40th anniversary: Woodstock and I
By Terry Garlock
If you were at Woodstock 40 years ago, you might remember the music, peace and love from that monumental event as if it were yesterday.
I know what it is to have clear and dear memories from 1969, too, but while you were in Woodstock, I was in Vietnam, a reminder of the deep division in our generation.
I don’t mind that so many of my peers opposed war and promoted peace; that’s an instinctive choice any child can make. But I do mind that so many evaded their responsibilities to the nation which gave them the freedom to dance with flowers in their hair.
Many of us were dubious about the war, too, but when our country called we raised our right hand, swore an oath and stuck to it. It didn’t seem right that while we were fighting to stop the spread of communism, anti-war protesters maligned us and encouraged our enemy. Maybe college students actually were motivated by the moral opposition they professed, never mind the self-preservation that surely swirled in their head. But that’s not what bothers me most.
Of the 3 million Americans who served in the Vietnam warzone, two-thirds were volunteers while one-third had to be drafted.
Over 16 million draft age males did not serve, though some would have if called, but for others dodging the draft became an art form. Some became perpetual students to take advantage of student draft deferments. Some used dirty tricks to fail the draft physical and score the coveted status of 4F — “not acceptable for military service.” Some scurried like bugs to the shadows of Canada or other hidey holes. Odious, yes, but other things bother me more.
Each semester I guest-lecture a couple hours at Newnan High School on the truths and myths of the Vietnam War, and it does bother me that the truth about that war remains tangled up in myths, half-truths and political agendas.
I am troubled that schoolbooks contain the politically-scrubbed sound bite version, which is too bad because the truth is complex, and no matter which side of the argument you favor, the truth about the war is not all that pretty. We’re getting closer to what really bothers me.
I was an Army Cobra helicopter gunship pilot with the 334th Attack Helicopter Company at Bien Hoa north of Saigon. Most of the pilots were about 21 years old like me, and I learned by watching them the true meaning of courage and loyalty and trust.
One of our pilots was still 19 when, on a mission near the Cambodian border, his front seat copilot was hit in the neck, and he flew as fast as that Cobra would go to the Tay Ninh hospital, but it was too far and his copilot bled to death on the way. The crew patched the holes, washed out the blood and found him another copilot because he had to go back where he was needed.
While the flower children were protesting and frolicking back in the world, my fellow pilots routinely put their lives on the line trying to protect each other and our grunt brothers on the ground. In my eyes they stood tall.
When I was shot down in a firefight, we went down hard and I was trapped in the wreckage with a broken back and paralyzed legs. Two fellow pilots, John Synowski of Ft. Worth, Texas, and Graham Stevens of Williamsburg, Va., landed their Cobra in the battlefield, got out, dragged me out of the wreckage and stood guard with their puny pistols until medevac arrived to take me to a hospital.
Later, when I thanked John and Graham for risking their neck to rescue me, they brushed it off, saying, “Any of the other guys would have done the same thing.” They were right. That’s how we were in Vietnam, proud Americans serving our country and struggling to bring each other home alive.
John and Graham were awarded the Soldier’s Medal for heroism saving lives, mine, but all the other guys were just like them. Here’s how John earned his Silver Star for gallantry.
In early 1970 an American unit was in contact with a superior enemy force in the jungle of northern III Corps and about to be overrun. John’s fire team of two Cobras was scrambled to help, and when he attacked the enemy position John was caught in a helicopter trap. The enemy placed anti-aircraft .51 caliber guns at the three points of a triangle, and when the Cobra pulled up out of a rocket run one of the guns would have an easy broadside shot. John took 51s through the cockpit, a pilot’s worst nightmare, and one round penetrated his chest protector wounding him in the chest.
He was lucky it bounced around first because it didn’t go through him and that it was hot enough to cauterize the wound and slow the bleeding. His copilot was hit, too, but the aircraft held together, they kept attacking the enemy and forced them to withdraw.
The families of those American men on the ground never knew their loved ones lived that day only because John was determined to stay with the job to defend them.
That’s the kind of young men I was privileged to fly with while our peers back home indulged themselves in sex and drugs and rock-n-roll. Woodstock was just the most visible part of the endless party.
In the 1960s counter-culture world turned upside down, those who refused to serve their country won accolades for their virtue while those in uniform were thought of as saps too dim to find a way out of it.
When these fine young Americans came home from serving their country in Vietnam, hippies routinely gathered at California airports to shout “Baby-killers!” or “Murderers!” or other insults, sometimes spitting or throwing unmentionables, while otherwise good people always seemed to be looking the other way.
For decades Vietnam vets were vilified in many ways, like distorted Hollywood movies, fueling the myth we were dysfunctional misfits. As a group, Vietnam vets earned my admiration; that their own country disparaged them bothers me most.
I always wished my peers, like the 400,000 gathered at Woodstock, had the good sense to decide for themselves what they thought of the war and at the same time to honor the service of those America sent to fight it.
But that didn’t happen. The anti-war side did their job well painting us as villains. Even today some expect us to regret our service, and nothing could be more wrong.
Just like WWII, Korea, Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan vets, we are proud of our service and we don’t take a back seat to anybody when it comes to loving our country. Many, like me, would do it all over again even knowing the outcome.
I am reminded of Vietnam by back pain every day, but I wouldn’t trade for anything the experience of flying into combat with the finest bunch of cowboys I ever knew, learning much about life and about myself.
I did miss the memory of Woodstock, but I have something more dear. When I meet with other Vietnam vets, I am among family who served their country with honor and skill and courage, even while our own government tied one hand behind our back with crazy rules and micromanagement. We never lost a significant battle until the U.S. Congress gave away the war and betrayed our South Vietnam ally.
You might think we like to gather to talk about the war, but that isn’t the attraction. I think when we’re among our vet family is the only time we’re surrounded by people who truly understand us, people who earned our respect and know that we earned theirs, and maybe we see in each other what we like most about ourselves.
I wouldn’t trade that for a hundred Woodstock’s.