Sunday, August 12, 2012

Going East When the War Was West

By Loren Cruise

We’ve read stories about the heroes of the Vietnam War, about soldiers who fought and died for their country. We’ve read about heroic deeds and we’ve read about horrific tragedies. These stories have already been told, so I’m going to give you a new story. I am going to tell you about my friend, Charlie Albrecht, who served in the Navy in the 1960s, not to fight in Vietnam, but to keep peace and offer support to those in need in other parts of the world.

Charlie knew that he would be drafted to fight for his country, so instead, he enlisted in the Navy Reserves right after he graduated high school. After being deferred a year, he was finally called to take his part. For the first two years of his service, he trained in Worcester, Massachusetts along with a couple of friends drafted to fight in the war.

Young and barely adults, they did not know what to expect being in the military. The Vietnam War was already underway and they heard stories about what went on overseas. “A lot of the guys thought they were going to Vietnam to fight communists, but it was really just two parts of a country thousands of miles from home fighting each other.” When I asked him whether he supported the war, he said, “It didn’t really matter, did it? We were all part of the war whether we thought it was right or not.”

Charlie said that most of the men training with him believed that they were going to go to Vietnam. After all, there was a war being fought and more and more American soldiers were being sent in. “We had this list,” Charlie said. “We called it a dream sheet. I put that I wanted to go west to Vietnam. My buddy put that he wanted to go east.” He told me that the men were pretty sure the Navy didn’t read the sheets, that it was kind of random. So, Charlie was not surprised that his friend was sent to Vietnam while he was sent to Europe. “Go figure,” said Charlie. During his two years of training, he volunteered three times to go to Vietnam. “They kept turning me down. After the last time, they wanted me to see the psychologist ‘cause I had to be crazy to want to go there.” Charlie was not a thrill seeker. He did not have a death wish. When he joined the Navy in 1966, Americans who fought in Vietnam were eligible for combat pay, which was significantly higher than what Charlie would have received otherwise.

After their training, Charlie and his friends threw a good luck, goodbye party. “I had these two friends who went to Vietnam. At that party, they told me they weren’t coming home,” said Charlie. “Sure enough, they didn’t.”

Charlie and his friends parted ways. The Navy sent Charlie east to the Mediterranean, Norway, Spain, and Italy and he served as a petty officer, third class on a destroyer. “I was a boiler tech. I wasn’t training to be, but as soon as I got on board the ship, a boiler tech 1st class grabbed me and told me that’s what I would be doing.” I asked Charlie what a boiler tech does. “We just kept the ship running.”

While Charlie was far away from the fighting in Vietnam and the antiwar movement in the United States, the strong feelings against the war followed him. “There were protests at every port,” Charlie explained. “One time in Norway we had an open house. It lasted about ten minutes before we had to turn the fire hoses on the protesters.”

At the end of one of the most controversial wars in the history of the United States, over 58,000 Americans were dead. Among that figure were two of Charlie’s friends. Yet, when he and his fellow soldiers came back to the United States, there was no welcome home. “It was hard,” said Charlie. But if he had a choice, he told me, he’d do it again. He was proud, and still is, to be part of the Navy.

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