The long and lonely road

By Harry P. Parmer

"Each face will lose his name, and time will not defer, but there will always be the bond between what we are, and where we were. ~ Ned Broderick~

The deck slowly leaned to port as I walked to the galley. We had been at sea for fourteen days since leaving the Marine base at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, but we were now getting close to our final destination. The ship's captain said in his morning announcements that we were less than two days sailing time west of San Diego, California.

As I waited in the chow line to get my ration of reconstituted eggs the galley's speakers came to life with the voice of an excited disc jockey: "K-R-L-A, Pas-a-dena! The Beach Boys, California Girls ... 'Well east coast girls are hip I really dig the clothes they wear'... ."

It was really happening ... after 13 months in Vietnam and another six in Japan, I was finally going home. It was December 1967 and I was returning to the "real world," and if everything went as planned I would be home for Christmas, the first in three years.

Two days later we docked near the 32nd Street Pier in San Diego ... one journey ending, another beginning. As I walked down the gangplank and stepped onto American soil, my excitement was overwhelming ... I could hardly contain myself, but it didn't take long for my joy to fade. As the days passed into months I sensed strangeness in my country --- everything was different --- things had changed, including me. Like many returning from Vietnam I experienced an America that no longer felt like the home we had left behind.

In his book, "The Nightingale's Song," Robert Timberg writes:

For those who served in Vietnam, the war and its aftermath ushered in troubled times. Unlike veterans of other wars, they came home to hostility, contempt, ridicule, at best indifference. Their experiences were at first disorienting, then alienating. As they saw it, they had fought bravely against a resilient and implacable foe, innocently trusting the leadership of the nation that had sent them off to war. Many saw comrades killed and wounded. Thousands came home maimed themselves. For some of these men, no place was safe enough. You couldn't tell by looking at them, probably not even by talking with many of them, but they were the walking wounded of the Vietnam generation. And down the road there would be hell to pay.

The road I traveled after Vietnam was indeed a lonely and troubled one. As the years passed I suppressed my thoughts about the war and the controversy that surrounded it. With little help from anyone, including veterans groups that historically provided assistance to their countrymen returning from war, I succeeded at many things in my life. Oh, I received invitations to join organizations like the VFW and American Legion, but whenever I responded by showing up at their functions I was treated more like a pariah than a fellow Veteran. At one gathering I sadly remember hearing a group of WWII Vets commenting about "cry baby" and "whining" Vietnam Veterans. Hearing this criticism from the men I so admired, the very ones I tried to emulate through my service caused me to reject Veteran's group. Consequently, any invitations I received after that simply went unanswered.

But this all changed one weekend when early in 2005 while visiting a Harley-Davidson dealership, I saw a man standing alone away from the group of people that routinely gathered there on Saturday mornings. I watched him as he casually smoked his cigar ... I could see that his thoughts were elsewhere away from the crowd. He was dressed much like the other Harley riders this day, but his erect posture and soldierly bearing set him apart. As I continued to watch him from a distance I finally recognized him --- his stare, his intense eyes, his confident demeanor. I had met this man many years before when we were Marines together in a far away place. This was my old friend, Bill Mimiaga, also known as "The Monsoon."

I walked over to where Bill was standing and after a short re-acquaintance we were laughing together and remembering experiences and friends. As we continued our reunion he began to tell me about the many activities that he was involved with in Chapter 785 of the Vietnam Veterans of America. His comments about this group were of admiration and praise; especially when describing the other members he knew and worked with. He encouraged me to attend the next meeting of the chapter and to join with him and the other members to further the cause in helping Veterans of all ages. We departed company that day with me saying that I would consider his offer to get involved with VVA 785, but I could see in his eyes that he knew that I was not fully committing.

At first I was skeptical and not interested at all in attending anything relating to Vietnam, let alone joining a Veteran's group. My memory of rejection, although old, was still there. But you have to know The Monsoon to really appreciate his magnanimous personality and how influential and persistent he can be. To me he's one of the "Old Breed" of Marines, a throwback from days gone by --- no nonsense and deadly serious when it counts but also quick and caustic in his sense of humor and friendliness. He also demonstrates a fierce patriotism and love for his country that is deeply engrained in his character. He is the kind of inspirational leader that I remember trusting as a young Marine.

Now in the aftermath of our coincidental meeting I recognized that I was once again lucky to be in his company and was eager to build on our friendship. So, with that motivation I decided to give Chapter 785 a look, and in doing so would set a new course on an old and unfinished journey.

On the day of the VVA 785 meeting, I arrived at the Reserve Center in Tustin thirty-minutes early. I parked on the distant edge of the parking lot and sat alone with my thoughts wondering whether I really wanted to do this. Hell, I said to myself, I was already here, so I may as well see it through. As I entered the main building it didn't take long to hear "The Monsoon's" voice. As he saw me walking alone into the room he immediately yelled my name. As I walked toward him he greeted me with a hug and said, "Welcome home, brother." My heart went to my throat.

Then introductions ... Bruce Pilch, Pete Sandroe, Ken Snow, Mike Cassillas, Frank Pangborn, Kenny Pozirek, Eileen Moore, Lew Elliot, The Bear, Sergeant Major Mike Miller, and many, many others ... all with friendly smiles, firm handshakes, and heart felt sincerity as each took their turn in welcoming me home. The meeting was then called to order and each person took their turn at explaining their participation in numerous past events and in the planning of future activities. The chapter's agenda was indeed ambitious but what really impressed me was the enthusiasm and eagerness everyone demonstrated toward helping other Veterans.

As the evening came to an end and we said our goodbyes the words "Welcome Home" echoed in my mind. How comforting it was to hear these words spoken with such heartfelt sincerity after decades of painful memories and rejection. The men and women of Chapter 785 exhibited a selflessness to me that night through their profound understanding and caring for the recognition of the untold sacrifices that so many gave of themselves in Vietnam.

As the night came to an end, so did a very old journey on a long and lonely road. My brothers and sisters had also walked alone on this road when they returned from Vietnam but now we were together again, side-by-side on a new path of healing and encouragement. Together we walked with pride and honor. I was happy to be with them again after such a long and lonely journey. At last, I knew that I was finally home.

"Never again shall one generation of veterans abandon another."

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