This post was submitted before the civil unrest that has plagued our nation since events in Minneapolis. Chances are these words carry even more meaning now. –Thonie
By Mikey, Retired LAPD
We retirees are awed by you, you who are currently walking point. Call it whatever you want, “the front line,” “the jagged edge,” “the thin blue line,” you are keeping it together. Most of us are of the Vietnam era and a lot of us are Vietnam Veterans, mixed with some post WWII and Korean Veterans as well. We had our moments of course: floods, earthquakes, fires, riots, 911 but nothing like this. Today we are hearing the phrase, “the new normal.”
In our day, just like you, street coppers lived “the new normal” every time we hit the streets. It could have been a new MO of a certain crime, a new drug, a new gang, “extra patrol this because of that,” “don’t go there because this”, you name it—our day was always a new normal.
No, you didn’t join up for this yet here it is and here you all are, walking point. People are scared, angry, tired, pretty much running the full course of emotions and you have to deal with them every time you hit the streets. Knowing this, you still do it. We know what brings you back, because it brought us back, everyday, it’s your dedication to one another. Yes, “TO PROTECT AND SERVE” is the LAPD’s motto but the respect, dedication and love for one another has always driven us to go that extra distance to care for your brothers and sisters in blue. We, the gray and bald heads, wrinkled faces, stooped shoulders retirees admire and appreciate what you do everyday. It was our honor, as it is yours. Our time has passed, and we did the best we could. Now it’s up to you. God keep you safe from harm. God keep you vigilant and God, please see these warriors return safely to their homes when their shifts are complete.
The words, address the LAPD copper but apply to all of the first responders, police, fire, medical, transportation, food services, janitorial, to all of those essential to keeping the country going…………you know who you are.
So, there I was a police sergeant at the LAPD Wilshire Division on the roof looking north toward Hollywood and crying my eyes out! I was mad, sad, and upset. The real kicker was that I had absolutely no control of the situation. I was in full uniform, the supervisor of 40 some field officers possessing the powers granted to a sworn sergeant of police of the LAPD and yet there I was on the roof of the station, crying!
It was 1992 and four F-16’s were swooping down over a Gulf I parade which was in progress down Hollywood Boulevard. Oh, and get this, they were allowing Westmoreland and Viet Nam vets to march in the parade, at the rear, but nonetheless in their parade.
God, I was beside myself. Do I have to explain to you that feeling? The feeling started when the Flying Tiger 707 bringing me back to the world had to make an emergency landing at Seattle-Tacoma Airport because of a blown main gear tire whose pieces were picked up on the runway back at Yakota AFB, Japan. Well, we landed, and no one got killed so off we went to a “no steak” dinner (supposedly you got a steak dinner at Mc Cord AFB or Fort Lewis, I can’t remember who told us that one) homecoming.
Because of the diversion to Seattle-Tacoma we would be starting our 30-day leave 2 hours earlier. Before we could initiate the task of getting a military stand-by flight home, we found ourselves in a “debriefing” room with an Army guy telling us to keep a “low profile.” Well I understood that! Getting shot at a few times at the beach gate on Phan Rang’s north east perimeter made a believer of filling those sand bags to the max and then “low profiling” behind the bulging blessed things!
But I digress here. He went on to tell us how unpopular we were in this part of the world (home?) and how we should not display any ribbons or acknowledge the fact that we had been in the NAM. That was my welcome home from war, hooray for our side!
I got a ride on a United 727 to Los Angeles and found myself at a window seat separated from a middle-aged female passenger by the empty middle seat. After about 20 minutes in the air, I ordered a scotch and soda. I turned 21 in the NAM but got asked for ID anyway. Not having eaten for a while the go juice hit me like it was meant to. The lady was talking to the stewardess, but my mind was on seeing my family at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), so I paid no attention. The stewardess got my attention when she plunked another plastic cup of go juice on my tray. Before I could say anything, she nodded toward my air companion and left. The woman asked if I was coming back from the war but before I could answer her, I saw the sand bags going up in the middle seat. Heck, she looked innocent enough and there was something in her eyes that said, “Please answer the question,” so I told her, “Yes.” She lifted her glass of red something and asked that I join her in toasting those who were not coming back.
My mind raced back to the night at LAX when I left for the NAM. An Army guy walked off the plane as we were boarding the TWA fight to Seattle and told an older man and a teenage girl, “I’m not going.” I still don’t know why, but the image played in my head for a couple of seconds.
I did not know what to say to my flight companion, so I just took a long drink from the cup. She said, “thank you” and until we said, “good bye” at LAX, we did not speak again.
