Just Trying to Get Through: Jim O’Neill and Vietnam

Viet Nam 1970 001 PART ONE: FACING THE DRAFT

In the autumn of 1968, Jim O’Neill was finally in the place where he knew he was meant to be. One week week after his graduation from Notre Dame University, he had lost his father to colon cancer. Now, a year later, he was beginning his second year at Boston College Law School. For the first time in his young life, he could finally see a future for himself. He had come to love the law and was beginning to see it as his life’s calling. He was sure of this now, after all the years of youthful uncertainty and testing. But he had arrived at this firm conviction in unsettling times. The war raging in Vietnam threatened to tear apart all the plans he had made.

The year had opened with the surprising Tet Offensive against American forces in Vietnam. A photograph of a South Vietnamese general administering summary punishment by shooting a Vietcong prisoner in the head made the front page of newspapers across America. A U.S. Army Major seemed to summarize the war itself when he described an operation where “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” In succeeding weeks, Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy was shot dead, and anti-war demonstrators were brutalized by police in the streets of Chicago.

But it was a decision made in February of that year by the Johnson Administration that would shake Jim’s world most directly: automatic draft deferments for graduate and professional school students were summarily abolished. All through that discouraging Spring and summer, Jim had tried to get his draft board to use the discretion they were still allowed to defer students already enrolled in post-graduate work so they could complete their studies.

But the staunch patriots who comprised the Draft Board in New Bedford Massachusetts weren’t buying any of Jim’s arguments. As they saw it, he was asking them to grant him permission to dodge the draft. They weren’t about to give a pass to the privileged son of a prominent doctor who was afraid to fight for his country. “I’m not afraid of going to war,” Jim told them, “I’m opposed to fighting this war. There’s a world of difference between those two positions,” he argued. “I’d fight in a war that was just, but that’s not what’s going on. This is a war I could never believe in and that I’ve opposed from its beginning.” “You say you’re not afraid to fight,” they announced, “so we’ll give you a chance to prove it. You’re being drafted. And once you’ve joined the Army, you can leave your objections at home.”

In June, Jim received notice that he was reclassified ‘1-A’ and reported for a pre-induction physical. All through that turbulent summer he considered the few choices that remained open to him. He talked about his options with friends and with his big sister who had just graduated from law school. He considered fleeing to Canada with a friend who faced the same circumstances.

On the day he returned to law school for his second year, he had made up his mind. His mother made him a ‘send-off’ breakfast and sat down with him while he ate it. With tears in her eyes, she told him that she would support him if he went to Canada to avoid being drafted. “Thank you, mom,” he replied, but I’ve started on my life path now. Canada is not in my future. I’m totally opposed to this war, but, if I’m drafted, people need to know I’m not afraid to go to Vietnam. I don’t want to, but I’ve decided that if I have to, I’ll go. If I get the notice, here’s what I’ll do: I’m going to do what I must to get through it, and come home as soon as I can.”

When he came home from school to celebrate Thanksgiving, Jim found on the front hall desk an official-looking letter with his name on it. It was from the President of the United States. “Greeting,” it began, “You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States.” The notice obligated him to report as a registrant in forty days, enough time to allow him to finish his studies for the semester. He took his car back to school, parking it on the street in front of his apartment in Brookline. Overnight parking was prohibited in the town, but Jim just collected the parking tickets, figuring, “What the hell, I might never come back from Vietnam.”

PART TWO: JOINING THE ARMY

At 5:00 a.m. in the icy dark of a January morning, Jim and a dozen other area recruits were met at the bus station by an earnest group from the local Salvation Army who showered them with items they thought the recruits could use — toothpaste, soap, a sewing kit, medicine for indigestion. In two hours, the busload of young men arrived at a military processing center in Boston. They were greeted by a sergeant who immediately confiscated all the Salvation Army offerings — gifts never to be seen again.

