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A Vietnam veteran remembers

COURTESY PHOTO Lieutenant James Colligan, taking a break from his duties in Vietnam in 1970.
Lieutenant James Colligan, taking a break from his duties in Vietnam in 1970.

The young soldier,  a private not yet 20, sat on the side of a bunk, feet on the floor, tears streaking his cheeks, pointing a .45 caliber pistol at his chest.

Lieutenant James Colligan was several feet away, speaking softly to the soldier, asking him to put down the weapon, that everything was going to be O.K.

It was 1971. The young lieutenant, not much older than the private, had been called to the situation while he was in the officer’s club at the sprawling American armed forces base at Chu Lai, Vietnam. The soldier was a Kentucky boy named Gary. Strung out on heroin and threatened by dealers, he told the officer he’d had enough.

Gary asked him to deliver two letters of apology he had written, both headed “Death before dishonor,” one to his parents and one to his superior officers.

Mr. Colligan recalled recently that the addiction problem for army personnel was so severe then — the beginning of the end of American involvement in the war — that before leaving Vietnam for the United States, all personnel had to take urine tests to determine if they were using narcotics.

If the test was positive, they were immediately “put into some kind of treatment before going home,” Mr. Colligan said. “The military didn’t want parents to say ‘I gave my boy to you and you sent him back a drug addict.’”

But Gary wouldn’t have a chance for treatment.

Still weeping, but no longer listening to the calming words of the lieutenant, he shot a round from the .45 into his chest.

“We picked him up and raced to the emergency room. But he bled out there and died,” Mr. Colligan said. “It got to me.”

It wasn’t the only scene or set of circumstances that has remained with Mr. Colligan, now a town councilman, who shares experiences of horror, brotherhood and honor with most of the 2,709,918 American veterans who served in Indochina from August 5, 1964 to March 28, 1973.

Saturday is Veterans Day and vets all over the United States will be remembered and honored.

This November 11, there most likely will be a special focus on Vietnam veterans, due to the documentary film series, “The Vietnam War,” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which aired on PBS stations in September.

Asked if he’d seen the 10-part, 18-hour series, Mr. Colligan, who served in Vietnam from July 1970 to July 1971, said, “Every episode, every minute. It had a profound effect on me. It rekindled feelings within me.”

It also sparked some anger, Mr. Colligan said, at mistakes made at the highest levels of government, and how American officials “constantly lied to the American people.”

A Long Island boy from Carle Place, he went to Vietnam after graduating from Niagara University. He had worked his way through college at the university’s infirmary, and enrolled in ROTC “partly for the money,” he said, receiving $125 a month.

But there were also some classmates he admired who were in the program, and it was a Colligan family tradition to serve in the military. His father was a World War II Army vet and his older brother Bob had been in the peace time Army, serving in Germany.

A friend drove him to a New Jersey airport the July night he was to disembark, accompanied by his sweetheart, Margaret Mundhenk.

Arriving in Vietnam, the newly commissioned second lieutenant was to be assigned to a medical battalion as an administrator. An example of the fickle nature of war, of who lives and who dies, was apparent on his first day in the country.

Lieutenant Colligan was one of two officers who were due to report that day for assignment. Arriving early, he was given a choice of serving at the sprawling base in Chu Lai that had two hospitals and multiple clinics, or a much smaller one near the border of Laos. Picking the base at Chu Lai saved his life, he said, because a month later the small border command was overrun by the enemy. Everyone was killed.

That year, Mr. Colligan experienced extensive mortar and rocket fire on the base, and heading out to supply bases he was shot at riding in vehicles and helicopters. But it was not anything nearly as serious, he said, as many Vietnam veterans endured, especially those who served from the mid-to late 1960s, before the concept of “Vietnamization” became the strategy of pulling out American troops.

Out in the country, his unit brought medical supplies to villages, and provided elementary training of medical techniques to the villagers. These missions were equally rewarding and troubling, he remembered, because the care, supplies and training helped people, but it was common knowledge that when the Americans left, the supplies would be confiscated by guerillas operating in the area.

Also, the effects of the war on the Vietnamese was heartbreaking, he said, adding that he’ll never shake certain images. “To see the devastation of war in the eyes of children,” Mr. Colligan said, before his voice trailed off.

Thinking back to the PBS documentary on the war, Mr. Colligan recalled a soldier in the Army of North Vietnam who was asked about winners and losers in the war. “He said, ‘There are no winners. We’re all losers,’” Mr. Colligan said. “I think that’s true. Millions died.”

As his tour was winding down, he was offered incentives to stay on active duty. “They waved captain’s bars in my face and offered more pay,” Mr. Colligan said. “But I was done.”

In July 1971, he made the long journey home, flying from Vietnam to Japan to Alaska and finally to LaGuardia. He was met by his father — who threw his arms around him — and Margaret. Things happened quickly. They were married three weeks after he returned and he got a job teaching almost at the same time.

Mr. Colligan said he never spoke much about his experiences in the war, not because he couldn’t deal with it, but because very few people ever asked. But a moment came nearly 15 years later, when memories and emotions of his tour in Vietnam and the men and women he served with came flooding back.

The Vietnam Veterans ticker tape parade in May 1985 attracted tens of thousands of veterans — including Mr. Colligan — as it crossed Brooklyn Bridge and paraded down Broadway for a rousing welcome home.

They were all one, he added, from veterans marching in three-piece suits to those who were scruffy and down on their luck.

“There was an overpowering feeling of camaraderie and brotherhood,” he said, which he experiences again when he goes to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.. “We’ll never forget.”

Shelter Island will celebrate Veterans Day this Saturday, November 11, with a breakfast at the American Legion Hall starting at 7:30, followed by a ceremony on the steps of the Legion Hall beginning at 10 a.m.