[After about a year-long hiatus, I am working on my memoir of my Appalachian Trail thru-hike again. One of the recurring themes is Vietnam. It shows up periodically during the first half of the hike. By the time I reached Virginia in my third month of walking I had come to some conclusions.
Vietnam has been on my mind this entire hike, especially so since I’ve been in Virginia. The empty time in my brain on the trail gravitates to events and emotions that have churned my soul for three decades. I am face to face with my military service in a way I cannot avoid. At issue is my willingness to kill in a war that I believed was wrong. Military service has traditionally been a source of pride but not for me. I fought in support of a corrupt regime against its own people. How can I be proud of that?
Hiking has always reminded me of walking in the jungle but until this thru-hike, I never acknowledged that I hike to set things right. But that’s what I am doing: I am using the same skills and determination I showed as an infantryman in a more benign setting, in a way that allows some pride of accomplishment. For all the hiking I’ve done, thought, I’ve never resolved my conflicting thoughts and feelings about Vietnam, always leaving that until someday. That someday is now. On this trail.
Walking the Appalachian Trail in Virginia brings the events of 30 years ago into the present. The geography of my youth reminds me of the days when I faced the reality of military service and war. By the time I was a college senior in 1970, I knew that the war was bad policy, that the US was fighting against history itself in Vietnam, destined to fail, just as other invaders and occupiers had failed to defeat Vietnamese nationalism in past centuries. But that knowledge did not qualify me for conscientious objector status, which at the time required religious belief against killing. Like most Americans, then and now, I deplored killing but recognized the right of individuals and nations to defend themselves. I’d hoped the war would end before I graduated but it was still there, waiting for me after college.
I had given some fleeting thought to heading for Canada or refusing induction but, in the end I decided to take my chances in the military. It was the easy way out for a young man whose father, uncles and one aunt had served in World War II. As a college graduate I figured that I could land a safe job, away from combat, and could dodge the moral issue of killing in a cause I did not believe in. I was wrong. I landed in the infantry and found myself in the killing zone–a grunt with a rifle–in January 1971. Ill-suited to the task and dubious about the cause, once in the field, I was more than willing to fire my rifle at anyone threatening me or my buddies. I numbed my mind to the fear and questions about the war, stayed low and just tried to survive.
Luck was with me. My company saw little real action; I never fired my rifle at an actual target. It wasn’t that nothing was happening; every other company in my battalion was ambushed with at least several killed and others wounded each time. Squads from my company (but not my squad) were ambushed and took casualties several times; three men died in combat-related accidents. I was just flat out lucky during five months of combat patrol. And I was even luckier when I was assigned to the rear as company clerk. But I returned from Vietnam with questions about my moral courage, my willingness to kill in a questionable cause. Those questions have followed me ever since, never fully answered, never resolved.
Until now. I’ve been thinking about those events every day this hike. Instead of ignoring them as I have for so many years, I confront them straight on. The decisions I faced and the choices I made as a young man were hardly clear cut. Yeah, I thought the war was wrong but the political scientist in me allowed me to believe that Vietnam was bad wrong policy, not an immoral war, as many opponents believed. I did not question the right of my country to risk my life, only the wisdom of the policy that put me at risk. I did what I was asked. I was afraid to say no to my country.
Looking back on that year, I faced discomfort, hardship and fear; somehow I endured the physical tasks of combat. I was spared death, disfigurement and disgrace. I never harmed any one (by chance only, but at least that’s one thing not on my conscience) nor acted outside the rules of war. As a nation, the United States trashed, poisoned and bombed Vietnam unmercifully for almost two decades. That was the immorality of the war. But those horrors go well beyond my military service; ALL Americans share collective responsibility for that bit of history. As for me individually, I served honorably and well in a questionable war. I committed no crimes in Vietnam. I’m clean. I can’t say the same for my country.
Although I had little interest in being a soldier, miliary service offered some rewards which affected my choices. The GI Bill offered education benefits that could support me in graduate school. Being a veteran offered credibility to question policies that contributed to war. So joining the Army with the hope of skating by no longer seems unreasonable to me. Neither is fighting to survive in a life and death situation. I did the best I could.
There It Is. I did the best I could. After the fact, I can re-evaluate those choices but I cannot change them. I did the best I could with the information, knowledge, emotions and traditions available to me at the time. And I did okay. I was no murderer or war criminal. Just another GI getting by, maybe older and more educated than most of my comrades, but in the end I was just one of many young men facing difficult choices in those years. Soldiers and draft-dodgers alike, we all got by as best we could. That’s it. I don’t have to debate this anymore. I did the best I could. And I got a lot out of it. I made it through an amazingly different experience alive. I came back more aware of my strength and the fragility of life. Not to mention three decades of questions and doubt, my personal demons.
Thoughts of and about Vietnam followed me up the trail. I wrestled and debated them as I watched nature’s beauty pass before me. I remembered patrolling in the jungle, a frightened young soldier, just hoping to survive. Now, 30 years later, I was fighting my own personal war over choices I made long ago. I resented the intrusion. My thru-hike was supposed to be an adventure, a release. Yet here I was reliving my past. But the time spent dancing with those demons did offer release. By the time I reached central Virginia I felt like I had come to terms with Vietnam in a way that had eluded me for three decades. Standing before Audie Murphy’s memorial (*) I was able to proudly salute a fellow soldier.
My AT thru-hike grew out of my Vietnam experience. Had I not spent that year in Vietnam, I may never have known I could backpack with such determination and may never have wanted to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Hiking the AT helped me realize that I am proud of my Vietnam service, despite my reservations. I served my country. I met the most threatening challenge of my life. And in the years since, I have been an informed, active and outspoken opponent of war.
My AT thru-hike gave me the opportunity to reflect on that most difficult time. I will always have some regret and sadness about those events but I realized during my hike that I did okay. My Vietnam ghosts remain with me but the past is settled.
[* Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II
died in a 1971 plane crash near the Appalachian Trail route on Brush Mountain in southwestern Virginia. A short side trail leads to a granite memorial