I Volunteered: Canadian Vietnam Vets Remember

When you see danger, do you run towards it? Do you believe you can stop that danger in its tracks?

Volunteer soldiers take on personal danger on behalf of all of us. To volunteer to serve in a war, you have to decide that you will make a difference. You have to be willing to put your life on the line to do so.

Between 12,000 and 30,000 Canadian men made that choice when they decided to join the United States Armed Forces to fight in Vietnam. Some of them came back to talk about their experiences. I Volunteered is their story.

Book Summary

While everyone knows that Canada sheltered more than 30,000 Americans escaping the draft; we are not so familiar with the stories of all the Canadian men who volunteered to fight in their place.

These stories are well worth reading for their own merit, but also because they represent an era when Canada cemented an independent foreign policy and identity on the world stage.

The stories expressed within I Volunteered also demonstrate how hidden government policies hurt individuals. The men who chose to join the U.S. Armed Forces didn’t know it was illegal to do so given that most of them had to obtain RCMP security clearance before they could go. They had no trouble getting the clearance to go. Why did they get blamed for breaking a law when they returned?

The families of those who died overseas suffered too. They not only lost loved ones but during funerals, over-ambition antiwar activists harassed family members in their grief.

Returning veterans faced shunning and couldn’t get health care or camaraderie when they came back.

Order your copy

Tracey Arial interviewed 218 men over a five year period. She then detailed their experiences in I Volunteered: Canadian Vietnam Vets Remember (ISBN: 1896239145 Paperback, 175pp). J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing House published the first version of the book in 1996.

For more information and to download a chronology of Canada’s involvement in the war, refer to the author’s website.

Reviews of I Volunteered Canadian Vietnam Vets Remember

I Volunteered – Canadian Vietnam Vets Remember fills a significant gap in Canada’s military history—I strongly recommend it.

Les Peate, Esprit de Corps

…a moving first-hand account of a little known aspect of Canadian military and social experience.

Max Hancock, Ottawa Citizen

Excerpt of I Volunteered: Canadian Vietnam Vets Remember

Introduction

Canadians forget that while our government was not officially involved in the Vietnam war, its citizens were. Hundreds of companies supported the United States military effort with supplies for the duration of the war.

Until the Tet offensive in 1968, the Canadian public seemed supportive of the war. Before that, most newspapers covered war strategy and ignored peace protests. Even a continent-wide protest on April 27, 1967 barely got mentioned; most reporters left it for Reuters to cover. Draft dodgers were not welcome in Canada. Canadian border guards defied policy to turn them, landlords denied them shelter, and employers refused to give them jobs.

How many went to Vietnam?

Given this background, it’s not surprising that some 50,000 Canadians chose to support the effort with their lives. They crossed the border to illegally volunteer for the American Armed Forces. About 30,000 of them ended up in Vietnam.

These estimates come from Harry G. Summers Jr’s Vietnam War Almanac, but no one knows precisely how many Canadians went. Veterans quote figures ranging from 3,000 to 80,000 individuals. The highest figure was provided by Mike Ruggiero, President of the Canadian Vietnam Veteran–Toronto association (CVVT). “Every time we go to a landing zone [a Vietnam veteran reunion],” he said, “we find out that a lot of guys served with Canadians.”

The lowest figure–3,000–is quoted by Vietnam Veterans in Canada (VVIC) member Richard Shand in an article for Canadian Legion magazine and on his World Wide Web page on the Internet. His estimate is a statistical analysis of VVIC member figures and the 1990 book, Unknown Warriors:  Canadians in the Vietnam War. Shand’s estimate can probably be ignored, however, since author Fred Gaffin not only quotes a figure of 12,000 in the book, but when interviewed, he also said that the real figure is probably higher than he was able to verify. Several people from the 3,000-member Canadian Vietnam Veterans coalition,  which integrates all the CVVA and VVIC chapters, have publicly stated that 40,000 Canadians went to Vietnam.

Tracey’s early impressions

My uncle was one of these Canadians, but he doesn’t talk about it much. He tried to talk when he first came back, but no-one was interested. Since then, he keeps so quiet about the whole thing that he doesn’t even know that Vietnam veteran associations exist in Canada. He tried to talk to me about it once, but stopped short of telling me anything I didn’t already know. I guess he figures I can’t possibly understand.

