By Guy C. Lamunyon
There was silence in the commercial airliner contacted to fly us home as we boarded and taxied for takeoff. The plane lifted off and all was still in eerie silence. Then the pilot came on the loudspeaker and announced, “You are now outside the range of fire from the Republic of Vietnam.” We all cheered, whooped and hollered. Now I was headed home but concerned about the guy who’s wife I had an affair with while HE WAS IN VIETNAM. Would I be killed at home by a rightfully jealous husband after surviving the war?
Prior to deploying to the Republic of Vietnam I had been told the best way to survive was to accept that fact that I would be killed there – I would have less anxiety about combat that way. You can imagine my surprise when I had survived the war serving as a combat medic with the 101st Airborne Division ! ! !
During my deployment I had been looking forward to the promised steak dinner at Fort Lewis Washington. I had imagined the long awaited steak dinner would be in a darkly lit steak house with linens and attentive waiters. Instead the steak dinner was served in a regular Army mess hall on stainless steel tray with French fries. I was disappointed but still happy to be home.
Before being drafted I had studied psychology and had learned about behavioral reinforcement in college. I was interested to see how much retraining there would be for all the infantry guys who were trained to kill and would need retraining. I had been trained as a medic to help others and did not think I would need such retraining. So how much retraining did we get? The answer is NONE! The discharge process took about 72 hours. We were given new Class A Dress Uniforms to wear home and our discharge papers. We were told the DD214 discharge paper was an ‘important document’ that we should not loose and if we had any problems we should go to the VA (Veterans Administration).
It was not popular to be a soldier during the Vietnam war era, so I got my uniform off as quickly as possible and grew my hair as long as possible. I was proud of earning my Combat Medics Badge, which I had engraved on the back with the 101st Airborne Division Screaming Eagle. I carried my Combat Medics Badge on my keychain for years until it wore thin. I still have that memento of the war tucked away ! ! !
When I was released from active duty, Duke University was recruiting former military medics for their Physicians Assistant program at LA USC Medical Center. I went to the LA USC Medical Center armed with a
letter of recommendation from the doctor in charge of the Dispensary I worked in at Fort Knox. The room was full of doctors in suits; I was more accustomed to living in the jungle with every other word being the F… word. I still had combat stress and found the interview very intimidating. One of the questions was about the use of Xylocaine for nerve blocks. ‘Would you use Xylocaine with or without epinephrine for a nerve block?’ I knew the answer (without) but had ‘brain freeze’ due to stress. Just like back on the trail my first day in the jungle, I used ‘Enie menie miny moe and guessed, WITH EPINEPHRINE – wrong answer! Maybe ‘I don’t remember would have been a better answer?” Needless to say, I was not accepted for the PA program.
When my unemployment ran out I no longer wanted my job in manufacturing. When I was drafted I had been working as an engineering assistant (expediter) and with the completion of my degree in business would become a production engineer. Helping my fellow man in the military had been rewarding to me and I decided to seek a career in the helping professions. I took a job in a civilian hospital and found Registered Nurses were making good salaries and telling other people what to do so I decided to pursue nursing on my GI bill.
My family and the population in general did not ask questions about my service in Vietnam. When I did run into combat veterans I was always enthusiastic about sharing my experiences. In about 1980 I began to have very high levels of workplace stress. I studied meditation for several years and have developed a very high stress tolerance.
With the opening of the VA Vet Centers and the Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall cities across the USA began having Vietnam Veteran Welcome Home parades. Los Angeles had a Vietnam Veteran’s Welcome Home parade in 1987. I knew going to the parade would be healing for me. I had given my jungle fatigues to my younger brother after the war so got out my Class A Dress Uniform to wear to the parade. I pinned my large VIETNAM VETERANS AGAINST THE WAR patch on the back of my Class A uniform and headed for LA.
The half scale Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall was on display downtown, Even at half scale it was very impressive! The streets of LA were blocked off for the parade – there were veterans in various uniforms or partial uniforms EVERYWHERE. One guy was in full jungle fatigues and carrying an AR15 (the civilian version of the M16). Veterans were lining up by Division. I walked along the parade line until I found a 101st Airborne Division banner. I knew this is where I was meant to be. The guys who had brought the banner were WWII vets from the 101st Airborne Division Association. Who knew there was a group of former Screaming Eagles?
