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40 years later, Vietnam War still haunts

Bombing ended, but conflict continues in veterans’ minds

POSTED: August 17, 2013 11:46 p.m.
/For The Times

A photograph of Cookie Salinas taken while he served during the Vietnam War.

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The bombing stopped 40 years ago in the Vietnam War, but the memories still pound in Hubert “Gunny” Hunnicutt’s head.

Talking them out three times a week with fellow U.S. Marines in Gainesville each week “gives me more help than anything,” said Hunnicutt, who takes medicine and gets professional help for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“You’re able to sit down with other Marines and they know what you’re talking about,” he said.

For many Vietnam vets, working through and dealing with emotions stemming from one of America’s most polarizing wars is an ongoing process. The memories of fighting in harsh climates and seeing buddies killed linger hard.

“I went through four wives. I couldn’t maintain relationships,” Hunnicutt said in an interview Thursday, the 40th anniversary of the end of direct U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

He said the harshness of war “causes you not to feel, to be numbed to feelings. You become impatient, even irritated, at human frailty.”

The Vietnam War began in 1954 as an attempt by communist North Vietnam to unify the country. South Vietnam’s principal ally was the U.S., which began military action in the mid-1960s, eventually involving as many as 500,000 personnel.

The war divided the American public and cost 58,000 U.S. military lives.

Hostilities ended when a cease-fire agreement between the U.S. and North Vietnam was signed Jan. 23, 1973. A formal signing took place four days later in what is known as the Paris Peace Accords.

The peace agreement called for the U.S. armed forces’ withdrawal, which occurred in March 1973. On Aug. 15, 1973, the United States flew its final bombing mission over Southeast Asia.

But even after the bullets stopped whizzing by their heads, tough times awaited many warriors when they stepped back on U.S. soil, beginning with a cold reception from the public.

Dave Dellinger, a member of the Northeast Georgia chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, recalled flying into San Francisco after his 1964-65 tour in Vietnam and being told “to change out of our uniforms into civilian clothes before we caught (another) flight home, because (military personnel) were getting harassed in the airport.”

At that time, U.S. military didn’t keep as abreast of news back home, except through letters from loved ones, he said.

“It was really surprising,” Dellinger said of the public reaction. “It didn’t happen to me, but some friends I was with were called ‘baby killers.’

“That’s really why most of us didn’t say anything (about the war) until 30 or 40 years later, because of the discrimination we were feeling.”

Hunnicutt recalled taking the war protests personally.

“It seemed to us that they were blaming us, the infantrymen, for the war,” he said. “Well, hell, we didn’t start the war. The politicians started the war; all we did was what we were told.”

Hunnicutt said even his wife had become “a war protester and hippie” while overnight he had become a grizzled war veteran.

“We got divorced shortly thereafter,” he said. “We were two different people.”

The U.S. pullout from Vietnam didn’t particularly ease tensions on the Southeast Asia peninsula.

In 1975, North Vietnam overran South Vietnam, finally reaching its goal of unifying the country under a communist regime.

Rudy Guerrero of Gainesville was a young Marine in Saigon, the South Vietnam capital, at the time, helping escort evacuees onto Huey helicopters on the roof of the U.S. embassy. It’s an iconic scene from history, captured by TV cameras and serving as an epilogue to the unpopular war.

Guerrero had entered the war in 1972. By that time, the American public “wasn’t treating us as bad as the guys from the 1960s,” he said. “There was more acceptance of we were there because we had to be.”

Still, the U.S., as a country, had a hard time shaking off the war and was enduring other difficult times from that era, such as political scandal involving President Richard Nixon.

A national memorial was established in 1982 in Washington, D.C. And attitudes otherwise toward Vietnam War veterans — and the military in general — vastly improved over the next couple of decades.

Hunnicutt, who served also in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, remembers the celebratory return of armed forces from what was an overwhelming U.S. victory.

“It was like night and day,” he said in comparing the reception to Vietnam.

Vietnam vets began to receive more appreciation as years went by. In recent years, they have gotten loud applause as they walk down Green Street in Gainesville’s Memorial Day parades.

Dellinger recalled the Vietnam War chapter starting in 1996.

“Up until then, most of us hadn’t been involved in anything with other veterans,” Dellinger said. “We had a guy come to his first meeting Monday night. He liked what he saw and became a lifetime member.”

In May 2007, a memorial honoring the 25 men from Hall County who were killed in the Vietnam War was dedicated.

It was an emotional ceremony attended by some 200 people.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said veteran Johnny Hulsey, who helped spearhead the $18,000 project, at the time.

Cookie Salinas, former commandant of the Marine Corps League’s Gainesville detachment, said Vietnam vets’ service and sacrifice also have benefited today’s warriors, including those returning from Afghanistan.

He cited vets’ battles with the U.S. government over health problems stemming from combat — such as exposure to the Agent Orange defoliant.

“One of the things that came out of that, with our insistence on treatment, is that the young men coming back now are getting the benefit of the complaining, griping and marching that we did,” Salinas said.


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