In short order the recruits were examined, tested and finally ushered into a hall where they were made to stand in rows. Then somebody ordered them to step up to a line and raise their right hands. Before they knew it, they were solemnly swearing to support and defend the US Constitution against all enemies, to obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers that were appointed over them. From that moment on, their lives were changed completely; they had joined the United States Army in a time of war.

That afternoon the inductees were bussed to the airport and put on a plane bound for South Carolina. They were headed to Fort Jackson to undergo more processing and testing. Arriving in the middle of the night, they were treated to a “shakedown;” everything they had brought with them was inspected. Jim had packed Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. A bull-dog of a drill sergeant picked it up, shoved it in Jim’s face, and shouted, “No f___ books in the Army!” “ I hope you get a chance to read it,“ Jim thought, but said nothing. He knew when to keep his mouth shut, but also when to speak up.

It was when they were drawing blood from the recruits for the troops in Vietnam that he mentioned to the soldier working on him that he had been trained as a lab tech. That led to casual conversations with other lab techs who encouraged him to apply for a specialist’s position. They told him that if he were an Army lab tech, he could count on getting a hospital-based position and was pretty much guaranteed that he wouldn’t go to Vietnam.

Two years as an army lab tech sounded alright to Jim. He’d be doing something useful and be drawing on past training and experience. Since high school he had worked summers and weekends in a job his physician father had found him in a small hospital lab and emergency room. So, Jim decided that on every aptitude test he was given, he would do the best he could to leave the impression that making him a medical technician was the best thing the military could do with him.

But the army had other ideas. One day out of the blue Jim was told to report to Fort Jackson’s Executive Officer. When he got to headquarters, he was directed to an imposing office. He knocked on the open door and was told to enter. Jim walked across to the Major’s desk and asked, “You wanted to see me?” The Exec looked up in surprise and stared at the young recruit before him. Then, Jim caught himself, remembering that this was the Army. He snapped to attention, saluted and said, “Private Walter James O’Neill reporting, sir!”

The Major told him to take a seat and asked, “Who do you know, O’Neill? You’ve been assigned as a lab tech to Fort Sill, Oklahoma!” “No one, sir,” he answered. “I just mentioned to a few folks that I’ve been a lab tech for some years.” “Well, I’ve got something better for you,” he replied. You’ve qualified for Officer Candidate School. You’ll leave for Fort Benning, Georgia in two days.”

“Fort Benning? Oh no, infantry school!” thought Jim. And then, “three-year hitch — second lieutenant — cannon fodder” flashed through his mind. He looked the Major in the eye and said, “With respect, sir,” I wish to refuse the Army’s kind offer to make me an officer.” “Why?” he asked. Jim told him straight from the shoulder, “I don’t need to be a leader, I’m not looking for battlefield glory, and I don’t want to spend an additional year in the military. I just want to do my duty, serve out the next twenty months and get back to studying law.” “Well, I could try to arrange a two-year commission for you,” offered the Major. Jim thought about it for a moment and then asked, “Do I get credit for the time I’ve already been in the Army?” The Major looked at Jim and replied, “You really don’t want to be an officer, do you?!”

Jim would have no regrets over the answer he gave that morning. The more he saw of the army from a grunt’s point of view, the more he gained a grudging respect for it. The army, Jim could see, did a good job of pulling people together — people like himself who didn’t want to be there in the first place. They could get an incredibly diverse group of guys to work together for a common purpose.

Jim realized very quickly that you don’t talk politics with your drill sergeant. The ‘non-coms’ didn’t care a fig what your personal opinions were or what you thought of them. But they did want you and the entire company to succeed. The problem was never really the Army for Jim, it was the war the Army was training him to fight.

PART THREE: FORT SILL, OKLAHOMA

All through the three months of basic training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, the non-commissioned officers, whose motto was ‘make ’em miserable,’ treated the recruits with a kind of benevolent meanness. After basic, however, things got easier. In the Spring of 1969, Private 2nd Class O’Neill shipped out to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Fort Sill was a fairly humane place where the Army’s quirky, unofficial ways were visibly on parade.

