Up Close and Personal

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic

A fellow combat journalist who served with me in Vietnam confided in me not long ago, about how absolutely nothing could have prepared him or probably other young soldiers, for a place called Vietnam.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

By Al Garcia

A fellow combat journalist who served with me in Vietnam confided in me not long ago, about how absolutely nothing could have prepared him or probably other young soldiers, for a place called Vietnam.  He said that no matter how much we learned from watching the six o'clock news or from movies, such as John Wayne in The Green Berets, or from talking to returning vets -- absolutely nothing from all of that would be meaningful or make sense until we actually arrived and experienced Vietnam for ourselves.

Like him, what struck me first was the heat and humidity.  The heat was stifling and the humidity was sweltering.  Sweating was common and constant.  A fresh and clean uniform would not remain fresh and clean very long.  All of this heat and humidity would become a common theme, every day.  And it never let up.

He spoke to me of “culture shock.”  He explained how for the first time in his life, he experienced culture shock, because the sights and sounds he experienced were shocking and disarming, especially for a young guy from Georgia not yet mature in the ways of the world, but having lived a middle-class existence back home. 

What shocked me most was when he told me he had never seen people living in poverty before, and that in Vietnam he saw poverty every day, and everywhere he looked.  Even more perplexing to me was that he felt the Vietnamese people did not see themselves as living in poverty since their lives and lifestyles had been the same and perhaps unchanged for hundreds of years.  He added that he felt they were living their lives in ways that were no more or no less than their forefathers --- “even to stop on a city street to urinate.” 

One thing that he must have forgotten was the fact that these people had been living in a state of constant war for decades upon decades.  How could anyone strive, much less thrive?  They were alive and they were persevering despite that one immeasurable obstacle – war.

Needless to say, I was somewhat perplexed by his words and his observations.  Being a Valley boy (Rio Grande Valley, Texas) in the late 1950 and 1960s, and of Mexican descent, I had seen my share of poverty, hardship and wretchedness growing up along the Rio Grande.  I saw it when I watched field hands toiling in the hot sun and then going home to ramshackle and dilapidated shacks provided by landowners, to fill their hungry stomachs with what little food they were provided, and to rest their heads on wooden floors, waiting for the sun to rise again and begin the process all over again.  I also saw poverty and despair every time I crossed the River into Mexico for play and entertainment at the age of 16, 17 and 18, when a group of us high school boys enjoyed a rowdy Friday night out.  So, I was not shocked by the sights and sounds of the poverty that I saw in Vietnam.  I was just depressed at having to live among such tragic lives and see the acceptance of their fate on their faces every day. 

Worst of all, my friend explained, his greatest experience of culture shock was the smell -- the ever-constant rancid odors from the lack of sewage systems and the ignorance of personal hygiene.  This was a guy who had obviously never had the experience of utilizing an outside privy (outhouse).  For many of us my age, growing up in the 1950s or earlier here in the Valley, we may be able to reluctantly recall those experiences with uneasiness and even with some disgust, but certainly with no longing or yearning of what once had been. 

Vietnam brought all sorts of young boys and men together.  Some that may have never known or seen what want and need looked like or felt like.  For others, Vietnam was an escape from a poverty of their own, and Vietnam was no better and no worse than what they had experienced in their lives.  For most, however, Vietnam was the real world that they had known.  A world with good and evil, rich and poor, old and young, where through no fault of their own, the Vietnamese people had no options but to exist rather than live, and had to strive simply to survive.

Vietnam was seen through the eyes of bewildered and disillusioned soldiers, and each solider saw and felt a different Vietnam, depending on their background and their upbringing.  The one thing all soldiers agreed upon, however, was how unprepared they had been to see the human suffering and devastation of war up close and personal.


Submitted: May 30, 2021

© Copyright 2021 A.Garcia. All rights reserved.

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