McCrabb: Thankfully our opinions of Vietnam veterans have changed

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Vietnam veteran talks about returning home

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Kenny Baldwin always wanted to be a Marine for two reasons. He dreamed of proudly wearing the “best looking uniform,” and he had always heard about the Marine mystique.

“If you want to be the best,” he said, “go with the best. So I did.”

None of that mattered in 1970, nearly 50 years ago.

That’s when Baldwin, a 1967 Franklin High School graduate, returned to the United States after serving 25 months in Vietnam. Whether Vietnam was a War or a Conflict will be debated forever.

But here’s a fact: The Vietnam Era was one of the most controversial times in our country. You think our country is divided today? Nothing compared to Vietnam.

ExploreMORE: Several events are planned this week in honor of Veterans Day

Vietnam has been chronicled extensively in television, film, video games, music and literature. But Baldwin didn’t need to watch John Wayne’s pro-war film, “The Green Berets,” Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” or “Rescue Dawn” or listen to Country Joe and the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” to experience Vietnam.

He lived through the turbulence.

“I didn’t want anybody to know I was in the military,” Baldwin remembered when asked what it was like when he returned to his Madison Twp. home. “Not that I was ashamed. I was always very proud of what I did. But people looked at that and assumed you were one of them. Drug addict, baby killers and all that. Not a good time for us.”

He paused, then added: “We had nobody to talk to. Nobody wanted to listen to what we had to say. So we just shut up. And after a while you can only cram so much inside. You keep cramming and cramming and then you blow a fuse.”

Even the Veterans Administration refused to care for its members who served during Vietnam, he said.

“We were a used up commodity so to speak,” he said. “We did what the government asked us to do and they were done with us.”

It’s important to revisit our military history, especially every Veterans Day.

Direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam ended on Aug. 15, 1973. The war exacted a huge human cost in terms of fatalities. Estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from 966,000 to 3.8 million. More than 58,000 U.S. service members also died in the conflict, and 1,626 remain missing in action.

Baldwin enlisted in the Marines as part of the delayed entry program in February 1967, five months before he graduated from Franklin High School. He received his diploma on June 3, and on June 7, he was in boot camp in California. He was sent home for 20 days of leave, back to California, then to Vietnam.

He was there for 25 months, a 13-month tour and two six-month tours. Despite being injured during one gun fight that killed one soldier and wounded five, Baldwin said he wanted to stay in Vietnam.

But his commander had different plans. Of the six Franklin High graduates who enlisted with Baldwin, five flew home in body bags.

“That was it,” he said softly.

When Baldwin requested another tour, his commander told him: “You are living on borrowed time. I’m sending you home.”

He went home. But he never felt at home.

Baldwin worked at Armco for 33 years, retiring in 2003 and spent his free time coaching his two sons. But once he retired and his sons grew up, Baldwin struggled with those Vietnam flashbacks. His drinking became more frequent, which only intensified his mental issues.

“We were big, bad Marines,” he said. “We didn’t need any help.”

Then he admitted: “Everything fell apart.”

He met with a counselor and she told him: “The wolves are at your door.”

“That pretty much nailed it,” he said.

In fact, several years ago, after struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and alcoholism, he wrote a book entitled: “Never Home.”

Reliving those years in Vietnam and constantly jotting down memories served as the “best therapy” he ever had, Baldwin said. He wrote the book so his five grandchildren could understand “what makes papaw, papaw,” he said.

He still doesn’t understand why he survived Vietnam.

“There were guys who were married with kids and they got killed,” he said. “I was single with no kids. I was a free ticket. Why did I get to come home? They could have taken me just as easy. But I guess we don’t get to decide who lives and dies. That’s God.”

He said America’s view toward Vietnam and those who served shifted after the Gulf War and at a time when thousands of World War II veterans are dying daily. When Baldwin wears his Marine and Vietnam baseball cap, he said there have been times when customers have paid for his meal.

“It’s very appreciated,” he said of the gestures, handshakes and thank-yous.

Baldwin, 70, has been married and divorced three times.

“I guess I’m not meant to be married,” he said with a smile.

Married? No.

Marine? Yes.

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