(Editor’s note: To coincide with Ohio Valley Publishing’s annual “Salute to Veterans” special edition found inside this newspaper and online, the following story appears here, describing one veteran’s experience serving in Vietnam and coming home. Find more stories on local veterans and those honoring them, inside and online.)
CROWN CITY, Ohio — Like many of the 2.7 million other Vietnam veterans (9.7 % of their generation) who made it home after their Vietnam experience (58,479 did not), John Stapleton of Crown City, Ohio still suffers from PTSD and other wounds, such as from Agent Orange, 50 years after fighting for our country.
They didn’t know what PTSD was then. When a fire cracker goes off or a car backfires, his instinct is to dive for cover. He still feels very uncomfortable in crowds and awakes at night from the slightest noise. Stapleton often relives the experience in flashbacks.
Stapleton was an Army SP5 and a 21-year old young man in 1969. He was responsible for repairing surveillance OV-1 Mohawk aircraft with infrared cameras in an airfield cleared in the jungle and keeping them in the air. The runway was constructed of steel planks and operated by some 200 men. The base, some 10 miles from battalion headquarters, consisted of a tower, bunkers, barracks, etc. He would have to take his turn at perimeter guard duty because their small airfield and repair center was a prime target for an ambush.
In fact, the base often had to withstand mortar fire. One mortar attack killed a number of his buddies and destroyed 10 helicopters. Stapleton once had to wade in a marsh full of cancer-causing agent orange, the herbicide to defoliate the jungle. At times he had CQ duty, and was a courier, hand carrying messages in a truck to the commanders in the jungle and was exposed to ambushes and mines along the way. Sometimes handwritten messages by courier were the only secure means of communication.
It was a difficult war as Stapleton related. They didn’t know who the enemy was from day to day.
“Sometimes during the day Viet Cong would work for the Americans,” he said. “At night they would become the enemy. In one case a trusted Vietnamese barber slit the throats of two soldiers on the chair. In another case they discovered a woman with numerous hand grenades under her blouse. Small kids would carry a hand grenade with the pin pulled and only the lever remaining. Then he would simply drop the hand grenade and run.”
Like thousands of other soldiers who survived combat conditions, Stapleton brought Vietnam back home in his head and he can never really get away from the jungles of that place. In 1996 about 25 years after his Vietnam experience, he wrote a poem about his experience which began:
As we fly above the bomb scarred land,
the pilot says: “Welcome to Vietnam.”
As they open the gates to hell,
we hear the sounds that we’ll know so well.
As we ride on the bus to Long Binh,
I wonder: “Will I ever see home again!”
As the mortars explode and sirens wail,
it’s just another night in hell.
The poem goes on to describe moments in battle, including:
Thirteen GIs are dead when it’s through,
many more crippled and maimed;
their lives will never be the same.
This is not a war, so I’ve been told,
I’ll tell you that line is getting old.
The poem ends with a stanza describing finally arriving home in the USA but leaves the reader with the impression a part of Stapleton will always be back in Vietnam. The poem concludes with:
As we land on that American soil,
I thought I’d never see that place anymore.
But after all these years, to my dismay,
I see it every night and day.
The battles on and on they rage;
my young soul will forever walk that land,
until God calls me home again,
from that hell called Vietnam!
Paul Sebastian is a veteran living in Rio Grande, Ohio. He is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Rio Grande.