Remembering the last days of Vietnam

Next week, as the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War approaches on April 30, the country will be flooded with stories, TV shows, and memories of the war, which — at least for a time — made us reluctant to get into another one.

Though it’s been a battle ever since to frame it historically, the war remains as divisive as any snapshot in our history.

Today, the Rochester Post Bulletin carries a compelling remembrance from Tom Novotne, now 64.

The Marine recalls the flight to Vietnam was full of laughter. The flight home was quiet. And everything in between was ugly.

Even a few days off from the front lines offered no respite from death.

One time, Novotne and some friends of his were given a few days away from the battlefield. They were in a tent when a new guy walked in. The guy was drunk and complaining that his girlfriend had sold his car to pay for rent. The man laid down on a cot between Novotne and another guy, turned around and shot himself in the head.

“They were carrying him out,” Novotne said. “I went outside to have a cigarette. The guy said you better go in and wash your face. I went into the head to wash my face, but I couldn’t believe how much blood I had on me.”

When he returned to California, he said he was spit on.

“There were protesters all the way through. They would spit on you,” said Novotne, who recalled reaching for his .45 at the provocation but doing nothing. “That was the biggest thing. That starts things. All of sudden, you know about Vietnam. You don’t let anybody know.”

For 30 years, he says, he didn’t talk about Vietnam. He says no matter what pills they give him, it gets worse as he gets older.

But he says he’s learned it’s time to talk.

“I think the people from Vietnam who went over there, they still need some kind of comfort,” he said. “It really helps talk to other people who have been through it. It helps a person.

The nation will face its own challenge next week. Can it provide comfort to those who need it without sanitizing a war?

From the archive: You Should Meet: Gary Bipes

On 50th anniversary, a sanitized Vietnam War.

The Vietnam success story.