Commentary: A Vietnam veteran reflects as Ken Burns’ documentary airs

Commentary: A Vietnam veteran reflects as Ken Burns’ documentary airs


(Currently airing on PBS is a 10-part documentary on the Vietnam War created by Ken Burns. In tribute to those who served, I offer up the following; and to the rest of you... “Thank you, and Welcome Home!”)

They make quite a pair, Boomer and Walter.

Boomer, 14, has cancer in his leg, suffers from hip dysplasia, and is blind. But he is in no way disabled when it comes to giving unconditional love; for when it comes to animals, love truly is blind.

Wherever Walter goes, Boomer, this affable reddish brown dog of questionable parentage, is right by his side. That’s how they roll. And roll they do since Walter mobilizes via a wheelchair. But make no mistake: He is not wheelchair bound, nor confined to a wheelchair. When you meet Walter, you realize within a very short time that nothing binds nor confines him whatsoever.

It was 1966, and Walter had just graduated from high school when he and 10 of his buddies decided to enlist. “The Marines seemed a good idea at the time,” Walter recounts. “Then they sent us off to Parris Island for basic training and tried to kill us all. In eight weeks they remade us. Let’s just say it’s something I wouldn’t want to do again. The second day of basic you get a rifle and a helmet. You figure it out pretty fast. Nothing’s the same after that first shot.”

Then Walter volunteered to go to Vietnam. “I was 18, full of piss and vinegar. I had to go see what it was like.”

He was stationed the entire time in the DMZ (demilitarized zone) and not long after contracted malaria. “They had me rehabbing at Cam Ranh Bay, which wasn’t bad because I could listen on the radio to the Red Sox playing in the 1967 World Series. It was great till they lost. That’s when I told the doctors, ‘I’ve had it. If the Red Sox lost the Series, then I’m going back to the war.’”

And Walter did exactly that, relentlessly fighting side by side with his buddies until one night in February 1968 when they were heading out for a nighttime ambush. “There were 200 of us that night...199 guys ahead of me who safely made it. I was last in line and stepped on a land mine. It blew my helmet off, blew me to pieces. I guess it just wasn’t my day.”

An understatement from a man barely out of his teens who was now rendered a double amputee. Walter’s journey took him home via the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, where he took up residence for the better part of a year and a half, enduring multiple operations.

Two months after his release from the hospital, Walter enrolled in college, which he readily admits was a mistake. “College didn’t agree with me; it was just too soon. But then I realized it was time to put my life in perspective. Time to join the human race again.” He quickly adds with a rueful laugh, “I’m still not that impressed.”

But Walter was always impressed with sports and firmly immersed himself in that arena. “I played wheelchair basketball for 10 years, and I coached Little League for more than 20 years. People may look upon wheelchair basketball differently, but as far as I’m concerned, you’re still an athlete.”

Thinking back on his time in Vietnam makes Walter reflect. “Everybody that was with me came home with a Purple Heart; but really, you never get used to it. Time in combat straightens you out in a hurry.”

There are still those who don’t really believe Vietnam was a war, that it was a “conflict.” War is by definition a situation wherein two or more countries, states, or parties fight each other over a period of time... an open and armed hostility exemplified by active military operations, severe aggression, and high mortality. If you accept that, then Vietnam was indeed a war. However, since the Congress of the United States never officially declared war against Vietnam, it was thought to be a conflict. Walter begs to differ.

“If somebody’s shooting at you, and you’re shooting at them, it’s a war. I don’t care what you call it.”

And that’s how he rolls.

Rona Mann has been a freelance writer for The Sun for 16 years, including her “In Their Shoes” features. She has written three books: one about the towns and villages in our area, one about growing up in the ’50s, and one that recounts untold veterans’ stories from WWII to the present. She can be reached at: or (401) 539-7762.

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