Interview by Celeste Cappotto

War Story Interview (with her father)
By Celeste Cappotto (2003)

What are the circumstances by which you came to be in the war?

In those days they had the lottery, and, not unlike when you watch the Ohio lottery, pin balls came up and my number came up, so I was 128 in the first lottery so I would have been drafted in the end of 1971 so I volunteered early and went with the April of 1971…I enlisted in the Army for a two year hitch.

What were your opinions about the war before you served in it?

You know, I actually was pro-government thinking our government couldn’t do anything wrong and that we should be fighting in Vietnam and only later when I started to read more about it and after being there, I realized it was a very very bad thing…a very bad public policy by our government

Did you think the war was just?

No, it was wrong…our country, our CIA, or political planners couldn’t differentiate between Soviet Communism and Chinese Communism…if you read about Ho Chi Min, he was a nationalist very similar to what our fore-fathers were, you know John Adams and Madison and so forth, they were nationalists.  And all he wanted was to unite his people and create a one Vietnam.

What kind of training did you receive before you went to Vietnam?  Did you think it was enough to prepare you?

As good as could be.  First thing I went to Fort Polk, Louisiana, and I went through eight weeks of basic training at Fort Polk.  That was a lot of physical fitness and drills.  After that we had firearms training as part of it, map preparation…it was pretty much a block of courses throughout the course of the day.  It wasn’t military indoctrination with drill sergeants yelling at you and swearing at you…umm…we went from machine gun training to hand grenade training to various types of military preparations.

After that I went to Fort Gordon, Georgia…and at Fort Gordon, we uh, it was military police training and that was another eight week course.  And then you did standard police academy type of training, firearms again because we used a 45-caliber instead of what police used.  Police used a 38-caliber in those days..uh…I don’t know, I think I said that was eight weeks long.

Then we went from there to, myself and a few other people, were selected to go to Sentry Dog Training and I went to, at Fort Gordon there was a two week training on how to use a German Shepherd to patrol the compound, the perimeter of a compound for security purposes.

After that I went to Okinawa, my responsibilities there were to, again that was more training.  We were trained to guard heliports, to walk to perimeter of a heliport, about 200 yards with the dog, to be able to identify the dog’s senses when it was alerting to an possible infiltrator trying to come on the compound.  That was the basics of what my responsibilities were when I went to Vietnam.

What was your title?

Military Police Sentry Dog Handler.  And in the military you would have different number and letter classifications for every job skill and mine was 95BRAVO100, but it’s been too long to remember exactly…and …yeah, 95 BRAVO 100 and I think it was the 100 was what categorized me as Sentry Dog Handler…training above and beyond the training you would get to be a policeman.

Did you ever observe, or were involved in, armed combat?

Yeah, I’d been…as we walked the perimeter of our compounds and I was there at a time when the United States was trying to back out of the war and turn it over to the Vietnamese…and at that point I think that everyone knew that the Vietnamese were going to lose the moment the Americans were no longer there.  And it was called Vietnamization.  And what we did…there was very little actual combat that the Americans participated in.  It was mostly the Vietnamese Army, and we ran support for them.  So the perimeter of the compound that I walked in, there was two of them, one was called OnSon and the other one was Tuiwah.  The perimeters of the compounds I’d walk between large guard towers, the infantry troops and the guard towers would spotlight on the perimeter and then I’d walk between the towers…and I got rocketed on a few times.

