Note: I am submitting this for Your Military Story member Thomas R. Murrell. This is a lengthy account of his powerful experience in Vietnam, and the memories that haunt him to this day. He actually was going to have it published as a book, but here I have broken it into parts to make reading it easier. Please look for the previous segment here, and other installments of his story in the Forum.
Understand that my mission was not to fly. It was to support those Army missions. As is almost always the case in the Air Force, the enlisted men send the officers out to fight and die. So when I think of heroes in my unit or in the operations I supported, I always think of those men, especially the back seats, who risked their lives over southern Cambodia, far from friendly ground support. If anything happened to their helicopters, engine malfunction or enemy fire, they were down on the ground in very unfriendly territory. If the crash didn’t kill them, it was a sure thing that the enemy would. And all of this was happening in late 1971 and 1972, when America had totally lost interest in the war and was slowly negotiating a peace treaty while withdrawing its fighting forces more and more each week.
That is basically my war story. Yes, I was always armed, except when I was in Saigon where we weren’t permitted to carry weapons. But I never fired my weapons at anyone in anger or battle, nor did anyone ever shoot at me, except once when I rode along on a mission over Cambodia, but that was small arms fire, and I was never in any danger at 2,500 feet.
Post War Life
When I came back from Vietnam, I put the war behind me with a vengeance. My next duty station was Holloman AFB in Alamagordo, New Mexico. There I began to learn about the craft of computer programming. And it was there that I enrolled in an on base education program that led me to get a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Administration and become by just a few months the first college graduate in my family.
I attacked both learning situations with a fervor I had never shown in my life before. I felt I had been given a second chance to make my adult self into a man I wanted to be. I went to school nights while learning half a dozen programming languages and using them during the day. I was making a whole new life in New Mexico.
What suffered was my relationship to my old life. I threw myself so much into my studies that I had no time for my young family. I was determined to succeed, so I studied constantly. I was so afraid of failing a class—at which I had a great deal of experience—that I refused to let up, even when I was passing comfortably. As a result, I got all A’s in my classes, except for one B+ from a Sociology professor who wanted to teach me a lesson.
All of this work was also a great way to close down and stay closed down. Shortly after I was in New Mexico, I was called over to the Personnel Office to be informed that I was being awarded the Army Commendation Medal for my service in Vietnam with the SOCC. Rather than recognizing the award for the distinct honor that it was, I chose to minimize it. I didn’t feel I had done anything to deserve any medals. Besides, I told myself, they just did it because they gave everyone some sort of end of tour award for service in Vietnam. It wasn’t anything special. So I refused to receive it at the monthly Commander’s Call, when such awards were routinely passed out, and I refused the medal. All I took was the ribbon, which regulations required me to wear anyway.
Through all of these years, I have kept the certificate and citation that accompanied the Army Commendation Medal I refused to accept publicly. I want to reproduce it here.
Headquarters United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam
By direction of the Secretary of the Army
THE ARMY COMMENDATION MEDAL
Is presented to
Sergeant Thomas R. Murrell
United States Air Force
For distinquishing himself by meritorious achievement during the period 22 March 1972 to 29 April 1972 while serving as United States Air Force Ground Radio Operator, Support Operations Coordination Center, Delta Regional Assistance Command, Vietnam. During this period the 1st North Vietnamese Army Division launched a sustained ofensive on Army of the Republic of Vietnam and Khmer forces in the vicinity of Kampong Trach, Khmer Republic. During the crisis period, Sergeant MURRELL performed an invaluable role in successfulfunctioning of the Support Operations Coordination Center. Working under tremendous stress and under conditions of extreme fatigue occasioned by the sustained round the clock operational requirements, he continually demonstrated the highest order of professional skill, maintaining cool efficiency in a crisis environment. Working without direct officer supervision, he participated in the launching of over 350 fighter aircraft sorties, flown in support of friendly forces. The airstrikes delivered upon these targets were integral to the successful defense of Kampong Trach. Sergeant MURRELL closely monitored friendly and enemy situations and was highly effective in keeping United States Air Force Forward Air Controllers and higher United States Air Force echelons abreast of the tactical situation. He constantly remained alert to relay broken radio communications and to provide all United States Air Force elements with critically important weather data. Sergeant MURRELL’s meritorious achievement was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Air Force and reflects great credit upon himself and the military service.
I did write a thank-you note to the Army Colonel who recommended me for the award. I didn’t expect a reply from him, so I asked if one of his clerks, whose name escapes me now, to write back and tell me how the guys were doing. Instead, the Colonel, whose name also escapes me, wrote me back himself. The news was that everyone still there was doing all right, though they had been shelled rather heavily after I left.
That news hit me with mixed emotions. I was glad everyone was all right. I was glad I hadn’t been there for the attack. At the same time, I was ashamed that I had not been there with them to share the danger. At that time, my thinking was that the reason we were never attacked while I was there was that they didn’t think they could get my radios before I could bring the wrath of the United States Air Force down on them. Pure conceit I realize, but that was the story I told myself at that time to explain my good forture.
