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Wounds of War

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Honoring Profiles of Courage and the Success of Community Service

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Each year the Veterans Day Dinner is Swords to Plowshares’ opportunity to share the impact of our work and mission with the community. Each year, the veterans who are honored with the Profiles of Courage award share compelling stories that speak to the full range of services we offer and illustrate the need for our critical programs.

The event raises money to help fill in the gaps to sustain critical, yet underfunded services for our military veterans.

Swords to Plowshares honored Jon and Dianne Paulson with the Profiles of Courage Community Hero Award at the 17th Annual Veterans Day Dinner on November 7, 2013. For more than two decades, Jon and Dianne have been supporters of Swords to Plowshares and the veterans they serve through fundraising, advocacy and volunteerism. Jon, a Vietnam veteran delivered this powerful speech to 500 guests at the annual Veterans Day Gala:

Thank you, Swords to Plowshares, so much, for recognizing Dianne and me. We want to thank all our friends and others who have supported Swords over the years. Without their generosity, many more veterans would still be on the streets of San Francisco or at risk for becoming homeless.

As a 19- year old sophomore at Rutgers, to get out of a second year of then-required ROTC, I joined the Marines and spent that summer in boot camp. Three years later I was leading an infantry platoon of 42 Marines and a Navy Corpsman in An Hoa, South Vietnam, west of DaNang, known as “Arizona Territory.”

From 1965 to 1972, several thousand Marines and tens of thousands of Vietnamese, soldiers and civilians, were killed and wounded in a failed attempt to occupy and control Arizona Territory. We pulverized nearly every standing structure in the area. We killed and wounded, and we were killed and wounded, for 7 long years. It was just day-to-day patrolling, constant fighting, knowing we would lose a Marine or two each week, sometimes each day. And, when we departed in 1972, An Hoa returned to what it was before the Marines landed in 1965, occupied and under the control of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.
An Hoa was only one example of what occurred all over South Vietnam. Americans came and fought furiously for seven years. At least 400,000 Americans were killed and wounded and we claimed to have killed and wounded at least 10 times that number. And then we left.

Our leaders in the rear came up with the brilliant concept of “search and destroy”, because we couldn’t find the Viet Cong and/or North Vietnamese. They’d order troops into the hills, jungles, sugar cane fields, rice paddies and villages – using us as “bait” so that the enemy would find us – which they did. When we were ambushed and/or Marines were killed by snipers, we would call in jet fighters and bombers, naval gunfire, artillery, helicopter gunships, napalm, sometimes even B-52s – anything to destroy Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers. Sadly, even though we killed many of our adversaries, whole villages, livestock, old men, women and children ended up “collateral damage.” Patrolling fields after saturation bombing by B-52s, executing orders to count dead enemy soldiers and witnessing the utter obliteration of entire hamlets and villages numbed my senses then; it haunts me to this day.
Eleven very young Marines and two Navy Corpsmen from my original platoon were killed – almost all were still teenagers – and all were wounded at least once. I trained with these young men for six months before we shipped out for Vietnam. I knew each and every one of them and felt we were brothers. When I returned home, I visited their families and together we tried to believe each of their sons died for a cause…any cause.

I never got over my tour in Vietnam—the killing, maiming, carnage, the body counts, search and destroy missions. Every day we stumbled over the dead—American and Vietnamese—and carried broken bodies and body parts to aid stations where doctors and nurses made decisions every hour of who got treatment, and who couldn’t be helped.

I couldn’t understand how I lived. I felt guilty I lived. I was wounded and survived three times while kids next to me suffered their first and last wound. For years I wondered why so many died and I didn’t. Horrific memories haunted me. When I got home, I searched, hunted, screamed for a “cause” that would justify America’s venture in Vietnam; all that carnage; all those deaths, American and Vietnamese. I never found that cause.

We call it the “Vietnam War”; the Vietnamese say the “American War.” Villagers didn’t know or care that we were fighting to stop worldwide communism. To them it was only ten years in a thousand-year history of conflict and occupation, mainly with the Chinese. Nearly 50 years later, the young Vietnamese have forgotten, or never learned. Those of us in the foxholes never forgot…never will forget.
During my last year of active duty and the next two years, I devoured every book I could find on the history of Indochina and Vietnam and France’s and America’s involvement in that region. In the late 1960s I spoke before many Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion chapters, as well as college and university audiences. I came away disillusioned by every group – their ignorance of history and our involvement in Vietnam and their blind allegiance for or against the war. It made no difference that I understood the history or that I had actually been there in the trenches — had witnessed firsthand what war does to a country. I was vilified by nearly every group for either being “un-patriotic” or “un-American” or a “baby-killer”. I was stunned.

For the next 30 years I rarely spoke of Vietnam. I hid my shame for what carpet bombing, napalm and constant shelling did to the Vietnamese people and their country, my guilt for killing, watching my men die, wondering why we were there. I know my wife, Dianne, tried to reach me but I resisted. I felt she would never understand; how could she? We met three weeks after I returned from Vietnam. She asked me so many times what she could do to help me with my pain, but I couldn’t answer and burden her with my guilt and shame.

Was I bitter? Yes. I resented guys I knew who were big cheerleaders for the war, but through their connections, never served. And, I despised the Jane Fondas and the anti-war protesters who blamed the troops.

I suppose I never would have addressed this hidden part of me if I hadn’t met Michael Blecker and his incredible staff and volunteers at Swords to Plowshares in the late 1990s. To them it didn’t matter if you were for the war, or against the war. All that mattered was advocacy for veterans to help them get off the streets, get the benefits their own government was denying them and to turn their lives around.

Though I never feel we’ve done enough, getting involved with Swords to Plowshares gave me the chance to give back, to do something more than just remember those sad days and feel sorry for myself and my dead and injured Marines and friends who never got the chance I did…to live the additional 45 to 50 years they were denied. Memories of Vietnam still haunt me, but knowing that Dianne and I can give back a little, through a noble organization like Swords, that does so much for veterans, helps to assuage my guilt, somewhat.

Forty-five years later, because of my constant exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, I encountered my own health issues. Swords and their incredible staff attorneys, including Larry Divinsky and Becca Von Behren, helped me deal with the VA–successfully. So, not only are Dianne and I involved with Swords, I am a client–a satisfied and lucky one at that.

–Semper Fidelis, Jon Paulson