One morning a Staff Sergeant addressed Jim’s platoon before giving out guard duty assignments. Noting that several of the men were from the eastern US, he asked, “Who’s the governor of Massachusetts?” Only Jim could come up with the right answer, the newly-elected Hon. Francis W. Sargent. “What’s your weapon’s serial number, soldier?” the sergeant asked. Jim responded, “1-2-7-4-5-9-8.” “O.K., O’Neill, no more guard duty for you. Report to the Colonel.” It seems that the colonel needed a new morning orderly and wanted someone he could hold a conversation with.

That’s how Jim met Colonel George Moses, a rumpled, roly-poly fellow with an avuncular air. After Jim served him coffee, the colonel asked him how he liked the Army so far. Jim replied, “Well, I didn’t volunteer for this. But after years of eating institutional fare at prep school, college and law school, and some of my mother’s cooking, I do like the food here.” The next afternoon when Jim reported for the dreaded Kitchen Police duty, the Mess Sergeant stopped him and said, “You’re O”Neill, aren’t you? Thanks for what you did for me with the Colonel. You only need to report for KP when you’d like. Don’t let it interfere with whatever else you need to do. And, thanks again!”

As the weeks and months passed, Jim began to think this wasn’t so bad a way to spend a war: serving as a Colonel’s orderly, training as a lab tech Specialist, having no guard duty and precious little KP. In October, 1969 Jim’s unit was assigned to collect blood for the forces in Vietnam. Since it was “Moratorium Day,” across the US and around the world, someone had the bright idea to attract more blood donors by decorating the lab with peace signs and “end the war” slogans. Everyone was delighted the number of donors was so high until some Major walked in and shut the whole operation down, shouting that he would have the American citizenship taken away of everyone who was involved.

The next day a meeting was called and Jim and the Lab Team were told once again they could be stripped of their American citizenship. “With all respect, sir,” Jim said, “that’s not possible.” “And why not?” asked the Officer in charge. “The Supreme Court’s ruling in ‘Dennis vs. U.S.’ in 1951,” responded Jim, who had brought his constitutional law text with him to Oklahoma. “You can execute a soldier for desertion under fire, but you can’t take his citizenship away!”

Jim had plenty of time on his hands and used it to find an Okie girlfriend, (a sergeant’s daughter), and to see something of the hot and dusty West. His leave time took him to small-town rodeos and high school football games, across the scorching dessert and up into the refreshing mountains of New Mexico. Best of all, almost a year of his two year’s hitch was now behind him

Soon after arriving at the Fort, Jim discovered a friend from college, ‘big ears’ Bill Giles who was assigned to the Personnel Office and seemed to have inside information. He, and everyone else Jim spoke with assured him that he’d be given a permanent assignment as lab tech at Fort Sill. Jim believed that, too, until the December morning the black-painted busses of the First Cavalry Division rolled up and parked beside the assembly field for the first formation of the day. This was Custer’s outfit, and one of the most active units in the Vietnam war.

The arrival of the “First Team’s” iron-colored busses wasn’t something Jim was really worried about. Since he had arrived at Fort Sills, the First Cavalry had shown up every few weeks and claimed new recruits for the infantry. The platoon sergeant would read out the names, which were always called in alphabetical order, and Jim would watch his fellow soldiers walk slowly to the busses and be taken away.

But that morning, Jim was the first to be called out. When he heard his name, he ran to the first bus in line and said to the sergeant standing at the door, “There ’s gotta be a mistake! You don’t want me! I’m not infantry, I’m a lab tech!” The sergeant looked down at his clipboard and asked, “Are you Corporal Walter James O’Neill, serial number 6-1-7-3-2-5-8-0?” Jim replied that he was. The sergeant said that there must be some good reason that his name was at the top of the list. They stared in silence at each other for a moment and then Jim asked, “Do they have hospitals in the First Cavalry?” “Oh, yeah, sure,” he replied. “Get in. You’re going to Jungle School!” Jim had been ‘leveraged’ — recruited to replace a lab tech who had been killed or wounded, or who had overdosed on drugs in Vietnam.

