Those of us who lived through the Vietnam War era were changed by the experience even if we were never part of the actual fighting in that war ravished country. This was the war that largely changed the way Americans look at their government and how much, or how little, they trust it to tell them the truth. The Vietnam War, in fact, divided the country so deeply that fifty years later the two sides still have not completely reconciled their differences.
Perry Ulander managed to come out Vietnam in one piece, and in Walking Point: From the Ashes of the Vietnam War, he tells us how he did it. The memoir begins with the stunned nineteen-year-old Ulander reading a letter from his Uncle Sam directing him to report to Chicago for his pre-induction physical. It ends more than a year later when a very different Perry Ulander, having just completed a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, is equally stunned to so suddenly find himself back on U.S. soil.
Perhaps Ulander was more naïve than the average male college student of his day, but he seems to have been dangerously uninformed about “this small war” and how it could easily reach out and suck him right into the middle of it. So, figuring that it “should have been nearly over any day,” he decides to drop out of college with two years of structural engineering study under his belt so that he can “get some on-the-job experience.” The ever-vigilant U.S. government, of course, has other plans for men like young Ulander. Ulander as it turns out, is smart enough to see through much of the gung-ho intimidation and brainwashing thrown at him during basic training, and almost as soon as he sets foot in Vietnam he figures out something else: the war he was trained to fight bears little resemblance to the one he is now looking at with his own eyes.
The men around him, some of them already with more than one tour of duty behind them, consider the army’s “lifers” to be more of a threat to their well being than the North Vietnamese soldiers they are there to fight. Experienced soldiers immediately begin to mentor the replacement soldiers joining their ranks, a practice that serves both the experienced and the newbies well. Almost everyone Ulander sees is out of uniform in one way or another: they wear peace symbols, non-regulation sunglasses, scarves and anti-military decorations on their uniforms and helmets. For emotional support and stress release they look to each other – and to the easily and cheaply obtained marijuana that is always nearby. Soldiers who do not smoke marijuana are the exception in Ulander’s unit rather than the rule.
Walking Point is filled with memorable stories and real life characters (known only by nicknames) from a war that America would prefer to forget because of how those who survived it were ignored and mistreated when they came home. Thankfully, old soldiers like Perry Ulander are around to keep that from happening. It is way past time that America’s Vietnam veterans are paid the respect that they deserve for fighting the ill-conceived war they were handed by their elders. Walking Point should be taught in every high school in America.