My ears popped, and the tires screeched as the TransTexas Airways DC-3 touched down at the Airport in Tyler. The stewardess had avoided eye contact, and the other passengers looked away from me. The short flight from Dallas was a replay of the plane ride from San Francisco. It was strange that no one would look at me, and the stewardesses were not friendly.
Seventy-two hours earlier, I climbed into a chopper in Cu Chi with my orders to go home. Seventy-two hours before that, I was pulling my final patrol with my platoon. The old loud rattling DC-3 reversed props and braked to make the first turn in to the terminal. It seemed like another world from where I’d just left. I had left this same terminal 2 years before with my induction notice and kissed my mom goodbye, tears in her eyes. I was a 18-year-old kid from one of the poorest families in the county and was scared because the war was all over the news.
I had been born in Houston because my mother needed to get away: I was going to come a little early to suit the folks in the community. She ran away with my dad, who was barely 20 years old himself. He had dropped out of school, lied about his age, and joined the Navy at age 15. He was just out of the Navy after serving in the last two years of the Pacific war against Japan. He was the last of a long line of men in my family that had served in the military back to the Revolutionary War. Military service was a duty and rite of passage into manhood. Military service was honorable and expected of every male in my family.
I was drafted in 1969 as the Vietnam War raged. The Tet Offensive of 1968 was fresh in memories, and every week, 200 or 300 GIs were KIA. Already our hometown had lost 5 men. One man was a fighter pilot shot down and missing over North Vietnam. The draft was what was on everyone’s mind. You could avoid the draft if you had money, if you had parents had a friend on the draft board, had a bad knee, defecated in your pants, had poor eyesight, or if you went to college. Married men with kids got deferments. Soon the draft board eliminated that exemption. They were drafting everyone who could not get a deferment. For me, there was never a question of avoiding the draft or going to Canada like so many were doing during that time. The men in my family served the country. We were patriots.
The pilot announced that the temperature was 90 degrees, the time was 10:15 a.m. It was Friday in October 1970. He told us that we were in Tyler, Texas, but to keep our seat belts on until we reached the terminal. Two weeks before, I had been sitting in the open door of an Army chopper flying at 5,000 feet—with my boots on the skids, full field pack, an M-16—and no one warned me to put on a seat belt. The stewardess opened the door and thanked everyone for choosing TransTexas. Everyone except me. She was older than me, attractive, especially since I had not been around women for months. However, I was married, anxious to get to my wife as soon as possible. There were no baggage carousels back then. The baggage handler just sat your luggage out by the plane, you picked it up, and walked out.
So I shouldered my duffle bag and looked up at the crystal clear blue sky. The air was fresh and smelled of pine needles and freedom. There was a flock of crows cawing and sparrows chased them away. I saw squirrels in trees scampering around, making ready for the winter. I even saw a flock of geese high up in the sky in the V formation heading south for the winter. October is beautiful in East Texas. As I breathed in deeply, I pleasantly realized something was missing. There was no odor of the dank, dirty smell of rice paddies full of buffalo dung that infiltrated into everything in Vietnam. Instead, it was the smell of East Texas. I was glad to be home. I had plans.
Two years earlier, I was just another 145-pound poor kid from East Texas with an order to appear for induction into the armed services of the United States of America. I was barely 5΄8΄΄and skinny as a river-bottom reed. In the Army, I had grown to 6΄1΄΄and weighed 195 pounds. Interestingly, my feet did not grow. My boot size never changed. Back then, I had stepped forward and took the oath to defend America from all enemies, foreign and domestic, with the full knowledge that I was going to Vietnam. Despite a year of “humping” in Vietnam jungles, burning off leeches with borrowed cigarettes, enduring moments of terror, suffocating heat, or shivering in the freezing cold monsoons, I felt strong. On that day, and in that place, I wore a full dress U.S. Army uniform with the 25thInfantry Division patch on my left shoulder and my ribbons earned in Vietnam; my shoes were spit-shined, my gig line was perfect. I was in excellent physical condition. I felt that I had earned the rights of manhood. I was confident and proud. I had made it out alive, and I was exhilarated.
I got in line with the other passengers. They were chatting with each other, and some knew each other. Some had wives or friends meeting them. They were all civilians. Not one tried to speak to me or acknowledge me. It was strange. I did not care since the only thing on my mind was to get home and find my wife. We got married before I Ieft for Vietnam. I had only seen her for a brief R&R in Hawaii. We had been apart more than together. I wondered if it would be the same as before. My duffle bag had everything I owned in the world, so I just slung it over my shoulder and walked out of the airport. I noticed some of the cars that were picking up passengers, loading and driving out of the airport. It was only about a half-mile from the terminal out to Highway 64 and then another 60 miles to my hometown. It would be no sweat since I could hitchhike all the way home. I was sure that all I had to do was stand on the highway and thumb my way back. I did not think much when the cars leaving the airport passed me up. Surely when I got to the highway, I would catch a ride.
