Jay Lacklen: Vietnam veterans

May 28, 2010 12:43:00 PM

Jay Lacklen - lacklenj@aol.com

 

I recently attended a book signing in Oxford by Karl Marlantes, author of current Vietnam novel "Matterhorn" that graphically displays the personal horror and uncomfortable ennui of that war, a war we both sought out.  

 

Marlantes and I are similar in that we went to war with a minimum of coercion (the draft) that seemed, actually, to give us an excuse to sign up while our college graduate peer group was pulling out all stops to avoid going.  

 

Marlantes provides the extreme example of this since he had graduated from Yale and attended Oxford (England) as a Rhodes scholar. Our experiences in Vietnam could not have been more different, however.  

 

As we discussed our individual perspectives on the war, Marlantes disclosed he had never seen the country as I had. His flight from the States had landed in Danang in the far north of the country just below the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). He had been flown by helicopter into a hilltop firebase near the intersection of the Laos and the North Vietnam border, about the hottest war zone you could find at the time.  

 

He spent 13 months there in the jungle, save a one-week R&R (Recreation and Recuperation), and left as expeditiously as he had arrived. If he had gone back to Vietnam years later, he said ruefully, it would be as a tourist since he had seen nothing else of the country.  

 

I dug through my previous scribbling and located this description of my service I had written some years ago about flying small cargo planes out of Cam Rahn Bay on the coast of South Vietnam.  

 

"I couldn''t believe the turn my life had taken. Just two years before I was starting my senior year at the University of North Carolina, and now I was flying an Air Force transport in a war zone half way around the world, and loving it. I enjoyed the panache of being in a war, yet with very little real danger to me.  

 

I would often, later, feel guilty saying I was in the war because for all practical purposes, I was above the war. I had never killed anyone (yet), never had anyone shoot at me, and only heard one rocket land at any base I was on. Mine was the softest, most comfortable perch for the war and I tried not to claim any heroic status for having gone.  

 

Others suffered horribly or died to provide my panache and subtle war veteran sheen, so I tried never to volunteer that I had served there. I was proud of the service but, over the years, many of my generation began fabricating war exploits for political purposes, or used their Vietnam service for some sort of perceived advantage.  

 

I find this particularly galling when my relatively affluent peers, who took desperate or devious methods to avoid Vietnam, suddenly decide having participated might provide a kudo for them now, so they create a phantom record of service. I have no mercy for those publicly out-ed."  

 

The recent such outing of a Connecticut politician for falsely claiming he had fought in Vietnam, along with my talk with Marlantes, brought this issue back to me.  

 

Despite Vietnam being a tawdry little war, it provided the only opportunity to explore this universal human endeavor and I didn''t think I should miss it. I find my view somewhat jejune and precocious now...but not entirely.  

 

If I had just graduated, I''d probably be itching to see Afghanistan, a contingency war I feel president Obama should have terminated.  

 

Heaven help me, and us.  

 

Jay Lacklen is a retired Air Force Reserve pilot, who flew missions in Vietnam and Iraq. Presently he is simulator instructor at CAFB and is writing a book about his experiences in the Air Force.