We meet and greet each other anyplace, anywhere, at any time with, “Welcome home.” We belong to a Band of Brothers and Sisters who were never welcomed home, plus suffered insults and indignities no veterans should ever have to endure. Thus, even today as we are recognized as “heroes,” a deep mistrust of government and a stinging knowledge that society could once again vent war-weary frustrations on our warrior culture if faced with another “no win strategy” conflict, remains intact. This is the mental dilemma of Vietnam veterans and a Catch-22 predicament only understood by those who had their boots on the ground in Southeast Asia. This is why Vietnam veterans “welcome” each other home, recognizing the fact that this Band of Brothers and Sisters can understand each other but will never be fully valued by society. It is, indeed, a cross to bear.
A “Welcome Home” by yours truly to a Marine veteran of ‘Nam while dropping off surplus personal commodities at a Goodwill Store, led to an interview that should be shared nationwide to hopefully chip away at society’s lingering questions on the war nobody understood. His name is Peter Guinta. Besides having the same first name, he, too, has a Boston terrier, graduated from high school the same year as yours truly, attended college until his grades forced him to drop schooling for the military, as yours truly, and extended his tour in Vietnam because ‘Nam was more of an adopted home than home was, as with yours truly. And this is his story.
“I was born and raised in St. Albans (Queens), N.Y., and graduated in 1965 from Seaford High School. I started college but after four months I realized I really didn’t like it, so I joined the Marines. Arriving at Parris Island for basic training was a real shocker. I was scared to death. I knew I could do it, but it was so intimidating. My mother had sort of tossed me out of the house after a big disagreement, so the Marines were the next best step.”
Hank, one of my dogs, starts barking in the background during the telephone interview.
“I hear your dog barking. What breed is it?”
“How about that, I have a Boston terrier, too. He’s the boss around here, the Prince of the City.”
I can relate.
“Well, to continue, I wanted to be a machine gunner or just a plain old grunt, but the Marines sent me to electronics school, which I didn’t like, I wasn’t good at electronics, but, well you know, the Marines have their way of doing things. I attended electronics school at Lackland AFB, then went to Mare Island near San Francisco. I studied teletype, radio communications, and inscription, but never did the crypto part, I just carried the radio.”
Then you went to ‘Nam?
“No. The Marines sent me to Camp Pendleton for infantry training but then pulled me out to go back to Lackland AFB for more training in communications, then back to the Vietnam training course for a second time … sort of ridiculous, but you don’t tell the Marines that. Then I went to Vietnam. I hooked up with the 5th Communication Battalion at DaNang, close to China Beach and Monkey Mountain.”
Tell the readers about DaNang.
“Most of my first tour was hard-living, in tents, on patrol, there wasn’t a whole lot of action because DaNang was fairly secure. We got rocketed and mortared almost every night. The enemy would toss in a few rockets and/or mortars just to wake us up so we had to make a run for the bunkers.”
“Yeah, a few, but I felt a little guilty when calling in air strikes on villages. We didn’t have a choice, really, I mean, if you’re receiving enemy fire from a village you have to take it out or you lose buddies or your own life. The aircraft were mostly Marine or Navy, but I was never too sure who I was calling in for help. It could get a little hairy, I mean bullets flying over my head or striking the ground all around me, but I never got hit. One guy did get killed.”
Were the Marines as good as advertised?
“Absolutely. I was proud of the Marines. In the field we were tight, we were Marines, and we took care of each other. You could depend on the Marine next to you. But back at base a certain type of segregation took place, and I don’t mean along racial lines. Yeah, blacks stayed in their groups, the rednecks in their groups, the smokers and dopers in theirs, the drinkers in their groups, it was a segregated society, but we were always friendly with each other. There were 12 Marines in our tent, four whites and eight blacks, but we got along great. We’d be up all night playing chess, drinking beer, getting along, but in the morning … well, back to reality …. hot and sweaty.”
Did you go on R&R?
“Yes, twice, to Bangkok, Thailand both times. I liked Bangkok and the Thai people …. and I learned I wasn’t very experienced with women, that’s for sure.”
Except for R&R, did you ever leave I Corps?
“No, never left it, but we visited Red Beach a lot.”
You mean China Beach?
“No, Red Beach, north of DaNang. They had a large PX there. The guys would steal a Jeep and go up to Red Beach to buy a case or two of beer, sodas, things like that, but a lot of it ended up on the Black Market. The Vietnamese would hang around outside the fence to buy stuff. The PX was very popular … the darn thing was air-conditioned.”
What about China Beach?