I wondered what my buddies were doing at the time. I recalled the nights that we sat on the ambush patrol. They were probably in the bush again, setting up the claymores, the tripwires, and getting the flares ready. These were the best guys in the world, and we all swore we would meet up back in “the world,” buy Harleys and ride all over the USA. I found out a few days later that they had been ambushed and taken casualties. Donnie, a kid from Kermit, Texas, was KIA, and several of my guys were wounded and had to be medivacked out to the 12thEvac Field Hospital at Cu Chi. But on that day, I did not know that yet, and so I looked forward to getting my wife and going back to reclaim the job I had before I was drafted.
Highway 64 is a busy highway linking Tyler to Dallas. Tyler, in 1970, was not large but was the largest city in East Texas. On that morning, the traffic in both directions was reasonably heavy. Pickups, big rigs, passenger cars, and farm vehicles headed east in a hurry to get to wherever they were going. I sat my duffle bag down and stuck out my thumb. This hitchhiking was going to be easy. Eighteen months ago, I had hitchhiked 600 miles to make it to my sister’s wedding and only needed three rides. I never waited more than a minute or two before someone would pick me up. A GI had no problem getting rides in early 1969.
I was wrong. Car after car after car passed me up without even slowing down. Trucks, big rigs, a farm truck with a load of hay just passed me up. The thumb wasn’t working. It is about six miles to the loop that I needed to get to from the airport. I started walking. I would occasionally take a chance and try to thumb a ride, but no one stopped. This was not going to be the easy trip I thought. I walked and walked and walked the six miles to the loop.
I was in good shape, but after about an hour of walking, I was getting angry and confused. What was the problem? I did not understand that the country had changed. Here I was a 20-year-old kid just back from Vietnam and could not get a ride. Here I was in East Texas, and these people are good people who love the country and the troops. Yet I could not get a ride. I finally made it to the loop, and the sun was now high in the sky, the temperature climbing. But I was used to the heat. I did not unbutton my uniform since I did not want to dishonor it by becoming sloppy despite the heat. I had started to continue around the loop. The loop around Tyler in 1970 was all rural and pasture land. There were no stores, no houses, no businesses.
I finally gave up trying to catch a ride and resolved to hump all the way home if that is what it took. I might be able to find a phone and make a collect call home and see if someone would come and pick me up. I had stopped even turning around and looking at the oncoming traffic. After a few minutes, over my shoulder, I heard the sound of a car coming at a very high speed. It was different than the others as this car was traveling fast, loud, and hard. He sped by me without slowing down. The wind blast and dust nearly blew me off the shoulder. It was a shiny black 1970 Chevelle SS 396 with only the driver inside. The car suddenly hit the brakes hard and skidded to a stop, leaving rubber and smoke all over the pavement. The driver put it in reverse and gunned it back to me with the engine at full throttle. I wondered what this was all about, but at least someone had stopped.
“Where you going, troop?” the driver asked.
I told him that I had just got in from Vietnam was trying to get home to see my wife. He told me to get in and that he would take me. I told him that it was at least 60 miles. He said: “I don’t give a fuck. I’ll take you as far as this thing will go, or we run out of gas first.”
He asked me what unit I was in, and I told him that I had just been discharged out of Vietnam with the 25thInfantry Division in Cu Chi and Tay Ninh. He said, “Well, son, you need to salute me since I am a first fuckin’ arty lieutenant with the Big Red One.”
I said, “No problem, sir!” giving him my best dress salute.
He then said, “I order you to get into this fuckin’ vehicle and tell me where we’re a-goin’.”
I got in, and he said, “Son, If you’d saluted me in the Nam, I’d have either shot your ass or busted you back to E-1 or both.”
I said: “I know, sir. We don’t salute in the Nam.”
He revved up the engine, popped the clutch, and burned out, fish-tailing all over the road, and the first thing we were over 100 mph. This guy was crazy, but I loved it. He told me that he had got shot up bad at a FireBase that had nearly been overrun by the VC during Tet. He explained that he was on a convalescent leave out of Fort Sill. He had just bought the SS 396 and paid cash from the money he had saved. He was on his way to New Orleans to party, get high, and get laid. He asked if I wanted to go with him. He said he had plenty of money and would pay for everything. I told him that I had a wife, but that I appreciated the offer. He laughed, shifted gears again, and floored it. I think he got smoke and rubber in 3rdgear. This lieutenant was probably only 23 or 24 years old. I never asked. To me, he was an old guy who outranked me, so I just went along with whatever he wanted to do so long as he got me closer to home and my wife.
