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AP Photo/Steve Stibbens
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4 min Read
Published March 25, 2018

Vietnam: Appalachians Make Good Soldiers

On the morning of April 30, 1975 at 0835 hours, the last United States Marines boarded the freedom plane home from Saigon, Republic of South Vietnam.

No more “search and destroy” missions through hot, humid, dense mountainous jungles. No more slogging through endless rice paddies enduring torrential monsoons, trench foot and leaches. No more tarp-covered huts shielded with sandbags and mosquito netting, nighttime mortar attacks, the acrid smell of a mixture of smoke, napalm and death looming in the air, the uncertainty of living to see the next day.

It was also the last goodbye to the fallen comrades left behind that were still POW’s (prisoners of war) and MIA (missing in action). But was it really the final farewell? There’s a saying that soldiers left Vietnam, but Vietnam never left them.

The Viet Cong were masters of camouflage, moving weapons from China and Russia at night through the rugged mountainous terrain of Laos and Cambodia using the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Dense jungles, hidden tunnels, high grasses and impenetrable swamps provided the cover to harass American units with sniper fire, trip wires and land mines. Flooded rice paddies concealed spikes and the lush jungle floor contained hidden pits, spring snares, spider holes and jaw traps.

The Viet Cong did not fight by conventional methods, instead adopting guerilla warfare tactics.

They were small in stature, moved quickly and knew the terrain very well. The average Viet Cong ambush lasted 14 seconds. There were no front lines and the enemy hid as farmers by day and Viet Cong by night. Soldiers had the impossible task of trying to decide who was a farmer and who was Viet Cong. The American soldiers were forced to do “search and destroy” patrols but they were very visible and easy to ambush. This type of “zippo raid” lead to the atrocities at the My Lai Massacre of peaceful villagers in 1968. No American soldier had ever been subjected to the kind of fighting that took place in Vietnam.

One, Two, Three, What Are We Fighting For?

During the Vietnam War, media coverage of the war was uncensored. Americans could watch firsthand accounts of the war from the comfort of their couches. Observing actual footage was much more visceral than reading about it in books and articles. While our boys were fighting to stay alive, tumultuous and turbulent times were stirring. During the 1960’s, President Kennedy, his brother Bobby Kennedy and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated. The Beat Generation was taken over by hippies and flower power.

RELATED: Sitting Up With the Dead: Lost Appalachian Burial Customs.

Desegregation and race riots were nationwide. The Democratic Society, the Weather Underground and Black Power stirred up opposition to the war. Anti-war songs proliferated the radio waves as draft cards were being burned and anti-war protests on college campuses grew to large-scale demonstrations across the nation. It was a time of rising civil unrest in the country.

“You are hereby ordered for induction in the Armed Forces of the United States”. The draft was calling as many as 40,000 young men into service each month as more casualties were being reported every day. The government was spending $35 billion a year on the Vietnam War. Increases in income taxes while federal funds were cut on the “war on poverty” led to growing opposition to the war in Vietnam. Government records reflecting initial fears about the U.S. government’s true motivations for involvement, known as the Pentagon Papers, were made public in the early 1970s.

The papers revealed that the U.S. had secretly expanded the war in Vietnam with the bombings of Cambodia and Laos, conducted coastal raids on North Vietnam and withheld Marine Corps attacks on noncombatants from the media. The papers also revealed that the Johnson Administration “systematically lied, not only to the public, but also to Congress”. The release of these papers confirmed America’s suspicions about the active role of the U.S. government.

The Green Green Grass of Home

Questions about the morality of the war grew more intense after news of the My Lai Massacre broke in 1969. That incident, in which U.S. infantrymen killed some 500 unarmed civilian men, women, and children, outraged Americans back home. Public opinion shifted from opposition to the war to scapegoating the men who volunteered or were drafted to fight the war. Service men traveling through major airports such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle disclosed accounts of being harassed by anti-war protestors, had trash thrown at them, and were scorned as “baby killers”.

The behaviors were so hostile, military superiors warned returning veterans not to wear their uniforms in public. Many of them were forced to find the nearest bathroom to change out of their uniforms. These incidents were also reported at bus stations. Anti-war sentiments did not run as high in southern and Appalachian states but many Appalachian soldiers had similar experiences as they flew home from major airports.

Vietnam veterans questioned the war’s morality as well. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) became the most influential anti-war organization of the Vietnam War era by exposing the ugly truth about the governments’ involvement in Southeast Asia and first-hand experiences by Vietnam Veterans themselves.

The VVAW fought for the rights and needs of veterans dealing with readjustment and the traumatic physical and mental effects of war, and exposed the neglect of VA hospitals towards veterans and the need for better health care. The organization drafted legislation to improve educational benefits and job programs, fought for amnesty for war resisters and uncovered the negative health effects of exposure to Agent Orange and napalm.

Some Folks Are Born, Silver Spoon in Hand

Appalachian draftees and volunteers went from fighting the War on Poverty to fighting the War on Communism. With limited access to higher education and jobs, many Appalachians opted for military services. The probability of being killed in war seemed less than that of being another fatality in a coal mine. While the educated stayed in college and sought legal loopholes to the draft, those who did fight came from the underclass.

In 1976, James Fallows wrote in the Washington Monthly that the Vietnam War was a “class war”. He stated that statistics showed that those who fought were mostly made up of Appalachians, African Americans from the inner cities and the South, and Hispanics from the barrios.

