As the “world” remembers Kent State today; May 4, 1970, and the tragedy that took place there 48 years ago protesting the Vietnam War/Cambodia invasion, a young man named James (Jim) Stevenson, who was raised in Southern Pennsylvania with his parents and three brothers, was just about done with all his training then and sent to Vietnam in the summer of 1970. I felt today is a great day to celebrate Jim and his contribution in serving his country despite varying political views about the Vietnam War.
Jim was actually drafted in July of 1969, at the age of 22, and went to Basic Training in Ft, Bragg, North Carolina, for eight weeks. Following Basic Training, he went to Infantry Training in Ft. Polk, LA, then Jump School and “landed” with the 101st Airborne. Just as things were heating up in Vietnam, Jim showed exemplary leadership qualities and was selected to attend the NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer) School, graduating in February of 1970. He then became a drill sergeant and trained new infantry troops coming in from around the country. Not one to rest on his laurels, Jim worked hard at this new “career” and snagged a spot for Ranger
School as well (this is different training than NCO School), which utilized all the skills he had learned up to that point. As Jim conveyed to me, he “continued to postpone” the real deal…the combat…In Vietnam. Who could blame him?
Incidentally, his older brother by two years was also drafted and became a jeep driver in Saigon, though saw no combat, thankfully. Can you imagine how worried his parents must have been with two of their three boys drafted and sent to Vietnam? I can’t even imagine what their dinner conversations were like, can you?
Interestingly, Jim stated that all the training he received compliments of the United States Army, was that they produced highly trained warriors, including himself and the rest of the brotherhood who ultimately served.
Jim also believes that the US was just as victorious in all battles in Vietnam as the US was in WW11, and that the US never lost a battle despite what the “documentarians say.” Soldiers were killed, yes, but ultimately, every battle was won as no one counted the VC (Viet Cong). In fact, Jim lost three very close friends of the brotherhood in Nam during his time there. His best friend, ZigZag, actually died in an ambush with Jim right behind him while on a mission in the Jungle. Jim relayed to me that the Jungle was totally chaotic to the highest degree and everything was so out of control during a fight and note: ZigZag was the only one killed that day.
When I gently asked Jim if he ever cried, he remarked that he could not recall actually crying, but did experience great sadness and anger. He said his mind was extremely powerful (heck, it certainly had to be!) because he and the brotherhood had to be in “battle mode” every second of every day! I would tend to think faith would help keep anyone going while in Vietnam, but Jim revealed that is was not so much about faith at that time, but gutting out the situations with the brotherhood and the brotherhood of combatants; always there for each other no matter what. In fact, the chances of survival increased when they had each other’s backs, bar none. Additionally, I asked Jim if he ever felt “patriotic” while there, and he replied in the affirmative, but then thoughtfully paused and answered that they were there for each other; and never weighed whether the war was morally correct or not.
So after listening to Jim and his very sobering experiences in Vietnam, I asked him what he missed most from home? Without missing a beat, he said: “a good night’s sleep!” He emphasized: “sleep was so elusive while in Nam.” I then had to ask Jim what sustained him for the long haul, and he said, his girlfriend, who is now his wife of 40+ years, Susie, and his Mom, who both wrote letters to him every single day while he was overseas. Thankfully, mail did come into the base camp, dropped by helicopter along with ammunition, boots, C-rations and anything needed to continue the mission(s).
For Jim, the madness of Vietnam ended on July 28, 1971, when he returned to Maryland with his parents waiting for him at the airport. There was no fan-fare, no jeering and no anti-war people because his flight came in well after midnight. Remarkably, Jim isolated himself for an entire month to process the madness (my word); but Jim stated that he needed the month to do nothing, decompress, contemplate his long-term survival and figure out what he needed to do to set himself up for the rest of his life. After a few years, what came into focus was Jim’s gratitude and the fact he survived Vietnam after seeing all that combat.
It is truly amazing this great man only “needed” a month to decompress, and move on with his life after a self-imposed solitary confinement. He finally met up with a relieved girlfriend Susie, went back to finish his degree at University of Maryland, got a job in the printing world, got married and had three children (two boys and one girl) and has enjoyed 50 years of “good living” thus far. This kind poetry loving man claims he is “still a work in progress.” He also dabbles in poetry writing himself, loves the color blue and the Beatles!
NOTE: Due to aging Vietnam Veterans, guys (and gals) like Jim, age 72, who survived and thrived since they got drafted, are being interviewed because they have clear memories and recollections of their missions and their stories are being sought out by many nowadays. In fact, a couple of weeks before I interviewed Jim, he was interviewed by Sir Max Hastings, who is currently writing a book about Vietnam. It is set to be released in October of 2018.
|Jim Stevenson today!|
Photos of Vietnam taken with Jim’s Brownie camera.
|Zigzag and Jim|