’If there are any conflicts in the world, people expect America to interfere and protect them, and then they criticize us for it’- says Rudy Hicks who served one year in Vietnam. Though his physical wounds have healed, the horrors of the war still haunt him today. I sat down to talk with him in his hometown in Georgia.
By Krisztina Somorjai
In 1967, when the Vietnam war was going on, you lived the most joyful time of your life. How did this all change when you received the draft notice?
I was 19 then, and I had just got married. My wife Maude was 17. We lived happily on our farm where I worked as a dairy farmer. We looked forward to the future with great expectations and soon found out that my wife was pregnant. In a short time all our dreams seemed to fail, because I got my draft notice. I felt like my whole world was ending before it even got started. I had only 2 weeks to take care of everything, say good-bye to my family and report to the training center of the army.
What did you know about the Vietnam war when you were drafted?
Only what I saw on TV. As far as we knew, we were just engaged in stopping the aggression of communism. We were raised to unconditionally respect our country and our leaders. Our fathers and grandfathers had fought in WW1 and WW2 and our veterans were considered heroes. When it became our time to be called on, we didn’t really question whether it was a good cause or not.
Have you ever thought of running away to Canada, like many people did?
Not at all. I considered it an honor and a privilege to serve, even though I was afraid that I might not see my wife and son again. I didn’t know anyone personally who ran away, but I knew someone who did something to himself physically to avoid being in a combat situation.
How do they prepare a dairy farmer for combat in just a few weeks?
First we had an 8-week basic military training, then further trainings that were more geared toward fighting, the weapons, paratrooper training, tactics and things like that. I realized pretty early that as I had quit school early and hadn’t prepared myself to qualify for a technical position, I was more than likely gonna be an infantry soldier. So I did my best to prepare well both physically and mentally to have a better chance to make it out of there alive.
As far as the technical preparations are concerned, we got a great training, but combat is so spontaneous you can never quite prepare because it never works out like you planned it. Though they were trying to teach us based on a jungle type warfare as then we had been engaged there for about 3 years, most of the training came from WW2 manuals.
What kind of expectations did you have before you went there?
I never forget the 22-hour plane ride to Vietnam. We had one stop in Tokyo, and that was the longest plane ride ever. There were all military people on the plane, mainly 19-20 year olds sitting quietly. As if the reality of where we were going suddenly hit all of us. The uncertainity and fear of what lay ahead just flooded to us: Are we gonna see our loved ones again? I didn’t know anyone personally who was in combat and came back from Vietnam to share his experiences with me. I saw the news presentations on TV, and every night they were showing battles, wounded, the dead and all the horror, so I was wondering if it was going to be the same in reality.
First we arrived to Cam Rahn Bay, a beautiful place on the coast, where we went through some orientation. Then we were shipped out to our base. As we landed at night, the first thing that hit me was how unbelivably hot it was and the smell of burning feces.
Could you ever get used to the constant state of alert and danger?
It was really terrrifying at the beginning, we were always scared of the unknown. Then we just dealt with it every day. You don’t wake up every day thinking this is the day I have a good chance to be killed, do you? We woke up like that every day. You grow up pretty fast in a situation like this. In a jungle war most of the time you couldn’t see the enemy. It makes you very frustrated, and when you do see them, you want to kill the grandparents the children, the animals, everybody. I wasn’t like that before, but I became like that. In WW2 the average soldier spent about 10 day in actual combat in a year. In Vietnam the average combat soldier spent 243 days in combat in a year. That is extremely intense, and it does have an effect on you mentally.
People usually try to get information about the Vietnam war from action movies. How well can these films portray reality?
Some of them are pretty accurate for example the ’We were soldiers’, but most of them idealize the war. I didn’t really watch these films, because I tried to bury the memories. That’s what most people did. When I came home I didn’t have anyone who understood what I went through. Neither my wife, nor my friends, so I didn’t have anyone who would help me deal with all the horrible things that happened.
Did you just bury the memories without talking to anyone about them?
Yeah, but every now and then it would boil up like a volcanic erruption and it was very hard to deal with it. I just got real depressed. I was short tempered especially with my family. I was always on alert and saw danger in everything. I just simply didn’t know how to turn it off. I thought I was a horrible person, because I did horrible things. For a while I thought God would punish me through my loved ones. So I just covered it up and buried it, so I would not have to deal with it.
Was everything all right for a while and then all the memories just surfaced?
Yes, suddenly a smell, or a handshake would trigger it. The handshake was the worst. We had to take the dead bodies, pile them up, take pictures of them, and count the dead bodies to keep score. I made a mistake of reaching down and grabbing a dead VC by the hand. The hand is real personal. When I did it, I was shocked by the way it felt. I never did that again. This memory comes back when I shake hands with someone. Some people just lay it in there without firmly shaking hands.
Did you turn to a doctor with your problems?
Almost 40 years after I came home, I went to the VA hospital for some tests. My doctor asked me just one question: ’How have you been sleeping?’ When she said that I fell apart, because I wasn’t sleeping well at all. All the 40 years that was trapped inside just flooded me, and neither of us knew what to do. He introduced me to Dr. Troy Luckett a well-known psychologist. First I felt very embarrased to go to a psychologist, but that is what I needed.
How does he help you to deal with your memories?