It’s kind of a funny story, I had my radio and one of the guys who was on the opposite end of the compound, and the compound was probably about a third of the size of Lyndhurst.  He gets on his radio and he says incoming, except he’s so flustered that he says “comingincomingin coming!” about six or seven times.  By that time I hear an explosion about two hundred feet from me.  Luckily for me it was on the other side of a metal retaining wall that the helicopters used to park behind, otherwise some of the shrap metal would have come my way.  When I heard the explosion I ran to a bunker, and I outran the dog, finally I was so scared I was running so fast that I was dragging the dog to keep up with me.  We got into the bunker and there’s a device called a clacker that’s about as big as your tape recorder and you connect it to wires.  Basically what it is is a little generator, you squeeze it like a nutcracker and it send electricity through cords, the cord were like Christmas light cords and at the other end of the cords are mines.  So as the compound’s being rocketed on some of the infantry troops came to the bunker and I wouldn’t let them in.  I told them “I’m in here with my German Shepherd, I’m not going anywhere, you guys find some place else to hid” and I wouldn’t let them in and they went to another bunker.  I had been issued a clacker to set off any mines in case we were attacked by ground troops.  Cobra helicopters went up.  Cobra helicopters are amazing, in less and one minute they can cover every square foot of a football field with a round of a gun called a mini-gun, it’s like a gaveling gun from the old days…it’s just an amazing piece of equipment…and they just saturated the area.

I found the next day they killed one or two enemies, five or six cows, probably a few farmers that were too close to the compound.

One night on my day off I was sitting the day room playing cards…because we were military police a lot of the infantry didn’t like us, so some little guy got drunk and fired a round at us…the round hit about six or eight inches from the door…most of us speculate that he was just shooting at the air and tripped in the horseshoe pit and that’s the only way the round came through the door…because I found the gun the next day right by the horseshoe pit and you could see the shoe marks of where he tripped.  We didn’t think he was shooting at us, but he was drunk enough that he could hurt somebody.  Some small instances like that, but no hand-to-hand combat, unlike my brothers who were involved in heavy combat.

Did you ever have trouble distinguishing between North and South Vietnamese?

No not where I was stationed, it was no big deal.  We were all in garrison.  The South Vietnamese that were working with us were all uniformed.  We had some help from the community who would come and clean for us, and for all we knew they could have been Viet Cong.  What the Viet Cong did, several years before American involvement, some of the North Vietnamese moved to South Vietnam and get normal jobs, worked farms and rice patties and so forth, and when it came time for the insurgency they came together as the military and were the Viet Cong.  Not unlike, it’s funny, I think that it is not unlike the Minute Men we used during the Revolutionary War, and they rose up and fought the South Vietnamese soldiers.  But we never had any problems distinguishing from our side and their side.

How did your experiences in Vietnam compare with movie depictions of the war?

Not even close.  There were two movies: Platoon and Full Metal Jacket.  Full Metal Jacket came the closest to actually depicting the Vietnam War experience, but there is so much more to it than just combat.  You are put into a very stressful situation with people from parts of the country that you are not used to being around growing up in suburban Northeast Ohio.  Texas, Spanish people from Arizona and New Mexico, Brooklyn New York with that bizarre accent that they have…so it was the mix of cultures…and at the time I was in Vietnam drugs were very prevalent and you would have to deal with being stationed in a compound and in barracks, you weren’t drawn together for the need of comradely because of being under fire…and actually I had a number of occasions, where other U.S. troops, probably out of boredom or because they were drugged up would throw things in our barracks, they knew that we worked night shift with the Sentry dogs, so whatever they could do to disturb us and it kind of shows the insensitivity…at the time there was no really good feeling that you were in Vietnam to do the right thing.  Maybe in the late 60s they had that kind of camaraderie.  But it wasn’t there.

I was actually somewhat of a folk hero among the guys because there was a guy, huge guy, a bodybuilder in another company, and he was always drugged up, and one day he was sober coming back from breakfast and he decided just for the fun of it he thought he’d pick on the MPs and so he got out a baseball bat and started hitting on the side of our barracks and we had metal roofs at the time and he started throwing rocks at the roof.  So I walked right up to him and everyone thought there was going to be a fight.  I calmly explained to him that we are all on the same side and we work at night, we are not policemen, we are guards.  We are not here to arrest you for your drug use.  I actually made a friend of him and played basketball with him from time to time.  I learned that it is much more productive if you keep your temper if you rationalize with someone and give them logical arguments to change their behavior.  And I actually used that most of the time when I became a policeman, whenever there was a domestic problem, the guys on my shift would call me to handle the domestic problem.  It also makes it easier if you’re not personally involved, it’s harder for people to act as a mediator in their own family and workplace if they are less neutral.  That was a lesson I took with me.

