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Vietnam vet tells of odd rules of war

| Saturday, Nov. 10, 2007

Richard "Tank" Boarts of Manor Township had a simple philosophy while stationed at Long Bhin, near Saigon, Vietnam, "If I'm under fire I'm going to return fire." The idea sounds logical enough, however, military police at Long Bhin could get into deep trouble for returning fire without first getting "permission."

"When I was in Korea we had troubles with what we called 'slickey boys,' people who would sneak onto a base and steal anything they could they thought was of value," Boarts said. "Mostly they stole fuel, gasoline or whatever. It was the same in Vietnam. Some Vietnamese would come onto the base and steal whatever they could. The majority were unarmed and would simply try to run away if we spotted them. Sometimes we'd catch them, sometimes not. But once in a while someone would get onto the base and they were armed. They would shoot you if you tried to stop them.

"As military police we were responsible for base security. This wasn't like being in a hot combat zone. Officially, we had to radio in to get permission to return fire if we were fired on. Some of us thought that was not a good idea and we returned fire as soon as any intruder would fire at us.

"If you had a CO (Commanding Officer) who was 'in country' for a while and knew what was going on you were OK. But if you had some young second lieutenant fresh out of officer's training school you might be in trouble. Some of them just wanted to make a name for themselves by 'punishing' you. They were the worst. But after a while, some of them wised up real quick. When you did shoot at someone stealing you had a lot of paper work to do."

Boarts spent 16 months in Vietnam. He said the country took some "getting used to."

"You had to get used to the heat and humidity. There was lots of rain, almost constant thunderstorms. There were lots of scorpions and other bugs, and snakes too. Some of the natives could make good food out of the snakes. They ate other things too, but most people today wouldn't like to think about that. I guess when you're out in the bush some things aren't that bad."

Boarts said the best thing about his time in Vietnam was the camaraderie. He said there was a special bond among the men you served with.

"We had a special bond that most people who have never been in Vietnam, or places like Korea, or Iraq, can't understand. I guess we thought of ourselves differently."

There also was time to get away from the routine. Soldiers serving in Vietnam could take an "R and R" (rest and relaxation) leave and go to places such as Australia or New Zealand. However, he said a few soldiers sold their "R and R" time and chose to stay in Vietnam for their entire tour of duty.

While Boarts enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow soldiers in Vietnam, returning home after his tour was a shock.

"As I said, we were all pretty well bonded," he said. "For some reason we thought that because we were united by our common cause, everyone back in the states loved us and was waiting to welcome us back. When we arrived in Oakland (California) we had some people waiting to 'welcome' us, but not in the way we expected. We were jeered, cursed, called 'baby killers,' and even spit on. That was a big shock to say the least.

"I know that people have the right to protest. Vietnam was probably a mistake politically and militarily speaking. But that's no reason to treat returning troops the way we were treated. Some Iraq war troops have experienced the same treatment. This country has been so blessed since its inception.

"Now, if things aren't going the way people expect them to they just don't know how to act. People have the right to protest, even say what they want, but our flag must never be desecrated. Like a lot of veterans, when I see some of these outrageous protests on TV, I just become stronger in my will. Some people just love to stir up trouble."

Boarts said he was equally disappointed in the way returning veterans are sometimes treated by government agencies, such as the Veterans Administration. As commander of Disabled American Veterans Chapter 36 in Vandergrift, Boarts has assisted many veterans to learn about their rights to VA benefits and military services, and also to apply for and even fight for those rights. He said even severely disabled veterans have to fight for disability benefits.

"A lot of strides have been made," he said. "There have been a lot of changes for the better, but not enough. When most men are about to get discharged they are so anxious to sign the papers, they ignore any details about their rights to continuing services or benefits to veterans. I think that sometimes the government knows that and takes advantage of it. That's where organizations like the DAV, AMVETS, American Legion, and VFW come in. We tell the guys who are returning exactly what they are entitled to and how to apply."

Boarts, who suffers from diabetes and heart problems, and who has survived a bout with cancer, attributes his medical problems to exposure from Agent Orange, a defoliant used to expose potential enemy hiding places in the jungles of Vietnam. However, he said that many returning veterans also have emotional problems, and it's this area that is most ignored for proper treatment.

Boarts is concerned about an increasing number of homeless veterans. He said veterans may be homeless for many reasons. Some are victims of drug or alcohol addiction. Others may suffer from severe post traumatic stress disorder and cannot function in society.

"A good percentage of our homeless population is made up of veterans," he said. "Another problem is the gender gap. When we returned from Vietnam we didn't relate well to World War II or Korean War vets, and they didn't relate well to us. I guess a lot of vets returning from Iraq can't relate to those of us who served in Vietnam. As a DAV commander all we can do is let them know that we understand what they are experiencing better than they may think and that we are there for them."

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