Small flakes of snow prickled against my face and hands and left little wet splotches on the stationery on my lap. It was 1967, winter quarter, and I was sitting on the back steps of my dorm at Tift College in Forsyth. Snow, any amount, is a magical rarity in middle Georgia, and I wanted to share it with my big brother Fred, who was a world away in Vietnam.
Frederick, as I called him then, is four years older. We were country kids, raised on the family farm in Oconee County, but coming of age as the “conflict” in Southeast Asia was growing. We knew very little about Vietnam although war had been raging there since I was in second grade and Fred was in sixth. He would soon get a close-up lesson, and I would learn from him.
After a year at Young Harris college in north Georgia, Fred joined the Navy in 1965 rather than be drafted.* He chose the Seabees, a branch of the Navy that specializes in construction. As he was training for war in 1966, I was graduating from high school and settling into my new life at Tift. He was studying “camouflage and concealment, squad tactics, perimeter defense, military leadership, land mines and booby traps, and weapons nomenclature and characteristics,” according to a Familygram from his commanding officer. I was studying English, Spanish, and mathematics. While he was marching in formation and cleaning barracks, I was trying to slam volleyballs across the net in P.E.
By January 1967, he and his battalion were on their way to Camp Faulkner, near the Da Nang air base where they would build runways, barracks, and other structures, including an “interrogation center.”**
Between my mother and me, we seem to have saved most of the letters he wrote to us between 1965 and 1968. I found them recently.
Reading them now, I find the letters sweet and personal. He missed me, our parents and brother, our niece, his friends, his horses, his cows, his life on the farm, fresh milk, fresh vegetables, and Mama’s cooking.
I told him about life at Tift: new friends, classes, professors, parties, studying, my own homesickness, my concern for his safety and prayers for his safe—and soon—return to life on the farm. My dorm mates wrote notes in the letters I sent, and he responded to them in letters to me, happy to hear from American girls.
He wrote about the work his battalion was doing and about spending nights in foxholes at the perimeter of the camp while shells blazed overhead. And yet, he writes on March 9, “I feel about as safe here as one can feel.” He declared, “There’s no way we can lose the war but I guess everyone loses in a war”
A month later, he apologized for not having written lately, saying “I been kind of in the dumps,” explaining that the increased pay grade he thought he was getting wouldn’t be coming due to an accounting mistake. To me he wrote, “I been kinda down on the Navy for the last couple of weeks,” but then made light of it with a story about what might happen if he hijacked a Vietnamese junk and sailed it home. “I might be shipwrecked on an island with a tribe of Amazons.”
He writes he was a “fighting Seabee,” but “they won’t even let us shoot unless we are fired upon. Naturally we are so great we just give them that advantage.” In July, he told us about a direct hit by “Old Charlie Cong” on the nearby airport in which “12 guys [were] killed and about forty wounded. . . . about 18 phantom jets destroyed along with an ammunition dump which part of our battalion was building.”
A world away, I was a camp counselor in Clayton, which I had written him about in a previous letter. His next one to me is addressed to “Miss Adams” and is written in simple sentences, imitating my young campers. “I sure am tired. We have really been working hard. The heat is bad too. It really makes you tired.” In a P.S., he added, “This war is hard on everybody. It sure is a bad war.”
While he was learning that firsthand, we at home were seeing the war on television. And it certainly looked and sounded bad! We were anxious, but life continued on the farm, at college, and at summer camp. The cows had calves; the horses had foals. Several friends and neighbors got married; some of them had babies. At camp, I hiked, learned four chords on the guitar and sang with my new friends around the campfire.
Frederick went for rest and relaxation (R&R, as it was called) in a Malaysian city in late August. He describes “a very modern city with skyscrapers, four lane highways, parking meters, and the works . . .There was almost every nationality imaginable there. Almost everyone spoke English enough to carry on a conversation and they all seemed to think highly of the Americans.”
Returning to Camp Faulkner, he began to prepare for departure. He was counting the days until his return to the States, and notes that “We have been exceptionally lucky since we have had no one killed thus far. I sure hope that we don’t get careless because we are so short.”
What was I thinking?
In the fall I returned to life at Tift. In his letters, Frederick teased me about being a sophomore. “I’m beginning to be an ‘old salt’ myself now.” He had two more years in the Navy, but after that he pronounced, “I don’t plan to leave the state of Georgia . . . The rest of the world is no good.” He expected to be home soon, and in the last letter to me that year, dated Oct. 13, he wrote, “I’ll be home on leave by the 1st of Nov. so you best plan to be home around that time.”
He was home by early November and had 30 days of leave before reporting to Gulf Port, Miss. and Camp Lejeune, N.C., for more training in early 1968. By March he was back in Vietnam for a second tour of duty, this time in Phu Bai, south of Hue, which had been the scene of a major battle during the Tet Offensive in January 1968.
Recently, as I have reread those letters to me, our parents, and various other relatives, I have discovered how my memory has played tricks on me. Before I found the letters, I had tried to piece together the facts — a timeline of what happened when and where and how and why. When I let Fred read what I had written, he was hurt by how shallow my memories were. I had convinced myself that he was not in that much danger, that he never saw battle. But the truth is that the air base near Camp Faulkner was shelled every night. He was in constant danger.
Talking to him, reading the letters and other documents took me back into that era and awakened long-suppressed anxieties. As I read the letters, I realized I had jumbled events and blocked significant details altogether from my memory. I couldn’t understand the realities of the dangers that assailed him — this big brother, so precious to me. My survival method was to concentrate on my studies, my friends, my activities and responsibilities at Tift. He looked death in the eye and survived, in part I believe, by holding on to the lifeline of letters from home that told of everyday, ordinary life, letters filled with the love of his parents and a little sister who was determined to stay connected.
When those snowflakes fell on my pink stationery as I wrote to Frederick my freshman year, some of them barely left a spot. Others soaked into the paper and left indelible stains. Just so the events and experiences of that era stained a generation, some of us more than others. Some of the stains soaked so deep into psyches and bodies that the will always be there. Others have faded. Still others are visible only when we dig deep and admit that there are things too horrible to remember, possibilities that even now we can’t bear to face.
I buried those possibilities as deeply as I could: Surely, he was not in that much danger. Surely, he did not experience those horrible things that we saw and heard on television—things that even now I know he hasn’t told me about.
But like snowflakes falling on pink paper, those stains remain.
Myrna says Frederick came back to the family farm after two tours of duty in Vietnam, and has remained there, as he vowed in 1967. Fred has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for years, as did many Vietnam veterans. He suffers now with bladder cancer and other ailments believed to be caused by his exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant chemical sprayed on the country to expose roads and trails used by the Vietcong. She says he and his buddies from his tours of duty get together to reminisce and rehash their adventures – the good and the bad. Myrna is re-reading letters from 1968 and plans to share them in the March issue of BoomAthens.
*The military draft had been in effect since 1940 and would last until 1973. When Fred joined in 1965, the war had begun to heat up; the first American combat troops arrived at that time to defend the airfield at Danang.
**Used by military intelligence to gather information from captives and deserters.
Athens VA clinic needs more foster homes for vets
There’s an alternative to nursing homes for veterans with serious and chronic disabling conditions who can no longer safely live independently. Medical Foster Homes (MFH) under the direction of The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) strives to help veterans stay independent while balancing their needs for safety and support.
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The veteran pays the caregiver from $1,500 to $3,000 a month for this long-term commitment. A VA interdisciplinary home care team makes home visits to provide assessment, caregiver support and education, direct patient care and oversight. For more information on the program, email Hallie.email@example.com or call 706-945-9447.