Jim was given orders to report to the Oakland Army Base in California for deployment to Vietnam. In San Francisco, Jim boarded a bus in his Class A uniform, duffel bag at his side. The bus’ final stop was the army base and Jim was the only passenger left. As he stepped off the bus, the driver helped him with his gear, put a hand on his shoulder and said, “God bless you, son. Come back alive.”

PART FOUR: VIETNAM

The first thing the Army did when Jim arrived in Oakland was to take away whatever they had given him, replacing it with a new set of gear. He was issued ripstop jungle fatigues, new boots — everything was switched out, right down to new jungle-green boxer shorts. In the second week of January, 1970, Jim found himself sitting on a plane at Travis Air Force Base, on his way to war.

The twenty-seven hour flight on a Flying Tiger Airlines DC10 via Japan to Vietnam proved to be surreal. “I could be flying anywhere,” Jim thought, “anywhere but into war.” Pretty stewardesses served him whatever he’d like, as long as it wasn’t alcohol. The accommodations were plush, the conversation light and the mood was relaxed until the pilot’s voice came over the intercom: “We’re about to land at Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam. Flying Tiger Airlines wishes you the best of luck and we hope to see you all on the return trip home a year from now.”

That was when everything got quiet. The grim prospect of the twelve months ahead for the war-bound recruits suddenly became very real. When the plane doors opened, the soldiers felt the first blast of hot, humid air that would always mean ‘Vietnam’ for Jim. Several buses took them on the short ride to army headquarters at Long Binh. ‘LBJ,’ as everyone called it, ‘Long Binh Junction,’ was a spiffy slice of Americana at the center of a war zone —- the last time any of them would see the likes of an Olympic-size swimming pool, a golf driving range, a university extension school and a variety of night clubs for the next twelve months.

For the newly-arrived soldiers, Long Binh was essentially a holding operation. The Army was replacing soldiers and everyone was expected to report in the ninety degree heat three or four times a day until you were called out for your permanent assignment. For Jim, the wait wasn’t long. He was given five days of jungle training that involved rappelling off walls, learning to fire an M60 machine gun and an M79 grenade launcher and acquiring more gear, ‘web gear’ — ammo pouches, a gas mask, a first aid kit.

At the first formation following jungle school, the replacement/repositioning sergeant called Jim’s name. He told him that he was not going to be assigned to a field hospital as Jim had expected. Instead he would be deployed with the infantry to Phuoc Vinh, a current hot spot in the fighting. “But I‘m not infantry,“ Jim protested. I’m a lab tech. I do blood sugars and cholesterol tests. I do the electrolyte thing!” “Well,” the sergeant replied, “you don’t have to go to Phuoc Vinh. You’re welcome to come back with me to Long Binh and return to the states for more training. Just sign up for three more years in the Army, and you can get on that big bird and fly home today.”

This was the ‘sour deal’ that soldiers about to be sent into combat were offered in Vietnam — immediate relief, but with long-term consequences. Some guys fell for the Faustian bargain; there was no guarantee that they wouldn’t be right back in the fray in a few months’ time. Jim was not about to spend a day longer than he had to in Vietnam. The next morning he hitched a ride on a C-130 transport plane heading north to Phuoc Vinh. As he sat on the canvas seat for the short ride, he realized he couldn’t avoid it any longer: he was about to come face-to-face with war. With unexpected kindness, the co-pilot helped Jim with his gear as he climbed down from the plane and looked out for the first time on “combat forward,” Phuoc Vinh military base.

