Even after a quarter-century, memories of Vietnam still haunt the American psyche
The trouble is, he doesn't remember the names.
He arrived in Vietnam - the first time - in September 1966. He was 23 years old, a high school dropout from Paris, Texas. He was there about six months, came home with malaria, went back for a second tour in 1967.
Three decades later, Robert Blackburn is a retired professor. He lives in Missoula. He spends his days researching that long-ago war.
But the names …
In the course of those two tours of Vietnam, he had seen many horrible things - "seen and done," he says. And more than 30 years later, he is afflicted by those memories in his dreams and in his waking hours.
He suffers, he says, from an "emotional numbness."
He suffers, he says, from remembering. And not remembering.
"I do not remember the name of any person I ever served with in Vietnam," he says quietly.
"The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula," President George Bush proclaimed after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Except it wasn't.
On April 30, it will be 25 years since Saigon fell, 25 years since the last harrowing pictures of American helicopters setting off, desperate would-be refugees clinging to their landing gear.
Again and again over that time, we have been told that we are putting Vietnam where it belongs, in the dust bin of history, so we can become America again, proud and strong and sure of our moorings.
But again and again, we are reminded that we are still finding our way out of the Big Muddy. We see it in shattered lives, in our response to provocations overseas, in politics and relationships poisoned by the passions of days long ago.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter pledged if elected to pardon the draft evaders, "to bring about an end to the divisiveness that has occurred in our country as a result of the Vietnam War."
The pardon was one of his first acts in office. And nearly a quarter century later, Allen Comba, an attorney from Carteret, N.J. who served in Vietnam in 1970-71, still holds it against him.
"For me, it was a slap in the face of everyone who served," he says. One more thing: "I will tell you I'm not a big Jane Fonda fan."
Perhaps it is silly to think that we can divorce ourselves from the Vietnam War, when we are still arguing over whether we should have fought it harder, or not at all.
"The Vietnam War will be a major force in our lives until the entire baby boom generation dies out - and even after," says John Hellman, author of "American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam."
It's like the Civil War, he says - the only period of American history that was more divisive.
At the end of the 19th century, Hellman says, there was a tacit agreement to honor the dead of both North and South, to lionize both Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. We would put that war behind us, and enter the 20th century as a united people. The specter of the Civil War had been buried forever at San Juan Hill.
So why, in 2000, are we arguing about the rebel flag on the South Carolina statehouse?
'Something died in me'
"Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we're finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio."
Just a few bars of an old song on a car radio, and Lou Szari is weeping. He hurtles back 30 years, to a warm, May day on "a really boring, really placid Midwestern campus."
He was a student teacher then. He was called to the principal's office, and told there was some trouble on campus. He got into his car and raced 15 miles, talking his way through military checkpoints and cutting through back yards and driveways.
When he got to Kent State, the campus was empty.
His girlfriend was safe. But a protest against the war had ended grotesquely; four students - Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder - had been felled in a 13-second fusillade by Ohio National Guardsmen.
Liz Troshane saw it happen. She ran toward the fracas and yelled at the soldiers. "Suddenly I was surrounded. There were about a dozen of them pointing their rifles at me," she says.
In jail, she learned that Allison had died - Allison, the first person she had met when she arrived at school for orientation.
"Something died in me," she says.
More than 1,400 miles away, Jay Hatcher was sitting in a freshman English class at University of New Mexico when his instructor arrived, wearing a black armband. There had been shootings at Kent State; a rally was scheduled for the plaza. Class dismissed.
Hatcher found himself in a mob that stormed the ROTC building. They broke a lock, trashed some files. "I got clobbered on the head by a guy in ROTC who was holding a baseball in his fist."
"At that point, my life changed," he says.
He never had supported the Vietnam War. It wasn't the same as the world wars. It seemed a waste of human life.
He became a hippie. He grew his hair down his back. A difficult relationship with his Army veteran father became "horrible, just horrible," to the point where they almost came to blows.
And he quit school, and thus lost his student draft deferment.
To escape the draft, he:
€ Poked his arm with a needle so he would look like a junkie.
€ Starved himself until he was down to 115 pounds.
€ Complained of chronic colds, enlisted a psychiatrist, trumped up an arrest for blocking traffic during a demonstration.
