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AARP The Magazine


The War That Changed Everything

Fifty years ago, the first combat troops arrived in Vietnam. Ten years later, Saigon fell. For those who were there, the memories of those bitterly divisive years live on.

Vietnam illustration

— From left: Christian Simonpietri/Sygma/Corbis; Corbis; Courtesy Everett Collection via Newscom; Philip Jones Griffiths/Magnum Photos; Eddie Adams/AP Photo; Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images



North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong

— Getty Images

"How long do you Americans want to fight? One year? Two years? Three years? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years? We will be glad to accommodate you.”

 

— North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, to the New York Times, December 1966

 

"I wonder how I kept my sanity."

Wanda ruffin at husbands funeral for Vietnam war

— National Archives and Records Administration

“He was a Phantom pilot, F-4s. When he was shot down, I was six months pregnant. At the time he was declared missing in action, it was the kind of thing you didn’t talk about. People didn’t want to hear about it, and the government told us not to talk. But I needed to believe that my husband, the father of our soon-to-be daughter, would come back and we’d be a family. The hope maintained me until I got to the point where I felt strong enough to know what happened."

“In ’83, the casualty officer came again. This time, instead of my being pregnant with my daughter, she was 17 years old, sitting beside me on the sofa while they were telling us that my husband’s remains had been returned from North Vietnam. Many times, I look back at the person I was then and I wonder how I kept my sanity. ”

— Wanda Ruffin’s husband, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander James Ruffin, was shot down over North Vietnam on February 18, 1966. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in July 1983.

 

Hear More: Wanda Ruffin talks about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and her work to reconnect veterans and their loved ones after the war.

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"It goes beyond camaraderie.
It's like they were a single organism."

The Khe Sanh siege  in 1968

— Terry Fincher/Express/Getty Images

“I went out to Hill 881 South [near Khe Sanh] on a Sunday in 1967 and held a little worship service. I talked about the prodigal son from Luke 15 — about how a son goes off into a far-off country and comes to realize that this is not where he’s supposed to be. The Marines were all lined up, and they were really raggedy. Clothes were rotting off. These were, like, 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds, and so different in many ways. Yet they were all Marines, and they took care of each other."

“This became even more evident later on, in the battles — how they would dash out in the middle of incoming and drag a total stranger who had been hit. It goes beyond camaraderie. It’s like they were a single organism. Theologically, I can use the term ‘love’ — they really loved each other, by how they lived and what they did.”

— U.S. Navy Chaplain Stubbe served at Khe Sanh during the 77-day siege of the base in 1968.

Hear More: Ray Stubbe talks about how his perception of soldiers and military personnel changed during his time in Vietnam.

NOTE: If you are not seeing an audio player, you may need to update your browser. Following are the minimum system requirements for accessing this player: Internet Explorer 9, Firefox 26, Chrome 32 and Safari 6 To install an update, click on the name of the browser you use and follow its instructions. Learn more here.

 

"He's in here."

American 4th Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade soldiers loading wounded onto an UH-1D Huey helicopter being evacuated from Hill 875 15 miles southwest of Dak To during the Vietnam War.

— The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

“I flew at least 800 missions. I saved 2,000 patients. By ‘saving,’ I mean I got ’em out of there. They might have died in the aircraft or in the hospital. Sometimes we’d ask, ‘Where’s the patient?’ And they’d hand over a pillowcase and say, ‘He’s in here.’  ”

U.S. Army Private Jimmy Johnson, who was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his service as a helicopter medic from 1966 to 1968.

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