Young featured in book highlighting “Charlie company”

Published 1:00 pm Friday, September 21, 2012

An award-winning military historian at the University of Southern Mississippi, Dr. Andrew Wiest, has published a new book about the war in Vietnam that follows the men of Charlie Company in 1967. One of the main characters is John Young, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Picayune.

Young, 67, recalls when he, motivated by patriotic feelings inspired by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inaugural address, dropped out of classes at the University of Minnesota and in May, 1966, walked into an Army recruiter’s office in Saint Paul, Minn.

As told in Wiest’s new book, “The Boys of ’67, Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam,” released just this month, Young “just wanted to go,” based on his patriotic emotions inspired by JFK. He was also looking for adventure.

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Young told the recruiter, “I want to enlist in the Army.”

Replied the recruiter, “I can do that for you.”

Young then made it clear that he wanted to be in the infantry.

“I can do that for you, too,” said the obliging sergeant.

Young then told the recruiter that he did not want a “cushy job” but wanted to go to Vietnam and fight.

Replied the sergeant, “Son, I guarantee you that I can do that for you.”

It was only a short while before Young found himself leading Charlie Company on short and long-range patrols and engaging the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army in sharp fire fights and major engagements that gradually whittled away members of his unit, people with whom he was very close.

Young did not realize it at the time, but the combat and the war was changing him internally. He saw his friends die and his unit was day-after-day thrust into mortal combat.

The pressure and demands gradually wore him down, until he began doubting his mission and cause, and wondering if he himself would make it back to the States. “Is this war really worth it?” he asked himself as he saw his friends fall, mortally wounded. Wiest, a history professor at USM, describes Young in the book as at one point becoming totally disillusioned with the war and quotes him in a letter home to his family, “My radioman died of the head wound he got on the 29th of July (he was shot by a sniper as I stood about 18 inches from him). Another friend of mine lost one leg below the knee to a booby trap, and one of my men, who is from Minneapolis, lost an eye.

“Everytime one of our men gets hurt or killed, I wonder a little more whether or not this country is worth it. Being in the infantry is the best way to become a pacifist,” he wrote his mom and dad.

“I suppose that if I were not so close, so personally involved in the war, I would have no doubts about it all; but from where I stand the view is a little different. Men I have lived with for a year and a half are not easy to lose. It is difficult to keep working when a friend dies,” he wrote.

He closed, “I’ve been  on the line since 18 January, and I’ve seen enough…I guess I’ve never told you, but being a combat leader is enough to drive anybody crazy. The responsibility, the pressure, and the necessity to lead men, to make them get up and move when you yourself have trouble making your legs move because there are bullets flying all around you…”

Young was a member of Charlie Company, which was a part of the 9th Infantry Division that was reformed at Fort Riley, Kansas, beginning in 1966. As a member of a newly formed, reactivated division, the men brought in trained together and were deployed together and formed a special bond as a band of brothers, that would impact them more as they deployed in combat zones in Vietnam because the men were closer to one another. Losses devastated the units because the soldiers were so close. Young’s unit served mostly along and on the rivers of the Mekong Delta below Saigon.

Young finished his Vietnam service and returned to the States. But he couldn’t fit in. When he left, everyone was supporting the war effort; when he returned the soldiers in some elements of the press were being portrayed as “baby killers.”

But Young would have a tough time readjusting to civilian society as his life spiraled out of control, and he couldn’t understand it because he was a warrior who had always been in control.

After two failed marriages and a descent into alcoholism, Young decided to end it, after his wife left him, taking his only son with her. She told him she could not live with him anymore and put up with his drinking. He couldn’t sleep and he drank to sleep and forget.

He was in the Army, stationed in Oklahoma at the time, and he got into his car with his gun and ammo and began driving west toward California. He planned to stop in some secluded place and end it. The next thing he knew he was at the end of the road, facing the Pacific Ocean. “It figures,” he told himself, “I am even a failure at suicide.” He was at his lowest point, writes Wiest.

His mom and dad, who had moved to Picayune (his dad was a native of Mississippi), were worried about him, finally made contact with him and brought him back to Picayune, where he began a slow rehabilitation process. An Army doctor diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a diagnosis that was new and was not even accepted then by the Veterans Administration. Later it was, and he called the VA.

He met with Dr. Karen Thompson at the New Orleans VA and she leaned over and looked into his weary eyes, and said, “Tell me about Vietnam.”

“It was the first time,” says Young, “that somebody had connected to me and wanted to know what really happened. I had kept everything inside and here for the first time was someone who cared and wanted to know. It all flooded out like a river.”

Dr. Leslie Root also helped, and put Young in touch with Wiest at Southern where Young later lectured to classes on Vietnam, and gave a first-person account. Young found out the more he talked about it, the better he felt. Wiest also incorporated Young’s part in Charlie Company as a main portion in his new book.

Young also found out that PTSD was a clinical name for what other generations called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” and that he was sick, mentally, and didn’t know it, or know how to treat it.

Young settled down in Picayune and sold cars for a living and took up photography as a hobby. He had majored in journalism in college.

Today he is retired and still lives in Picayune. And he tries not to dwell on the war that was 45 years ago.

“I feel like Col. Winters in ‘Band of Brothers.’ I wasn’t a war hero, but I served with a bunch of heroes,” says Young.

Says Wiest, “John, and the people of his war, probably had the toughest job we ever gave anyone. We sent them off to fight a war that by 1968 we didn’t intend to win. These guys were fighting for a nation that turned against them and that’s a tough job.”

Wiest added, “John was the All-American boy. He wasn’t drafted; he volunteered. When he was over there, he wanted to keep young Americans alive and did so at great mental and physical cost to himself. There is no better definition of hero than that.”

Wiest’s book can be obtained on