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.
Twenty-year-old William “Ted” Silvers stepped off the plane, gasped at the blistering heat of Vietnam and saw a hippie-looking guy playing with beads on a string.
It was August 1968, and Silvers didn’t realize until later that the hippie was probably counting troops to provide intelligence for the Viet Cong.
A month later, after seeing blood spurting from a soldier’s carotid artery, applying tourniquets to countless wounds and splinting limbs to save for later amputation, Silvers wondered just what he had gotten himself into.
He was a Navy corpsman attached to the 3rd Marine Division, which spent the latter part of 1968 near Da Nang, Quang Tri and Thua Thien — hilly country with deep, narrow valleys in the narrow neck of Vietnam between Laos and the South China Sea.
He mostly battled the North Vietnamese Army, sometimes in combat — participating in ambushes and tending to the wounded and dying — sometimes stationed at a base where he regularly cared for sick troops.
He can talk about it now: where he served, with which units.
For years, he couldn’t. It was a defense mechanism, he admits now.
He buried the memories, moved on with his life and decided not to be a “career veteran.” He threw himself into a lucrative career as a nurse anesthetist.
Only a few months ago did Silvers decide to get active with veterans organizations or wear clothes that bear any sign of his service.
“I did not want to be defined by that,” he said.
Silvers was stationed between Highway 9 and the Demilitarized Zone, an area extending roughly from Laos to the coast, on the former border between South and North Vietnam.
While he’s proud of his service, Silvers realized the moment he got to Vietnam that the American military wasn’t “in it to win it,” which infuriates the 70-year-old veteran to this day.
He recalls a three-day spate of fighting that reduced two companies of soldiers to the size of one — all, as he says, for nothing.
“What did we do? What did we accomplish?” he asked. “I don’t see how we accomplished a damn thing.”
Silvers said he “bought into” then-President John F. Kennedy’s motto, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” and volunteered as a patriotic duty.
The patriotism hasn’t waned. He went on to later serve in Desert Storm.
However, he says, Vietnam was different. The government never let on that it had no real plan for victory.
“We were trying to kill more of them than they were of us, that’s no way to fight a war,” he said.
The Vietnamese sent soldiers into combat simply to keep up the fight, he said. Eventually the Americans began talking of an “exit strategy,” a term Silvers can’t stand.
“If you’re in a war you ought to be in it to win it. If not, get out.”
Instead, in Vietnam, says Silvers, “over 58,000 guys lost their lives for nothing, in a war we never should have been in.”
The war didn’t change him much, he said. Maybe he’s a little angrier.
Still, Silvers considers himself lucky. He came home relatively unscathed.
A minor shrapnel wound on his hand got him the Purple Heart, a medal for which he did not even want to be considered but allowed it because he was told “It’s the only thanks you’ll ever get.”
It was, for years, until public sentiment turned away from hostility toward Vietnam veterans.
And he has enjoyed a successful career and another 50 years of life, something many of his fellow soldiers never got to do.
“I’ve gotten to live 50 more years and they did not,” Silvers said. “And that breaks my heart.”