The 9/11 events reinforced the enormity of that day. For me, it occurs at a similar time as the anniversary of being sent to Vietnam.

I used to say that the first thing Richard Nixon did when he got elected was to sign my draft notice — I swear I think the ink was still wet. Anyway, I was living in Libya and notified the draft board in Pittsburgh (where my dad’s permanent address was) that I could not get a visa and make my appointed date, so they said to come in by March.

There were three positive events that surrounded getting to Vietnam. First, my draft physical had to be done in Pisa, Italy, so I took a couple weeks off and roamed through Italy, Greece and Malta — kind of my going away party. Second, when I got to Pittsburgh, I had to rent a hotel room for a couple of days. Dwight Eisenhower died so federal offices were closed which made my show date April Fools’ Day. I was asked while I was checking out why I was in town. I told the desk clerk I had been drafted and he responded by saying then there is no charge. That hotel is the William Penn incidentally. And third, before going overseas, I had a month of leave, so I stayed with my uncle in a small steel town that is a suburb of Pittsburgh. He said they had been meeting and they asked that I be the grand marshal for their Labor Day parade. I said I have no stripes, one little marksman ribbon and Army insignias — I was not a good candidate. He said that I would be representative of all the kids who had gone, and it would mean a lot to the families. So, I did it — not everyone who served was treated shabbily.

My kids would ask me how come I was normal compared to what they saw on TV. I would say I did not see anything I did not expect to see, and I did not hurt anyone who should not have been hurt — almost. My asterisk was because our guard post was on the steps of a pagoda — it was the monsoon season; the roads were flooded, and the Viet Cong were travelling by boat. It was pouring rain and you could not see your hand in front of your face. While I was on guard, I heard a slight sound to the side, and I put down the rifle and picked up the grenade launcher and then put a buckshot cartridge in the chamber. No one was allowed to be moving after dark and our only alert mechanism was the geese, and you never knew where they were. Anyway, I heard the sound again and fired the buckshot — some woman had come out onto her porch to relieve herself and I had hit her in the butt. Anyway, the next day some officials gave her some money and they patched up her wounds and we moved on. I was in the right, but….

Much like the 9/11 survivors, there are certain things that happen that make everything flood back. For me the sound of a banking helicopter and the whop-whop-whop sound does it. Sometimes when I am working in the yard, I will trip over a vine and look down and see the trip wire of the booby trap that I stumbled over. I was truly saddened to think that American troops wiped out a village and buried women and children in a mass grave. Was there not one person with a conscience? We had dug up a mass grave site that the Viet Cong had filled, and it was tough digging up all those bodies. But Americans are not supposed to do this, that is what made us different.

But perhaps, my only accomplishment was because I was there, my brother got his orders changed to Germany — you could not have two family members in Vietnam at that same time. Funny, he never thanked me. Of course, this is the same guy that accidentally burned my original Beatles, Rollings Stones and Dave Clark albums. Still, I miss you, Bob.

Bill Smith is director of the Robeson County Health Department