Dear Alan Willard—It’s been over 50 years since a Viet Cong rocket attack blew up our barracks and killed you. To this day, I’m amazed that I’m still alive because if I hadn’t stopped to say goodbye to a friend that was going home, I wouldn’t be here either. What breaks my heart is that the next day, the Air Force was going to fly you home. I miss you to this day, My Brother. I’ll see you on the other side—-Your Pal, JE
4/2/2019 A brief letter in honor of the Veterans of the Viet Nam War
I was 19 when I graduated from high school in Wellesley, Ma. The year before I had gone for my draft board physical in Boston and been classified 1A – fit for duty. My older brother had been classified
4 F due to high blood pressure, a problem I also inherited a few years later from our maternal grandfather who died at the age of 43.
In the autumn of 1972, I was fortunate to travel in Europe while Henry Kissinger was wrapping up negotiations to end the war. Nevertheless, I decided to not leave my fate to chance, so I began working to be classified as a Conscientious Objector.
Along with providing 5 letters of reference from friends and adults who had been important in my life, I needed to compose a statement outlining the basis of my beliefs. Still a teenager with little experience in debate or constructive argument, I found that composition to be a challenging task.
Other than my mother’s brother, who had been killed in action in WWII as a co-pilot in a B17 bomber, my family was not involved in the military (well, my Dad was ROTC at Harvard, not something he spoke of), so I had no affirmative influences toward choosing that life for myself, especially after seeing endless evening news accounts about the death and destruction taking place overseas.
On the other hand, the anti-war messages were part of my culture; Arlo Guthrie’s account (highly dramatized) of his draft physical, the Country Joe & the Fish song “Fixin’ to Die Rag” (aka Viet Nam song) . In addition to that, one of my school English classes had assigned the book All Quiet on the Western Front, so I had been exposed to rather graphic descriptions of gas attacks and other war experiences of WW I .
My actual religious experience at the time was pretty limited; I had not attended Sunday School as a child, nor was I in the habit of attending Sunday worship services. The one connection I had to formal church life was membership in a high school youth group. I had held offices within the group during those 4 years, and I was elected president of the group as a senior. I credit that experience as being the root of my faith that eventually, many years later led to being ordained in the United Church of Christ, where I served as a pastor and nursing home chaplain for several years before retirement.
Wellesley had a reputation for a liberal leaning concerning Conscientious Objectors and they granted me that status after reviewing my application and an interview process. I was very relieved, for even though it appeared the draft was coming to an end, I had a very low number in the draft lottery for my year. Ironically, I realized in retrospect that my C.O. Status was only valid for 1 year; had the draft and the war continued I probably would have had to apply for renewal of my status – fortunately I never had to find out what that would have entailed.
Another irony is that later in life I enlisted in the Navy Reserves; I became a Religious Program Specialist, one of the many steps I took toward finally applying to attend seminary. The Navy Recruiter was very careful to inquire about my change of heart leading to my enlistment. As recruiters were prone to do, he gave a soft-sell about what life would be like in boot camp; I was 34 when I went through boot camp. Between that experience and the resulting assignment to a unit that had no religious program, I must say there was no love lost on either side when my enlistment expired. My Navy experience left a negative impression, but that does not dim my respect for the men and women who have served in the various Armed Forces for this country.
That, in a nutshell, is how the Viet Nam War impacted my life. I am fortunate that none of my friends or family were killed in the war, though some of my co-workers were affected in ways only they can describe.
Rev. Robert W. Edgarton