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Recalling my return to the world in 1966

On March 11, 2020, my wife, Liz, and I started a year of COVID isolation. If you are a fan of irony, March 11, 1965, was the day I left the U.S. for a year-long tour in a cesspool called the Vietnam War. No other year in my 81 years and counting came remotely close to this monument to futility and its forever imprint on my psychic being. Some of the feelings are familiar.

In 2020, except for required contact, such as buying food, I was cut off from the world we knew and loved. For a year I/we did not venture over a half dozen miles from home. We self-isolated like much of America.

A year later we, and most people close to us, had received their COVID vaccinations. In May we slowly opened back up. On June 5, 2021, Liz and I drove to Bandon for a week in a cottage rental, on the beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I felt strange.

In mid-March 1966, 55 years ago, I returned home to Medford from a year in Vietnam. I reunited with a 3½-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son who did not know their daddy, and in truth I did not know them or myself. One of my first tasks was to bond with my daughter Jennifer and son Nathan.

Early in my return I bundled Jennifer up for a car ride/excursion around my home town area. The ride was as much for me as for Jennifer. At some point, Jennifer and I were driving on the outskirts of Medford and were about to pass by an orchard. I pulled off the road and watched a biplane dip close to the ground and fly at treetop level spraying the pear orchard. I was reminded of our C-123 aircraft, Agent Orange spraying missions in Vietnam. We killed large areas of vegetation to deny our enemy hiding cover. The toxic chemicals from those missions, code name “Ranch Hand,” still cripple and destroy lives today in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

That day in 1966, the radio was playing a new hit from the time; “Monday, Monday” by the Mamas and the Papas. I had left the U.S. in 1965 to the Glen Yarbrough hit “Baby the Rain Must Fall” and came back to “Monday, Monday, can’t trust that day.” In Vietnam, Armed Forces Radio played the Beatles hit “Help.” That song was my anthem to the craziness every one of 365 days brought to me.

I sat, listened to the radio, watched the spray plane do its work and looked at Jennifer with awe.

When I came home in 1966, I could not fit in. I was wary of strangers. I was mistrustful of my surroundings. I could not identify with the values of my age group. I felt like a stranger in my own country. That country was bitterly divided between left, right and over racial issues. Our country’s core values were tattered. We murdered Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968. We had a bitter battle over President Richard Nixon, culminating in his resignation. My own personal low point came in May 1970, when the Ohio National Guard fired on Kent State University students, killing four and wounding double that. Again, if I am not overplaying the irony card, one of the four students shot dead at Kent State by the National Guard was an ROTC student who would have been a future military officer.

My guess is by now you can sense that I feel that “coming home” in 2021 has something in common with my coming home in 1966. The feelings are nowhere near as intense. To suggest Vietnam and COVID are the same is false equivalency of the highest order. However, the feelings are much the same. I want to be clear: COVID lockdown trauma and re-entry is about 10% of what my Vietnam trauma and re-entry was — and still is. I think that is true of most vets I know.

One of my main gripes with folks over a certain age is their pining for the good old days. I wonder if they slept through the Korean War and Communist “witch hunts” of the 1950s. Where did they get their news during the race unrest and violence against people of color in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s?

What were these people, in their young adult life doing, when in 1962 a fellow Black officer and I could not eat together in a Georgia cafe? Where were they in 1963 when my South Carolina landlord told me that if I ever had another fellow Black officer and his wife to my home he could not keep the “boys” (Klan) off me? Where were they when I could have been killed, or at least badly injured, in a riot over Kent State in May of 1970 at the Univesrity of Washington, where I was an ROTC instructor? Did they not know about the violence and anti-war demonstrations against the Vietnam War?

I think it was Winston Churchill who said, “America always does the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options.” In June 2021, we have exhausted the other options.

Larry Slessler lives in Medford.