How did your view of the war, and the idea of war as a whole, change after being in Vietnam?

One time when I first got there and I took a 50 gallon drum that we used for garbage and I dumped it in the garbage dump.  And I saw a little kid come and take a piece of bread out of the garbage dump and knock the maggots off and eat it.  It was really…it kind of woke me up that war, whether it’s right or wrong, doesn’t do anything but hurt innocent people.  The people that are coordinating policy, their families are rarely effected, and their personal wealth grows.  But yet these people who are in the middle of a combat zone, who are no different then the rest of us, all they want to do is raise a family and spend time with their family and achieve something with their life, they are thrown in the middle of this and it’s something that almost always is at the disadvantage of the normal people.

I had another instance…when I first came into the country, I was right outside of the mess hall and there was a guy standing on the other side of the wire, a Vietnamese guy and his daughter, trying to talk to me and I’m scared to death because all’s I’ve read is how the Viet Cong would sneak up on you and kill you…so I went up to a guy who had been there for a while and asked what the man’s problem was. He said, there is no problem; he’s trying to sell you his daughter because he needs to feed his family.  I mean, it’s a real tragedy, it’s something that really burns me up now when I listen to people from the Program for a New American Century like Rumsfeld, and others who talk about sacrifice, Americans have to sacrifice…these guys are worth 280 million dollars, what do they know about sacrifice, what does George Bush know about sacrifice?  So I feel that that influenced me in my political opinions today.

Do you feel the war had any lasting effects on you (mentally, physically, etc)?

Not anymore, it’s something I sat around with a few friends this past summer and talked about.  It’s such past history that even when I read about it or…then again I was not in heavy combat.  I was talking to my brother this summer and he was in one of the bloodiest engagements in the war, and for two days he took a body torso and made sure the torso had two arms, two legs, and a head and threw it in a bag and sent it to Graves Recovery who tried to match up bodies.  He forgot all about it, and he happened to turn on the Discovery Channel and they were doing a documentary about this battle and it brought back all the nightmares…but in my case because I wasn’t in that type of combat situation, no it doesn’t have an effect on me.

Was it hard to adjust to being back in the U.S. and normal life?

I remember going to the July 4th Indians game in 1972 with my friend, I came back in June of ’72, and they blew off fireworks and I hid under the bleachers.  On the way home from the game, my friend had a small VW, someone blew off fireworks and he had to pull the car over to pull me out from the corner of the passenger side floor.

Yeah probably the first two or three years, I remember going to Bowling Green and going to a party and one of my friends introduced me and said :this is George he just got out of the army”, and talking to a girl she asked me if I killed any babies and that’s obviously just…500,000 people in Vietnam at one time, perhaps 2.5 million served over the course of the war and only 1 in 5 were in combat and of those only 1 in 600 were involved in the kind of atrocity.  But that’s the way the media left people, especially young people, that everyone who came back was a baby killer.

Also, I probably didn’t tell anybody that I was in the war the first couple of years.  Now when I was a police officer that was different because there were a lot of guys who were from the same environment.  They came from Vietnam they came from the Army, so it was acceptable in that culture.  There were certain situations that I wouldn’t tell anybody because at that time soldiers were seen as bad people, not returning heroes.

Do you think you became a police officer because of your experience as a MP?

Well I think so, when you are at that age, 22/23, a lot of times you don’t know what you want to do, sometime you don’t know until your 30.  And when I was able to get the job as a policeman, that uneasiness of what career and how I was going to make a living was eased because of the job.  I think that one of the reasons I was hired was because of my military police experience, so yeah that had a lot to do with it.  I am sure that if I didn’t become a police officer I’m sure I would have fallen into something else, but I didn’t have a goal at the time.  Since that was the only thing I ever did, except for being a stock boy when I was 17, but anyone can put boxes on a shelf.   It was really the only thing that I ever really focused on.  My major in college was law enforcement administration and a minor in business with an emphasis on administering in a police department.  So it really had an influence on me for those 20 years that I was a police officer.