A substantial number of my family met me as I walked off the plane and they had a big sign that read, “WELCOME HOME SERGEANT DIAZ.” Holy smokes, didn’t they know that we were deep in Indian country and they were blowing my cover? Throw them some sand bags!
Little did they know that 22 years later THAT sign, my family, the Air Force, the Marine Corps Reserve and two police departments would positively acknowledge my service in the NAM. But for now, I was being assigned to the 63rd Military Airlift Wing, SPS, at Norton AFB, in San Bernardino, California. I was home, but not the same home I had left. The feeling started to run deep the more I ventured around in “the world.”
I went to an apartment complex in the city of Upland, about 22 miles west of Norton, to apply for an apartment. I found myself sitting next to a guy with short hair too. He looked military, so I figured I was going to have competition for the one available apartment. He asked if I was military and I said, “Air Force.” He asked if I had returned from the war and not seeing any sand bags, I told him that I had.
I asked him, and he said, “Navy, back from North Korea.” I was talking to a U.S.S. Pueblo guy, didn’t know which one and didn’t know if he was telling me the truth. I never found out, but I just put the application back on the manager’s desk and humbly left.
The next apartment manager was not a nice person. He didn’t like the military in any form and said so. Vietnam veterans were out of control, drug-addicted, spring loaded and on short fuses. He said other things, but this is what I related to my father, a WW II veteran who served in the Pacific.
The, “WELCOME HOME FROM THE GREATEST WAR” veteran who was proud to have served, and still removed the manufacture tags from anything “made in Japan.” He said what I began to truly believe: “Just because you served in Viet Nam doesn’t mean life or anyone owes you a living.”
I can talk about his parenting ways, but I am after all, preaching to the choir, the children of depression era kids, you know. So, I shut up like all the other guys at Norton and did not talk about the NAM to anyone but them. In November 1971, three months after my discharge, I joined the Ontario Police Department. I got “extra points” for being a veteran and Hispanic and got hired with six other guys, beating out 350+ applicants. Ain’t bragging, it’s just part of my story.
In 1973, I was eyeballing the LAPD. I took the tests, got the same “extra points” and joined the “Marine Corps” of Law Enforcement. About 90% of my class were NAM vets and we quietly talked about the war. No one cried telling stories of the bad stuff, we were young. The same stories today are probably slightly distorted because of the distance from the events and we do cry, just take a look at Randy Cunningham, the first Navy Ace of the war. When he was young and telling his stories, he used his hands like aviators do and he displayed a lot of the John Wayne “do or die” syndrome. Today, the same stories bring tears to the man’s eyes.
In 1975, I was assigned to Central Division (downtown) and was walking a foot beat with a classmate of mine. Steve was an ex-Army LRRP (Long Range Recon Patrol) and was as tough as they come. We got to interact with the first Vietnamese refugees who had been displaced from the south and sent here. It was very interesting.
One incident that stands out in my mind was a Vietnamese gentleman who approached us and said that he had been duped by a store advertising an item, but had been given another item of lesser value, boxed in the container that showed the advertised item. All was going well until the “victim” told us that he was not to be treated this way because he was a “high classed” Vietnamese. Steve picked the guy up by his shirt and the guy grabbed Steve’s wrist to hang on for the ride up to eye level. I won’t repeat what Steve told him, but what would you have said? Did I mention that Steve was tough? That was the last time that I can remember the NAM being “up front” in my mind. Like most of us NAM vets, I put it in a closet somewhere; remember what my dad had said?
Fast forward to1991. So, now Gulf I commanders are talking, “no Vietnam this” and “no Vietnam that,” remember? They actually wanted to win this one. Well, they did. They were allowed to and there was no Johnson or McNamara to hand them a bite of the shit sandwich. Then they came home (welcomed) in uniform, with ribbons, folks waving at them (with all their fingers), no sand bags and now they get a parade—with “us” allowed to march in the back. Remember the start of my story?
Heck if I was going to march behind as an “after thought.” If we, Nam vets, have a legacy, we showed them how NOT to fight a war and how NOT to treat returning service veterans. The antiwar protestors learned something too. Forward to the Gulf II, 2002. I am now assigned to Hollywood Division where we get our share of protests, marches and the like. So, I am working a major protest as the Adjutant to the Divisional Commanding Officer and we can pretty much go where we want. We were at the corner of Hollywood and Highland where I see a female with gray hair, maybe my age holding up a protest sign and taking pictures. She was dressed, almost like she must have looked in the sixties as a protester. Now, I am a 55-year-old “Sergeant Pig.” She doesn’t say that, she “looks that.” I figure what the heck and say the following, “You know, this is quite unique to me.”