He used to be right. After all, I was only a year old when the United States government passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which officially began the Vietnam War. By the time the war ended eleven years later, my memories reflected television images and newspaper stories. The Vietnam War was one big image that include hippies tossing draft cards into trash can fires, the National Guard shooting four students during a protest at Kent State University in Ohio, American soldiers unloading body bags in the middle of the night, and heroic draft dodgers as portrayed by big-name actors like Alan Alda.

The images were horrifying but they only made me believe that Canadians had somehow transcended Americans by staying neutral during the Vietnam War. Although two of my uncles volunteered for Vietnam, my hypocrisy never registered. In my mind, my uncles were just two isolated souls who made a mistake, not real Canadians. I was wrong.

The overwhelming support for the Gulf War made me realise how quickly public opinion changes. As a peacenik surrounded by war mongers, I suddenly understood what attracted my uncles to war twenty years earlier. My family berated me and my cop sister couldn’t wait to arrest me in a peace rally. Like most of North America, they believed the newspaper stories and the television reports about the war, even though the army was the only source for information. That’s when the research for this book began.

What did veterans experience in Vietnam?

My uncle was able to tell me why he went, but struggled when I asked about his experiences in Vietnam. The 1981 New York Time’s best-seller, Everything We Had, filled in some of the gaps. Written by thirty-three Vietnam soldiers, it begins with a one-page story by David Ross called “Welcome to the War, Boys.”

The guys were all new, their first couple of days in country, and they were all wondering what it was going to be like…All of a sudden, four choppers came in and they didn’t even touch down. They just dumped bags. One of the bags broke open and what came out was hardly recognisable as a human being…All the guys stopped laughing. Nobody was saying anything. And some people were shaking and some people were throwing up, and one guy got down and started to pray. I said to myself, ‘Welcome to the war, boys.’

No better when they returned from Vietnam

Vietnam was such an intense experience, veterans who lived through it felt let down when they returned. They also felt rejected. The negative reaction to Vietnam started as soon as my uncle returned to the United States. Antiwar sentiments were very high. Children spat on returning soldiers and everyone else slurred them. “It was bad over there,” he said. “I was more afraid of getting shot in the States that I was in Vietnam.”

He hurried to Canada, but felt ignored by family and friends when he got here. “I tried to talk about it when I first came back, but no one wanted to hear about it,” he said. “Now I just try not to think about the past.” The Royal Canadian Legion refused to accept him as a full member. He joined as the son of a veteran, not even mentioning that he himself had seen war. He was driven into utter isolation, not knowing if anyone else felt the same way. Just like every other Vietnam veteran in Canada, American or Canadian.

The only psychiatric study conducted on Vietnam Veterans living in Canada suggests that the long term isolation hurt them more than hatred hurt the Americans. The isolation ended in 1986, when several Canadians met at the Washington Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedication. That’s when Canadian Vietnam veterans began healing themselves.

Canadian Vietnam Veteran Associations

They banded together in local associations, at first just to meet, talk about their experiences, and share information. Those meetings are still the most important function of the associations. In addition, however, Canadian veterans help each other secure U.S. disability pensions and they try to clear service records. They even search for Prisoners-of-War. In 1994, they forced the Royal Canadian Legion to include them in Remembrance Day celebrations. (Soon-after, the Legion finally admitted them as full members.) With the help of U.S. veterans, they have built two memorials to Canadians who died in Vietnam–one in Melocheville, Quebec and another one which ended up in Windsor, Ontario.

Once the veterans began healing themselves, they realised that they weren’t alone. They are still fighting for the recognition they deserve–not because Vietnam was a good war, but because many of the people who fought it were good soldiers. Unfortunately, they have to fight every step of the way. Every time Canadian Vietnam veterans get any kind of recognition, they are discredited by protesters, politicians, and, most hurtful of all, veterans from other wars who want to avoid their unpopularity. After risking their lives in a war that many Canadians supported, they’re suffering now because Canadians want to forget.

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