Back in the world for 45 years

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The Army called it DEROS -- Date of Estimated Return from Overseas. During the Vietnam War, it was usually 365 days from the day you entered the country. For me, that day was Nov. 9, 1968. The challenge was to make it through all 365. The closer you got to the date, the shorter you were, and "short" was a common greeting among troops. One of my favorites was, "I'm so short I could sleep in a matchbox and use a rifle cleaning patch for a blanket."

My short-timer calendar had 100 days on it. Each was a box you would cross out or fill in as you got shorter. I received mine from a Donut Dolly somewhere in the mountains west of Kontum where we were setting up forward fire bases and going on patrols along the borders of Laos and/or Cambodia. The calendar had a doghouse with Snoopy standing on the roof wearing a steel pot with a 4th Infantry Division patch on it. One hundred days is a long time. You'd really start getting nervous if you were still in the boonies and had only a couple of weeks left. You became very careful. I was lucky because I was sent back to the rear in Pleiku with a little more than two months to go to teach Viet Cong booby traps and demolition to long-range reconnaissance patrols and troops just coming into the country.

I have several memories of my trip home. First, it seemed like forever between the time we arrived in Cam Ranh Bay and the time we left. When we were finally on the plane and taxiing down the runway, we were all silent. We were all holding our breath waiting for something to go wrong. It seemed like we all exhaled at the same time when we thought we were far enough away to be safe.

One of the bits of chit-chat on the flight home was the story of a soldier who had been shot and killed by an inconsolable mother when he was getting off the plane. The story was that she had lost her son in Vietnam and didn't think others should come home safely. I can't tell you if it was true.

When we arrived in Seattle, I remember the cool air in my face and lungs as we exited the plane. I'm sure there was a smell of pine. I looked around for anyone who might shoot me.

We were first taken to customs where our luggage was inspected. A 50-caliber round I had used as part of my short-timers stick was confiscated, but the human skull in the duffel bag of a man from my company made it through. Then we were fitted for new Class A uniforms. While the alterations were being made and our patches sewn on, we went for out-processing.

If you had less than five months of service, you were discharged. If you had more, you were given leave until your next assignment. Then we had a steak dinner -- it was chewy but delicious -- showers, and put on our new uniforms. Some of us had to get haircuts. We had arrived around 11 p.m., so it was the early hours of the next morning when we headed for Seattle-Tacoma airport.

I was going to National Airport in Washington, D.C. My family lived in McGaheysville, Va., about two hours away in the Shenandoah Valley. I called home before I left, gave them my flight information and was told that my brother Alan would be there to meet me.

On the flight, I was seated next to a young minister. At the beginning of the flight, he turned to me and asked where I had been. When I said I had just returned from Vietnam, he just said, "Oh," and we didn't speak a word for the remainder of the trip. It still baffles me. I have never been able figure out if he just didn't know what to say or if he believed that we were all baby killers and rapists.

My plan on coming back in the world had long been to go to Dutch's restaurant in Richmond to have a hamburger with fries and a warm Pabst Blue-Ribbon beer. We had learned to love warm beer since we never got it cold. Dutch's was the gathering place for us theater students at the then-Richmond Professional Institute, now VCU. Richmond is about two hours from D.C. in another direction and two hours from home, but Alan was game, and after calling my folks from a phone booth, we headed down I-95.

When I walked into Dutch's, Dutch himself greeted me. I'm sure he knew where I'd been, seeing my uniform, but he asked me just the same. I can still taste that incredible hamburger with chopped kosher dill pickles, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. And the Pabst was like nectar. I didn't get either for free.

So, this year I will celebrate 45 years back in the world with a burger and a beer and two friends who are also vets of the war. We will drink a toast to the 58,272 who didn't make it home and those wounded in the line of duty. The 4th ID motto says it all -- steadfast and loyal.

Dolph John Armstrong is a retired corporate communications manager and lives in Mt. Lebanon (dolphjudy@gmail.com).


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