A Sense of Betrayal
Recollections of Vietnam
(Published August 17, 2012)
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(May 1968 – March 1969)
Technically, the United States’ involvement in the war in Vietnam began in 1961. Even though I was then in Navy ROTC, and later in the United States Navy proper, I didn’t pay much attention to Vietnam for several years. All of that changed for me in the fall of 1968.
I was then a young Navy Lieutenant assigned to a new-construction destroyer escort being built by the Lockheed Corporation in Seattle. The ship had an experimental engineering plant for which I was responsible, and for which I had extensive specialized training. I was scheduled for normal rotation to a new assignment in October of that year, but during the summer both my Captain and I requested that the Bureau of Naval Personnel extend my assignment to the ship. We were both led to believe that our requests had been accepted … but then, in the military, one can’t count on anything.
In September, I had my annual military physical examination at the local Navy hospital. Shortly thereafter, a special report about the results of that examination was misrouted, and ended up on my desk rather than going directly to the doctors at the hospital. Given that it was about me, I checked it out carefully and found that it was full of medical jargon having to do with scar tissue on my lungs. I went to the hospital and asked for an explanation, but was told that none would be forthcoming because it was “none of my business.” I was dumbfounded — my lungs were none of my business? Muddling in my bewilderment, I felt that those whose jobs were supposed to involve ensuring my medical well-being had violated my trust. Attempting to work through my confusion and frustration, I ended up going to a civilian internist who ran a number of tests and informed me that since I tested negative for tuberculosis, the only logical explanation was that I must have, at some point, contracted “San Joaquin Valley Fever.” When I told him that I had never been near the San Joaquin Valley, he said we could only chalk it up as an unexplained medical mystery.
Twenty-five years later, when I was doing research on biological warfare weapons, I discovered that the U.S. Navy had been testing one such weapon, known as “coccidiomycosis” on unsuspecting naval personnel at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1966. Well, “coccidiomycosis” and “San Joaquin Valley Fever” are one and the same thing, and I had been stationed at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard during the summer of 1966. It seemed pretty clear that I had been one of those unwitting test subjects. My sense of having been betrayed by the military medical system was complete, and I was outraged.
Given that my term of obligated active duty was due to expire in June of 1969, I wrote to the Bureau Of Naval Personnel in October of 1968, submitting my resignation. Their response was prompt and pointed. I was informed that the extension of my assignment aboard the destroyer escort was cancelled, that my obligated time in service was being involuntarily extended, and that I would be sent to Vietnam. Again, I felt a sense of betrayal.
In December, I received secret orders to the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird Maryland. Those orders, which arrived at the start of the Christmas holidays, gave me no idea what to expect other than that I was to wear civilian clothes, and they required that I report on January 2nd, 1969. My family and I were thrown into chaos. We had to forgo celebrating Christmas, and had only ten days to get all our possessions crated and put into storage, sell our car, fly from the West Coast to Baltimore, get another car, and find a place to live. Because we had so little time, we had to settle for a dreadful apartment in a run-down section of Baltimore. We then had to scramble to buy winter clothes, bed and bath linens, and all of the necessities and toys for our little one. My wife spent much of her time in tears, and so did our daughter.
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At the intelligence school, on the first day of class, the Commanding Officer of the school told us that, while we were all “volunteers,” and that we knew what we were getting into, he wanted to remind us that we were going to be trained in “black intelligence.” He advised us that our training would involve those aspects of intelligence that were illegal under international law — the Geneva Conventions, the Nuremberg Principles, and such — that the U.S. government would not stand behind us if our activities were to come to light, and that if we had any reservations about performing such duties, we were to request withdrawal immediately.
I had many reservations, indeed, but thought I would give it a couple of weeks to see if we were just being subjected to meaningless scare tactics. We weren’t. We were taught about the fine art of lying, deceit, and manipulation; we were taught about assassination and torture; we were taught about how to avoid getting found out. Ludicrously, we were sent into the slums of Baltimore to surreptitiously deliver and retrieve messages, to follow people, and to spy — ludicrous because, given our stature, bearing, and haircuts, we were obviously in the military and couldn’t be surreptitious about anything because we stood out like sore thumbs.
I very quickly came to realize that this was duty for which I was clearly unsuited, and I wasn’t about to volunteer for an assignment where it had been clearly stated, up front, that my own government wouldn’t hesitate to abandon me. I therefore requested withdrawal. The Army readily accepted my request, but the Navy’s position was quite different. I was confined to quarters pending court martial for my refusal to obey orders — so much for a “voluntary” assignment. I felt I definitely could not trust the system, that the Navy and the Government had become “the enemy,” and, with feelings of great desperation, I considered relocating to Canada as a way out of this situation. Other than from my wife, I received no support whatsoever from the rest of my family, and felt very much alone. The Navy, however, ultimately came up with an acceptable solution to our impasse. I was ordered to a position as a Coastal Surveillance Center watch officer in Vietnam, a position for which I was well trained, and one that didn’t violate my moral principles, so I accepted those orders.
Struggling to deal with record snowfalls, I got my family settled in, north of Boston, and then boarded a plane to Vietnam. The mood of the troops on board the plane was positive, upbeat, and energetic. It was almost like being at a pep rally before a football game. Most of us had no idea what we were getting into; most of us still had absolute faith in our Government; and most of us were eagerly anticipating the opportunity to become heroes. The plane eventually landed at Cam Ranh Bay, which was the headquarters of the Coastal Surveillance Force.