A Vietnam Veteran’s Search for Meaning and Redemption

Will Gilmore
Sunday, October 1, 2017

View the video of the talk at https://vimeo.com/65460778

The following notes of the talk were taken by Sandee Beaman  

Will opened by telling us “This is MY story and it will differ from other Veteran’s stories–there are 5 million veterans from the Vietnam war and each one has his or her own story.”  And, in the military you learn several rules.

#1 This is a story about young kids experiencing war and being in a foreign country for the first time.

Two Veterans are committing suicide every 65 minutes and 1 active duty soldier is committing suicide daily.  In the Iraq & Afghanistan wars, more soldiers have committed suicide than have died on active duty.

There were 58,193 deaths during the Vietnam War of US troops…mostly very young men.

Gilmore said he grew up in Fond du Lac, WI, his father was a WW II Veteran, he grew up loving God, his country, and valuing family and community.  Gilmore’s father did not talk about the trauma of the war but he was an alcoholic, had 2 failed marriages, many jobs, and Gilmore thinks his father had some shell shock, now called PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), but it was never diagnosed.

When Gilmore went to marine boot camp, he went from the goodness of an 18 year old kid to “rip the bastard’s eyes out”.  Boot camp was mostly working class kids not  kids who had grown up belonging to golf clubs–normal kids who during their boot camp and training had to grow up and were changed and ready for war because they were drafted and now had no choice.  Gilmore was trained as an air winger and as  a radar technician.

When the plane Gilmore was on arrived in Da Nang, he said all of these young kids looked around, terrified, and thought, “What kind of shit did I get myself into?  I want to go home!”  The heat was sweltering and there were lines of soldiers getting ready to get on a flight to go home and one of them started yelling at Gilmore’s group, “Go Home!  They’ll kill you here.  Get your ass home–you don’t know what you’re getting yourselves into!”  Then, all the men going home started yelling, “Go home!  They’ll kill you here.”  He said all of the guys he was with were scared to death.

The radar systems were not designed for monsoons so he could not do his job and was put on guard duty for 2 months–in a very tall tower open to being killed actually, but a watch tower for the base.  Then, while he was in the guard tower one night, the base was hit on the ground (not sure how) and he was racing down the guard tower and was hit half way down (but not badly).  When there was enemy fire, the men had been ordered to run to the command bunker as fast as they could.  So, Gilmore said he ran and ended up having to jump over 6 to 8 bodies of men on the ground.

Then, for the rest of his life he has asked himself if any of those men were alive, if he could have stopped and saved any of their lives, if he could have drug them to safety.  He said, “I was an 18 year old kid who was told to make a B-line for the command bunker, and I did, but I cannot get over the fact I did not stop to see if I could have saved anyone’s life.

Gilmore said 80-90 % of the Veterans fro the Vietnam War were not actually in combat but had other jobs and 10-20% were infantry grunts (I don’t know how true this is) but today most people think everyone was an infantry grunt when actually most were supports–though that does not mean they did not experience war, get shot at, etc.

Gilmore said it was the time of Peace, Love, tie-dye, joints, and music and many of the military personnel were smoking joints just to manage to get through the days and playing music and some had peace signs.

G said the Vietnamese people living around their base were so poor and often hungry and over 1,000 people were living at the dump off the scraps from the base and picking up cigarette butts to smoke.  Which brings us to

RULE #2 DON’T FEEL

RULE #3 DON’T LOOK INTO THINGS – LEAVE IT ALONE.

W said you would just tear up looking at some of the kids and many of them did not have fathers as their fathers had been killed or were off fighting.  The kids were afraid, but they were also desperate for someone to play with them, give them some food, and to feel some love. W said he looked around and thought, “We created this monstrosity”. Because the US was bombing the rice paddies and the rural areas, the Vietnamese were forced from their rural life into towns, but they oftn could  not find jobs and did not have enough money to buy food, find a decent place to live, or take care of their families.

There was a place  called Dog Patch where you could buy dope, women, military equipment, cigarettes, and about anything you wanted.  Some soldiers were stealing military equipment and other items, cigarettes, and selling it on the black market.

RULE #4:  DON’T FRATERNIZE.

Gilmore broke this rule when he volunteered & started teaching kids English in a classroom each week.

RULE #5:  DON’T COMMUNICATE & DON’T LEARN THE LANGUAGE (because then you will have begun to form a relationship and it gets tougher to kill them.)

RULE #6:  DON’T SPEAK OF THEM AS EQUALS (because they could be the enemy or not and 1 unkind word today could cause the death of someone from your camp tomorrow.)

RULE #7:  DON’T PLAY, LEARN, LAUGH, OR TRY TO LEARN FROM THE VIETNAMESE OR THEIR CHILDREN.

