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Charlie Company's Journey Home
Andrew Wiest, a Professor of History at the University of Southern Misssissippi, discusses his latest book, Charlie Company's Journey Home, looking at the Forgotten Impact of Vietnam on the Wives of Veterans
Buy A Copy of Charlie Company's Journey Home by Andrew Wiest
Thank you for talking with us Andrew. Your latest book, Charlie Company's Journey Home, focuses on the wives and the families of the men of Charlie Company who served in Vietnam. What motivated you to tell this particular story?
For many years of my intellectual life I have been fascinated by the interaction of combat and humanity. Reading about wars was one thing; visiting battle sites another. Somehow all of those experiences left me still wondering about what it meant to be a young man (at those times the military experience was largely a male purview) in the white heat of combat. How does the violence of war interact with the still-forming personae of teenagers? This curiosity led me to write The Boys of '67 – where oral histories and personal papers helped me to tell the story of a US infantry company during its year in combat in Vietnam – and the lives of the young participants of that war both before and after conflict as well. I really do think that that book succeeded, laying bare the world of combat and innocence. In my research for that book I went to several reunions for the company I studied (Charlie Company, 4th of the 47th Infantry). All around me at those first reunions were wives and children – folks I noticed and interacted with, but folks who, at the time, seemed not to be central to the story I was trying to tell.
It was at a reunion in Washington DC about four years back that this new book just kind of jumped up and hit me in the face. We were there in part to bury one of the beloved platoon leaders of Charlie Company, Jack Benedick. This guy had always been larger than life – losing both legs below the knees in Vietnam and yet remaining in the military and outshining his peers. After retirement he was a central figure in alpine skiing, working with the US Olympic Committee and founding the Paralympic ski team (often medaling himself). This guy was John Wayne plus some, and it was he who we were burying at Arlington that day. After the ceremony I had some time alone with Jack's wife Nancy. She told me that she was so proud of me writing a book about Jack and his comrades in arms, but she also wondered when I was going to write a book about the wives. For everything Jack accomplished – she had been there pushing, motivating, living. It was only then that it really dawned on me that these Vietnam veterans were part of a team – a married team. And that their lives that were so greatly impacted by war had in turn impacted so many others. It was then that I wondered how far the ripples in the pond had spread – how Vietnam had interacted with the wives and families of the soldiers who fought it. I had often heard it said that war is often most difficult on those left behind, and now I wanted to know.
You mention in the book's introduction that quite a few of the women you interviewed asked you why you were interviewing them, and that they seemed "perplexed" at your interest in their stories – why do you think they thought that? How did they react, once you'd explained?
Nearly all of the women I interviewed at first tried to hand me over to their husbands once they found out that I wanted to do interviews for my new book about the Vietnam War. There were phrases like, "my husband is the hero, not me," and "that was my husband’s war; I never even went there." While part of the confusion was, of course, natural – I got the feeling that there was a deeper meaning there. While history has paid at least some attention to the stories of our Vietnam-era soldiers, nobody has ever written much about how wives and families of combatants interact with war. It is often said that war is perhaps most difficult on those who are left behind, but the story hasn’t advanced much further than that single phrase.
Society and history has, thus, long told these women – and all like them – that they have no story to tell. That their wartime experience is beside the point. Once I explained to my interviewees that I wanted to tell their stories – the stories of how they experienced war and how war impacted their lives and the lives of their families – it frankly took a bit of time for the surprise to wear off. Most of the women were convinced that their interviews and stories would be short. It wasn’t until we really got started, and the women got comfortable talking, that it really became clear to them and to me the depth of the stories and their meaning.
Charlie Company's Journey Home follows your book The Boys of '67 which looks at Charlie Company itself in the conflict. Having written about the veterans of Vietnam, how did this affect your approach to writing about the wives and families of those who fought in the conflict?
Having the bedrock knowledge from The Boys of '67 was really key. I knew this unit – its soldiers, its battles, its character – so well. I had already learned much about the wives from the guys; I knew what had happened to the guys when they were in Vietnam; and I knew the price that some had paid in and after war. This knowledge frankly allowed me to ask the right questions of the wives. I knew which had had husbands who had been badly wounded; I knew who had husbands who had not returned; and I knew who had husbands who came back from war different. The Boys of '67 in every way gave birth to this book; I knew from my previous experience how much these wives had meant to their husbands. I knew the stress that Vietnam had placed on marriage and family.
You use quite a few primary resources in this book – what role do those materials play?