We swapped some war stories, and before I knew it, we’d gone the 60 miles. We stopped at the courthouse square in the middle of the afternoon. Before I got out, he turned to me and said: “Son, this country has changed. Some people are not going to like you. That uniform you’re wearing there is going to get you in trouble. I advise shuckin’ that military garb as soon as you can. Get you some civvies, and don’t tell anyone that you’ve been to the ‘Nam.’ I’m just sayin’ it to give you some free advice. You are not going to be treated the same as before. You are damaged goods, and people are going to be afraid of you.”
I asked him, “Why do you say that?”
“Trust me!” he replied.
I got out and gave him a salute, which he returned. He burnt out, leaving smoke and rubber all over the downtown street. The townspeople on the square looked up in surprise as this mystery SS 396 roared out of town and this strange GI suddenly appeared in their midst. I never got his name, but I will always remember this first lieutenant as the only person who stopped to pick up a GI who needed a ride.
This mysterious lieutenant was correct warning me about how I would be treated as a Vietnam veteran. These stories about being spat upon or being called “baby killer” never happened to me. It seemed that we were to be ignored, unseen, damaged, crazy, unstable, and unreliable. I had been drafted from a job with a major oil company. When I presented myself to reclaim my job, I was told that they no longer had a job for me.
One of my buddies in my platoon was 25 years old and had a law degree from Ohio State University. He had been drafted but refused to accept a direct commission as an officer. I was always impressed with how he was always able to use his wit and education to quote Army regulations to any offending NCO. I did not intend to be ignored any longer and insisted that I be given my job back. I said something about the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act. I was grudgingly hired in the lowest pay grade the company had. I then went back to visit with my old boss, who was a WWII vet, and told him that I was ready for work. He told me that he was glad that I was back in “one piece.”
As we talked, one of the engineers came into his office and interrupted our conversation. He looked at me and said, “Hey Bobby, I haven’t seen you in a while. where have you been?”
I replied, “Well, Jim, I’ve been to Vietnam.”
Without so much as an acknowledgment, he turned as if I wasn’t there and ignored me—and never spoke to me again. That one encounter was indicative of how I felt the people back home treated us. It was like a lightning strike and a lesson.
From then on, I never told another person that I was a Vietnam veteran or even that I had served. In those days, it was a stigma. You were never going to be promoted nor even given a chance in corporate America. While we were serving our country in the jungles of Vietnam, there were those who dodged the draft and stayed home, earning good salaries, getting promoted, marrying, having children, buying homes, and living the American Dream. Then they self-protected each other as they rose in the corporate ranks. If you couldn’t find a way to dodge the draft then you were considered a “sucker.” I have often wondered if there was any small element of shame or embarrassment with these people.
Because of my lawyer buddy, I had a dream of going to law school and becoming a lawyer. I applied to every law school in Texas, but each, except one, rejected me despite having a good LSAT score and good undergraduate grades. I cannot say they did so because of my military background, but it sure felt that way. I got a call from South Texas College of Law, and they said that Dean Garland Walker was holding 20 spots open for veterans, and that I was being considered for admission. I met personally with Dean Walker, also a WWII veteran, and he advised that he was going to take a chance with a class of Vietnam vets, and that he hoped that I would not disappoint him. That class of veterans was outstanding, and today some of these lawyers are leaders in the bar and in their communities all over the nation.
It is only very recently I have felt comfortable discussing my Vietnam service. The country has changed, and though the gratitude is late coming, it is appreciated. My son bought me a Vietnam veteran hat recently and has encouraged me to wear it. I have not so far but might soon.
Now, 50 years later, with most of my career behind me, I am so thankful that I served my country, that I became a criminal defense attorney, that I practiced in the courts of the greatest nation on earth. I am blessed that I have made such close friends and colleagues in the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. If I have accomplished anything in this life, I am most proud to be a criminal defense attorney with brothers and sisters who fight every day for freedom and justice.
Finally, not one thing that I did in Vietnam compares to what criminal defense lawyers do every day to defend the Constitution of the United States of America. So, be proud of what you do because your country, your state, and your community need you.
No other institution stands against the overwhelming power of the Government on behalf of freedom except the criminal defense lawyer.