Jim reported in to the clerk of the Fifteenth Medical Battalion attached to the First Cavalry. The clerk told him not to unpack. “You’re being sent to “rocket city,” he said. “Officially it’s called Tay Ninh, home of the Black Virgin mountain looming up out of the Mekong Delta.” “Isn’t that place swarming with Viet Cong?” Jim asked. “You’ve got it,” he responded. “It’s a regular hot spot. They’ll probably use you as a medic out on patrol with the infantry. But relax,” he concluded, the chopper’s already left. There are no more flights today; you can go tomorrow.”

“That’s all the time I need,” Jim thought. He went immediately to the base lab and introduced himself to a wary fellow from Florida named Robin, the lab specialist. Jim found out pretty quickly that Robin considered himself the only lab tech that Phuoc Vinh needed. When you were the only specialist assigned to a lab, you didn’t have to stand guard or report for other duties. If there were more than one, the techs had to play soldier in addition to their lab work. Understandably Robin wasn’t very welcoming, but, as he and Jim were talking, the medical officer on duty showed up and started questioning Jim about working in a lab. Robin, too, began peppering him with questions about the work, testing his knowledge and assessing his past experience.

Later that evening at dinner, Jim got the word. “We’ve decided to keep you in Phuoc Vinh,” the medical officer told him. Jim really didn’t know one place from another at that point, but he hadn’t yet seen any Viet Cong where he was. He figured the lab that you know must beat whatever lay waiting for him at end of that scheduled helicopter ride. He fell asleep that night, grateful the staff at this lab were willing to take a chance on him. He knew his mission. Here he would buckle down, do the work, get through the time and get back home.

PART FIVE: PHUOC VINH

He awoke to the sounds of “Good Morning Vietnaaaaam!” blaring from the compound speakers. As he looked out from the guard towers on his first full day at Phuoc Vinh, he could see how this place had once been a tourist destination in colonial times. On each succeeding day he would would make it a point to notice something or someone that was especially winsome — reminders that Vietnam was once, and might still be again, a peaceful, beautiful place.

But war had scarred Phuoc Vinh’s natural beauty. Every make-shift building was bunkered half-way up with sand bags. During the day, music blared constantly from the the compound’s speakers. Helicopters were landing and taking off everywhere you looked. Some were armed; others were ‘dust-offs,’ the airborne ambulances that delivered the wounded, the dying and the dead to Phuoc Vinh.

The ‘hooch’ that Jim would call home for the next several months was nothing more than a shack with mosquito netting and empty ammo kegs for furniture. He slept on an iron cot with his M-16 always near at hand. There was no plumbing, only tanked-in water. There was no functional refrigeration and he had to buy a fan at the PX to get even a little relief from the ever-present and oppressive heat. “Hooch maids,” native women hired by the GI’s, came in each morning to make the bed, do the soldiers’ laundry and even clean their weapons.

Shortly after Jim arrived on the scene, the 31st Engineer Battalion completed a swimming pool with canvas and metal pipes. Despite the crippling heat, Jim noticed, nobody wanted to go swimming there. The engineers complained that nobody was using their well-built creation, but the next afternoon the pool was blown up by enemy rockets.

As a “long-timer,” (everything was measured by how much time you had left in Vietnam), Jim was assigned to tend the compound’s ‘campfire,’ otherwise known as the ’s___ pit.’ He would have to gather the sawed-off 55-gallon steel drums from beneath the latrines, soak the contents with kerosene, ignite the mess and stir it until the waste was completely incinerated. “It can’t get any worse than this,” Jim thought. “I’m going to remember this,” he told himself, “because whatever happens to me for the rest of my life, I’ll be able to say that it’s not as bad as stirring the eternal flame of Vietnam!”

