History Repeating

Three Tucson veterans say the Iraq war illustrates that the lessons of Vietnam are being forgotten--or ignored

The war in Iraq has been hard on longtime Tucsonans Dennis Bourret, 62, Bob Cairns, 62, and Charlie Lunden, 56, all veterans of the war in Vietnam. More precisely, they are all veterans of the secret, illegal war the United States fought beyond the borders of Cambodia and Laos in an effort to disrupt the flow of supplies and men along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

All three are settled family men doing fulfilling work. Cairns is a partner in the Urgent Care practice at North Speedway Boulevard and East Country Club Road; Bourret teaches violin and runs Tucson Junior Strings, a large student orchestra program he founded; Lunden has practiced psychotherapy in Tucson for more than 30 years. They look and act like everybody else: They complain about the heat, shop at Costco and go to the movies on Friday night--though generally not to war movies.

But what they do, how they think and what they feel when they watch the news connects back to a far-away time and place that none of them has ever entirely left.

Their stories are the same in some ways, different in others. Bourret and Cairns were drafted after finishing college. Cairns, then 23, got his notice on the very day he graduated from the University of Michigan in 1965 with a degree in geological engineering. The year 1965 was the beginning of the big build-up of American forces in Vietnam, and his Waukegan, Ill., draft board was below quota: They took him even though he'd already been accepted to graduate school. He didn't want to go to Vietnam and considered going to prison or Canada instead.

"But those were deliberate actions that would have affected the rest of my life in ways I couldn't imagine. It was easier just to go and take my chances," he explains.

Bourret was 25 and had just finished a master's degree in music when he was called up by his Wyoming draft board in 1967. He'd had two educational deferments already and was, if not eager to fight, sure that it was his patriotic duty to go when called. Men in his family had fought in World War II and Korea.

Lunden volunteered. He finished high school at 17 in June 1966 and left for basic training three days after graduation. He'd joined the Air Force months before at the recruiting office in Albany, Ga.; his mother had been required to sign, because he was underage. He was wild to get out of his hometown and to get into the war--most of the men in his family had been military officers.

Once in, Cairns became a medical tech, and Lunden became a military intelligence and communications specialist and, when asked, a member of an elite special squad. Bourret was put in charge of a six-man 105-mm howitzer fire-direction crew. Lunden was in for 4 1/2 years, Cairns for nearly four, Bourret for two. All emerged as sergeants with full honorable discharges.

Events since Sept. 11 have made them feel their difference from the rest of us as acutely as when they first came back to "the World," as the troops in 'Nam called the United States. The election was a torment for them and Kerry's defeat a blow to each. All three feel that the invasion of Iraq was a catastrophe.

They see themselves as realists living in a world of true believers, adults in a country of children, eyewitnesses whose testimony counts for nothing. In the last few years, they have seen the essential, hard-won lessons of their war forgotten by their countrymen and ignored by their leaders.

Lesson One: Politicians Lie.

Cairns had no intention of being a warrior, and through a series of lucky chances and smart decisions, he managed to avoid becoming one. He traded his time for comparative safety and extended his commitment by nearly two years, first by enlisting (for three years, to give himself more choices: They were sending lots of draftees to the Marines the day he reported); later, he added yet more time to his service in order to qualify for advanced medical training. That kept him from becoming a field medic and delayed his departure for Vietnam by 10 months. Once "in country," he spent more than two years treating the sick and wounded. He was posted with his four-man dispensary unit first to a surgical hospital 40 miles south of Saigon, and briefly to a field hospital--a MASH unit--outside Hue. He was finally attached to the Army's 57th Assault Helicopter Company at Kontum, a busy crossroads 15 miles from the junction of the Laotian, Cambodian and North Vietnamese borders. He was there from Thanksgiving 1968 through June 1969, when he was shipped back to the United States.

Cairns' was a relatively safe job, but not a soft one. The hospitals he worked in were occasionally shelled--once with gas, "the ultimate freakout"--and while in Kontum, he often went along on bomb-damage assessments (that is, body counts) when a helicopter crew was short a man. Three of those trips were into Cambodia.

"There were all these political reasons for the government to pretend we weren't violating these countries' neutrality," he says, "but we had people going back and forth, and everybody on the ground knew it. If you were anywhere near, you couldn't not know it. It was this big, big secret everybody knew.

"When I was down in the Mekong in '67, we'd get these guys in unmarked uniforms with no dogtags who couldn't tell you their unit. It wasn't hard to guess they'd been somewhere our forces were not supposed to be. And sometimes, they just told you. One poor, fever-ridden SEAL they brought in kept babbling. He'd gotten separated from his unit behind the line, missed the rendezvous with a swift boat and had basically gone nuts out there while he worked his way back to the border. After a few days, some Air America (CIA) guys from Saigon flew in and took him away."