She asked, “What is?”
So, I told her where I was when this sort of thing was going on in the sixties. (By the way, I missed the sixties, graduated high school in 1966 and joined the USAF in 1967, do the math.) She said, and I quote her because the words went right through me, vest and all, “We did that wrong back then. We attacked you guys, not the war like we should have.”
Now, let me get this straight—a generation of military men and women were sacrificed by the government and the folks back home took it out on them. Remember people yelling, “baby killers,” and the jerk apartment manager?
But today, they are attacking the war/government and leaving the troops alone. I told you about our legacy and the protestors learning something. But who paid the price? Need I say? We are an exclusive club of brothers and sisters in arms. Let’s not forget those beautiful selfless nurses. I recently heard on a talk show where serving in the military was the subject. Some guy called in and started lamenting the fact that going to Canada got him out of the military but “someone had to take my place,” during the NAM war and that someone might have gotten killed. WELL HELLO!!
I’ll finish with this; I have been in uniform since I was 19. I have carried a weapon every day of my adult working life—I will be 57 this year. I am in the twilight of my Law Enforcement career with retirement just three years away. When several incidents on the LAPD caused us to go through periods of really bad press, guys would ask me, “You don’t have to be here. Are you going to retire?”
My response was, “When I left Viet Nam, we were winning, and we lost that one. I ain’t leaving here until we are winning again.” My late aunt, God rest her soul, once asked me, “You are always looking for trouble or something wrong, that is your job, but what will you do when it is over, if you survive?” I/we are survivors. We are brothers, sons, fathers and in my opinion, are the second greatest generation who took up arms, WWII veterans being the greatest.
We will never have full closure; we will never get our homecoming parade and not everyone will agree why we went there in the first place. We meet on the street and nodded, “welcome home” to each other. We see a NAM decal on the back of a guy’s car and if he looks old enough, we give each other the thumbs up.
Some of us have gone back to the NAM for various reasons. Over 58,000 never made it home physically, some of us never made it home mentally. How will our NAM experiences come back to us in our minds and hearts now that we about to retire and will have the time to really think this through? When I hear a NAM veteran say he’s been back 30-something years, what is he really saying? What did he leave there? What is missing? Most veterans of other wars don’t make statements like that, why?
I can still smell the country, the war. I can dream it in color and “don’t tell me no.”
When “Big red” (the sun) hits me just right, I am at the beach gate or main gate with the Korean MPs. I can go back there anytime I want to. I can’t remember where the car keys are or why I left the Watch Commander’s office and went to the front desk, but I remember the NAM and the 20-year-old kid who went there. Do I feel sorry for him, admire him, mourn him or try and comfort him? I’ll know soon enough because that Army briefer and his words, “DON’T MEAN A THING” now. And I don’t give a damn about those SAND BAGS.
When we who served in the NAM are gone, what will generations of military and civilians say about us?
Like a movie that was haphazardly pieced together, so went the few conscious periods that I can recall of what was undoubtedly the worst night of my life, Saturday, May 24, 1986.
I had been investigating traffic accidents since 1978 and I was usually the one trying to explain what happened. Finding myself immobilized on a back board, in a hospital emergency room without knowing how I got there was definitely a new experience. Those familiar sounding engine noises I had heard? One was the generator powering the halogen lights of the Fire Department’s rescue truck while the other was the Port-a-Power for the Jaws of Life. The periods of darkness, confusion and memory loss I was experiencing was the result of a serious concussion that I had sustained, among many other injuries. My short term memory was thrown into chaos. That I had just been in an accident was just not registering in my brain. In fact, I was having trouble remembering one moment from the next. Losing my memory was among one of the most frustrating aspects of this grand adventure into which I had been so unceremoniously thrust.
As I lay there on that backboard, a jumble of thoughts flooded my mind, nearly all of them unbidden. Coupled with the building pain and the inability to recall events, I was feeling a supreme sense of confusion. While I can’t point to an exact moment of sudden clarity that triggered an epiphany, it was right around this time that I began to feel a sureness of thought. It is difficult to describe other than to say I knew that I was going to be okay and the more I focused on that thought the more certain of it I became.
Many weeks later, I had come to realize that without conscious effort I had adopted an attitude of survival in those crucial early moments of lucidity. I recalled some of the survival training I had received in the Army; the stories about how some soldiers would die from seemingly minor wounds because that is what they believed was going to be the outcome while others would survive grievous wounds due in large part to the belief that it was not their time to die.