But some of the work was very much worth accomplishing. As part of the medical staff, the lab techs ran a daily clinic for the GI’s and the local population, the Montagnards, the Degar, indigenous people of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Often considered ‘savages’ by the Vietnamese, they cooperated with the Americans against the Viet Cong. In the lab, Jim and Robin worked alongside two Degar women, Rand and ‘Snow White,’ both competent, multi-lingual technicians who turned out to be loyal friends. On several occasions they urged the Americans not to venture beyond the ‘green line’ after dark because the Viet Cong were expected in the area.  Almost always their warnings proved accurate.

His duties at the Lab and Medical Aid Bunker made for compassionate work, and Jim gave himself to it. He became proficient at dressing wounds, setting fractures, inserting catheters — even delivering babies! The greatest medical threat to the GI’s was venereal disease, and Jim treated a lot of it. More than one in four soldiers were infected. He also cared for the hookers from the local houses of prostitution who came to the clinic to get cleaned up. Jim found them to be a sophisticated group of women who could speak several languages. Both they and their American soldier partners suffered mostly from gonorrhea.

Jim soon discovered that there was very little Army ‘chicken crap’ at the field lab and infirmary. The doctors had all been drafted and most professed strong anti-war sentiments. The post’s commanding officer, Major Boose, had been a medic in the Korean War and often worked alongside the rest of them in the infirmary. No one ever wore a full uniform; most of the time they walked around in surgical smocks or cut-off fatigues. Off-duty, everyone wore pants and nothing else in the crippling heat.

There was one other facet of his duties that at first fascinated and then alarmed Jim — the medical team’s efforts to fight malaria. Every Wednesday he collected urine from the troops to see if everyone was taking their quinine. He saw that compliance was spotty because the quinine pills distributed to the troops simply masked the symptoms of the illness. Many GI’s preferred to take their chances with the illness because they knew that if they contracted malaria, it meant an automatic six weeks’ Rest and Recreation at the at the Army’s 6th Convalescent Center at Cam Ranh Bay. But Jim knew from his civilian work in a lab that if you’re bitten by a mosquito bearing the falciparum malaria strain — the predominant type in tropical areas like Vietnam — the disease will attack the brain and can lead to a horrible death. The lab at Phuoc Vinh, however, didn’t have the intense magnification equipment needed to detect this strain so that it could be detected and vigorously treated at an early stage. Jim asked his medical officer for permission to return to Long Binh to requisition and bring back what was required.

When he returned with the goods, he was praised by the whole medical team. Jim minimized what he had done, saying, “I just wanted to see the lab function the way it ought to have all along.” His superiors thought it was more than that. They told Jim that he was promoted to Specialist E-5, the equivalent to a sergeant, making him a non-commissioned officer. “Can I turn it down?” he queried. “Why?” they wondered. “Being a non-com isn’t good for my reputation with the guys,” he answered. They told him he couldn’t decline the promotion. “Well, could we keep it quiet?” he asked.

PART SIX: ROCKET ATTACKS

It was in mid-March, 1970 that the sky began to fall in on Phuoc Vinh. It arrived in the form of a direct rocket attack on the base by the Viet Cong. The first attack came one night when Jim was walking alone back to his hooch after going off duty. Suddenly the sky lit up with radiant white flashes. Loud cracks and deafening explosions sounded from every side. Trained to take refuge in any one of the fully bunkered shelters, Jim dove into the first one he came to. The noise of the explosions grew in intensity. The blackness of the night alternated with the brilliance of the rockets’ light. He thought it strange that nobody else seemed to be in the bunker. By the rockets’ glare Jim began to look around. Suddenly he realized why he was so alone. He had taken shelter in the compound’s ammunition dump!

Every time the rockets fell — the attacks took place, on average, every five to six days — Jim would be faced with some of the most intense work he had ever known. It was his job to manage the triage process at the Medical Aid Bunker, a heavily fortified and air conditioned facility that enabled the medical team to keep going through a prolonged attack. The first priority was to cut off the clothes of the injured and get blood into them. No one worried about getting the blood type right. It didn’t really matter because all they had on hand was expired O-Positive which they just gave to everybody. After starting all the IV’s, Jim, in the company of an Army doc, helped to decide who would get treatment inside the bunker.

