State College, Pennsylvania - United States Army
This picture [left] was taken on September 8th, 1968. For the nine previous days my battalion (3/12 4th Infantry Division) had been on a mission in the northern end of Vietnam's central highlands where we'd been fighting the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] and really, really bad weather. There were significant losses on both sides and, in my opinion, nature had bettered us all. One outcome of the battle was that I'd been promoted to squad leader, just 19 but rapidly becoming one of the "old heads." I'd only been "in country" since that May, but promotion could come quickly in a combat unit.
When it was time to go home I did so with a lot of relief and pride. I was relieved to have survived and proud of many things: the way I'd handled myself under stress, my ability to lead a recon patrol, being awarded a CIB (Combat Infantry Badge), and being promoted to Spec 4 and then to Sergeant. My feelings reflected a very narrow view - mainly about what I'd experienced and those I'd interacted with during my tour. There was little awareness of what had been transpiring in the United State since I had volunteered for the draft in late September 1967, just after starting my second year of college and wanting to do something different.
The transition from my Army unit in Vietnam to home was quick, just a few days. Having lived overseas for part of my youth, I was prepared for the cultural shock of returning to the United States but not the emotional. What had been normal for the past year was suddenly very abnormal. I had a very hard time relating to those I cared about and them to me. An adjustment of sorts evolved over the next several months, but it wasn't an emotional state built for the long term. I returned to college, this time motivated, and found a field of study that would become my career. I became marginally active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and learned to keep my recent experience largely to myself. I also found my future wife, who helped me through some tough times.
It became clear, 25 years later, that my emotional fix had been only temporary. It took several more years, and some help, to begin sorting out my internal conflict. Looking at my early 1990s self, I see someone who had grown more and more against the war yet still proud of his service. He resented being told it wasn't a real war, of being asked if he'd killed babies, of being told he should have kept his deferment or ran to Canada, and of the "love it or leave it" mentality still present in a large segment of American culture.
It's now almost 50 years later and I still wrestle with the internal conflict between my pride of service and having been involved in a failed cause. I attended the screening of WPSU's A Time to Heal and preview of PBS's The Vietnam War. It's hard to say how this current level of attention on that period will affect me. It may be positive or it may be negative, time will tell.
Listen to Steve Schroeder speak about his military service in Vietnam on WPSU's Story Corp.