Analysis of War Story Interview
Through my experience of listening to my father tell his war story about Vietnam, I gained a perspective of the war that aided me in my understanding of it. The Vietnam literature we have read in class gave me an overall picture of the war. Having this foundation made it easier to put my dad’s story in perspective. But it was also more informative that the literature, in my mind. I was able to listen to a first-hand account of the war according to someone who was there. I also had the opportunity to watch someone talk about the war. The ability to observe a person’s mannerisms and expressions tells a story in itself. You do not get this type of visual perspective from reading texts about the war.

The most notable similarity that I found between the interview and the literature was the fact that the Vietnam War affected everyone in some way, even if one did not participate in combat. I noticed this idea when reading The Things They Carried. Characters in the novel who were directly involved in the war were forced to deal with the reality of the fact that they had killed a man or watched a friend die for the rest of their lives. They were haunted by the demons of the war. O’Brien also addresses the issue of how the war affected people that knew soldiers. He used parents, friends, and girlfriends as examples of how war effected civilians.

This same idea can be seen in Born on the Fourth of July. Ron Kovic suffers both physically and mentally from the war, he also struggles with the guilt he feels for killing his fellow soldier, and he is forced to live with the fact that he will never walk or be able to have children. In the film almost everyone who knew Ron before the war was touched by his experiences in it. His family, friends, and former girlfriend are all effected by the war because of the way it changed Ron’s life, and in turn, changed their lives.

Just as the war touched people in the fictional realm, people were so touched in reality. My dad’s interview illustrates the mental anguish experienced by people who were in the war.

My uncle still sees the countless bodies, the nameless faces, of all the dead he picked up in Vietnam. My dad was afraid to tell people that he had been in the war for fear that they would all react as though he were some sort of criminal. Being called a baby killer is not something one wishes to be labeled as, and he did not want to be ear marked with such shame.

The most interesting portion of the interview to me is that in which my dad talks about being afraid of fireworks at a baseball game. Because he attended the event so soon after his arrival back in the U.S., the trauma was still fresh in his mind. This tale reminded me of the very moving scene in Born on the Fourth of July that opens the movie. When the World War II vets wince at the sounds that everyone else associates with happiness, the viewer can tell that there is something very sad about an experience that would do such a thing to a person. Unlike the WWII veterans, my father’s fear of loud noises was not as permanent, and wore off after a relatively short amount of time.

One difference that I did note between the literature and my dad’s war story was that my dad had a lot of allusions to the Vietnamese people. Unlike most of the literature, he talked about these people as though they were no different from himself. He did not portray them as passive farmers or sneaky spies for the enemy, nor did he make them out to be inferior in any way.

The most important stories my dad told were about the Vietnamese people. When he tells the story about the Vietnamese father who is trying to sell his daughter so that he can feed the rest of his family, it made me think about things in a different light. One could easily construe that story to be merely a disturbing tale, which of course it is, but there is more to it than that. Under the surface it is a truly sad story about a person who must choose the greater good of his family over his love for his child. Just imagining how much an action such as this would hurt a parent, whose love is so strong for their child, makes me realize how desperate times must have been for these people.

Just as moving was the story about the Vietnamese child who ate from a garbage-dumpster. I could never imagine myself digging through the garbage to find food, and to that extent I could not even fathom what level of desperation I would need to be at in order to eat something that was once swarming with maggots. An action such as this illustrates just how tremendous these people’s will to live was, and how they would do whatever the needed to survive.

These two stories helped me to come away with a completely difference sense of the Vietnam War. In the past my opinions on the war were based on the fact that I didn’t think the reasoning for going into the war was justified, and I don’t think it was fair that the public never knew the true reasons until much after the war. But now I disagree with the war because of the effect it had on so many innocent people, people who could just have easily been myself or people I know. We sometimes forget to take into account all the people who were not killed or injured in war, but were just forced to live through it. Just because they did not suffer physically does not mean that they didn’t suffer emotionally. Oftentimes the strength of these people, because of their ability to live in a world wrought by chaos, is underestimated. Through my dad’s war story I learned that this should not be the case, these people were and are survivors in every sense of the word.