None of it worked (the weight cutoff was 112). But in the end he was spared, he says, when the draft lottery was tied up in court.
In 1977, the hair came off, and he joined the Coast Guard. After more than 20 years, he retired and went back to school to become a history teacher. He grew his hair long again, grew a beard, pierced his ears. At the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, he is surrounded by kids who were not yet born on May 4, 1970, when Jay Hatcher became a radical.
Not long ago, he was sitting in a class discussion of the Vietnam War, listening to twentysomethings suggest that maybe the protesters were wrong, maybe the government had a point.
"Hey," he said. "These kids were your age, they were wearing T-shirts and jeans … and they turned upon them and shot them."
Hatcher, 48, speaks wistfully of the peace movement's failures.
"We were going to change the world," he says. "For the life of me, I wouldn't have thought that by the year 2000 we still would have civil rights problems and we still would have marijuana illegal and we would still be getting involved in petty little skirmishes overseas."
Liz Troshane still deems Vietnam "an illegal, illicit war." Once a member of Students for a Democratic Society, she became a teacher, saleswoman, addiction counselor - and now a financial adviser in Santa Rosa, Calif. She gave up on politics entirely after Kent State.
"What I gained was something called cynicism," she says.
When Lou Szari votes, he remembers the political duplicities he saw 30 years ago. And this 53-year-old professor at Virginia Commonwealth University tells his young daughters, "Never be in a crowd when they bring out the guns. The guns always win."
'It's the American hero'
Steve Wozniak is 49, the same generation as Szari, Troshane and Hatcher. In the days of the Vietnam protests, he and his friend Steve Jobs - eventually, founders of Apple Computer - sold blue-box devices to college students who used them to make free (and illegal) phone calls.
Today he proclaims his faith in technology, not politics. "I made a promise to myself a long time ago - back during Vietnam - not to be political," he says. "People act as if their candidate winning is a life and death matter. It's not. They think things will get better if their guy wins. It doesn't."
The cynicism bred by the Vietnam War has never dissipated. Instead, it has been deepened over the years by Watergate and all the other 'gates, and by regular disclosures of the shortcomings of our leaders.
"Nixon and Johnson just lied through their teeth …," says Robert Blackburn, the Vietnam vet. "People thought, 'Hey, our government lies to us. Our government can't always be trusted.' "
Meanwhile, the scorched-earth tactics of the war's opponents and their adversaries - "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many babies you kill today?" "America - love it or leave it" - opened a vein of political nastiness that persists.
Sometimes, you can still hear echoes of Vietnam venom. In 1998, when Barbra Streisand produced a movie about a shooting incident, Charlton Heston evoked Jane Fonda's wartime visit to Hanoi, reviling Streisand as "the Hanoi Jane of the Second Amendment."
Neither the left nor the right came out of Vietnam eager to order America's youth into battle. The conflicts have been brief and limited (Panama, Grenada, the Persian Gulf) - or conducted from the air (Kosovo). In 1973, the year America officially left Vietnam, the draft ended and was replaced by a volunteer army.
Still, we battle over the draft - in the rear-view mirror, through the candidacies of Bill Clinton and Dan Quayle and George W. Bush. This year, for the first time, Americans were drawn to a candidate for national office in large part because of his Vietnam service.
But think about John McCain, says writer John Hellman. He was admired for his conduct as a prisoner, not as a fighter. It brings to mind the Rambo movie in which American soldiers were depicted as "innocent people who were victimized by the savage Vietnamese."
"It's the American hero we're rescuing - the American hero who has been unaccountably trapped, and cannot get out," Hellman says.
Much like America itself.
'Is he dead?' 'Yes, he is'
"It's still fresh wounds, you know," says Mark Basinger.
He was just 17 months old when his father died; he has no memories of the man who left on a train in August 1966, and never came back.
His mother remembers, though.
And when she recalls Capt. Richard Louis Basinger, USMC, her tears flow.
"He was a breath of fresh air," Nelda Sue Basinger Ludwig begins.
They met in the train station in Lima, Ohio, in 1961; she was wearing a white dress, he was in his Naval Reserve uniform, bound for duty. She passed him a note, wishing him good luck. Two months later, he called her.
