Rolly: Vietnam series is a reminder of the war that defined a generation and tore us apart

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Staff photos of the Salt Lake Tribune staff. Paul Rolly.

While watching the Utah-San Jose State football game in my basement with two of my closest friends Saturday, my high school chum Tim turned to our pal Mike and, out of the blue, asked if he had any feelings about the fact that Mike had gone to Vietnam and Tim and I hadn’t.

Mike shrugged it off, basically saying what happened, happened. That was 50 years ago, it’s over and we’ve all had good lives since that troubled time.

But Tim’s unprompted question showed that it’s not over. It will never be over. He asked it with a tinge of guilt, even though he and I and Mike thought then and think now that it was an unnecessary war escalated by incompetent politicians at the expense of tens of thousands of young men and women from my ’60s generation.

I bring this up because of the excellent 10-part Ken Burns series on Vietnam that has run all week and will continue next week on PBS.

I have watched each episode intensely, and the emotions it evokes have consumed me. They brought back all those memories, regrets, anger and forgiveness that have lain dormant but have never completely disappeared for my generation.

As the series explores the gradual acceleration of our military involvement as U.S. leaders misjudged the strength and resolve of the enemy while stubbornly backing a corrupt South Vietnam regime that did not have the support of its people, I keep reminiscing about our carefree high school days, when we were doing basic teenage stuff and had no idea what we were about to face.

I remember dragging State Street with my buddies, trying to pick up girls, listening to the Beach Boys on the radio singing about the fun and joy of youth.

Then President Lyndon Johnson, after promising in the 1964 campaign that he would not expand the war in Vietnam, expanded the war in Vietnam.

The turmoil grew as most of us entered college and the draft began plucking some of us out of our comfort zone and into boot camps preparing them for war halfway around the world.

I escaped the draft because of college deferments, as did Tim. Mike and another close friend, Paul, went into the military and then were shipped to Vietnam.

I kept in touch with them by mail as campus life lured me into the protest movement embraced by colleges around the country. I was against the war and attended the rallies but never fully engaged with the anti-U.S. radicalism that emerged from the broader anti-war sentiment.

When my friends came home, they were treated with contempt by protesters who acted like it was their fault. Some returning vets were spat upon if they flew home still wearing their uniforms.

To make matters worse, the returning Vietnam vets were unwelcome in service clubs patronized by veterans from Korea and World War II because the younger crowd, following the mores of the day, had long hair and looked like hippies.

That’s what makes watching this series so tough but compelling. That war tore us apart. There also is some survivor’s guilt among some of us who stayed home and protested.

When I was in Washington, D.C., several years ago, I visited the Vietnam Memorial containing the names of the more than 50,000 Americans who were killed in that conflict. I was looking for two names in particular, Steve Couch who graduated from Skyline a year before I did, and Don Williamson, who was in my class.

At the base of the column where Williamson’s name appeared, someone had left a bottle of Coors beer and a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes with a note to one of the fallen.

The note spoke of the good times, carousing around, getting in a little trouble and then, the writer told his friend he was proud of him.

Suddenly, I began bawling. I didn’t see that coming. I never do that. But I was inconsolable. That note just evoked too many raw memories.

The enemy prevailed in Vietnam and the predictions that such an outcome would bring communism to our doors proved false. Today, Vietnam is a popular tourist stop for Americans who, when coming home, rave about the beauty of the land and the friendliness of the people.

My Tribune colleague Chris Smart took a vacation there a few years ago. He told me that he met a young man who invited him to his family home in the north, the stronghold of the enemy during the war.

In the home was an old man, who spoke to Chris through his grandson, who acted as an interpreter.

Chris wanted to apologize to the old man, explaining that many of us back home were against the U.S. involvement in his country.

The old man then grasped Chris’s hand and put it in between his own.

Through the grandson, he told Chris, “We are brothers now.”

After Chris related that story, I turned quickly away, walked through the newsroom avoiding eye contact with my colleagues. I made it to the men’s room, closed the door to one of the stalls and, once again, bawled.