The Vietnam War came to Foothill Thursday in the form of two veterans with divergent experiences.
Mike Martin and Bill Green of the Viet Nam Veterans of Diablo Valley spoke to history students throughout the entire school day.
“It’s our passion to share stories,” Martin said. “They’re not getting it in the regular classroom. We’re giving living history lessons. It fills those pieces that are not there in the textbooks.”
“I feel these children have to know,” Green added. “They have to know more than what the book says. By hearing a human voice express their feelings, it’s a far better experience than something out of a book.”
To that end, Martin, of Castro Valley, and Green, of Alamo, have shared their stories with more than 51,000 students since 2002. It’s clearly a personal mission for these two retirees and friends whose banter is reminiscent of great Abbott and Costello skits. Martin’s the straight man. Green makes a beeline for the punchline.
“I tried going to college right out of high school (in 1965),” Green said. “I majored in fast cars, pretty girls and beer. I went there to party hearty.”
Green’s comments elicited the requisite laughter before he got serious and told of how he tried to enlist in the Army in 1967, but was rejected due to his asthma. Ironically, he was drafted into the Army a mere two months later.
“Two months after they refused to take me, they drafted me,” he said with a chuckle. “My favorite oxymoron – military intelligence.”
Green was stationed in the coastal town of Chulai, but spent the majority of his time fighting farther inland in the steep mountains and dense forests of Vietnam. He was trained in booby traps and map reading, so he “walked the point,” meaning he was the point man who searched for booby traps to protect the troops behind him.
“I saw every living creature you can imagine walking the point in Vietnam,” Green recalled. “I never saw a (darn) bear in Vietnam. But I can tell you in the summer of 1968, there were still tigers along the Laotian border.”
“I hate monkeys,” he continued. “They’re dirty, nasty little critters. I have no love for monkeys.
As soon as they see you, they’re going to start screaming and yelling and alerting the other monkeys that you’re there. Then the enemy knows you’re there.”
Green also detests snakes. To that end, he befriended George the mongoose who rode on Green’s shoulder and helped kill the pesky and often times venomous snakes.
Green recounted how he grew close to the men in his unit. He developed intense friendships that broke his heart when fellow soldiers were wounded or killed. Green was wounded twice and survived three helicopter crashes. He left Vietnam in 1969 with two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars.
While Green saw intense combat, Martin experienced the war in an entirely different setting. He entered the Navy as an officer after getting his college degree. He was stationed in the coastal town of Danang to support naval activity. As a freight expedite officer, he served as a foreman for unloading supplies and weapons from ships and dispersing those goods to the troops.
Martin also served one full year in Vietnam before returning stateside to complete his military service. He recalls vividly landing at the Los Angeles airport on July 4, 1970.
“We’re yelling, we’re cheering, we’re happy to be home,” he told the students. “I walk out into the concourse and what do I walk into but a war protest. There were probably 200 people dressed in their hippy garb of the day. A young lady comes up to me and starts jawing on me. She proceeds to wrap up her little tirade against me, calls me a baby killer and spits in my face. That’s how I got welcomed home.”
You could hear a pin drop in the multipurpose room as the students absorbed the levity of the story Martin had just shared.
“I had been briefed that this kind of event might occur,” he said. “I did turn the cheek and walk away. During the whole year I was in Vietnam, I never pulled the trigger on anyone, yet she called me a baby killer. Bad assumption.”
“Vets have been fighting in wars to preserve the way we live in our great country,” Martin continued. Freedom of speech is the No. 1 thing. It’s OK to protest, but the people protesting the war back in our day and age started taking things out against the individual warriors instead of protesting against the war.”
Green returned to college after the war, older than most students on campus and certainly more clean-cut. Most students “looked like refugees from the stage play Jesus Christ Superstar,” he joked.
An 18-year-old college student confronted Green and told him he was stupid for going to Vietnam.
“I answered my country’s call, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” Green said.
College didn’t take the second time around, either, Green noted, though he went on to be a successful electrician. He encouraged Foothill students to continue their education beyond high school.
“I realize I’m going nowhere without an education,” Green said about his second shot at college. “You young people listen to those words closely. You continue your education after you leave this institution here. Stay in school. Get educated. It’ll do you wonders in life.”
The vets explained about Agent Orange, the military’s secret weapon that exfoliated trees and killed all living creatures in Vietnam’s dense forests, exposing the enemy. It also exposed American soldiers to dioxins that left many soldiers with serious and deadly health problems many years after they returned from war.
Martin and Green both suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder and receive ongoing counseling.
“Us coming and sharing our stories with you is a form of therapy for us,” Martin told the students. “So on behalf of our Vietnam veterans group and on behalf of Bill and I, we want to thank you.”
Please click here for more info about the Viet Nam Veterans of Diablo Valley.
By Zoe Francis
PHOTO: Mike Martin (left) and Bill Green