Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - United States Air Force
I extended my four-year enlisted tour in the U.S. Air Force (USAF) by seven months so I could serve in the Indochina Conflict. On Thanksgiving 1972, I arrived at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base (RTAFB) in Southeast Asia, exactly two years after my older brother, Frank, had served there. Dropping out of college after one semester at LaSalle University in Philadelphia,PA, I joined the "Air Farce" in hopes of getting some training that would be useful in the civilian sector after my service. I was assigned to the 388th Combat Support Group as an information specialist (military journalist) at this Tactical Air Command (TAC) base, which housed F-4A Phantoms ("Fast Movers"), F-105 Thunderchiefs ("Thuds") and other aircraft.
I arrived in Thailand already radicalized by two events from 1970: Princeton students protesting the Cambodian incursion on the New Jersey campus (I had gone to see Country Joe McDonald perform there), and the first Earth Day events in Philly. Music, my bliss in the heady Sixties, also informed my politics. I had turned my pen against the Pentagon when I began writing for the GI Underground newspaper, "Fragging Action," which gave service persons at Fort Dix, McGuire Air Force Base and Lakehurst Naval Air Station (all near the coffee house that issued the paper in Wrightstown, NJ), alternative viewpoints to the propaganda coming out of Washington, D.C., about the Vietnam War (which should more correctly be termed the Indochina War). I learned that the press used to produce the previous GI anti-war paper, "Shakedown," had been destroyed when some drunken drill instructors from "Fort Dicks" had fire-bombed the coffeehouse where it was headquartered. My photographer friend Bob, from Roanoke, VA, often helped me secretly distribute the anti-war papers at "McGoo," where we were stationed, and he joined me for several demonstrations outside the gates of McGuire AFB. The dedicated staff at "Fragging Action" (I wrote under the pseudonym "Toad") also brought the FTA ("Free The Army," among the cleanest phrases for this acronym) show to Wrightstown, featuring actress Jane Fonda, actor Donald Sutherland and singer Holly Near, among others.
The USAF bases in Thailand held their annual talent contest in December 1972 at Utapao RTAFB, a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base. As I was practicing the late Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" on my harmonica, my rhythm was rattled frequently by the extremely loud, seemingly non-stop takeoffs of B-52 Stratofortresses headed to North Vietnam carrying full bomb loads a few days before the Christmas truce. After the contest, I returned to Korat, where the constant roar of fighter jets, reconnaissance planes and refueling aircraft heading out to support B-52 bombing missions was equally memorable. My aunt Jeannie had bought me a subscription to the "Philadelphia Inquirer" so I could keep up with news back in the world, where I learned the extent of the Operation Linebacker II air raids a few days after they ended. I was outraged at the indiscriminate bombings, and some of my buddies, all of them "heads," were equally pissed off. We all agreed to a work slowdown for the duration of the American War (as the Vietnamese called that police action). We kept our spirits high with potent Thai bud and rock music, especially from the "Woodstock" album. Our favorite performances were Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star Spangled Banner" and fellow vet Country Joe hollering out "The Fish Cheer" ("give me an 'F,' etc.") and then singing the "I-Feel-Like-I'm"Fixin'-To-Die Rag." The Thai bands that played at clubs in nearby Nakhon Ratchisima were partial to Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water," with lyrics like "smoke on the water, a fire in the sky" that embedded this tune in my mind as a signature reminder of my year overseas in the Vietnam Theater of War. It may be that the Christmas bombings nearly 45 years ago forced the hands of the North Vietnamese to end the war in 'Nam in January 1973, but the USA was still at war in Cambodia and Laos. The USAF continued bombing Laos through April 1973, and in Cambodia until August 15, 1973, hence my references to the Indochina War. American sorties in Southeast Asia (SEA) began in 1961 with the CIA-directed war in Laos, and we proceeded to secretly carpet-bomb Cambodia in 1969.
Like everyone who served in SEA, including Guam and the Philippines, I was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal (although I never walked in Vietnam, I was in both Laos and Cambodia). There are some out there who think only Vietnam combat vets should have received that badge. I disagree, because without the support of those of us in the rear, some of whom died during the hostilities, there would have been many more than 58,000 plus names (when are they going to add those to the list who have subsequently taken their own lives?) on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in D.C. I have occasionally been harassed by combat vets who, upon learning I was in the USAF, make comments such as "did you get any paper cuts?" I'd like to point out that anyone stationed at any of the four bases in Northeast Thailand ("Issan") was physically closer to Hanoi than those who served in South Vietnam, except for POWs and, perhaps, some special forces. There were two insurgencies going on in Thailand during my year there...a guerrilla war in Issan similar to those in the rest of SEA, and an Islamic uprising in southern Thailand (not far from Utapao RTAFB). Bases were occasionally harassed by snipers and sappers like outposts in Vietnam. As the new guy, I was given perimeter guard duty until the end of the Vietnam conflict, embedded with security personnel as a journalist covering the routines for our base newspaper, the "Sawadee Flyer." It was scary out there on the perimeter in the dark monsoon nights, concerned not only about guerrillas and bandits, but also tigers, leopards, poisonous snakes and assorted creepy crawlers. I only learned recently that I was exposed to Agent Orange used to control vegetation in the fire zone of those lonely evenings. When I was doing public affairs duty elsewhere on and around the base, I also saw some pretty horrible things, such as the remnants of a Thai family killed by an explosion while scavenging in Korat's ordnance dump, and an EC-139E Hercules plane crash that killed the crew (I knew one officer personally) and several Thai villagers, among other less dramatic but equally gruesome accidents and suicide scenes. You didn't need to be in combat to see blood and gore in the Vietnam Theater of War.
One thing I've learned to get past some mental concerns since my year in SEA is to forgive. I no longer hold any anger at the policy makers and officers who sent so many young people to their death or a crippled future. I forgive those who headed to Canada or Sweden to avoid the draft, as well as the Viet Cong, NVA regulars and any other enemy combatants. My only pet peeve now is people who say "Thank you for your service." I don't want to be thanked for serving in an immoral and unjust war. I know such people are trying to honor me, so I'm not trying to be too hard on them. But I'm sure every Vietnam vet, rather than being thanked, would prefer "Welcome home."