Monday, January 30, 2012

Remembering The Past - And Learning From It

Lieutenant Chuck Grist - Vietnam
I returned from Vietnam on August 8, 1971. A week or so later, I received a phone call from Charlie Wadsworth, a columnist with the Orlando Sentinel. Since I was a “hometown boy” back from the war, he asked me to come down to his office for a brief interview, which I agreed to do. At the time I was a twenty-two year old Army first lieutenant with fresh memories of dead friends, dead enemy soldiers, the smell of the jungle, and a country that didn't care where I had been.

To put the following column in context, the war was winding down, and the “Vietnamization” of that war was in full swing. In the last years of the war, those of us in combat became the victims of the drawdown in the sense that supplies were reduced, artillery rounds were saved, and other cost-saving measures were implemented.

These money-saving measures put us at grave risk, and we became bitter about it. Since America had decided to pull out of Vietnam short of victory, the most frequent comment in my unit was that none of us wanted to be the last soldier to die in Vietnam.

By the way, as I made my way home on August 8, I was spat on in the San Francisco airport by a group of "hippies" and called a murderer by a faceless coward in an Atlanta airport crowd. My family was glad to see me, but I took my uniform off that night and didn't wear it again for almost ten years.

Charlie Wadsworth was a legendary reporter in Orlando. His “Hush Puppies” column appeared daily:

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Orlando Sentinel
August 17, 1971
By Charlie Wadsworth, Columnist

Another young Orlandoan is freshly and safely home from a year in Vietnam.

Here are some excerpts from an absorbing conversation with Lt. Charles M. ‘Chuck’ Grist, son of Mr. and Mrs. John Grist:

“…I sincerely believe the reasons we went into Vietnam were good but I don’t like the way it is winding down. Support is harder to get, and in my opinion it is time to leave Vietnam altogether.

“…If after a decade that we have been there the South Vietnamese can’t do it now they won’t ever do it.

“…When you come home it hits you immediately. The people in the U.S. seem to be oblivious to what happens outside of the U.S. I think the people are concerned about Vietnam, but can’t comprehend what has gone on over there and what is going on now.

“…The war stinks, it really does.’

Lt. Grist was with the 1st Cavalry Division in the flatland regions some 60 miles northeast of Saigon. He was a platoon leader for seven months.

He talked about the narcotics question, and his answers may be different from some of the reports you have been reading of late.

“We never had a problem with it (drugs) in the field in any way in my platoon.  When I became executive officer, I found some problems – some severe – in the rear areas.

“I found it restricted to the rear of both company and battalion, some bad heroin addiction.

“The thing I found is the people in the field won’t allow it. Every now and then someone would try it but his buddies squared him away in a hurry.

“We got some replacements once. A sergeant found one of the replacements on some stuff. He said he had found the man and straightened him out, and he also told me that it would not happen again.

“You had to have utmost cooperation in the field, and people who would not cooperate were kicked out. You make good friends out there. That’s where you make the real friendships, and a man will cooperate and straighten up rather than risk losing the friends he has made, or adding additional risk to the job they’re doing.

“With the units pulling out as they are, it is hard for units to get support, to get things like clothes, for example. Flying time of helicopters has been cut back. That is why in my opinion it is time to leave Vietnam altogether.

“…I think I accomplished what I wanted, to go out there and find out what it really is all about. I want to know what I’m talking about, not just someone shooting off at the mouth. It was the single greatest experience of my life,” he added.

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That last sentence may seem unusual, but for a young man who had given so much, I guess I was attempting to justify that the scars on my body and soul were somehow worth it all.

Following this interview, I began a two year decline from the happy-go-lucky Airborne Ranger I had been before my tour in Vietnam, to a guy who saw only darkness, who drank himself into oblivion on a regular basis, who tried college but dropped out after only two weeks, and who partied like there was no tomorrow.

If not for the timely arrival of the woman who would become my wife, who knows what ditch I would have ended up in. Debbie inspired me to put the past behind me and move on.

We are now in the midst of a drawdown in Afghanistan. As we slowly withdraw our brave warriors, surely some of them must be asking themselves, “Will I be the last G.I. to die in Afghanistan?”

We must not allow the political desire to leave Afghanistan to permit a lack of support for our troops. No shortcuts, no lack of supplies, no lack of artillery or air support, and please continue to welcome them home – not like you welcomed me home from Vietnam – but just like you welcomed me home from Iraq…..

Charles M. Grist