Friday, August 21, 2009

Summer of 69: Vietnam

August 21, 2009
By Dave Canfield
The Record

Sen. Roy McDonald serving in Vietnam after joining the Army in 1969. (Photo provided)

Despite ongoing peace talks and a pledge by President Nixon to begin withdrawing troops from Vietnam, 1969 proved to be the second-deadliest year in that theater for American troops.

Some 11,616 U.S. soldiers were killed that year — more than double the American casualties of current military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. By the time American combat personnel completely withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, more than 58,000 Americans were dead, their average age, roughly 23.

For those who came home, the conflict didn’t end when their plane landed. While an oft-repeated story holding that returning soldiers were spat upon by protestors has been disputed by some academics, few say returning was an easy thing.

“That was a shameful period, the way they treated veterans,” said state Sen. Roy McDonald, R-Saratoga, who said few people, groups or non-profits “gave a good damn” about those who returned from the nation’s longest and arguably least-successful military engagement.

Lansingburgh native McDonald joined the Army in 1969 and was sent to Southeast Asia the following year, where he served a 12-month tour as a forward observer for the 1st Cavalry Division’s Airborne Infantry Unit. He said his experience in combat was an eye-opening one in which he served alongside largely lower- and middle-class soldiers of different races and backgrounds.

“It was growing up experience. It was a long way from Troy, N.Y.,” he said.

But McDonald said there was no one there for those soldiers when they came home and were in need of employment, education, housing or health care. Many were denied treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and it was then too soon to see the debilitating long-term effects of the infamous pesticide Agent Orange.

“I’ve always thought Vietnam veterans were short-changed,” McDonald said.

More than 60 percent of all claims handled by the Rensselaer County Veterans Service Agency come from those who served in that war, said director Robert Reiter.

Clearly, the traumas and medical effects of that war have not dissipated over the decades. One veteran who declined to be named for this article said he was told by a psychiatrist: “If it doesn’t bother you, something’s wrong.”

That combat vet said the stress of war led many soldiers to alcohol and drug abuse while they were still stationed overseas.While McDonald’s story is not one of ruin — he continued domestic military service before obtaining a master’s degree under the G.I. Bill from the state University College at Oneonta — the height-leery man who spent a year jumping out of helicopters on the Vietnam-Cambodia border said he remains proud of his service.

But he said it wasn’t so easy for some he fought alongside, who still today avoid talking about it.

“It was a young man’s war. They might be susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse,” he said.

“There was nobody there to give them any direction. And maybe it’s too late now. Some of them are in different age brackets and some are no longer with us.”

But now, as a politician, McDonald finds himself in a position where he can wield influence on such matters. He has proposed legislation to construct a veteran’s housing facility — a type of facility he lived in for a time as a child — in Troy, and he previously secured a similar facility as supervisor of the town of Wilton. He was also the driving force behind the states different Patriot Plans, which offer veterans a host of benefits, such as low-interest housing loans, tuition breaks and tax credits.

He said his experience upon returning home from Southeast Asia continues to shape his approach — with the goal of not repeating the past.

“My world was real simple (upon coming home). I didn’t expect a lot and they didn’t give me a lot,” he said. “We don’t want to repeat that problem or that mistake ever.”

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