They married in 1964, when he graduated from Ohio Northern. They kissed goodbye at the same train station where they had met. Nine months later, on May 16, 1967, Nelda Sue opened her door to two Marines.
"I knew. They walked up the steps and I asked, 'Is he dead?' And they said, 'Yes, he is."
She remembers the flag-draped coffin, and her pride in the Marine Corps. "I acted the way Dick would have wanted me to, and that kept me together."
And she remembers how very much alone she felt.
"No one wanted to talk to me about it. They wanted me to get along with my life," she says.
So she did. She remarried in 1967 ("He's a wonderful man. … But when you've had the best, it's hard to settle"), had two more children, used her widow's benefits to help pay for the home for her new family.
Mark, meanwhile, watched the newscasts from Vietnam and thought, "That's where my dad died." His grandparents and aunts did not talk about Dick Basinger; the subject was too painful.
Mark wanted to know more. He has pieced together a Web site that pays tribute to his dad: His more than 350 helicopter combat missions. His journal entries, succinct and unemotional.
An account of his father's death: "In the afternoon of May 12, 1967, Captain Richard Louis Basinger was killed in action when the UH-34D helicopter he was piloting (YZ-78) was hit by an enemy mortar round shortly after lifting out of a zone while on an emergency resupply mission to a Marine outpost at Con Thien."
"Captain Basinger was 24 years old" - 11 years younger than the son who so desperately wants to connect with him.
In May, Mark will go to Vietnam. He will trace his father's steps. He will, he hopes, visit the spot where that helicopter crashed.
"I'm just trying to feel a part of him," Mark says.
But his mother says he need not go to Vietnam to do that.
"Look in the mirror," she says, "and you'll know your father."
'We got sick and tired of it'
There were 58,178 American deaths in Vietnam; their names are on a black wall in Washington (Richard Louis Basinger, Panel 19E, Row 92). But no one knows precisely how many children are left behind, or widows.
There are 2,043 Americans still missing in southeast Asia. For purposes of survivors' benefits, all are presumed to have died more than 20 years ago.
But no one knows how many of those survivors still hold out hope for their loved ones; the status of the MIAs remains an obstacle to better relations with Vietnam, though four times that number remain missing from the Korea War, and 78,976 from World War II.
During the Vietnam War, 3,403,100 Americans served in southeast Asia. No one knows how many are still struggling with the physical, mental or emotional fallout, and the cold shoulder many of them received when they returned from this most unpopular of American wars.
Finally, "we got sick and tired of it," and demanded respect, says John Kinzinger, who heads the Ann Arbor, Mich. chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.
He was a radio operator in Vietnam in 1966-67. Later he worked for Ford. Now retired, he and a half dozen other Vietnam vets get together every Wednesday for breakfast at the Bomber Restaurant in Ypsilanti, take their 10 percent vet's discount, and chat about golf.
They don't talk about the war.
"That's asking to stir up emotions," he says.
Robert Blackburn often responds to e-mail from high school students who need information about Vietnam for class assignments - inevitably, at the last minute.
How was life during the Vietnam War? "Dirty, terrifying, heart-rending, intense joy at making such close friends, but ultimately, just sad." Do you think the war was necessary? "No."
What can he tell them?
That Vietnam was weeks of tedium - monsoon rains, smells, heat, long hikes through tall elephant grass with 75 pounds on your back, leeches everywhere - punctuated by two- or three-day stretches of mayhem, the enemy outnumbering you, Marines falling around you?
That when you came back the first time, you tried to commit suicide, unsuccessfully, and then re-enlisted hoping the Viet Cong would finish the job? But that you could not allow the young Marines under your command to die, too, so you soldiered on?
That you were shattered to hear that after you departed, the unit was wiped out - all of them killed or wounded by a bomb?
He will not tell them - or anyone - about the worst of Vietnam.
"There are some things I have to keep to myself," he says.
He has been in and out of VA hospitals. He blames both the end of his 29-year marriage and a heart attack on post-traumatic stress disorder; he is on 100 percent service-related disability, unable to teach.
Instead, he is researching all of the American Vietnam casualties. He wants to explain every one - the circumstances, who died and how - so that their loved ones will know, and perhaps put Vietnam behind them.
He has no illusions that it will do the same for him.