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Lessons learned

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By Stephen Lega

The United States conflict in Vietnam divided the country, and in the aftermath of the war, many veterans were never given a warm welcome home. Recently, however, a homecoming ceremony was held at Ft. Knox to recognize the sacrifices of Vietnam veterans. 

Donald Webb of Lebanon was not able to attend the ceremony himself, but as a former Marine who served in Vietnam, he appreciated that it was happening at all. "Just the recognition that what we did do, we done it because we had to," he said. "Our government called us and we went and done our job and we came home." Another local Vietnam veteran, Barney Tharp, also of Lebanon, agreed that he was glad that the homecoming was taking place, even if he couldn't be there in person. Tharp, a former staff sergeant, said many Vietnam veterans were scorned by society when they returned home. Based on his own experiences, he said veterans would benefit from attending such a homecoming. Webb recalled that some people spit at them and called them baby-killers. At first, even other veterans didn't reach out to them, he said. "Really they just turned us loose and sent us back," Webb said. "They didn't give us nothing. They didn't give us anybody to talk to or give us any numbers we could call to talk to somebody. It was just a period in time that was supposed to be forgotten about, and we were supposed to go on about our merry way."   Wake-up call Webb was a sergeant in the First Marine Airwing by the time he completed his service in 1972. He first signed up in 1968, and before the end of the year, he was in Vietnam.  "I'd already gotten my draft papers and I went to see a Marine Corps recruiter, and he signed me up that day," Webb said. Within a matter of weeks, he was in San Diego, Calif., for basic training. "I thought I was pretty tough when I went in, but it gave me a wake-up call quick," Webb said. At the same time, he remembered that many people did not like what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam.  Webb, however, said he would do it again. "You take Communists coming in trying to take over people's lives, and everything they've got..." Webb said. "Until people see it firsthand, it's altogether different." After months of training in California, Webb and several of his fellow Marines boarded a commercial plane for the 16-hour flight across the Pacific Ocean. "It was a long time until we got there, and we couldn't even land that night," Webb said. The Viet Cong were firing rockets at the landing strip when they first arrived, which prevented them from touching down. When they finally did land, the approximately 250 Marines exited the plane as quickly as possible, Webb said. Then, the Viet Cong started shooting rockets again, and Webb admitted he was scared to death. "We knew that was the real thing when we got there," he said. For the next 13 months, Webb was part of a unit that delivered supplies throughout the country. While his unit didn't do much fighting, they were under fire often.  "The '68 Tet Offensive was a rough time," he said. "We was on 100 percent alert it seemed like forever."   'New blood' Tharp served in the Army for six years. By the time he was discharged in 1972, he was a staff sergeant. Before he was drafted, Tharp was a student at Western Kentucky University. He said he grew up in a farming family, but going off to college had affected him, although not necessarily in a good way. "You feel like more is owed to you, that society owes you something," he said. "You take a lot of things for granted, that I soon learned later not to take for granted." At that time, college students were exempt from being drafted. When Tharp decided to take a semester off and did not enroll for classes, the Army drafted him. Within two weeks, he was on a bus headed to Ft. Knox for basic training. "That's how close a tabs they had on us back in the heat of the battle," he said. After basic training, Tharp continued his training with stops in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and California before he made the trip overseas. He recalled thinking on the plane ride that it wouldn't be that bad. As Tharp and his fellow soldiers were exiting the plane, veteran soldiers were boarding the plane to go home. Tharp remembered hearing someone say, "New blood." "I thought, 'Wait a minute. This is getting serious,'" he said. Shortly after Tharp arrived in Vietnam, his unit was moved into Mekong Delta. He said the soldiers who were already there cheered his unit's arrival. Tharp learned later that they were cheering the reinforcement because their ranks had dwindled due to injuries and deaths. "A typical platoon size was about 35 men," Tharp said. "During my tour of duty, we averaged about 21 men." The afternoon that Tharp arrived in the delta, the more experienced soldiers took his unit out for a routine mission. They took an eagle flight into the jungle. The unit would sweep through the area, and they would be picked up at a designated spot. It was supposed to last a few hours. "When they dropped us it wasn't hardly any time until we started drawing enemy fire," Tharp said. The training mission that was supposed to last a couple hours wound up lasting seven days. Helicopter pilots had to drop in food, dry socks and ammunition for them. "It was during that operation, laying there with muddy, soaked clothes - the same ones you'd had on for seven days - it made me realize, 'God, I don't know what I've got into here,'" Tharp said. He said it didn't take long for him to get close to God in that situation.   Tough times Webb remembered the heat and the mosquitoes. He also remembered that he was pretty much wet the entire time during monsoon season. While his unit didn't encounter many combat situations, they were still in some tense situations.  Webb recalled one particular time when his unit was delivering supplies to an intelligence post. "We got in there and there were probably six or seven Vietnamese," he said.  They had a cart with a water buffalo on the back, Webb said. One member of his unit who spoke Vietnamese tried to get the men to move. "They all had weapons," Webb said. "We didn't know if they were friendly or whatever." That situation turned out all right, but Webb also knows that it could have been bad. "It doesn't take but one round," he said. "If it didn't kill you, it would mess you up for life." Webb also recalled a Marine from New York from another unit. As they were walking through a rice paddy, they were talking about having a few beers when they got back to camp. But the other Marine never got back to camp. "He done made a step on a land mine," Webb said. "There wasn't nothing left of him." Webb said seeing friends die made him sick to his stomach, but it also made him wonder if anyone cared. "It'll make a man out of you fast if it don't break you down," he said. But the hardest part for Webb was seeing children who were starving to death. "They'd eat anything you'd give them," he said. His unit also took food to an orphanage run by Catholic nuns near Danang.  "It was pitiful to see some of them kids, legs off, arms off," Webb said. But even among the difficulty of war, there were good times, too. Tharp was awarded four Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, Air Medal Awards, and a CIB (combat infantryman's badge).  He was also selected to receive a Vietnamese Silver Star. He was one of the American soldiers invited to a ceremony in which a South Vietnamese four-star general pinned the Silver Star on his chest. "I remember thinking the very moment that he did it, 'I just wish someone in my family could be here and share this proud moment. I know I'm thousands of miles away from them, but my heart is with my family right now.'"

