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VA Maryland Health Care System


Remembering Vietnam’s 50th

Composite of then-and-now photos

Then-and-now photos, clockwise from top-left: Brian Holmes, Garret Nelson, John Crumlish, Anthony Jefferson. Center: John Hennessey

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The VA Maryland Health Care System, along with nearly 9,000 organizations across the country, joined with the Department of Defense to honor our nation's Vietnam Veterans for the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration. Of the nearly 3 million Americans who served in Vietnam, 97 percent were honorably discharged and 91 percent say that they're glad they served. More than 70 percent said they'd do it again, even knowing the outcome. While the common belief is that a majority of those who served in the Vietnam War were drafted, in reality, two-thirds volunteered. More than 58,000 perished, which means that many more Vietnam Veterans returned, and despite the myths about these Veterans, they actually have a lower unemployment rate than the same non-Veteran age groups, and their personal income exceeds non-Veteran age groups by more than 18 percent. Here at the VA Maryland Health Care System, Vietnam Veterans comprise the lion share of the workload of those we serve.

Upon their return from Vietnam, many Veterans were forewarned to don civilian clothes before disembarking from their flights. A handful of Vietnam Veterans—John Crumlish, Anthony Jefferson, John Hennessey, Brian Holmes and Garrett Nelson—shared their stories of service with us.  Two of these men volunteered for duty and three were drafted, but all of them recount their experiences in service to our nation that changed the direction of their lives.

After his graduation from Mount Saint Mary's College at age 22, Baltimore native John Crumlish, 70, first volunteered for the Maryland National Guard and then transferred into the Army. A combat medic, Crumlish recalls chilly and outright disrespectful behavior of his fellow Marylanders after his return, but is proud of his service and proud of treating wounded soldiers and evacuating them to the closest field hospital. Crumlish had been working on the surgical unit at the Womack Army Medical Center when a patient in the care of his team inadvertently inspired him to transfer to Vietnam as a combat medic. "That patient was severely injured and despite being injured, he saved many other soldiers. I had never before seen on anyone's chart in big red letters, ‘Recommended for the Medal of Honor.' When I came to know him better and what he did to save other soldiers, I wanted to be where the combat was happening to treat soldiers like him," said Crumlish.

During the Vietnam War, a combat medic carried the heavy burden of life and death with each of their decisions. Ninety-eight percent of soldiers treated by a combat medic within an hour of their injuries survived. Crumlish says he's glad he served, and he would do it again.

After Crumlish returned home to Catonsville, Md., while wearing his flak jacket in a K-Mart store, another shopper was prompted to call him a "baby killer" and spit on him, something he has never forgotten, especially given his mission of helping others. As a medic, one doesn't restrict their care to U.S. personnel, but also to anyone who is nearby and injured and that may include women and children. "I was pulling my arm back to sock that guy, but someone else, a guy behind me, grabbed by arm and said, ‘It's not worth it.'"

When John Hennessey, 70, was drafted at 18, this Mount Saint Joseph alumnus, called the local draft board to inquire if they had made a mistake. Hennessey's big dream of becoming a professional baseball player teetered on the balance. "I was listed in Pressbox as one of the top ball players in the area in a survey of 1960-1969—something I didn't find out until much later—but I trained and played with some guys who did make it to professional levels. That was my goal," said Hennessey.

The draft board informed him that no mistake was made and that he was expected to report as indicated. "I hopped a train with another guy from the area, and although we were both nearly kicked off the train for being too rowdy, we arrived at Fort Jackson on time."

Hennessey disliked his first military jobs at Fort Jackson—picking up litter—and asked how he could be given other jobs to do.  "The guy said if I thought I was smart enough, I could take the officer training test, so I did," Hennessey added.

Hennessey ended up becoming a 2nd Lt. and then a 1st Lt., eventually becoming a Platoon Leader, responsible for more than 40 men in combat. "I thought about my men—all of them, all the time—each day focusing on how I could keep them safe."

During this time, he was wounded in the leg while saving his radio man, who was shot and then was sent to a field hospital. That incident earned him the Bronze Star with a V for valor. Hennessy actually earned two bronze stars for his service. Once recovered, however, Hennessy returned to his platoon. He stayed in the Army, achieving the rank of Captain before returning to Baltimore where he landed a job in a bank that paid far less than his Army salary. Hennessey earned his undergrad degree followed by his master's degree. "I stuck with the bank. I'm still in the finance industry," he said.

Brian Holmes, 69, whose father owned a business that fostered foreign travel, grew up mostly in Connecticut and New York City, but spent several parts of his childhood living in France and then in the country of Lebanon. When he dropped out of college in his sophomore year at the prestigious McGill University in Canada, he was immediately drafted.