They were equipped to handle seven or eight wounded soldiers at a time and then send them out on dusters to the Army hospitals. Often there were forty or fifty critically injured cases who needed immediate treatment. He had to look at the men lying on stretchers outside the bunker and decide, “you’ve got a chance, you probably don’t.” Everybody knew the rule, but Jim had to deal with its implications more intensely than anyone: if you make it inside the bunker, you’ll live; if you don’t, you’re dead.

On one of his first nights at the Aid Bunker, one of the doctors asked Jim to reach inside a critically wounded soldier’s chest cavity to help him with a procedure. Jim kept talking to the still-conscious GI, assuring him he was going to be OK. The doctor looked down and told him to stop: “Jim, he’s dead. Tag him and bag him and let’s keep going. There are others we need to help so they can make it.” The worst cases were those with multiple, complex injuries. One night the medical team had to treat an entire village hit with napalm. Every week, it seemed, a soldier with multiple frag wounds would die in Jim’s arms.

Along with the wounded bodies were the broken spirits. One afternoon Jim heard some shouting just outside the lab. He went out to investigate and watched as the battalion psychiatrist spoke to a young soldier who had just returned from a bloody combat encounter. The young man had pulled the pin of a live grenade and was threatening to do damage to himself and whoever else might be nearby. Jim watched as the doctor continued to talk to the soldier in calm but urgent tones. He cautiously moved ever closer to the distraught young man and finally asked him to hand over the grenade. The soldier gave the live explosive to the doctor who carefully reinserted the firing pin. “Just another day in this crazy, punishing war,” Jim thought.

It was the black and gray body bags that were flown in almost every day on the armored helicopters that sapped Jim’s spirit the most. The soldiers’ bodies would have to be tagged and registered and then sent to the mortuary in Saigon before the last trip home. Over and over, Jim repeated to himself, “This war is wrong, but I’ve got to get through it.”

Perhaps the lowest point of the war for Jim came, not in Vietnam, but in Cambodia. One night in early May the sky around Phuoc Vin lit up with helicopters. President Nixon had given orders to invade neutral Cambodia and Jim’s unit was selected to set up a base camp. Jim reminded the officers in charge that he hadn’t received the advanced training needed for that kind of work and they let him out of the first contingent. He would come with the second wave, instead.

Word of the Kent and Jackson State massacres reached Vietnam just before Jim and the rest of the medical personnel left for Cambodia. Everyone felt resentful that they were being sent on a useless mission with a questionable mandate while guys who had signed up with the National Guard to avoid going to Vietnam were killing protesting students on American campuses. To add sorrow to concern, during the few days Jim and the medical team were in Cambodia, Phuoc Vinh was getting pounded by increased rocket and mortar attacks.

By September, 1970, Jim had become a ‘short-timer,’ a ‘double-digit midget’ with less than 100 days to go. Toward the end of the month he was told he had become eligible for an “early out.” That made him ‘so short he couldn’t reach the top of his bunk.’ All that was left was to hang on, try not get himself killed, get on that ‘freedom bird,’ and go home.

On October 6, 1970 Jim pulled his last night-time guard duty. He lay in the sweltering heat of a bee-hive bunker with snakes and giant bugs for company. He listened to the constant thumping of the choppers, the machine gun fire in the middle distance. The only thing he could smell was gunpowder. He heard the whoosh of rockets overhead and the roar of mortars exploding around him. He had come this far; he prayed that he wouldn’t be among those bleeding from frag wounds tonight, lying outside the Medical Aid Bunker, desperately hoping to make it inside. It was his last night in Vietnam.

PART SEVEN: HOME AT LAST

Thirteen days later on a crisp New England morning Jim walked back into a Boston College Law School classroom and sat down at the same desk that he had given up to go to war. He opened his Trusts and Estates textbook to the required page and found that the class was at the same place he left off in 1968. He felt like nothing had changed but he knew, of course, that everything had. For one thing, he had done it. He had done what he had to do. He had proved to himself and whoever else might be interested that he was no coward.

