vietnam arrived on American soil. President Nixon chose the first Vietnam Veterans Day in 1974. The commemoration is part of a national effort to recognize the men and women who were denied a proper welcome upon returning home more than 45 years ago.
“Whenever I walk through an airport in uniform, I am thanked for my service and I greatly appreciate it. But this group of Veterans never received the welcome they deserved,” said Col. Calvin C. Hudson II, commander, Fort Worth District.
Recently, District team members Juan Gonzalez, resource management and Robert Eisenberg, security office, both Vietnam vets, shared their experiences and recollections of their service.
In 1965, Gonzalez, “an Army Brat” was preparing to accompany his father to Germany when as as he put it, “I received this letter from Uncle Sam, he made me a deal I couldn’t refuse. Then next thing I knew I was on my way to Vietnam.”
Eisenberg graduated High School in 1967. Many of his peers were either being drafted or entering the military. Prior to his senior year of High School he attempted to enlist in the Navy Reserve. “I was basically waiting to be drafted…After my induction physical they called me and I was able to get into the Naval Reserve. But I was still kind of waiting for that other shoe to drop,” he said when it came to actually going to Vietnam.
Each man saw the war from different views, one from the sea and one from land. Although he enlisted in 1967, it wouldn’t be until 1970 that Eisenberg would see naval operations. Eisenberg deployed twice as a third class gunners mate on the Fleet Oiler, USS Ponchatoulain in the Gulf of Tonkin. He recalled, for 11 months it was intense operations, working 14 to 18 hour days on the jumbo oiler that refueled carrier battle groups and doubled as an ammunitions ship.
While on his second deployment Eisenberg’s father died. After returning from his father’s funeral, for his third deployment he was assigned to the amphibious cargo ship LKA-112, USS Tulare. “We deployed the Marines from the DMZ all the way down to the Mekong Delta. My job was to man a .50 Cal., as we took the Marines to shore.”
Eisenberg explained the intensity was due to unceasing shipboard operations. “It’s hard to stop. You do combat operations on a ship, but the ship still needs to operate at sea. When you are not at your battle station you are doing those jobs that maintain the ship.”
Gonzalez an infantryman and field radio operator, said everyone was trying to kill him. “Every time I turned around they were trying to shoot me. I was airborne to begin with, and when things got going…got hard, you just drop your radio, pick up an AR-15, there’s was nothing else you could do.”
Gonzalez remembered having some idea what to expect, but not entirely. “When you go in and you can see, that’s when it really shocks you. When you see your buddies next to you being killed…I still cannot cope with it. You come back and you say I was sitting there, next to him and he got blown up, and nothing happened to you. Why?”
Leaving Vietnam, both men would still have to return home to a nation that no longer wanted to embrace its returning warriors. Gonzalez said the when he arrived in Oakland he didn’t expect the huge protest and people spitting at him.
“They weren’t there, they didn’t see what was happening. They saw all the bad, the antiwar things on the news…not the guy who carried a wounded guy two, three miles to safety.”
Eisenberg encountered a similar protest in San Francisco when he dropped off at the airport to return home to Texas. “It was not a very pleasant experience, it was one poor Sailor against about 500 angry people.” A pair of policemen would come to his aid. One a World War II vet, the other a Korean War veteran helped get him to his flight.
“Once I was back in Texas it was a different story,” said Eisenberg. “All my uncles and cousins served in the military, so I had a lot of family support.”
Both men had to take their experiences, integrate back into their communities and continue their lives. Upon returning home from his third tour Eisenberg had to immediately go to work. “I had a younger brother to help support, luckily I had the G.I. Bill so I was going to college but I had to work. I really didn’t have a chance to sit back and take perspective of the previous three years, I had to put food on the table.”
Gonzalez on the other hand used the money he had saved and took a trip to Vancouver, Canada. “After about 30 days I ran out of money and so I called my father and told him I needed to get back home. And he said guess what? The Army is hiring. So I went back into the army and stayed and retired.”
“I don’t think I had as hard of a time as those that got out. It’s hard to explain, but there was a feeling of belonging. I had been around the Army most of my life, it was like home to me.”
Eisenberg also returned to the Navy after a two-year hiatus and retired with a 34 year career. “It was easy to return to the military lifestyle and you were around people that had shared experiences and you could talk to.”
Juan and Robert served their country honorably as a Solder and Sailor during a tumultuous era. Fighting in an unpopular war and returning home to protests and hatred for wearing their uniforms. And yet they returned to military service and eventually continue serving as civil servants today with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“Vietnam Veterans didn’t receive the welcome they deserved and it really hearts me to my heart,” said Hudson. Whenever I see a Vietnam Veteran I make sure to go up to them and thank them. They are my favorite Veteran’s group, I hope that everyone can take a moment and thank Juan and Robert for their service.”