"I heeded the call. I wanted to go. I wanted to serve my country. I was already in Canada and could have easily stayed there, but I reported for duty," said Holmes.

Holmes remembers that the first smell in Vietnam that hit him as soon as he disembarked from the airplane proved to be familiar and that may have set the tone for his service there. "It smelled just like Lebanon, which is a place I loved. Lebanon was beautiful at that time. Being fluent in French, I was able to communicate with some of the Vietnamese who spoke French as it had been occupied by the French as Indochine."

While in the field, Holmes recalls making a commitment to completing his college studies once he returned home, if he would return because being in Vietnam wasn't easy. "I remember the sky after a certain firefight very clearly. I hadn't noticed it before as we were in a firefight in which some of our fellow soldiers had fallen. We carried them to the top of a hill where a helicopter was supposed to pick them up. At the top of the hill as we reached the crest, we saw the ugliness of a crater, burned and charred at its bottom. We set our fallen soldiers down on the lip of the crater, and I happened to look up and saw the most beautiful sky, tree line, and vista ever. I felt hopeful after that."

Holmes returned, completed his undergraduate degree at McGill, and then attended law school, earning hisdoctor of law degree. He worked first with a company coordinating translations, and then later worked within the industry that constructs and administers highways and roadways, which is the job that brought him to Maryland.

Anthony Jefferson, 59, wanted to be a nurse and joined the Army at age 18, training to be a medic. "We were about to be mobilized to leave for Vietnam and then it [the war] ended," said Jefferson, who remained stateside, treating "quite a few" returning wounded soldiers as part of the 101st Airborne Mobile Unit in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. "Most of the guys were 4 to 5 years older than I was, and they took me under their wing," said Jefferson.
Jefferson, who is now a retired nurse and who teaches professional tennis, is glad to have served our nation. "We were trained and prepared to go, willing to do whatever we could," said Jefferson, who eventually fulfilled his goal of becoming a nurse and later worked at Walter Reed.

Baltimore native Garrett Nelson, 68, dreamed of becoming an advertising copywriter before he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967 and served as a preventive medicine specialist.  "I was surprised I was drafted," he said. "Before I was drafted, I'd tried to join every branch of the military. Because I had asthma, no one would take me," said Nelson, who lived blocks from the University of Maryland Medical Center, and who as a child, made frequent visits to the emergency department due to his asthma.

"Then the Tet Offensive happened, and they no longer seemed to care about my having asthma," said Nelson, who served at the 31st Field Hospital in Korat, Thailand.

"When helicopters carrying the wounded came in, we were on a 72-hour duty. That means your duty was 72 hours, and I can tell you there's nothing like Army coffee because that stuff can be used to run a car engine," said Nelson, quietly noting that some of the wounded died en route. "Wounded who became stabilized at our field hospital moved on to Japan," he said.           

While in Thailand, Nelson, whose duties ranged widely, embraced Buddhism as a way to better understand the Thai culture and to learn about Asians, to learn about himself through meditation, and as a way to cope with the number of losses that began piling up, especially the loss of a member of the 31st Field Hospital Team. Surround by death and destruction, Buddhism brought him peace. He found himself studying Buddhism with the monks at a monastery there and became ordained. After more than a year of service in Thailand, then it was time to go home.

"When I was coming back, they told us to change out of our uniforms, but I refused to do it. I was proud of wearing my uniform when I was serving. It was good enough to wear when they sent us to do what we did, and I felt it was good enough to wear when we got back," he said.

After returning home, however, as hard has he worked to get on with life by marrying, becoming a father and supporting his family, Nelson began to realize what he experienced in Thailand never left him.  He was unable to hold a job, unable to be with or talk to people, unable to find any sort of inner peace. "In the process of transitioning back to American life, I forgot the peace of Buddhism.  I became homeless for a bit. I have PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] but didn't know it then," he said. "The VA wasn't helpful then. They used to have Vet Centers that were helpful but then they moved the Vet Centers to the counties, and many African-American Veterans who didn't have cars found it difficult to get out to the counties to the Vet Center for the help they needed. Then when we did get out to the counties, we weren't wanted there for other reasons. We felt abandoned," added Nelson.

Nelson, who is now receiving some help from the VA, urges his fellow Vietnam Veterans to seek the help that is now at the VA for them. "When we first came home, we weren't celebrated. And now everything is about the celebration of the American warrior, and now there is help at the VA for Vietnam and other Veterans. My fellow Vietnam Veterans should come in if they need help. It's here now."

More than 80 percent of Vietnam Veterans successfully transitioned to civilian life, notwithstanding the social and political upheaval at home about the conflict due to lack of support and appreciation for their service at home. Vietnam Veterans could be considered the second greatest generation—with more than 2 million who served proudly, with dignity sacrificing their dreams to serve our nation.             






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