And that was the last contact I had with my old unit and Vietnam. Everything else I got about Nam, I got from television. I saw the end of the American involvement. I saw Cambodia fall when we stopped providing air support to the Lon Nol government. And I saw Saigon fall and the airlift with its hordes of Vietnamese storming the US Embassy hoping to get safely away from the North Vietnamese Army sweeping victoriously down from the North. I saw it all, and I cried privately for the waste it had all been.
In the months that followed the fall of Phnom Phen, I read about the draconian practices of the victorious Khmer Rouge, and I mourned for the good men of the Cambodian Army with whom I had shared a compound and who had given me gifts in appreciation for the support America was giving them. I’m sure that as they were brutally murdered by the thugs of the Khmer Rouge, their last thoughts were on how we Americans had misused their trust, and I felt that I had personally betrayed them to their deaths.
After I graduated from college, in October of 1975, I applied for Officer Candidate School. The process took several months filled with paperwork, tests, physicals, and more paperwork. For me, it ended in a crushing rejection. Everyone in the various offices at Holloman with whom I talked and who worked with me on making the application had told me I was a shoe-in for OCS. We were all surprised that I was not accepted, but I took it bitterly.
It did not help me that the wife of my commanding officer was accepted. Our families were friends, so I had to make a show of congratulations for her, but it didn’t help my attitude that she had been accepted with no military background other than being the wife of a Captain while I, a Vietnam Veteran with over six years of exemplary service was rejected.
The story I told myself was that it was because I was a Vietnam Veteran. I had heard enough stories in the three years since I had returned from Nam to believe that the services were actively trying to weed Nam vets out. “We had a bad attitude” was the story I had heard most often. We were more likely to be doing drugs, drinking too much, and mouthing off to officers.
I hadn’t been doing any of these things, nor had I seen others doing so. Now, though, I started doing just that. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I was just angry and frustrated that I had done so much and come so far, and now I felt I was being lumped in with others. Looking back I realize that I began to show a bad attitude after I got my degree. After the initial hoopla that the folks in my office made over it, things returned to normal. But I was so caught up in my being a different person now and wanted to continue to be recognized as a different person that I showed a lot of resentment at my coworkers and superiors because they went back to treating me like the Staff Sergeant I was.
Soon I was transferred to another unit on base on the opposite side of this very large military facility. I know now that they were trying to give me a chance to start fresh and avoid giving me a bad performance review. I just felt rejected yet again. I withdrew, and I became sullen and angry. With the exception of the drugs, which I never used, I became what I felt they had already decided I was: a problem.
Life with me at home could not have been very good for my wife and our two children either. I was never very talkative or communicative, and I became less so. I got a motorcycle and would go riding for hours when I was off duty. When I was home, I was reading one book or another. My wife, to her credit, tried very hard to be understanding and to involve me in family life, but I stayed withdrawn for the most part.
There was something else, too. I came back from the war with a fundamental realization that I carry to this day. I saw the world around me as different than anyone around me saw it. I scanned any area I was in, looking for threats and looking for where I would go if an attack came. My driving habits became those I had picked up in Vietnam. I never drove over anything on the road. I felt positively naked without a weapon even as I realized that I was living on an Air Force Base that was fully protected from intruders. I was living in a desert rather than a jungle, but I brought the jungle with me. To this day, I can’t look at a building without imagining how it would look if it were blown up by a bomb or a shell.
I think when someone goes to a war zone they see—at least I saw—how thin the veneer of civilization really is. This fact I felt I knew, and I could see that no one else around me understood this truth. So I also realized that I would have to be the one who protected others, who got them to a place of safety if anything happened, just as I knew that anything could happen at any time. I had always been a bit guarded and on guard. Now I became totally guarded and on guard. I spent a year and eight days waiting for an attack that never came in Nam, and I’ve spent most of my life since then doing the same thing.
On September 17, 1977, I left the Air Force for a civilian programming job in Columbus, Ohio. Eighteen months later, I moved out on my family. I was miserably unhappy. I was becoming an alcoholic like my father. I was becoming my father, who I judged to be a miserably unhappy man himself. And if there was one thing in life I didn’t want to be it was my father. As a kid, he had carried newspapers for a couple of weeks. In order to outdo him, I carried newspapers for five and a half years. He had tried to get a college degree, and though he was bright enough he failed. I got a college degree. His alcoholism made him abusive to his family. I refused to follow that model even though I didn’t know what else to do.
So I left my family, where I was so unhappy. In doing so, I realize now, I severed my last link to my life before Vietnam. It wasn’t my wife’s fault or my children’s fault. No one could make me happy at that point. I didn’t know what was driving me or making me so miserable (I know now that it was me); the only thing I knew how to do was start over again. I had been successful starting over after Nam in getting a college degree and learning a marketable skill. So I started over with a new woman and a new life.
I believe now that my first wife loved me. She would have continued to put up with me, if I would let her. I wouldn’t let her. I didn’t love her, and I think now that I resented her for not knowing how to help me. And I’m very sorry that I hurt my family, though I have to look back on the twenty-five years since then as having been better for me. My biggest regret is that I lost the affection of my children.
I did do something smart in that time. I married a woman who, if she didn’t understand either, at least let me become the man I needed to be. She saved my life, though neither of us knew it at the time. I had to deal with a lot of stuff to get to that point. And I wouldn’t start dealing with the core problems I had carried with me until after September 11, 2001.
Thank you Mr. Murrell for sharing.