For Cairns, this made the swift boat veterans flap during the campaign both fascinating and a little eerie.

"Here were these guys, 30, 35 years later, parroting the same line they'd been taught to say back then: 'John Kerry could not have been in Cambodia, because it would have been illegal for him to be there,'" he says. "There was nothing legal about any of the thousands of documented missions across (to Cambodia)."

Later, while Cairns was up north at Kontum, Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger secretly intensified the bombing of Cambodia, which continued until 1973. (More than a half-million tons of explosives were dropped, and an estimated 500,000 Cambodian civilians killed in this campaign, which is widely thought to have created conditions that led to Pol Pot's takeover of the country in 1975.) They managed to keep it secret from the American people, Congress and much of the Armed Forces for more than a year.

When Brigadier General Douglas Kinnard was organizing the ground invasion of Cambodia that Nixon ordered in the spring of 1970, for example, he had great difficulty getting reconnaissance photos from Saigon. When they finally arrived, he saw why: The terrain was pocked with the huge craters of 500-pound bombs. He, like many other high-ranking military officers, had been told nothing about the war behind the border.

From the ground, it was obvious.

"By the time I left in June of '69, there were at least 10 Hueys going out every day," Cairns says.

As his company's Medical Civilian Projects officer, Cairns also worked three or four days a week in a Catholic mission hospital that served the local people--poor ethnic minorities from the nearby high country. He became so attached to the work and the people that when he went to medical school after coming home, it was with the intention of going back to Kontum to practice. He couldn't, because the North Vietnamese took over the country.

"I feel almost guilty that I came out of that war with something positive," he says. "So many guys went through all that and just went back to pumping gas in their hometowns or something. And of course, Vietnam was the end of the road for a lot of people, in one way or another. I found out what I wanted to do in life."

He was a rarity of the war, an American who stayed on after he was free to go: He spent the nearly six months between the end of his tour of duty and his discharge date in Kontum.

"I was with my friends, doing something useful, and I truly hated base life. My mother still hasn't forgiven me."

When Cairns finally arrived back in the United States in 1969, the only people he felt comfortable with were fellow vets.

"There was this kind of detachment that lasted for a couple of years," Cairns recalls. "The only people I wanted to be around were guys who had been there. I couldn't get interested in anyone else.

"When we got off the plane in Seattle, there were protestors outside the airport waving signs and chanting. They seemed completely irrelevant. Caring about what they thought would have been absurd."

He went back to college to pick up pre-med requirements and started applying to medical schools. He joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Chicago, but got out when he realized that "some of those guys not only opposed the war, they intended to use some of the skills the U.S. government had taught them to do it."

Cairns feels that Kerry joining the VVAW after he got out was absolutely the patriotic thing to do.

"He'd been there. He knew what he'd seen and he spoke out." Cairns pauses. "Look, if I could have polled all the guys I knew when I left about what I could do for them back home, I guarantee that every single one would have said, 'Anything that will get me out of here a day sooner.'

"How do you really support the troops? You bring them home."

Lesson Two: War is Hell. It Better Be Worth It.

Dennis Bourret, artillery specialist in the First Infantry, served the usual draftee's two-year stint. Half of that time, he was in country, and for six of those months, he was assigned to Katum, a Special Forces (Green Beret) base in Tay Ninh province. Katum was three miles from the Cambodian border and five miles from a North Vietnamese Army training base. It was shelled nearly every day Bourret was there.

The Special Forces were there to spy on, booby-trap and mine the Ho Chi Minh Trail--which ran right along the border--and to drop transmitters to guide the tactical bombers and B-52s. The artillery crew was there to lay down covering fire for the Special Forces as they came in and out. They were forbidden to fire across the border and did not do so. (The rules about the border were different in different places and at different times, and kept changing throughout the war.) Four hundred or so Cambodian mercenaries and South Vietnamese militia members, in turn, were there to protect the firebase if the North Vietnamese Army tried to overrun it--which they occasionally did.

It was horrifyingly intense. The star-shaped base had been burned out with Agent Orange and strung with barbed wire. Beyond the perimeter was the tree line, where the North Vietnamese hid and practiced firing mortars at the base.

"We made a great target," says Bourret. "Most of the fire was just harassment, but sometimes, they got really ticked off."

The base came under rocket and ground attack four times while he was there.

During his posting, he took shrapnel, lost several men and saw his best friend's legs shot off when a rocket-propelled grenade came through the wall of a bunker. During one assault, a soldier out on the perimeter yelled, "They're coming through the wire!" just before his radio went dead. Bourret did what he'd been trained to do: Kick the bunker door shut, point his M-16 at it, hit the floor and wait for the enemy to come through.

"Not knowing if you're going to be alive in another minute--it changes you," he says.