We talk about what happened and try to understand it. Just before I was about to come home, I was the ranking NCO on the base. I had to make a group go out on patrol, my friend Gordon among them. They were hit, and the firefight lasted all night. My friend Anthony and I decided to go out there too, and help them. We almost got court-marshalled for that, because we didn’t tell anyone we were leaving. Next morning my friend Gordon was hit too. He died because I sent him there. How do you deal with that?
Dr. Luckett always reminds me that it was just an unbelievably difficult assignment. And that’s just the way sometimes things work out in the war. He gives me exercises to deal with shame, anger and fear so my mind could find a safe and peaceful place.
How does the government help those who come back from combat?
Fortunately, they give more help now, they learned a lesson. When we came home the reception was horrible. People were treating us as murderers, they didn’t want to have anything to do with us. Even the government and the army wanted to brush us aside, because the war brought such a horrible light on us as a nation. As if the whole thing had been our idea! They just thought that if they forgot about us the whole thing would go away. Well, it didn’t. Veterans were killing their wives, they became drog addicts, alcoholics and did other horrible things. They all tried to fight their demons the best they could.
Before the 70s we were kind of idealistic with great hopes and expectations for the future. We thought we were the greatest country and the moral standard of the world. The Vietnam war changed all that, and we learned a lot from it.
Now when soldiers come back from Iraq or Afghanistan, they go through a debriefing process and preparation for civilian life. It also helps that they are appreciated. About 15 years ago we were also thanked for our service, but it just didn’t have the same effect as it would have had. If I see soldiers at the airport or in the street, I go to them and tell them how much I appreciate what they are doing for their country.
Can you forget about the pain and horror of the war at all, or is does it always remain part of your life?
Somehow you can never totally forget everything. Just think about it! When I was 19, I worked as a dairy farmer, and lived a very simple life not knowing anything about war. Then in less than a year I blew a man’s brains out in close range. If I hadn’t shot at him, probably I wouldn’t be here today. How do you deal with that? It’s hard to even talk about it.
The first 10 years after I came back, I had horrible nightmares, woke up screaming at my kids. I was mean and irresponsible to my wife and children. I wonder how other families can deal with this. Thank God my wife stayed with me, though sometimes she might have suffered more than I did. She almost single handedly raised our 2 sons, because she couldn’t always count on me. She is the real hero in the family. There are many families in similar situations both in the USA and other parts of the world. Ten years after I got home I got saved and I hoped if I just turned it over to the Lord the whole thing would be over. But it wasn’t that easy.
You also mentioned that you felt guilty because you survived and many of your buddies didn’t.
Yes. I was wounded 3 times, but I can consider myself lucky compared to others. I still feel sad and guilty sometimes that I survived and they didn’t. I want my life to honor their sacrifice and to help the veterans who haven’t found peace yet. I also want my children and grandchildren to know that the freedom they enjoy is not free, it cost a lot to many people.
What kind of military decorations did you receive?
Oh, I don’t even know exactly, but the one that is the most valuable for me is the COMBAT INFANTRY BADGE, a little blue rifle with a wreath around it. It’s for soldiers who were in actual combat. I also got a A BRONZE STAR for combat action, 3 Army commendation medals for valor, 3 PURPLE HEARTs for wounded in combat, 3 AIR MEDALS for air assaults and combat situations, and the VIETNAM CROSS OF Gallantry with Palm.
Once I said I was awarded for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, I just wasn’t quick enough to get down. (laugh) One night we had a rocket attack, and everybody had to run to the bunker. When we had a headcount, one of our guys, Steve, was not there. I ran back for him and found him drunk on his bed. I tried to get him up but he didn’t want to, and he even fought me because he was drunk. So I turned around and started back to the bunker. I got down on the ground and then the rocket hit the ground not far from me. All the shrapnel came at an angle that I was under it so I didn’t get injured. Steve also lived through it.
American soldiers have been withdrawn from Iraq, and they are still in Afghanistan. Many times America is viewed as the policeman of the world interfering everywhere. What do you think about this?
I thought about that a lot. What is your responsibility as a powerful nation who is capable of doing something about oppression and injustice in other parts of the wold? What should we do when we see these cruel dictators and nations that are committing genocide against their own people. Knowing that we have the power to help, should we act like it didn’t happen? Sometimes it seems like we are poking our nose in other people’s business that we should just leave it alone, but how can you not interfere? I think we had a strong reason to attack Afghanistan, because that’s where September 11 was birthed.
If there are any conflicts in the world, people expect America to interfere and protect them, and then they criticize us for it. Though we are not perfect, America has helped lots of people, and shared its wealth generously. Maybe even with those who didn’t want it.
SILENT SCREAM (a poem by Janet Seahorn, Ph.D., wife of a Vietnam veteran)
You cannot see a Silent Scream
When looking from outside.
But you might find a glimpse of it
While peering deep in someone’s eyes.
You will not hear a Silent Scream
In noisy, crowded rooms.
But if you sat down face to face
Your heart may sense its painful tune.
You shall not feel a Silent Scream
Amidst our fast-paced world.
But if you wandered near to it
Its anxious spirit might unfurl.
We walk right past a suffering soul
And often turn away.
Not strong enough to face the grief
This world has made him pay.
For Silent Screams are not unique
To those who fight and die.
The living warrior hell survived
Is left to hold his tears inside.