by Gene Ogozalek
It is not uncommon for a relative of a Vietnam veteran to state that he never spoke about his experience in combat. The ostensible reason being that the veteran would rather forget his experience as it remains too painful. In my case, I never had a problem talking about my experience of being wounded, however, I intentionally put the subject matter aside for the first 35 years for a number of reasons; first, I honestly believed that there were no words to effectively relate to my peers the extreme violent environment of a U.S. Marine combat infantry battalion in Vietnam at the DMZ in 1968. Second, in Tulane, I believed that those asking the questions actually did not want to understand what you endured, but rather, wanted to determine why would anyone in their right mind volunteer in the Marines for Vietnam instead of getting a college deferment as they did. After all, they are sane ones, therefore you are an aberration, or just plain stupid.
I had a somewhat unique experience. I joined the Marines in June 1967, ten days after high school, at the ‘height of the buildup of troops in Vietnam”. By Dec. 10, 1967, I was in Vietnam. Forty six days later, I was seriously wounded on Jan. 25, 1968. Due to my multiple fragmentation wounds including a penetrating head wound, I was sent back to the states to recover. I was released from the St. Albans, Queens, NY, Navy hospital on May 10 to go home to Jersey City, and await my formal discharge papers. The discharge was dated July 31, 1968. I was officially in the Marines 1 year, 1 month and 2 days. Because I was seriously wounded, and unfit for further duty, the VA told me that they would pay for my entire college education, tuition, books, fees, related expenses, and housing. There was no limit on the tuition. Whatever school I can be accepted at, they would pay for it. I immediately bought a book on universities that had an architecture program, and picked the most expensive private school in the most exciting city that I could find; Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. It turned out to be the best five years of my life.
I arrived at Tulane in August, 1969, at the ” height of the Vietnam protests”, which would continue through my entire freshman year. I was surrounded by draft dodgers. I said nothing. It was at Tulane during discussions in the dorm that I felt like I was from Mars. Most of my fellow students looked at me through squinted eyes. It was at that moment, when I decided that I would focus on my education, my career, and finding my wife. Any other questions about my combat experience would be answered very succinctly, and indifferently, like no big deal. I met my wife at Tulane ( still married 44 years later ), raised two boys, and have one granddaughter. I have a Masters in Architecture from Tulane in 1974, which was a five year program.
On occasion, someone would ask me if I had a good time in Vietnam; did I sleep with some hot Oriental chicks in Thailand on R&R, smoke some dope, etc. My answer was always the same; ” You are talking to the wrong person, Buddy, I had someone yell at me every day in the Marine Corps, and then I got wounded.” Prior to being wounded, I nearly escaped being wounded on four other occasions, all in a 46 day period. After 10 days aboard the USS Repose hospital ship in the South China Sea, I was flown to St. Albans, where, after I was able to walk, they made me mop the floors in the long hallways. Talk about being pissed off. Not a great time. Also, I never smoked a joint or took any illegal drugs of any kind in college or in Vietnam.
In Vietnam, one afternoon while taking artillery incoming, I had a mortar round land three feet from a direct hit inside my foxhole. While recovering in the Navy Hospital, I sincerely believed that no one in my 1,200 man battalion in Vietnam could have escaped from being wounded if they were in country 13 months for a full tour. After all, I was only there 46 days. Turns out my estimate was close. In the early nineties, I found a website that accessed declassified Marine combat after action reports, for each battalion, for each month between 1965 and 1974. Each report listed the number of Marines killed, and wounded from that battalion. My unit, the 3rd Battalion / 4th Marines / 3rd Marine Division, sustained 88% casualties in the 12 months of 1968: 187 killed, 871 wounded. That is simply astonishing, but to me, not surprising. During the month of January alone in 1968, our battalion had 20% casualties, 46 killed and 184 wounded. I lost four Parris Island fellow Marines, two high school buddies, my company Commander, Captain Prichard, Lt. Burns, our Gunnery Sergeant Mikitis, and a dozen or so fellow India Company Marines. I get emotional when I visit the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington: Panel 35 East has all of the names of my fellow Marines from my unit killed in the same battle that I was wounded.
My psychologists, and psychiatrists at the VA have reassured me that as one gets older, and pressures of raising a family, and establishing a career have subsided, the memories that you have suppressed for decades resurface with a vengeance. Also, for me, the internet has filled in the blanks of memories lost to time. Now, every day is a day wherein those memories are involuntarily resurrected..
Since 2005, every two years in Pensacola, Florida, I have a reunion with a dozen or so fellow Marines from India Company. We sit by the pool, and on the beach, have lots to drink,and rehash common memories. After 50 years, memories are a blur: the reunions are like a bucket of cold water in the face. You meet the people who have exactly the same memories, and it is an undeniable confirmation that you have not lost your mind.
I happen to have a very visible three inch scar across my right forearm. It is hard to ignore that scar. It is right there.
Try as I may, it will not go away after 50 years.
Semper Fi to all my fellow Marines of Vietnam.
Gene is a regular contributor to VetLikeMe