There was one other thing he had to do. It concerned the dozens of Brookline parking tickets he had accumulated from the days just before he was drafted. He gathered them up, put on his army fatigues and field jacket and got a friend to push him in a borrowed wheelchair to the Brookline District Courthouse. He was wheeled into the clerk’s office and told the woman behind the counter that he had come back from Vietnam to pay his parking fines. She looked at him sitting there and said, “Son, forget about these. They’re taken care of!” He rolled out of the courthouse and, two blocks later, stood up and pushed the wheelchair the rest of the way home!

Jim had come home, but he never changed his opinion of the war. “It was just as wrong when I came home as when I went,” he would tell his family and friends. And he told them something else: “Every day that isn’t Vietnam is going to be a good day.” That was how Jim O’Neill understood and lived the rest of his life, as a husband and father, as a friend to many, no matter who they were, as a First Assistant District Attorney, as a Trial Court Judge, as Presiding Justice of the District Court and as a profoundly influential mentor in the state judicial system until the day he died from colon cancer on September 5, 2015.

Edward R. Dufresne © 2015

9 Thoughts on “Just Trying to Get Through: Jim O’Neill and Vietnam

  1. Stephanie Garcia on September 29, 2015 at 9:11 am said:

    Edward,
    You and Elizabeth have my sincerest sympathies. Losing such a close family member is heart rending and I am sure it will take you time to get back into your routines. My thoughts are with you.

    Sincerely,
    Stephanie Garcia

  2. Dot Campbell on September 29, 2015 at 9:39 am said:

    “A painful reminder of the horrors of war. !! How does a Mother survive knowing just “a little of what one’s son is enduring” ?
    Today, because of ” The Jim O’Neills” I have four (4) sons. “Thanks be to God.”
    Dot Campbell

  3. A powerful story Edward. The Vietnam War also had a huge impact on Australia – my cousin was conscripted in 1968. For me this essay gave a real insight on how it must have been for so many young men, trying to ‘get through’ the horrifying reality’ of war. I am so sorry for your loss.

  4. Tom Stewart on September 29, 2015 at 8:27 pm said:

    Edward: Beautiful tribute to a man of admirable integrity . Your writing flowed so easily as you pulled me deeper into Jim’s remarkable journey. I couldn’t stop until I reached the end of this compelling story. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. After reading your essay, I googled the name. The following line from his obituary is what impressed and touched me so much.
    “He taught those around him to understand the difference between genuine evil and human frailty.” My goodness, what a wonderful testament about a person, particularly a judge. And some of the notes of condolence were so beautifully written.

  6. Sharon on October 1, 2015 at 9:35 am said:

    Edward, what a reminder of what war does – mentally/physically. I was in high school during Vietnam but so opposed it. I still have the dog tags of my soldier – Lt. Com. William Tshudy. I pray for all soldiers and what they have to endure. My condolences to you for losing such a wonderful friend.

  7. Merrill Berger, Ph.D on October 3, 2015 at 7:24 am said:

    It was my very great honor to work with Judge O’Neill; he was the presiding district court judge when I would cover as court psychologist every few weeks in Barnstable. He always was unfailingly courteous and respectful, and made you feel that your work and your word was of greatest value to the court. He also made sure that every attorney, defendant, family member and court official felt the same way. Thank you so much for sharing this story, and my deepest sympathy to Elizabeth LaStaiti (another wise and thoughtful judge) and the rest of your family.

  8. mary callahan on October 9, 2015 at 8:12 am said:

    This memoir captured the essence of a remarkable young man during a time of historical and personal conflict for so many of us. (I think Jim would have been pleased.)

  9. Thank you for writing this and sharing it. We’ll miss him for a long time.

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