When I looked for a place to fall in to the formation a girl about my age told me, “WELCOME HOME.” Her brother had been a Screaming Eagle and had been killed in Vietnam. She was helping with the parade in memory of her brother. I had been back from Vietnam for fifteen years and nobody had told me welcome home. My eyes filled with tears; I had to walk away to be by myself for a minute.
Back in formation the other veterans gave me a hard time for wearing the VIETNAM VETERANS AGAINST THE WAR patch on my uniform so I took it off. When the parade started the WWII guys called cadence and we began to march. Hey, we still could do it and looked pretty good for not having practiced together. The people of LA lined the streets and cheered for us as we marched down the street. Veterans from LT Calley’s Division (Americal) sat on the curbs watching the parade; still demoralized for the disgrace of the Me Lai Massacre.
In 1989 I visited Fort Sam Houston, Texas where I had trained as a medic in 1970. A new statue dedicated to Combat Medics had been installed there in from of the new Military Medical Museum. I now felt my service as a medic had been esteemed by the Army.
When the 101st Airborne Division deployed for the Gulf War I felt like my team was playing and I was not there. I cheered for them while watching on them on television. The public was now supporting the military. This was a positive change.
My youngest son had just been born and my wife did not want to go back to work. I needed a second job and saw the ad in a nursing journal, WANTED, COMBAT NURSES, PART TIME. This was an ad recruiting nurses to join the National Guard. Since there had just been a major war and I had learned in college that wars occur each 20 years I assumed I would be safe for the 18 more years I would have to serve to earn an Army retirements. I asked the recruiter to let me speak with a nursing officer and talked with the chief nurse who was to become my mentor. He said the mission of the hospital unit I would be assigned to was training. Learning new skills seemed of interest to me so I signed up.
I was given a direct commission as an Army Nurse at the rank of First Lieutenant. I was back to Fort Sam Houston for Officer Basic Training (two weeks and really easy). My National Guard career included hospital training in Mississippi, duty in the LA Riots, Northridge Earthquake and a humanitarian mission to Panama. I then transferred to the Army Reserve where I served in two major multiservice summer exercises, one as Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment Commander for a Medical command group.
I returned to the National Guard when I could find an opening. I served as Office In Charge for an Exam Station in Southern California, then served as Personnel Office, Executive Officer and Deputy Commander for the statewide California Medical Detachment.
After 911 President and Commander in Chief Bush went on television and told military people to ‘get ready.’ I got all my uniforms cleaned and pressed and waited for orders.
I was mobilized for Active Duty in 2004 at age 57 to serve as a case manager for the newly formed Community Based Healthcare Organization helping Guard and Reserve soldiers returning from the War On Terror who had been ill or injured. I was back on active duty helping soldiers and it felt good! . I also helped plan and conduction psychological debriefing for California National Guard soldiers returning from duty in support of Hurricane Katrina. I was able to retire in 2010 as a Lieutenant Colonel; not bad for a guy who started as a private.
In the past 42 years since I was drafted for the Vietnam war I have seen many positive changes. The public has learned not to condemn the warrior when condemning the war. Veterans are now being esteemed and supported. The military is now preparing soldiers psychologically for combat with resiliency training. Upon return from combat warriors are being asked about psychological problems. Warriors are being prepared for return to civilian life with transition workshops. We have developed a stature as the best trained, best equipped military in the world.
My civilian healthcare career included working as a Clinical Technician at La Habra Community Hospital, Alcohol Rehab at Memorial Medical Center Long Beach, Family Recovery Services at Saint Joseph Hospital in Orange, CA, Community Psychiatric Centers in Mission Viejo, CA and VA Hospitals in West LA, Long Beach and Prescott AZ as program manager and The Guidance Center in Flagstaff AZ as Director of Nursing. I have been a part time instructor at the Alcohol Research Institute, California Addiction Counselors Training Institute, Saddleback College, West Coast University and presently at Northern Arizona University. I have done many trainings at professional workshops and the International Combat Stress Conference and AMSUS (Association of Military Surgeons of the United States).
Original written for the Veterans History Project, Sedona AZ