The neighborhood was so dangerous that the C-130s ferrying supplies and personnel in and out never fully stopped on the runway, and the captain in charge of Bourret's battery flew in for a 10-minute inspection just once a month. If there was any action, he didn't even land at all. The 150 Cambodian mercenaries on base were competent soldiers, although once a group of them deserted without warning. A few days later, they tried to come back, but they could no longer be trusted, and the Americans had to shoot them down in the road. The 250 local militia under the command of regular South Vietnamese army officers were worse than useless: Every week, the Green Berets went around the periphery of their compound, snipping communications wires that led away into the jungle.

"I have a lot of feeling for the kids in Iraq," Bourret says. "Fighting an enemy you can't see, an enemy that looks like everybody else--that's tough.

"The Special Forces guys were great--they were brave and knew their stuff and they were good guys, nothing like they show in movies," Bourret says. "But the lifer NCOs (non-commissioned officers) were just trying to stay alive. I couldn't believe it the first time I saw a guy who was supposed to be firing dive into a bunker. Later, I understood: He'd been around long enough to know that the cause was lost, and the war was unwinnable. You weren't there long before you realized that you weren't saving anybody from anything. All we fought for was our buddies."

He was close to some of the Green Berets, and they'd tell him what they'd seen and what they thought. Bourret concluded that the politicians weren't even trying to win.

"Later on, I found out that Robert S. McNamara (secretary of defense under Kennedy and Johnson) had ties to the weapons industry and thought, 'Well, that explains it.' They were stringing it out so they could make more money."

Bourret came back to Wyoming with a chunk of shrapnel embedded in his calf, no Purple Heart, a dog he'd saved from the cooking pot and an extreme sensitivity to loud noises that lasted for years. He'd made Sergeant E-5 in country; in his last six months on base, he was bumped up to E-6. It had taken him just 22 months--a remarkable achievement. Despite the urgings of his superiors, though, he had no desire for a career in the armed forces.

"I got home in a state of shock, I think. Most people do--I had an uncle who came back from World War II and blew his brains out. But you've got to get on with your life in the best way you can," Bourret says. "I was a musician who hadn't been able to touch my instrument in two years, and I had to hustle. I put it all away and locked it down. It's not a decision you make; it's just what you do."

The run-up to the war in Iraq--"which is even more hoked-up than Vietnam"--brought it back up. Bourret began remembering things he'd forgotten, and he started staying up late to write poetry, letters to the editor and Internet posts about his war, and the parallels he sees to this one.

"There's this kind of '60s-'70s thinking going on: 'So many of our boys have died that we have to win. So we'll keep sending them over to be killed.'

"What it comes down to for me is that if you haven't been to war, you shouldn't shout so loud. And nobody who hasn't fought has any right to get us into one. Anyone who'd been in battle would make sure he had a good reason before he went out and started a war."

Lesson Three: War Doesn't Go Away

Charlie Lunden doesn't know whether he was ever in Vietnam. He was close, though.

During four months in 1967, from August through November, his ultra-secret squad cleared out in the Thai jungle. The place was only accessible by air: Along with four other squads and their support personnel, they'd flown there, by night, from Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, Air America's (that is, the CIA's) center of operations in Asia. His unit had no name and wore no dogtags. They did not officially exist.

"Our non-existence went right to heart of what we did," he says.

From the clearing, his five-man squad--all volunteers who'd been through extensive psychological testing and training in military intelligence, mapping and hand-to-hand combat--conducted night reconnaissance missions. They were dropped off and picked up by helicopters at locations near the Cambodian and Laotian borders, but were never told quite were they were. Their job was to check on North Vietnamese army encampments and supply caches previously identified by the CIA. When they found something that was worth blowing up, they signaled a circling spy plane to call in the bombers. If they were seen or heard, the mission was a failure.

The work was extremely dangerous, and so clandestine that while Lunden was in Thailand, the Air Force mailed postcards back home from Chicksands Air Force Base in England, where he was officially stationed. They'd had him write the cards before he left.

After 28 missions, he and his squad were removed (by night) and immediately flown back to England. He returned to Chicksands Air Force Base, a major intelligence-gathering center. No one knew what his "temporary duty" posting had been. There, among endless fields of Brussels sprouts, he monitored incoming intelligence transmissions in the largely underground base. In his spare time, he played football, softball and boxed for his outfit.

Eighteen months after his trip to Thailand, he was asked to do covert ops training and informed that the old units might be reconstituted and sent back into the field. He told authorities that he was "not in a physical or a mental state" to do that again, and was left where he was.

"There was this incredible shame," he says. "What I'd done out there couldn't have been me. I desperately did not want it to be me.