Gilmore said many of the Vietnamese had very kind hearts and were very frightened for their families.  Gilmore said it was almost impossible not to play with the kids because here were 18 & 19 year old kids (a few older) who were away from their own families for the first time, away from their brothers and sisters, friends, and community and there were these needy children who were also hungry and living through a war. Gilmore met a young man who had been a dentist back home before he was drafted and he would go to villages to treat people as best he could, and there would always be huge lines of people.  The poverty in the villages was unimaginable and lack of medical and dental care almost went without saying.

RULE #8:  DON’T GIVE CIGARETTES TO THE KIDS

G said he began to think “I’m OK.  I’m safe” and then the bombings began to make “Crispy Critters” out of the people in the rice paddies and many civilian people were killed.  G said many civilians were gung ho patriots and supportive of the US but often there were Viet Cong living in the villages or people who were sympathetic to the Viet Cong and you would never know who was  safe and who was not, but he got more and more upset as more and more people, especially civilians, were being killed.

Once G began to see more and more killing and so many civilians dying, he said he just couldn’t take it any more–“Here we were in their country, and we were killing them.”  He went to his chief officer (I didn’t get the exact title) and asked to be sent to the brig because he could not fight and kill anyone any more.  Instead, he was sent as a member of a team (one of the most successful) of 12 marines who lived in villages and trained militia of the Vietnamese.  They also tried to keep the area secure for the Vietnamese in that town.  Gilmore’s village consisted of 2000 people.  Their motto for each other was “Be good boys or die”.  This was an extended family village 100% agricultural and the families had a pig, a few chickens, small hectares of land, vegetable gardens, and rice paddies.  The only business was a rice mill and a brick kiln.  Gilmore’s group was told that 30% were VC sympathizers–but who were they?  Was the barber a VC?  Was the grandmother a VC or the brick maker? Or the child walking up to their tent?   In this town 98% were Budhists and 2% were Catholic and the Buddhist Pagoda was the cultural center for the town.

Gilmore said they went on patrols, set up ambushes for incoming Viet Cong, and 24/7 you never knew what would happen to you or who might kill you (the same as the other U.S. fighters in Viet Nam).  Sometimes, as in Feb 1968, all people in a village would be killed.

Gilmore said they took pictures of each other to send home and they all “faked a smile for Mom”. Gilmore’s sergeant was killed by the Viet Cong, and when Will said this, he had to stop talking and just stood there for a while to compose himself.  All of the other marines loved this sergeant.  More about him later.

Gilmore said his group of 12 guys were great and a man named Ortiz didn’t speak one word of English and no one could figure out how he got through boot camp, but he had and he had a friend who went in with him and translated for him!.  Ortiz wanted desperately to become a US citizen and thought if he went into the service, he would be able to become a citizen when he got out, but he was killed.  A member called Hodges cashed his check and gave all his money to the family of a Vietnamese woman he loved desperately.  The marines also had to deal with the fact that many of the Vietnamese in town did not want to learn to fight or be trained as they knew the US would pull out and leave them stranded.  The people still hated the French for what they did to Vietnam.

Gilmore said “In in a way, we were baby killers posing as 12 all- American kids from Rochester, Fargo, Fond du Lac, etc.”  Their jobs were to win the hearts and minds of the people, and they broke all the rules and gave money to the kids for their families for food, learned people’s names, and helped them in as many ways as they coud and tried to learn to communicate with them better.  Because the village could become under attack, the marines slept in tents and moved every 24 hours so the Viet Cong would not know exactly where they were…but Gilmore said there was a kid who made them coffee every day and no matter where in the area they moved, the kid found them every day to make them coffee!   The marines paid the kids to do all kinds of things:  cook, clean, seamstresses, etc.  And, many of the kids were orphans as their fathers had already been killed.

The marines also had to be careful as some people in the village could be assassinated just for associating with the marines.

The marines also carried their medical bags and went around the hamlets to help people, clean their wounds, bandage, treat sores on kids arms and legs, etc.  At night it was called a Free Fire Zone and anything that moved was fair game–and sometimes their stray rounds would hit civilians and children were hurt, blinded, lost limbs, etc.

Gilmore said his sergeant died because he would not get the death count up for the village.  The death count was all that mattered and the top brass wanted more and more deaths to report to the press and commanders. They pushed the people below them to report more killings and thus more success.  Their sergeant would not get the death count up by killing innocent civilians so they transferred him to a different place, and he was killed.  Many “confirmed dead” were not Viet Cong fighters at all but civilians.  Gilmore said he had an opportunity to kill 2 people (a man and a woman) one night on guard duty and he did not.  He has thought about them a lot–were they civilians or Viet Cong?  Did they have children?  How old were they?  He does not regret not killing them.