The primary sources, especially the extensive oral interviews and the many letter collections, are the bedrock of Charlie Company’s Journey Home. My goal, as in The Boys of ’67, was to allow the women and men to tell their own stories about how war impacted them. My goal was to weave those independent stories together into a readable whole. I didn’t want to intervene as a historian to adjudicate the value of stories or to opine on them – I wanted the stories themselves to be the stars of the project. It is up to the reader to divine value and conclusions from those stories. It was my duty first to provide context and then to let the women and men speak for themselves.
Was there a particular story in the book that stood out to you as an example of the conflict's impact on the families and wives of the men involved?
This is the most difficult question that you have asked. Each of the stories is a tremendously meaningful example in its own way. Some are perhaps more dramatic than others, but all are meaningful. Some couples rather quickly put war behind them and got down to the job of living in a changed world. Others collapsed under the weight of a war remembered. Some wives didn’t get their husbands back at all. Each of the stories represent the intimate fallout of war, and the variety of stories is key. There was no single post-war story – each couple dealt with Vietnam in its own way. And each couple overcame Vietnam in its own way. Every one of these men and women is still dealing with Vietnam, and there were some bad times. But this story is one of resilience and of overcoming obstacles. This is a story of redemption.
This book follows the experience of a number of women married to men in Charlie Company from the start of the war to the end. How did their feelings about war, and their partners, change during the conflict?
As regards feelings about war, both the men and women in the book came to a much deeper understanding of the cost of war. But this by no means meant that they turned against the Vietnam War. As American society became less and less supportive of the war, the wives became more and more angry. They vehemently disagreed with the protestors, because those protestors seemed to be attacking their husbands. And the wives were determined to defend their husbands. How did their feelings change about their husbands? War and societal condemnation brought the couples closer than ever before. The wives had a fierce devotion to their husbands and saw them both as threatened by war and by their return from war. Almost all of the wives in Charlie Company’s Journey Home were able to discern changes almost immediately upon their husbands’ return. War had no doubt changed their husbands, but that difference made the wives more determined than ever to love them and even defend them. War had not been their husbands’ choice – it had been dealt to them by others. The wives were determined that the changes in their husbands wrought by war would not define their lives. And, of course, lurking hidden underneath it all, was that war had also wrought a series of changes within the wives themselves.
The long-term effects of the Vietnam war on veterans is quite well known – is enough focus dedicated to the impact on wives and families who those veterans returned home to?
No. In writing this book I searched all over trying to find books that had dealt with the issue of how war had impacted the lives of the wives of combatants, and I couldn’t find really anything. There are some memoirs and a few works of fiction, but no historian had ever really attempted to wrestle with this question before. There are so many books about how war interacts with the lives of the young soldiers condemned to fight it. But there were no books about how war impacted the many lives that surrounded the veteran. Intrinsically we all know that wives and families are greatly impacted by war, but now is the time to understand what that phrase really means.
What did you want readers to take away from the experience of reading this book?
I hope that readers take away that wives and families of war are, in many ways, combatants in their own right. War turned their young lives upside down and continue to impact their lives on a daily basis half a century later. We now work hard to honor our veterans; it is time to understand and honor the lives of those who love and support our veterans.
Is the growing understanding of conditions like PTSD an important part in healing the wounds of wars like Vietnam?
Very much so. Our greater understanding of PTSD means that our veterans are no longer alone in their struggles with war – which is key to understanding. But what remains forgotten is that PTSD has a domino effect within families. Wives and children are also greatly impacted by PTSD, but there is essentially no support at all for them. The men have the VA and veterans’ groups. The wives and children have nobody outside of their immediate family to help or even to understand. The wives and families are all too often alone.
Having finished the book and published it, has it changed how you feel about the Vietnam War?
My writing has long been driven by a desire more deeply to understand the Vietnam War. Charlie Company’s Journey Home has taken me on a huge step forward in that understanding. Too often we think that wars end with their peace treaties, when in reality wars’ impact lingers for years, perhaps even generations. And, like ripples in a pond, the impact of war spreads far beyond the combatants themselves. Roughly 3 million Americans served in Vietnam – but those lives in turn impacted so many others. Charlie Company’s Journey Home helped me understand just how deep the impact of the Vietnam War really was.
Dr Andrew Wiest is University Distinguished Professor of History and the founding director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & History at the University of Southern Mississippi. Specializing in the study of World War I and Vietnam, his latest book is Charlie Company's Journey Home. Following his other Vietnam title, The Boys of '67, Wiest focuses in on just one company's experience of war and its eventual homecoming, shining a light on the shared experience of combat and both the darkness and resiliency of war's aftermath. Charlie Company's Journey Home: The Forgotten Impact on the Wives of Vietnam Veterans, is available to buy now from the Osprey Publishing website.