"I remember this little MacArthur-type officer walking back and forth in front of us when we were asked if we wanted to be part of the 'project.' He said that if we wanted medals, we should go join the Army, because this was about honor, not glory. That took away any doubt for me. Those words made it seem so important. Honor, not glory."

While still posted at Chicksands, he became active in the international anti-war movement and began fulfilling all the requirements to get out when his four-year commitment was up, including being accepted to college. (He'd agreed to extend to six years back when he was recruited for the squad.) Eventually, he refused to go back "underground" and made his desire to get out of the Air Force known so forcefully that he was given a full honorable discharge after four years and six months, "under a 3912"--"Unable to adapt to military service."

"Coming home was hard. I was so intense," he remembers. "It's not that I wanted to be seen as anything like a hero, but I felt, I don't know, condescended to. I went to see a woman I'd written to all that time, and she and her friends made me feel like a real interesting animal in the zoo.

"Things were so different than when I went in. It's not like anyone called me a baby-killer, but the heroes then were the big anti-war activists, and what was going on was sex, drugs and rock and roll. Which I got into before long."

He became a psychologist and didn't talk about the war for decades. But one day last year, a member of a helicopter crew at the nameless base walked into his office, completely by chance, and recognized him.

"At first, I didn't know him, but when he called me by my old nickname, I was 'outed,'" Lunden says.

Waiting outside the closet was a nightmare. He began to remember things he had managed not to think about for 30 years--like the time he'd carried a buddy who'd been hit in the foot to a helicopter, where the medic wanted to take his high, tightly laced jungle boot off. Blood was leaking from it, and Lunden--afraid his friend could bleed out before they got back to base--kept the medic away from him. He learned later that when they took the boot off back at camp, there was nothing inside but a pulp of blood and bone and flesh. He went behind the medical tent and vomited.

Such memories were vivid and inescapable.

Worse, he became haunted by an olfactory hallucination--the smell of the mixed blood and bile of a North Vietnamese soldier he'd knifed in the back on his second mission, as his squad waited to be picked up.

"That was the scariest part," he says. "It would start getting light, and we'd be hiding so close to the camp that we could hear people getting up, moving around and making breakfast. That time, a guy came down the path and leaned against a tree right next to where I was hiding. He was doing something with his hands--probably just rolling a cigarette. But if he'd turned around, he would have seen me and alerted the whole camp. I had to kill him without making any noise."

He reached around and crushed the sentry's larynx with his left hand, and then stabbed him in the lower right abdomen and ripping up and to the left, as he'd been taught. He was 18 years old.

It got so the hallucination wasn't just a smell, but a constant taste in the back of his mouth.

"It was always there, and it was driving me out of my mind. I couldn't sleep. One night, my son was watching a war movie, and I sat down to watch, just to keep him company. I sat there for few minutes and started to cry and couldn't stop."

Lunden eventually got treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, and the worst symptoms are gone. But Iraq remains a constant anxiety. He, like both Cairns and Bourret, is convinced that there will be a draft; both have draft-age sons. (Bourret has a grandson who's eligible and a cousin in the National Guard who just shipped out. And he worries about the hundreds of kids he knows through his orchestras.)

"The idea that our kids might have to go through something like we did. ... It's unbearable," Lunden says. "What are all these people who're for this war thinking?"

Lesson Four: Never Forget

According to an article in the New York Times Magazine last month, the White House refers to its supporters as "the faith-based community" and to the rest of us as "the reality-based community." Even for citizens who are attached to reality, though, it's hard to see the dangers of Iraq if they can't remember Vietnam.

"The collective loss of memory about the Vietnam War, about that whole era, is appalling," says Bob Cairns. "My wife and I were at a little peace march downtown not long ago, and most of the people there were our age--in their 50s and 60s. We started asking one another, 'Where are the young people? Why is it just us?'"

For most Americans over the age of 50, words like "the Cambodian border," "Vietnamization," "peace with honor" and "Hamburger Hill" are packed with meaning. But the majority of the population knows next to nothing about the war.

Tucson veterans advocate and Vietnam expert Chuck Hovey explains: "Shortly after the fall of Saigon, (Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford proclaimed, 'Let any further recriminations of the war cease.' From that point on, records were not made available except to those who 'wrote the right way.'"

In 1996, the expansion of the Freedom of Information Act made the war records available again, allowing tens of thousands of veterans of the secret war to come out of their closets: Once reporters and historians could find out what they'd been doing, the oaths of secrecy they'd kept so long meant nothing. They began finding one another--largely through the Internet--and telling their stories. Many became ardent amateur historians of the war.

But between the end of the war and the beginning of this collective recovery of the truth lay two decades of revisionism and forgetting. According to Hovey, some high school history books devote as few as 1 1/2 pages to the war and the turmoil at home.

For most Americans, the lessons of Vietnam have been lost. Three vets in Tucson fear that those people are about to learn them for themselves.