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My Christian life: The reality of being a Vietnam veteran

Serving God can include serving the government as a soldier.

The Vietnam War took place during a very disruptive time in our nation’s history. As college students were pushing the peace movement, politicians insisted that our country expand the war effort overseas to prevent Communism from spreading across southeast Asia.

Unfortunately, US service members were caught in the middle. When our government called, we answered just as God commanded us to do so: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13:1).

But it was difficult. In the book of Job, we learn that our faith can be tested over and over again in life. We face one challenge after another. Soldiers too. Just as Job stayed strong in the face of losing all his wealth, his belongings, and even his ten children, we also must fight the urge to wonder whether God is on our side. We need to trust that God preserves us through all our troubles until we receive the crown of life (James 1:12).

I spent 15 months in Vietnam with an infantry unit, and I knew that whatever happened, God was right there with me. I knew that he would never give me more than what he knew I could handle with his strength. At times we wonder how we will get through tough situations in our lives, but all we need to remember are these words in Romans: “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (8:28).

Coming home

Because of the turmoil that was taking place in the United States during the ‘60s and ‘70s, our soldiers, sailors, and airmen were treated terribly when they returned home. I remember flying into the airport in Oakland, California, in 1970. There were no parades, no bands, no handshakes and certainly no “Welcome Home” celebrations. Instead, we were met by a group of protesters shouting names like baby killers, murderers, and other names I won’t repeat while they threw rotten fruit and eggs at us.

My Christian Life November 2022 photos
Glen and Linda Zimmerman and their family—two children, their spouses, and four grandchildren. The other two photos show Glen on his honor flight to Vietnam in 2019. On the right, he is with the second-highest decorated female Viet Cong soldier during the war. She now runs a restaurant in Vietnam and welcomes each US veteran into her business with a hug. On the left, Glen is with a former North Vietnamese soldier who apologized to him for all the US soldiers killed during the war. Facing page: Glen Zimmerman served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970 as a member of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, 5th Battalion, 12th Infantry, Company A.

 

The Vietnam War exacted a terrible toll on US service members. In total, more than 58,000 men and women were killed by the enemy in Vietnam; their names are etched in granite on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (better known as the Wall) in Washington, D.C. More than 300,000 were wounded and about 1,500 still remain as missing in action. Some of those killed and wounded were in my platoon. Visiting Washington, D.C., to see the names of your buddies on the Wall can be a very emotional experience.

After talking to numerous Vietnam veterans over the years, I am convinced that none of us returned unscathed. Many of us who saw combat came home physically wounded; all of us came home mentally wounded. But we were all proud to have served our country and thankful to have returned home alive. We served in war under horrible conditions on the other side of the world with no contact from our family and friends (except through the mail) for an extended period of time. If that wasn’t hard enough, we returned to a country that didn’t support us, welcome us, or recognize our service. I remember going to the VFW and the American Legion after getting home and being told I was not eligible to join because they said the fighting in Vietnam was never declared a war by the government. It was considered a “police action.”

The distrust and hatred for Vietnam veterans continued to stack up. This only made it harder for many Vietnam vets to assimilate into the work world and a normal life. For many years after returning home, I didn’t indicate on work applications that I was a Vietnam veteran. I knew many of us were turned down for jobs because of those two words.

My bright spot

I was fortunate to return to Vietnam in 2019. I was 1 of 52 Vietnam veterans who were randomly chosen by The Old Glory Honor Flight of Northeast Wisconsin to take a two-week, all-expenses-paid return trip to Vietnam. There was, of course, no South Vietnam anymore. North Vietnam had taken over the entire country by April 1975, so we were flying into a Communist country. We did not expect to be welcomed with open arms, since we had been their enemy 50 years before. Our 14-hour flight was filled with much anxiety and trepidation. No one knew what to expect when we arrived.

The difference I saw in the country and the people from 50 years earlier was staggering. The small wooden and grass shack villages have been replaced with skyscrapers and modern cities housing millions of people. There were factories and stores and businesses everywhere. Vietnam had moved into the 21st century!

Our fears of returning to an enemy country were quickly extinguished as citizens welcomed us everywhere we went. We were told that 70 percent of the population in Vietnam was not alive when the war was going on so the Vietnamese people do not harbor ill will toward Americans. Those who were alive during the war want to forget about it.

While visiting Hanoi, I was approached by a former North Vietnamese soldier who asked me if I had been a soldier for the United States in the war. When I told him I was, he reached out his hand to shake mine and said, “Forgive me?” I was shocked. I thought we should be the ones seeking forgiveness from the North Vietnamese. They lost about 12 times the number of soldiers we lost. If only we could all be that forgiving.

We have learned to forgive our enemies. Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. . . . If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:12-15). After meeting this gentleman and the friendly Vietnamese people, I was able to return home with a great feeling of peace inside.

Our “Welcome Home” in Wisconsin in 2019 was the total opposite from the return in the ‘60s and ‘70s. This time we were met by more than three thousand cheering supporters, a band, and dignitaries who spoke of our honored service to our country. It is unfortunate that it has taken 50 years for Vietnam veterans to get the recognition they should have had all along.

This Veterans Day—and every day—take time to thank veterans for their service to our country. Regardless of the job they were assigned while in service, they honorably served our country as commanded—a task from God that they accepted gladly. And if the veteran happens to be a Vietnam veteran, say, “Welcome home.” These two simple words mean so much to every Vietnam veteran.

God bless our veterans, and God bless this great nation of ours!

Author: Glen Zimmerman
Volume: 109, Number 11
Issue: November 2022

 

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This entry is part 8 of 53 in the series my christian life

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