Back home Webb said he was a "smart-mouthed kid" when he went over to Vietnam as a 20-year-old.  "I had the attitude that I could whip the world. I went over there and seen how bad the world can really be," he said.  Getting on the plane to come back was like having a 300-pound weight lifted off his back, according to Webb. His experience in Vietnam affected him for a long time. He admitted that he didn't care about anything or anybody for a while, and he knows it affected his relationships with his first wife and his kids. But with time, he was able to work things out for himself.  Webb said the best thing he ever did was to get back into church where he could be around good, Christian people. He also said he has found that it has been good for him to be able to talk about what he saw while he was in Vietnam.  Like Webb, Tharp has found comfort in being able to share his experience with others. He first did that by attending a reunion of his former unit in 2004.  "I remember two of them met me at the airport," Tharp said. "We looked at each other. They were old and wrinkled. I was old and wrinkled. But our hearts were those young soldiers that so dearly depended on each other back in that war." He said he has found the reunions to be "therapeutic", and he has been to three more since his first one. Tharp was also encouraged to write down his experiences by his daughter, the late Betty Jo Higdon. He did so, and he has shared those stories with his family, with his fellow soldiers and with their families. But just as the individual soldiers needed to heal their wounds, Vietnam had a lingering effect on the country for decades, in Webb's opinion. He said he didn't think people reunited behind the military again until Desert Storm. Tharp agreed it has been a slow process for the country to come back together, but he also thinks the country has changed how it treats its military personnel. Even with recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tharp said he's noticed that opponents of military action have been careful to separate their feelings about the soldiers from their feelings about those operations. "I couldn't be happier with the way that we treat our soldiers returning home now," Tharp said. "Perhaps our nation learned a lesson from Vietnam."