This story appeared in the March 31, 2018 edition of the Cortland Standard. It is part of a focus piece centered on telling the stories of local Vietnam War veterans.
It was a November day in 1967 when Mike McDermott walked up to the door of his mother’s home. The journey from Vietnam had been long — more than a year in Vietnam, then to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Chicago and Washington, D.C. — before those last few steps up the walk of his mother’s home on Yong Street Cortland. He was finally home.
“She opened the door and slammed it in my face,” McDermott said. He smiles about it now. “She didn’t recognize me I lost so much weight.”
McDermott was a sailor. He wasn’t supposed to be in combat, he said. “I used to say, ‘Where is my girl in every port and my Mediterranean cruises?’” he said.
He was in intelligence in the Navy but was placed into a Marine battalion. “We were in the same boat, so to speak,” he said.
He didn’t see combat all the time. McDermott was in the Navy as counteintelligence specialist, but also carried a rifle. McDermott said he and his group had each other’s sixes, or backs, while serving most of his time in I Corps in the northern part of South Vietnam. “They had your six and you had theirs,” he said.
He was stationed near Phu Bai with a Marine support battalion. His job was to intercept coded radio transmissions from the North Vietnamese and decode them.
He came to be known as Mad Dog. However, McDermott did not want to go into details on how he got the nickname.
Both McDermott’s experiences overseas and returning home affected him. At war he did the job he was told to do, returning home he and his fellow veterans were treated as outcasts.
The day finally came when he got his orders to return to the states. Before stepping off the plane on Treasure Island, just off of San Fransico, Mc- Dermott was told by another serviceman who was processing returning veterans not to wear his battle dress uniform once he was off the plane because of people’s reactions to the veterans stateside.
From San Fransico, McDermott traveled to Las Vegas with a pocket full of money. He stayed one night in a hotel suite, during which he ordered room service. “All I wanted was a hot dog,” he said. “I ordered two hot dogs and a six pack of Bud Light.”
From Vegas, McDermott flew to Chicago and then to D.C. and then home.
Following his visit to his mother, McDermott, along with his brother, went to mail a letter at the post office on Main Street in Cortland. Protesters were outside. “They called me a baby killer,” McDermott said. “All kinds of names.”
He wanted to punch the protesters, but he walked away, McDermott said. “Then, just then, the fire alarm went off,” he said. “The noon whistle.” It sounded like a mortar attack signal. Training kicked in. He dove to the sidewalk and got up next to the curb.
“My brother looked at me like, what the hell,” McDermott said. “I was really embarrassed.”
McDermott went on with life; he didn’t talk about the war. But he brought it with him. He couldn’t enter a place like a bar without facing the door. “I didn’t want anybody behind me,” he said. “It was habit, I guess.”
He slept on the floor for days because he wasn’t used to a bed. He was angry, willing to fight at the drop of a hat. There were the nightmares, and the lingering dislike of Asians.
Counseling helped him get past those issues. “It took a long time to get over it,” he said.
It wasn’t until around 10 years ago he was able to talk about the war. “When you’re talking to a Vietnam vet, yeah that’s different,” he said.
He feels lucky to have made it home. He has children now, and grandchildren. He has five grandchildren — two 5-year-olds; one 4-year-old; an 18-month-old; and a 2-month-old — and one on the way.
Occasionally, he would talk to his son about his experience, but never the whole story, McDermott said. While he never really talked about his experience at war, McDermott told his son about Gunny.
His thoughts drifted back frequently to Gunny, a friend who was wounded and evacuated by chopper.
McDermott thought he’d never see him again.
Forty-four years later, in 2011, while looking over a website made to the 1st Radio Battalion he saw a photo, emailed the webmaster, and eventually received a note:
“Mad Dog, still alive. Gunny.”