The weeks since their return home quickly turned to months, which grew into years, which have become a lifetime, and still the Vietnam War is there.
Even now, nearly five decades later, these men who went to war young in a tumultuous time cannot escape the haunting memories that lurk in the jungles of their minds, waiting to ambush their everyday lives.
The war never leaves them, these Vietnam veterans say, and they never really leave the war.
“Our war was so bizarre,” said Richard “Doc” Del Valle, a former U.S. Army combat medic who moved to Vero Beach two years ago from New Jersey. “Most of us never talked about it.”
But they’re talking now.
Finally, after suffering for so many years in silence, the surviving members of a special platoon in the U.S. military’s first air assault unit are talking about their service – about the horrors they experienced, the way they were treated upon their return home, and the impact America’s most unpopular war left on their psyches.
Their recollections will be heard in a documentary film slated to be released next year that Del Valle and his band of brothers hope will help other Vietnam vets open up about what they lived through.
“What became readily apparent to us was that this was possibly the first time some of these veterans had ever spoken about the war in the 46 years since they came home,” filmmakers Dave Merlino and Dustin Sweet wrote in their info sheet promoting “Apache Blues: Welcome Home,” a documentary centered on Alpha Troop in the 9th Cavalry Regiment’s 1st Squadron.
Merlino and Sweet, both born after the Vietnam War had ended, said they drove more than 22,000 miles – from Seattle to Vero Beach and back – across the past 18 months to interview 10 members of the combat-tested Apache Troop, which consisted of attack helicopters, scout choppers and infantry.
“This isn’t the Ken Burns documentary,” Del Valle said, referring to “The Vietnam War,” the 10-part, 17-hour documentary series that premiered on PBS in September. “That was a history lesson.
“This goes beyond that,” he added. “This is about what we went through in Vietnam, how we felt about how we were treated when we came home, and how we feel now.”
And unlike what you might’ve seen on the big screen, Del Valle said, “This is the truth.”
Del Valle was the lone medic in a combat platoon that embarked on almost-daily missions to do reconnaissance, rescue other troops under siege in the field and recover the dead and wounded from downed choppers.
“We hunted the enemy, we engaged the enemy and we killed the enemy,” Del Valle said of his 21-man platoon. “We worked with Army Rangers, even in Cambodia. We recovered the remains of air crews. During one six-month stretch, we saw maybe 30 downed birds.
“And we often had to fight our way in and out,” he added. “There were times when we had to rappel in from our choppers, sometimes under fire. I remember going in and our chopper getting shot down while we were taking off.”
His “worst mission,” he said, took the platoon into what it believed was an abandoned North Vietnamese Army training camp.
“We walked in and found out it wasn’t abandoned,” Del Valle said. “They were just sleeping. It turned out to be a fortified battalion, and we ended up in an all-day battle. Fortunately, another unit came in to support us.”
His most troubling discovery, though, was not during any battle.
“We found an NVA weapons cache and, inside, there was a case of blood plasma with a note that read: ‘Donated to the people of North Vietnam from the people of Berkeley, California,’” Del Valle said. “It was just another crazy thing people don’t know about that showed how screwed up that war was.
“In California, when guys came back, they were instructed to not wear their uniforms – because it was too dangerous,” he added. “There were guys who got spit at and were called ‘baby killers’ when they got off the plane at the airport.
“Some guys got beat up, just because they were in uniform.
“A lot of people didn’t differentiate between the war and the warriors, and it was a very unpopular war,” he continued. “So nobody welcomed us back when we came home. Nobody thanked us for our service. There was no appreciation for what we did.
“They treated us like we just got out of prison – like we needed to apologize for going over there,” he added. “It’s pretty easy to understand why we didn’t want to talk about it.”
Some wouldn’t, because they were treated so poorly upon their return from the war. Some couldn’t, because the life-altering effects of PTSD made it too emotionally painful to do so. Others didn’t, because they were consumed by survivor’s guilt.
That began to change in June 2016, when the remaining Apache Troop members gathered at a reunion in Las Vegas, where they met with the filmmakers and felt comfortable enough with them to at least try to share their stories.
Del Valle grew up in Teaneck, N.J., graduated from high school in June 1969 and, the son of a World War II veteran, enlisted in the Army two months later because he assumed he’d eventually be drafted.
He did his basic training at Fort Dix, N.J., and – with the war at full boil – he expected to be an infantryman. Instead, he was assigned to duty as a medic, which took him to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for advanced training.
He was shipped to Vietnam in January 1970 and served there, doing extended duty, until March 1971.
“I was 18 when I went in and 19 when I became a medic,” Del Valle said. “I was 20 1/2 when I got out.”
When he got out, however, he was one of the many veterans who didn’t want to talk about the war. So he didn’t.
But at night, his parents could hear the ghosts of war attacking him as he slept.
“When I came home, my mother and father said I would make noises – talking in my sleep, moaning, sometimes shaking,” Del Valle said. “I don’t remember the dreams.”
One day after returning to his parents’ New Jersey home, though, Del Valle took a job in the floral business, tried to move past Vietnam and get on with his life. And he did.
It wasn’t until 40 years later that Del Valle decided to reach out and reconnect with his Army buddies.
“I made that call in 2010, and our unit has been getting together every two years for a reunion,” he said. “This year, the reunion was in Washington, D.C., and we went to the wall.”
It was through the reunions that the unit’s survivors began to talk about their war experience – but it wasn’t until Merlino and Sweet began their interviews that they found themselves able to open up.
The filmmakers spent three days in Vero Beach, interviewing Del Valle at his Citrus Springs home, then taking their cameras to the Veterans Memorial Island Sanctuary at Riverside Park and the beach.
Del Valle’s wife, Carol, said her husband has told her that the interviews have done more to help him confront the effects of the war on his psyche than the Veterans Administration-connected group therapy sessions he attends in Port St. Lucie.
“The last time we all got together, the guys’ wives and girlfriends saw the difference,” Del Valle’s wife said. “For some of them, it was the first time they talked about the war, even with their wives.
“He was apprehensive at first, and he’s still a little apprehensive,” she added. “But now he realizes he doesn’t need to hide anything anymore – that it’s OK to talk about it.”