Vietnam was the first war in which all segments of the American society did not participate equally. American forces in Vietnam included twenty-five percent poor, fifty-five percent working-class, twenty percent middle-class men, but very few came from upper-classes families. Many soldiers came from rural towns and farming communities. It seems that it all came down to the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

I Ain’t No Senator’s Son

“Appalachians make good soldiers, and the Army knows it,” stated Dr. Steven Giles, chief of Psychology Services of the Veterans Administration Medical Center at Mountain Home, Tennessee. The Appalachian’s love for their country and long tradition of patriotism and military heritage dates back to the Revolutionary War with the defeat of the British troops at the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Whilst serving all branches of the armed forces, it was the Army that valued Appalachian’s the most. Appalachians were already trained on how to use a rifle and could maneuver through rough and rugged terrain. During the Vietnam War, the military trained servicemen in the Pisgah National Forest of the Appalachian Mountains as this area of North Carolina resembled the highlands area of Vietnam.

Appalachians are also excellent trackers. These skills were vital when entering unfamiliar territory searching out a camouflaged enemy. Many of them were assigned as “point man” to lead platoons. The “point man” had the responsibility taking the lead and keeping the squad safe from ambushes and traps. Their instincts had to be sharp and always on alert for fatal hazards such as grenades hanging from the trees or booby traps.

The average age of a Vietnam soldier was 19 compared to the average age of 26 for the soldiers of the Second World War. Studies show that Appalachian soldiers were 25% more likely to be killed in the Vietnam War than soldiers from other regions. Appalachian states had the highest number of casualties with an average of 59 battle deaths per 100,000. Appalachians made up 8% of our troops and 13% received Medals of Honor. Appalachian soldiers were more likely to be assigned combat duty and pit patrol and many of them volunteered for hazardous assignments. Seven out of nine soldiers who lead patrols died. Appalachian soldiers also suffered more trauma-related combat stress disorders than those from other regions of the country.

July 1972, Miami, Florida, USA — Members of the group “Vietnam Veterans Against the War” are seated peacefully outside the Convention Hall where the 1972 Miami Democratic National Convention is being held. Image by © JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis

Once arriving home, Appalachians along with many other veterans soon realized the war was not a welcomed topic. It seemed that society was blaming the soldier instead of the war. They were not celebrated heroes. There were no ticker tape parades as their fathers before had received returning from the Second World War. They faced rejection after their long hellish experience and tried to readjust. Most didn’t talk about their time in Vietnam and stayed to themselves.

Healthcare systems did not have the capacity to accommodate the number of veterans seeking care. Traditional mental health services were limited in most rural areas such as Appalachia. Increased media attention regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) concerned some employers about the stability of those who served in combat. As employers labeled veterans “damaged goods”, many veterans faced discrimination in hiring practices to the point where veterans stopped putting their service time on employment applications.

Times They Are a Changing

The people of Appalachia and other working class people have long been the backbone of the military and have endured much of the physical, psychological and emotional cost we call FREEDOM. Today, the draft is no longer in effect and may be one of the most positive aspects to come out of the Vietnam War. Although the military is now better educated and even more diverse with women serving in combat roles, the working class still carries the burden of war.

Economics play a large role in the number of armed service-related fatalities from Appalachia and the South. Poor and working-class Appalachians continue to leave economically depressed areas and dead-end jobs for an armed service salary of $1,300 per month, free room and board, skills and training with the prospects of a college education. They continue to be called to the front lines, fighting and dying while wealthy policymakers, less likely have served, will to continue to authorize war.

America’s mood started to change in the early 1980’s with the construction of the Vietnam War Wall Memorial. Today, Vietnam Veterans can openly talk about their experiences without fear of discrimination and proudly display their service to their county.

Organizations such as the Vietnam Veterans of America have increased advocacy for their fellow comrades along with increased funding for the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Various media groups on Facebook such as Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans, Vietnam Memories: Past/Present and Vietnam Veterans: The Best of the Baby Boomers are helping to reconnect Vietnam Veterans and allowing readers to leave sentiments such as “Thank You” and “Welcome Home” to those who are still with us and those who sacrificed their lives.

RELATED: Appalachian Lexicon: 12 Common Sense Slang Words.

Today, the average age of a Vietnam Veteran is 62 years old. It took almost 40 years for our government to officially recognize March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day. And our veterans still live with the war every day. The war never ended for them. Welcome Home.

Cover Photo: The strain of battle for Dong Xoai is shown on the face of U.S. Army Sgt. Philip Fink, an advisor to the 52nd Vietnamese Ranger battalion, shown June 12, 1965. The unit bore the brunt of recapturing the jungle outpost from the Viet Cong. (AP Photo/Steve Stibbens) Sgt Philip Rush Fink of Greene County, Tennesse was killed by a booby trap device just 3 yrs after this photo was taken. Philip is buried at Zion United Methodist Church Cemetery, Baileyton, Tennesee. His memorial can found on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall Panel 48W — Row 006.

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  • Hope Thompson


  • Trying to educate the world one SLICE OF HISTORY at a time! Hope Thompson is a freelance journalist focused on hidden history, Southern & Appalachian folklife, and Native American culture. She is a native of North Carolina and has been writing for this space for four years. She currently works in state government finance and owns a graphic design business. All my articles.

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