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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

Walter Cronkite in Vietnam

— Getty Images

"It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end
in a stalemate."



  CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite, in a special report on Vietnam, February 27, 1968.


"I needed to do it."

Henri Huet, left, and Richard Pyle right in vietnam war

— Courtesy Richard Pyle

“It was my idea to go to Saigon. If there was a war out there, I felt I had an obligation to go cover it. If I didn’t, I would spend the rest of my life regretting it. I don’t know to whom I owed anything, but I felt like I needed to do it, because somebody has to do this. But I also have to admit that I found it a rush.”

Richard Pyle was the AP Bureau chief in Saigon from 1970 to 1973.

Hear More: Richard Pyle explains why he felt that as an American journalist he needed to cover the Vietnam War.

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"The strangest thing in the world."

Leroy Quintana

— Courtesy Leroy V. Quintana

“I was in a six-man recon unit, which they would send way out in the boonies to figure out where the enemy was. In recon, you feel more alone than you do on the front line. No one wants to be the last man in a recon company. Ever take a pin and put it between your nail and your finger? How far can you push that pin before you have to stop?

Those are the things I thought about on missions.

One night I was a patrol leader during a monsoon. Finally, the rain stopped and I relaxed. Then I saw soldier movement in the distance. It was like this large, strange centipede coming down the mountain. They passed by me six inches away but didn’t see me. I hit the mud, just sat down in the muck. And the strangest thing in the world happened. I was — how do I put this? — I was calling for my mom, at least on the inside.”

U.S. Army Specialist Leroy Quintana served with the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions in 1967 and 1968.


"The country seethed."

Colin Powell in Vietnam

— Sygma/Corbis

“While back at home, the country seethed with controversy over the war, I do not recall a single discussion on its merits among my fellow officers all the while I was in Vietnam. Questioning the war would not have made fighting it any easier.”

Colin Powell,
a U.S. Army major in Chu Lai in 1968, later served as secretary of state.



"It was insanity."

Army Nurse Edie Meeks

— Courtesy Edie Meeks

"There would be these perfectly wonderful and healthy young men, and they were blown up for no reason. Being the naive person I was, I thought the Army was supposed to take care of you. But they were just using these young men up. They were disposable. When I came back, you couldn’t even tell anybody you’d been there — 1969 was the height of the antiwar protests. They were beating up on the wrong people — the soldiers — instead of the people in Congress who were sending them there. You were warned by the nurses who flew over from the States, to take your place, that you should take your uniform off before you walk the streets. When I got to San Francisco Airport, I took a dress I’d packed into the ladies’ room, took my uniform off and threw it in the trash.”

U.S. Army Nurse Edie Meeks, above, standing at right, served in 1968 and 1969. She’s now an operating-room nurse in Mount Kisco, New York.


"Don't throw it. I won't pull the trigger."

Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn

“I was wounded. I was lying on the ground and had him across the sights of my M16. I remember clearly wishing I could speak Vietnamese. I couldn’t. I can remember whispering out loud, ‘Don’t throw it. I won’t pull the trigger.’ And the kid snarled at me — literally — and threw the grenade right at me. And I pulled the trigger.

“It was years later that I was driving down I-5, the interstate that goes through Oregon and Washington. Dark, middle of the night, country music on the radio. And his eyes appeared in the windshield.”

U.S. Marine Corps First Lieutenant Karl Marlantes was awarded a Navy Cross in 1969. He is the author of the Vietnam War novel Matterhorn. His latest book is the memoir What It Is Like to Go to War.


"None of us had many regrets."

Draft resisters march at a demonstration organized by the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, Washington DC, November 15, 1969.

— David Fenton/Getty Images

"I left for Canada in August, the same month as Woodstock. There were 50,000 war resisters in Canada. Most ended up in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. About half of them are still up there. None of us had many regrets. As the war rolled on, we knew we were in the right place.”

John Hagan returned to the United States in 1977 and is now a professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University.


"We were right about that war."

Gary Weiner

— Courtesy Gary Weiner

Had we been wiser — though that’s asking a lot from a 20-year-old — we might not have said things like cops were pigs. And those poor people who had to serve in Vietnam, we should have treated them with way more compassion than we did. We didn’t understand you could seek justice and still be compassionate. My defense is that we were young. We were full of ourselves. But we were right about that war.”

Gary Weiner, a 1971 Cornell graduate, is a mediator in California.

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