When Gilmore was discharged, he lived until 2001 with depression, alcoholism, nightmares, anxiety, panic attacks, suicide ideations, had 23 jobs, felt sometimes emotionally numb, isolated himself, felt rage and ran and ran and ran.  Most of the Vietnam vets were not treated for depression but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the men and women finally began  being treated more.  Also, for Veterans of any war, seeing all the reports of the Iraq & Afghanistan brought out a lot of their own anxieties again.

Gilmore talked a little about the protests against the war back in the 1960’s and wonders who was right.  The veterans talk about the one bullet option of killing themselves and many still are.  Gilmore did get medication and was finally diagnosed with PTSD–which is a psychological trauma to the brain.   Gilmore said he also felt rage when we pulled out, hated Jane Fonda and some of the other protestors and resented in some ways the 18 year old kids who were playing golf and having a wonderful time and not going to war while other young men and women were going to Iraq & Afghanistan.  He was angry at the injustice of those who evaded service to their country.  He said he was filled with rage when the draft evaders were welcomed home  He understands this is all in conflict with his hating having been in Viet Nam and not wanting our country to go to war.  President Ford called the Viet Nam war finished, but in Gilmore and many veterans lives, the Viet Nam war will never really ever be over as it changed their lives forever.

Gilmore said in 1986 there were no PTSD cases but now 70% have PTSD.  He finally was able to get treatment, mental health counseling, was put on drugs for anxiety, treated for his alcoholism, did yoga, meditation, art therapy, was in writing groups, and finally feels better after all these years.  The veterans in the row behind us at the lecture were sighing, moving, breathing out in puffs, and breathing in real deeply.  These men started out sort of talking then got more and more quiet as Gilmore spoke.  Two left as soon as the talk was over and others stayed after to praise Gilmore for doing what he is doing.

Gilmore said he has realized there is often no good decision, or decisions you just have to live with.  He talked more about the men he had left on the ground when he followed orders and went to the command post and didn’t stop to help them.  He had a lot of anger and confusion and decided he had to go back to Viet Nam.  He met a peace activist at the Viet Nam War Museum in Viet Nam when he returned.  G also had another woman with him who spoke Vietnamese.  It took the 3 of them 3 days to find his village where he had  been one of 12 Marines.  G had been showing us photographs throughout his talk and pictures of many people in the village where he had been.  He had made a big photo album and brought the pictures with him when he returned to Viet Nam.  There had been a young apprentice at the Pagoda (community center), and she was now the senior nun there.  She began to show him around and G told her he was there to make amends for what was done to their village and their country.  “I was going to say ‘I’m sorry’ but before I could, she told me to put it behind me and get a life.  Don’t bring your guilt here now; bring your friendship.”  They had parties for him, which he totally had not expected in any way.  He showed them his photo album and most of the people were still alive–especially the kids, and he then showed us pictures of how the people loo today..  Many of them had never seen pictures of themselves as children or during the war as no photos were taken for about 10 years there.  Some people also saw loved ones who were deceased, especially grandparents and friends.  Gilmore said, “I had no idea I was bringing such a gift”.  He also met some people who told him they were Viet Cong at the time he was in their village and he & they buried their hatchets.  Gilmore said he still can hardly get over how he was treated when he returned, and he has returned 2 more times and now almost can’t stay away.  He just feels a need to return.

Gilmore had shown us a picture of a young man blinded from a bomb, and he found him and also we had seen a picture of a  man who had his foot blown off and the fingers on both hands, and he got tomeet that man, and the man  invited him to have a meal with his family.  G was blown away by the kindness and welcome he received but did not feel he deserved. Then, G went to the spot where he had the opportunity to kill 3 people (I said earlier it was 2, but it was 3).  G said he went there for his sergeant, too.

In talking with the people of the village, many of them ultimately thought their village would become a Mai Lai.  One woman told Gilmore that when she saw men coming up to her home, she felt she had to make a decision of which children to try to save so she left her baby outside and ran off with her 2 other young children who could run faster and whom she felt she needed to save so she could raise and protect them. Then, the baby started crying and she ran back after the baby and realized the men were not going to kill her whole family.  A very sobering moment in his discussion.

When  Gilmore returned to Viet Nam, he ended up staying in DaNang and working with kids for 2 months on English pronunciation.  He also met and gathered with the children (now adults) whom he had taught English to back in 1967.  Gilmore also met many children who were 1/2 American and they were called Monkies nearly their entire years, and they all have had extremely difficult lives and have not been accepted and have had difficulty finding any type of work (I have heard this before) .  He met one girl in particular who had tried desperately to find her father and wanted to know about him and who he was.  She knew he had been called Red and when she was conceived and Gilmore promised her he would see what he could do–and it took him over a year when he returned, but he found the man, and her Dad went to Viet Nam, got her and brought her back to the United States!   That was just amazing.  After this story, the Veterans behind me were sniffing, almost breathing on my neck and clearly moved.