“We pretty much lived on top of China Beach. It was a good beach, very beautiful, but there were sea snakes out there. I was afraid to go swimming too much and push my odds. Sea snakes are poisonous and can kill a grown man. Numerous signs were along the beach to warn us about the snakes. We didn’t have anyone die from a bite, and the snakes normally left you alone, unless you bumped into one, sort of invading ‘their space’. I never saw any, which was fine with me.”
A Marine’s tour was 13 months, you extended for another six months. Why?
“If you extended for six month and had less than five or six months left on your enlistment, you could get an early out. But if you had more than that you’d be picking up cigarette butts and pulling details all day, all the time. That wasn’t for me. I did go home after my first tour, but that was a mistake. My family thought I was crazy for extending my tour, it was like, ‘You made it this far, why get killed now?’ But one reason I joined the Marines was to get away from my family, so I took their remarks with a grain of salt. I was ready to go back.”
Why? Why get killed now?
“Fair question. At home, I was like a fish out of water, but in ‘Nam I was with friends, my real family so to speak, and I was more comfortable around them. It’s like where I belonged. I would have extended again after 18 months, but I was pretty burned out by then. My friends and I met a few times when I went home on leave to N.Y., but when we went to one of the veteran organizations they paid no attention to us … we were not welcomed. We got huffy and left, I felt like they didn’t consider us warriors like they had been, you know, the Korean and WWII veterans. Theirs was a ‘good’ war, if there is such a thing, but we were treated badly when we came home. I got yelled at a few times walking through airports, but nobody spit on me …. you don’t spit on Marines.”
Yelled at, as in “baby killer?”
“Yeah. These people acted like they were superior to us, but they weren’t. We were actually superior to them … they weren’t in the club, they were the ones that didn’t belong. I don’t think of myself as a hero, just going back was all the ‘bravery’ I had in me. There was never a specific action like me saving someone’s life or someone saving my life, it was more like a grind, a fierce grind of hardship and staying wet for weeks at a time. I was left with depression for the rest of my life.”
Have you been to the VA?
“Sure, and they’ve treated me great. I won’t complain about the VA. From what I see, they do good work. I’m on an anti-depression medication, but it’s a mild dosage. I can’t handle the stronger stuff.”
Do you still have depressions?
“I don’t have super depressions like I used to. I don’t go into those dark holes for a couple of days. My kids really didn’t like those times when I’d cut myself off from family for two or three days until the storm left.”
How many kids?
“Four from my first marriage, plus two more from my second wife’s first marriage.”
Six kids? That’s depressing.
“That’s funny. Anyway, I don’t go in that deep hole too much anymore. I used to write in those deep holes (Peter worked as a journalist).”
So what did you do after ‘Nam?
“I spent a lot of time in my grandma’s attic because I was so withdrawn, I couldn’t see people. She had a brownstone in N.Y. with an attic, a bed, a bookcase, and a toilet. I’d spend all my time up there looking out the window. Then I got a job at a hospital as a bio-medical technician … I didn’t really care for it, and I wasn’t good at it, but it was something to do.”
When did you become a journalist?
“I was working construction in Clearwater, Fla., when I decided to take advantage of the G.I. Bill. I dropped out of everything and went to school full time. After graduation I had several jobs at different newspapers until I moved to St. Augustine and got on at the Record. I was there for 18 years covering both city and county government, police reporter, all kinds of things, worked as city editor for a while. If a big story happened, the reporters would go out and call in their reports and I’d write it.”
Did you ever write about ‘Nam?
“I covered The Wall once. I had a lot of different feelings seeing and touching The Vietnam War Memorial, or as we call it, The Wall. But thankfully I didn’t have too many close friends on The Wall. The second time I went I took a friend with me who was also a ‘Nam vet. He lost a lot of good friends. I took a photo of his reflection on the names of his friends.”
Your final thoughts.
“I joined the Marines because I was in college and not happy. I saw the news reports on the battle at the I Drang Valley where the Army fought the NVA to a standstill the very first time. So I thought I’d miss the war, so joined up. I’ve been to The Wall and watched the 7th Cav march in with their commander, Hal Moore. The guys who fought the battle of the I Drang Valley have a special place in my heart. Joe Galloways’ book, ‘We Were Soldiers Once …. and Young,’ tells the tale and it’s one hell of a book. I saw Galloway at The Wall … he marched in with the 7th Cav. You know, I had no place to go when I joined up with the Marines, but I’ve always loved history, and I wanted to be part of the Vietnam history. I wanted to be there. Why should other guys go and not me? I didn’t have anything else to do. I’m very proud that I served. By the way, you are Italian, right?”
“Me, too. Funny, isn’t it, we have the same first name, you’re a journalist and I was a journalist, we graduated from high school at the same time, we both have Boston terriers, my ancestors came over on the boat from Italy just like yours. We have a lot in common.”
Of course. We’re brothers of a very special club.
“Got that right.”