I remembered more recent instruction I had received when I attended a “Street Survival” seminar for Police Officers. There, the instructors talked about developing a mental attitude of survival. Research was showing that, as with soldiers, those officers that had the expectation that they would survive any deadly encounter more often than not, did exactly that. Despite serious wounds or injuries or seemingly overwhelming odds, many officers lived in large part because of the conviction they held as to the certainty of their survival. Conversely, we heard tales of officers giving up in physical encounters or when shot or seriously injured because that was their expectation. I recalled someone at that seminar, perhaps it wasn’t even one of the instructors, going so far as to suggest that before every shift, as we looked into the mirror to check our appearance before going on patrol, as most of us invariably do, we take the time to remind ourselves that no matter what may befall us, we will persevere and survive. How one cultivates this can vary greatly; from religious tenets to personal convictions to something akin to the “Vulcan” logic of Star Trek.
Since attending that seminar I had been practicing my own version, every day before briefing. As I lay there trying to cope with the worst pain I had ever experienced, confused about what actually happened to me, I knew with a profound certainty that I would be okay. It didn’t take away the pain, both physical and mental; I faced months of healing and additional surgeries. Still, I knew that through whatever travails I encountered as a result of this collision, I would come out just fine.
Physical Conditioning for Survival
However, the mind alone cannot bring a person through such an encounter; the body must be equally prepared and conditioned. In the military, physical conditioning is a daily part of life. The more hazardous the mission, the more grueling the physical preparation for it. As a parachute trained Infantry Officer, I had to undergo some of the more rigorous physical conditioning in the Army and was tested regularly to ensure I was meeting physical fitness standards. Long distance running, calisthenics and strength conditioning were second nature by the time I left the military for civilian law enforcement. If possible, though not at the same level of intensity as I had done in the Army, I still maintained a daily physical fitness routine. My doctors later told me that my physical conditioning played a significant role in mitigating my injuries and in aiding my recovery.
Once you have made it through and survived a critical incident, as it is euphemistically called, what then? Dealing with the physical aftermath is a pretty straight forward, often arduous and occasionally painful process. Less known back then were what skillsets were needed to cope with the psychological trauma from not only the accident itself, but from the numerous surgeries, as well as grueling and very painful physical therapy. There are anxieties about family; have I worried them too much, have I let them down, how are they coping? There is a sense of isolation from your peers, which often grows in proportion to the time you are away from the job. The treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was essentially in its infancy back then. Much of what was known came from the study of Viet Nam veterans and as is frequently the case when it comes to the mind, the so-called experts didn’t always get it right often operating from false assumptions. Unfortunately, it would take three more wars to hone the treatment of PTSD. However, the subject of PTSD and how I coped is another story for perhaps another time.
Soldiers will often say that they are fighting less for any particular cause than they are for their companions alongside them. Truth be told though, when considering the mortal danger they have to face, the thought that keeps them from being paralyzed with fear is that it will be someone else, one of those same companions, that will get hit and not themselves. Police officers face a more personal, one-on-one type of threat. The good ones, the survivors, are nearly always taking time to imagine and plan reactions to those threats should they ever happen. Doing so builds confidence in their ability to persevere and ultimately overcome a critical incident.
I used to be asked by nearly every civilian ride-a-long I took out, “Aren’t you afraid of getting shot?” My response had always been, “Not really. I’m more afraid of some drunk driver at 2:30 in the morning, crossing the center line and hitting my car head-on.” Though the driver that hit me hadn’t been drinking, I really wasn’t surprised about having been in a head-on collision because I had seriously considered such a scenario. In a sense, that was part of my survival strategy. As is the case with critical encounters, I was not the only one affected by it and my story crosses paths with those of many other people. In respecting their privacy, those tales are theirs to tell or keep to themselves.
Twenty-six years later, I am still astonished to come into contact with someone who was somehow involved, in one way or another, in the events of that night. Their accounts are often poignant and heartwarming. Seldom considered is how the aftermath of an incident such as this ripples out like the surface of a pond after a stone drops into it, enveloping many more than just the principal people. As Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons sang in back 1976, “Oh, what a night”.
Indeed it was.
Gerry was born in Providence, Rhode Island but raised in Southern California.
Upon graduating from California State University, Los Angeles, Gerry enlisted in
the Army and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. After leaving active duty
in 1979, he worked for Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. From 1980 until his retirement
in 1996, he was a patrol officer, traffic officer, and a trainer at Petaluma Police Department.
Gerry is married, has a daughter and lives in Sonoma County, California.