When I enlisted in the U.S. Navy in the summer of 2009, I knew that there was only a remote chance that I could face danger, combat or even death. I distinctly remember the pride I felt when returning home after my first eight-month deployment overseas, and the swarms of smiling and cheering faces of family and friends who stood on the pier, eagerly awaiting their loved ones’ return. When I first began to interview retired Sergeant First Class Theodore L. Clever, Sr., I realized that his welcome home from the Vietnam War may have been drastically different. In numerous ways, the Vietnam conflict both divided and united Americans in support of or against the war, the government and even the soldiers who fought, died, or returned home. SFC Clever made the Army his career and recalled both fond and heartbreaking memories from the war that changed his life forever.
SFC Clever was born in 1939, the fifth of seven children, to a coal miner and his wife in Western Pennsylvania. He enlisted in the Army in 1958 because he was “tired of living in poverty” and figured the Army was as good a job as any. He spent much of his career in infantry, and eventually became a mess sergeant after an injury limited his physical abilities to conduct field patrols and ambushes. His pride seeped through his language and demeanor, and he wore a U.S. Army Retired hat for the interview. He recalled many fond memories of his 20-year career, and when asked about his experience in Vietnam, simply replied, “It was hot. Too hot. I ate a lot of SPAM meat and rice and have not touched either since the day I got home.
It is ironic how much of our military experience is similar, even though it spans over decades; both myself and SFC Clever swapped stories about boot camp, “field showers,” and other unique aspects of serving, that can only be understood by those who have experienced them firsthand. While I am also a “war” veteran, I use the term loosely as I have only sailed through a combat zone on a warship with dozens of Tomahawks, missiles, and other varieties of weapons for defense and attack. While listening to SFC Clever, I sat in awe at his description of life in the “field,” his experiences of leading men into combat and watching them get injured or killed, his malice for inexperienced and pompous junior officers, as well as his disdain for those who projected their opposition to the war on soldiers when they returned from combat. Many of SFC Clever’s soldiers were drafted, meaning they did not voluntarily enlist in the Army; he found these soldiers the most difficult to protect in the field, as he felt that many of them were unwilling to accept the realities of war and the fact that many would die without reason at all.
The similarities in our military experience ended when we began to discuss what we did to prepare for our first deployment to a foreign area. I recall frantically checking off my packing list, ensuring that I had every little thing I could possibly need for months away from home. SFC Clever chuckled and said, “I didn’t prepare for shit. I went to a “war school,” and that was a joke. I just boarded a combat unit, C-141, sitting back-to-back on steel pallets with my full gear on for 18 hours. It was miserable, and then we got off the plane to 120 degree heat. That was real misery.”
SFC Clever left for Vietnam in the April of 1966 and returned to the U.S. in 1969, after facing severe heat and humidity, long patrols in the field, C rations and being away from his wife and two young children. As a father of two young children, I could feel his incredible pain at missing so much of their childhood. SFC Clever returned home in 1969 on a “Class A” flight. Among the things he spoke most fondly about that flight, was the chilled towel the stewardess placed on each returning soldier’s forehead before turning off the overhead lights. In giving these minute details, he reveals that finer points stick with you during times of trauma. He also said that there wasn’t any Welcome Home party when Vietnam veterans returned from service to their nation. While he did not personally struggle with drug dependency or mental health issues, many of his friends did, and still do struggle to come to terms with their experiences.
The conflict in Vietnam remains one of the most debated wars in American history. Upon return home, many soldiers had to do deal with both physical and emotional injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal ideation, and other health issues. The reception they received was frequently mixed, due to the political and social debates regarding why the war was fought, and what (if anything) was gained by sending the nation’s youth to Southeast Asia to die in a foreign land. SFC Clever spoke in a careful manner when he described the reception he received from those that knew him and the general sentiment that he felt a little left behind and ignored, when he returned. A decorated combat veteran in the Army, in the civilian world Ted Clever was just a young man returning from a harrowing experience that changed his view of the world and increased his pride in being an American. Today’s veterans are not faced with such harrowing odds; in many ways, the Vietnam War paved the way for veterans’ benefits, education services, and increased awareness about their plight in re-assimilating into the mainstream after experiencing wars in faraway places. Veterans today seem to receive a certain threshold of public empathy for their struggles, which SFC Clever says, was not the case when he returned home from war.
Today, SFC Clever is a double amputee with a host of health issues resulting from exposure to Agent Orange, a toxic substance that was used heavily during the War. He takes about 10 different medications daily and relies on his daughter for living tasks. He could not say for sure where his Bronze Star Medal is, but did say that it did not mean a thing to him, as a medal cannot ever tell the full story of his time spent in Vietnam. SFC Clever is proud of his family, his friends, and his service to this nation. When asked if he regretted going to the war, he emphatically said,
“Absolutely not. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”
written by: Daquan Williams
image by: Bruno Barbey