I can’t remember prisoners being called heroes until President Richard Nixon decided to use them for his political gain in the 1972 election. In a book I reviewed for the Rochester Post-Bulletin a number of years ago about the air war in Vietnam, it was written that pilots didn’t think the other pilots who got shot down or let themselves get shot down were heroic at all. But that was just their commentary at the time, early in the war around 1965-66.
I don’t know if U.S. Sen. John McCain is or was a hero of the Vietnam War. I know for sure I’m not. I never jumped on a grenade, and I never was a POW. I am just one of the many who got conned into serving my country at the time. I do remember how I felt in 1973 when the POWs came home, though. I felt lost. I felt useless. I felt helpless.
As presidential candidate Donald Trump told ABC News: “People that fought hard and weren’t captured and went through a lot, they get no credit. Nobody even talks about them. They’re like forgotten. And I think that’s a shame, if you want to know the truth.” He went on to say that McCain has done a poor job of helping to fix the Veterans Affairs health care system. “He’s all talk and no action.”
A lot of people don’t agree with Mr. Trump’s observations. I am one of those people. But on this veteran’s issue, he did stir memories that I had been trained to pack away.
I got out of the Army in October 1972. I spent a year in Vietnam as a medic in 1971. After the military, I returned to work as an orderly at Methodist Hospital in Rochester. I didn’t get the same job back. They only had to provide a similar position. So I pushed patients to the Mayo Clinic in wheelchairs through a maze of underground tunnels. That’s all I could do, because the civilian world didn’t recognize my medic training.
I was frustrated that my skills were going to waste. Then news came that the Vietnam War was winding down and that the POWs were going to be released. I didn’t think much of it at the time until that day I was at work pushing wheelchairs and I happened to stop by a visitors’ area where people were watching the returning POWs getting off the plane.
I lived in a fleabag motel near the hospital at the time. I left work and went to my room and turned on my portable TV, opened a beer and watched the POW story unfold.
After a few more beers, I decided not to return to work. Why were these guys getting so much respect? I couldn’t even wear my uniform and walk down the street without someone yelling obscenities at me. It didn’t make sense. Readjustment was hard enough, but now it seemed so overwhelming that I didn’t know where to turn. There were no outreach programs in Rochester in 1973 for returning Vietnam veterans. It was “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” or get your head out of your butt and get a job and stop bitching.
I began having trouble at work. My job was meaningless. I didn’t want to do anything but sit in my crappy motel room and drink beer and feel sorry for myself for wasting my time in the Army. I was fired a few weeks later.
No one cared about what was going on with my “feelings.” I wasn’t a “hero” like the returning POWs. I was just another faceless, nameless veteran of the Vietnam War who had believed what my nation had told me and had ended up like so many men and women used by the military in every war this nation has fought. I just felt used, like so many other veterans did.
Tim Connelly lives in Richfield.