58,200. The number of American soldiers who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Those who survived the conflict often came home to a country that did not celebrate their devotion to duty, including one airman who describes being scorned for his service during an increasingly unpopular war.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Roger Emmick lived through it all. Before he was commissioned as a medical officer, he enlisted as a Navy Reserve corpsman in 1965 at just 17 years old. He hoped to finish his two years of service early while the draft was ongoing, but after a year in an operating room technician program, it was time to go.
“About a month before completing the program I got orders to Vietnam and U.S. Naval Station Hospital, Danang, Vietnam,” Emmick said. “1967 to 1968 were two of the worst years of the war for deaths and casualties.”
He spent his first few months in the surgical ward before transferring to the Ortho Clinic. There, he and other medics worked 12-hour shifts almost seven days a week removing shrapnel and dressing changes. “It was a rough 13 months and at age 20, I returned home safe and sound … did not realize it until just a few years ago that I definitely have survivor issues,” Emmick shared.
When his parents picked him up at the airport in Buffalo, New York, Emmick says he was told not to wear his uniform. There were no “Welcome Home” signs or parades. He didn’t even tell anyone he’d been in the war and grew his hair long to fit in.
Emmick grew up in a small country town in rural New York; his father was a World War II veteran, like many of the men in the town. He says that there were only around 300 families and many had boys who were eligible for the draft in the 1960s and 1970s. Army Staff Sgt. Douglas Swanstrom was one of them.
“Doug and I went to the same high school and wrestled on the same team in high school. He was a better wrestler than me,” Emmick said. “We also had competing paper routes, and one year the paper had a new subscription contest and I beat Doug on that one and ended up getting a free weekend trip to New York City with my father, which was quite an outing for someone from our mostly farming community.”
“We were friends, but we were not close until something unfortunate changed that — a war,” Emmick explained.
Not even a month after Emmick made it home safely, Swanstrom, who had just turned 21, was drafted into the Army and on his way to Vietnam. His specialty was Light Weapons Infantry, and he was a part of 173rd Airborne Brigade, 3rd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, B Company.
Two weeks before Swanstrom was supposed to come home in June 1969, he stepped on a landmine. “I remember my mother telling me tearfully that he had been killed,” Emmick said. “It still shocks me that I did not attend his closed-casket funeral, but I had seen enough blood and death for a full year to last me a lifetime.”
More than 153,000 troops were injured in the Vietnam War, and more than 100,000 of them lost limbs. At the time, many Americans viewed World War II as a “good war,” while Vietnam was seen as a disaster. In the 1980s attitudes shifted, and memorials were erected to honor those who gave their lives with little appreciation.
Despite the horrors Emmick experienced, he joined the Air Force in 1977, a decade after Vietnam, and went on to serve until his retirement in 1995. Later years led to a lot of reflection and guilt over the fact that he survived when so many others, like Swanstrom, did not.
Emmick shares that Swanstrom was kind, friendly, and competitive. His future was bright, before it was taken from him, he said.
“It has caused me to look back over my life in evaluation. How have I lived my life and how would that stand up to Doug. He never got to see his family after he left them at the age of 21, never married, never had children or grandchildren. Never got to go to college or see old friends. Never to make more memories,” Emmick shared. “I would have to say there were some ‘bad boys’ amongst those of us in that small town, why Doug? Since my late 20s I have called his name in prayer each and every day along with the rest of my family. He never seems far away from my mind.”Read comments