I came home from Vietnam in late August, 1968, after being in-country for 16 months – the weird time frame came about because I volunteered to go when I had less than 12 months left on my term of enlistment so I had to extend for twelve months to find out what Vietnam was all about.
I did not go to Vietnam to save the American way of life. I went to Vietnam because for three months prior to volunteering I’d been at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, processing guys who were returning from Vietnam and I wanted to know what had happened to them that gave them all what came to be known as the “thousand yard stare” and none of them would tell me. They wouldn’t tell me anything.
I know that I found out about the thousand yard stare, though I don’t know when or how it happened. I know it happened because now I have it. That’s right; now, over forty years after I left Vietnam I still have the thousand yard stare, and so does every man and every woman who served there.
For the first couple of years after Vietnam I was angry and it showed but I didn’t know what I was angry about. If I had tried to verbalize the problem I would have said that everyone and everything changed while I was gone and I can’t seem to get back in sync.
Finally I learned to hide the anger (most of the time) and I hid it pretty well for over twenty years. Then, on January 17, 1991, Operation Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm and I couldn’t hide my Vietnam issues any more. A few weeks later I ran an ad in the Times-Journal, Fort Payne, Alabama’s daily newspaper. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it went something like this: “I’m a Vietnam Vet and all of my stuff is up. If you are having the same issues and want to talk about it, meet me at the Best Western for a cup of coffee.”
I gave a date and time a few days from the day the ad ran. I also noted in the ad, “You don’t have to call me but I’d appreciate it if you would, just so I will have an idea how many will be there.” The day of the meeting I found one message on my answer machine. The anonymous caller simply said, “I’ll fucking well be there.” Something in the voice made it clear that if he didn’t die before 7 PM he would be there. I thought, well, at least there will be two of us.
I got to the restaurant thirty minutes early, walked through the front door and saw twenty-seven of the most intense men I’d seen since I left Vietnam. One of them shouted, “Hey, are you Carson?” I said that I was and he said, “Well Carson, you’re late.”
I looked at my watch, then looked at him and said, “I’m not late, I’m thirty minutes early.”
He didn’t hesitate. “That’s not what I mean. You’re twenty years late calling this meeting.” That got a big laugh from everyone including me, because we all knew that he was right. That was the beginning of Vietnam Veterans Southern Command, and though we don’t meet on a regular basis anymore, the group will exist as long as two of us are alive. What we did together was put the demons to rest – we didn’t change the fact that we were there – we didn’t erase the thousand yard stare – but we did come to terms with the experience. I’ll share more about the group in the coming days and maybe our experiences will help you or someone you love.
Staff Sergeant Bert Carson
214th Combat Aviation Battalion
Republic of South Vietnam – 1967 – 1968
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