Returning home from a combat zone can be a very joyous occasion for most military personnel, but for those who were in actual combat, the experience of homecoming can be quite different. This was especially the case for Vietnam veterans, who returned home alone after a couple of days upon completion of their tour of duty. I’m sure many Vietnam veterans experienced a homecoming similar to the one which follows.
30 June 1968: I’ve been taking Darvon for a week now, but there seems to be no relief from the excruciating pain. My head feels as if it is about to explode and I can’t even remember the flight out of Kadena AFB in Okinawa by GOVAIR to MCAS, El Toro, CA. Prior to 23 June 1968 I had the normal short timer fantasies of how it was going to be, booking on that silver freedom bird back to the “world.” It had been a long 18 months and I had made it out of that h&ll hole, Vietnam. To this very day I cannot remember the flight from El Toro to JFK International Airport. Even more baffling is I can’t recall what airline I flew to JFK on or how I got to the Long Island Railroad on the last leg home.
What’s happening here? What I can remember very vividly was what had happened on 23 June 1968. At approximately 0200 the concussion from a NVA rocket had thrown me through the air landing head first in a trench line, which had been dug by the engineers only days earlier. This occurred at the Quang Tri Combat Base and I was in transient to fly out to Da Nang at 0600 and then on to Okinawa. I had already turned in my weapons and 782 gear and I felt really naked. To make matters worse, as I was getting up, another Marine in full battle gear jumped on top of me, crushing my head against the wall of the trench. Bleeding profusely from the forehead and scalp I could remotely hear another Marine say jokingly say, “Hey buddy, you get to get a Purple Heart your last day in country.” I immediately replied, “they can keep it, I’m outta this f#$%^&g place in four hours.” A couple of Marines carried me over to the BAS and the Corpsman cleaned me up the best he could. Charlie figured that Quang Tri would be easy pickings since it wasn’t secured by the grunts of the 3rd MarDiv. They were wrong.
So I’m sitting on the train with my feet resting on my seabag and looking at my reflection in the window. Where am I? I look around and there are only a few people on the train this early in the morning. No one even gives me a glancing look. Am I invisible or am I really sitting here? They have to see the uniform, right? Oh well, welcome home. What did I expect anyway. These people didn’t know or even care what I had seen and done in the past 18 months. After all, they were engrossed in their own dull, uneventful world and my presence did not fit into their daily monotonous routine. We were told in advance how we were going to be treated when we got home. I finally get to my destination, Island Park. Am I really here? I throw my seabag over my right shoulder and step off the train onto the platform. I’m really home! Or am I! As I cross Long Beach Road onto Arlington Walk, I notice that the bench we used to hang out around had been removed. I found out later that it was removed in order to deter drug addicts from loitering. And this is small town America. As I make a left onto Quebec Rd., I stop a moment to switch the seabag to my left shoulder. Everything seems so serene and tranquil this early in the morning. I never remembered it being that way before going to Vietnam. I finally reach Julian Place and I pause to shift the seabag onto my right shoulder. As I get closer I can see my mom taking out the trash. My eyes begin to swell as she recognizes me. I dropped the seabag and rushed into the safety of her open arms. I was finally safe at home and with overwhelming emotion I began to cry for the bad dream was finally over. Or was it? I had mixed feelings about leaving Vietnam. I knew my brother Marines were fighting for their lives and at the same time it was an immense feeling of relief that I had made it home virtually unscathed physically and mentally. So I had thought at the time. Four months later I was back in the land that God had forgotten. I was “home” once again. Wannabes will never understand this story.
Joseph Alvino, Sgt. of Marines