John Paulson is a member of Sandy Springs City Council and is a U.S. Marine veteran. This is an edited version of remarks he delivered at Sandy Springs’ observance of Veterans Day on Nov. 11.
Let me take you back to 1968. It was a tumultuous year: the Vietnam war was raging; Martin Luther King had just been assassinated; anti-war protests were everywhere; college campuses were staging anti-war rallies routinely; and men were fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft.
I had heard about the Big War from my father and uncles and other men who had served, and about how the U.S. saved the world, and I wanted to be a part of that fraternity. So I enlisted in the United State Marine Corps in June 1968.
Boot camp was hard. But our drill instructors had all been to ’Nam and told us repeatedly that war was harder. They were right. After boot camp, I was assigned to the infantry and went off to Camp Pendleton, where we were taught the business of war.
When I went home to Chicago on leave for Christmas, I saw family and friends I had left six months earlier and quickly realized nothing had changed for them. But I had changed. I had been trained to be a warrior and I was going to war. In February of 1969, off we flew, to Okinawa, then on to Vietnam.
That first night in ’Nam, I was at a base at Da Nang. There was an outdoor movie theater, where that night the movie “Green Berets” with John Wayne was playing. Sometime that evening there were incoming rockets or mortars and we all went into a big bunker — really a large pipe about 200 feet long. Right in the middle was a Marine just sitting. When I asked why he was just sitting in the bunker, he said he was going home the next day and was taking no chances!
On the next day, we were assigned to our respective units. I was assigned to A1/9, or Alpha Company, first Battalion, Ninth Marine Regiment. A1/9 had earned the nickname the “walking dead” because of the heavy casualties the unit had incurred.
My first job was as an ammo humper, someone who follows the gunner around carrying boxes of extra ammunition for a 30-caliber machine gun. Wherever he went I followed. Most firefights lasted less than a minute.
In July, we were notified that members of A1/9 were to be the first combat troops pulled out of Vietnam by President Richard Nixon. On one day in early August, we went from being out in the bush on patrol to riding trucks back to DaNang, where the South Vietnamese government threw us a parade, to standing on a parade ground next to a ship while speeches were made. Finally we boarded ship and headed to Okinawa. I was ready to go. I had survived.
I was discharged in Southern California to a country that did not like the war, and was taking it out on the warriors. Those images of the World War II veterans who saved the world were long gone. Suffice to say it was time to grow my hair and get on with my life.
Life has a way of pulling tricks on you. You smell burning diesel fuel and are right back there on a hill “in country.” It takes about 10 years before you can sit through a Fourth of July fireworks display without sitting in the car with the radio on because fireworks sound just like mortar fire.
There is good news also: I went to college using the GI Bill; I get 10 percent off at Home Depot and Lowe’s; I am working with veterans through the American Legion Post 140, and am involved with a veteran nonprofit, the Phoenix Patriot Foundation, assisting combat wounded veterans with the next stage of their lives.
The people of this great nation have recognized the challenges that Vietnam vets went through when they came back and are working to make amends.
Every generation has known war. Every war has its warriors, those few who have put their lives on the line for this country. They were not the ones who make policy, nor decide where to fight, but served this great nation in that time of need.
This country has changed, and for the better. We no longer blame the warrior for the war. So when you get the opportunity, spend some time with these warriors, whether 19 or 90. They are a unique group who actually went into harm’s way for you. “And keep those who are still serving downrange in your thoughts and prayers.”