Revisiting The Summer of 69

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Last week was a bit of a milestone, as the calendar tells me that I’ve turned 50.  It’s hard not to spend at least a little bit of time thinking about how the world and this country have changed over that half century.

Bryan Adams had a hit song “Summer of ’69” that was more about personal nostalgia than the world as it was when I was born.  America was preparing to send men to the moon for the first time.  We were also escalating involvement in the Vietnam war.  Retrospect seems to indicate that the country was going in opposite directions at the same time. 

History has had no difficulty documenting and celebrating the achievements of the Apollo missions.  We’re due for another installment in a couple of weeks as we mark that anniversary. 

The Vietnam war, and more specifically, our Vietnam veterans, didn’t get the same treatment or even attention.  We as a country had a hard time explaining why we were there, what we accomplished, and why so many were sacrificed for the cause.

In school, most of my history classes omitted it entirely.  It was recent enough to have not been added to some of the history texts in used in elementary school and junior high. Even when there was a chapter or two, it seemed we always ran out of calendar before we could get there.  For a generation, an entire era of American history was side-stepped.

It was a high school current events class before I got an honest and in-depth look at the war.  Hollywood had re-discovered the conflict, but with often over-dramatized and highly politically charged messaging.  Our teacher, Patrick Sennett, had served two tours in Vietnam, returning injured to an American public that too often ranged from indifferent to openly hostile of Vietnam veterans.

He was willing to discuss his experiences openly and frankly, as was his style.  We learned a lot, but I imagine my classmates would join me in appreciating the opportunity to ask more questions now that we have a few decades of life experience under our belts.

It was with that background that I was happy to learn that a distant cousin of mine has written a book about his experiences during the War.  John W. Harris arrived in Vietnam in August of 1969, on his 22nd birthday.  He was actually older than most of his peers during that time.

He was drafted and served as a Non-Commissioned Officer in the BlueGhost F Troop Eighth Calvary, starting out as a Squad Leader and eventually becoming Platoon Sergeant. The book, BlueGhost Reveille, is collection of stories framing the day to day experience of John and his company in combat. 

The book neither glorifies the war nor attempts to solve the political questions that still surround America’s involvement.  It is rather the experiences of someone who was drafted by his country and did his duty until it was time to come home.

In fact, he goes out of his way to emphasize his experience was largely routine, such as war can be.  He does single out a few of those with whom he served for acts of heroism and bravery. 

There are a couple of chapters about the aftermath of the war, including some background on fellow soldier Roger Caruthers who lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair from injuries sustained in Vietnam.  Another speaks to what it was like to return home to a country that didn’t know how to deal with him and those like him.

This week we celebrate America’s birthday, which includes a lot of storied history and even more that remains complicated.  In that celebration of thanks for those who have fought and defended our freedom, we need to make extra efforts to include those who answered the call in the Vietnam era.  For too many of them, the thanks are long overdue. 


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