G said men and women return to Viet Nam for all kinds of reasons and sometimes to just try and get in touch with loved ones who were killed while they were in Viet Nam.  One man went back to try and find two little girls who had saved his life –one had died but one was still alive and the veteran who went back bought a tomb for the one who had died, and they did a new memorial service for her.    G said most Veterans are trying to make peace and deal “with the whole frickin’ experience”.

G also said, “I can say I’m mentally damaged, but I an home and 58,193 military personnel who were in Viet Nam cannot say that.

G then searched and searched & finally found the family of his sergeant who had died.  G got to meet his wife and kids, brother and sister, and found his mother was still living and went to visit her in a nursing home.  He told them all about his Sergeant, what a decent and compassionate man he was, and that he had died because he would not kill more people to raise the body count for the US.  His sergeant was Black, and Gilmore said he had never really known or gotten close to a Black person before his sergeant.  Gilmore said the sergeant’s mother told him that she was not a bit surprised he would not go along and try to up the body count as that was the way she raised him, and she would not have expected anything different from him.  And, Gilmore has seen so many Black people fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Black men who fought in WW II and Korea and Viet Nam all felt they could serve their country and when they returned, they would be accepted in society, but came home to find they were still not accepted and were still discriminated against.   Gilmore feels there is institutionalized racism in this country and it is everywhere.

Gilmore urged us all to be careful before we pass judgment on soldiers, marines, etc.  because he found you can train men to do hideous things and become monsters–and don’t kid yourself if you think it could not happen to you.  Wars are fought by mostly undereducated young kids willing to die.  G said “we were actually the enemy, not just the VC, because we were in “their” land and we were killing them.”  Gilmore reminded us  after we left, most of the people in the country were skin and bones and suffering and starving .  There were so many victims of Agent Orange ( in addition to our troops) and even now, 3rd and 4th generations are born with all types of abnormalities.  G’s own daughter was born with Juvenile Onset diabetes and that is one of the results of Agent Orange exposure.  Thus, the war continues for the Vietnamese and their land is the most intensely contaminated place in the world from all the Agent Orange and other exposures and bombing.

Gilmore has been back 4 times in 2008-2012 and said he came to San Miguel this year instead but knows he has to go back to Viet Nam in 2014.  He is writing a book and has a blogspot called  HYPERLINK “http://mindfuljourneys.com” \t “_blank” mindfuljourneys.com.  He is working with Viet Nam Vets Against War.

Gilmore asked, “Where is the wisdom in what we are doing to our children and to the world with wars?  Even at age 18 & 19, kids begin to see war as bullshit.  When a person’s spiritual being is wrecked in war, he or she feels the only way out is often suicide.  Gilmore mentioned in the Viet Nam War Museum in Viet Nam, it is extremely emotional and there is a part of it on Mai Lai and there is a picture of the soldier getting a medal for Mai Lai.

Gilmore said the new buzz word is resiliency and the enlisted men and women are told not to take it all personally…like a person can just decide that.  Gilmore said you just cannot ask friends and kids to die and not apologize for sending them into war in the first place.

In the discussion that followed, several Veterans praised Gilmore and one said he had presented everything so beautifully and holistically and another said he hoped it would give more Veterans an opportunity to talk about their feelings about the war then and now.

Gilmore also said the reason there is so much apathy about Iraq & Afghanistan is that there is no draft any longer and therefore most families do not have sons and daughters in the war and thus it is easy in some ways to just let these wars be another news story.  When asked if he thought the draft would ever be reinstated, he said he did not think so because no congress person or senator would be willing to risk the wrath of the citizens.

I think if the draft were reinstated,  there would be less wars and many more protests.

I do not think I have done justice to Gilmore’s presentation, but this is what I could recall from his talk and my notes.  I have such terrible memories of Viet Nam, and my husband at the time who was in the Army, was not even sent to Viet Nam.  BUT, there was so much TV coverage, and to this day, if scenes from the Viet Nam war come on TV , if I hear helicopters (in real life or on TV), and see the body bags, and all the terror of war that we were shown just comes rushing back to me and I could burst into tears…  and I was not even there!!!    I think, too, because so many of us were ages 18-25 at the time, it made a huge impression on us, and it needed to.

Love, Sandee

Read Will Gilmore’s blog at  HYPERLINK “http://mindfuljourneys.blogspot.mx/http://mindfuljourneys.blogspot.mx/