The Empty Nest: Vietnam Veterans Day | Columnists


In restaurants or public places, he sits in a corner with his back to the wall, near a window, where he can see the door in case he needs to escape. He doesn’t carry a gun because he knows he would use one. His name is Patrick James Hogan. His many friends call him PJ. He’s 75, from Ft. Madison and a Vietnam veteran.

He grew up on a farm southeast of Niota, Illinois. When he received his conscription notice in 1966, being a “rebellious”, he joined the Marines (Ha!). He doesn’t know if Vietnam was right or wrong. He enlisted to fulfill his military obligation and serve his country. That’s it.

The Marines put him in the air force. There was a sign-up sheet for the door gunners. PJ put his name on it. However, on leave, he read in the Fort. Madison’s Daily Democrat about a door gunner friend of his who was killed. Back at base, there was a second sign-up sheet for the door gunners. If you put your name on it the second time, you’d be a door gunner. PJ didn’t put his name there a second time, and he’s glad he didn’t. Of the 40 who did, only seven made it back alive. His friend may have saved his life.

PJ was put into hydraulics and pneumatics. When he arrived in Da Nang, there was a rocket attack. It scared him very much. But there have been so many rocket attacks that they have become more troublesome.

He nearly shot a South Vietnamese citizen. The citizen had scaled the fence on the perimeter of the base and was walking away from one of the buildings. PJ ordered him to stop. The Vietnamese was scared because he knew PJ was scared. The citizen was taken away and interrogated. The next day he was back on base to rake the sand. PJ saw other South Vietnamese citizens moving away from the buildings. A rocket hit one of these buildings. The South Vietnamese were selling coordinates to the enemy.

PJ occasionally saw a truck passing with two or three aluminum coffins with dead soldiers. Twice there were two trucks full of coffins. The building was close to where the coffins were stored. He could smell formaldehyde. He also got used to it.

He’s the only Marine you’ll meet who’s never been in a helicopter. He saw a helicopter arrive loaded with bodies. The helicopter snagged on a trip wire, crashed and rolled up like a cigar. There were bodies everywhere.

PJ didn’t realize how stressed he was until he returned home on leave. He was standing next to his brother who was 13 years older than him. In the mirror, PJ appeared to be 10 years older than his brother.

Back at base, a friend told him to look towards China Beach, the most beautiful beach in the world, according to PJ. There was a bright color explosion, the sound wave hit them, they could see the rocket going up, then it disappeared. That’s when the rocket came straight at them. “Coming!

Returning home after his release, PJ was not accepted into organizations like the VFW because World War II veterans did not consider him a “true veteran”. Now they want it because WWII vets are dying. PJ says, “No.”

He spent 30 days in a drug and alcohol treatment center in Burlington. He’s been sober for over 30 years now. He was happily married, but his wife died. Like many Vietnam veterans, PJ is reclusive. He lives in town, but there is a chain-link fence on both sides of his house.

58,000 soldiers died in Vietnam, and more died by suicide after the war. It’s worse for returning Middle Eastern veterans. 22 now die a day, by suicide! PJ thinks it’s because of a lack of decompression time for returning veterans. They’re in a war zone one day, 48 hours later they’re on the street and supposed to be functioning normally. It’s not the Vietnamese vet who needs help and support now, PJ says, it’s the Middle Eastern veterans.

Vietnam Veterans Day is Tuesday, March 29 (date of withdrawal from Vietnam). Support and honor your veteran, whether they are veterans from Southeast Asia, the Middle East or elsewhere. Don’t pamper them. Respect them.

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Got a good story? Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, find him on Facebook, email him at [email protected] or visit his website at www.empty


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