The fall of Saigon in 1975 is remembered with the stark image of the last helicopter leaving. It bears a devastating resemblance to the final withdrawal from Afghanistan and for one Vietnam Veteran, the parallels are heartbreaking.
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Roger Emmick enlisted before the Vietnam War really started, going in as a Navy Reserve corpsman in 1965. About a month before completing the Operating Room Technician program, he received deployment orders to Vietnam to support the U.S. Naval Station Hospital in Danang, Vietnam.
He was only 18 years old.
From 1967 through 1968 were the worst and deadliest of the Vietnam War. Emmick was right in the thick of it trying to save lives and said he saw enough blood and death to last a lifetime. Although he made it home, many of his friends did not. Just seven years later, Emmick would watch the television in horror as America pulled out of Vietnam.
“I was thinking then, I can’t believe this. 58,000 dead guys and this is what we did it for? Nothing? Nothing. The country is now totally communist,” Emmick explained.
Watching the recent and eerily similar withdrawal from Afghanistan brought it all back for him. “Even before the last couple of days, I knew where it was probably going. Not quite this bad and I was really frustrated…what did these guys and gals lose everything for? It just brings up the same heartburn with Vietnam — just why,” he said.
Emmick shared his continued frustration with the ongoing wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He questioned the continued deployments of the same troops and the why behind the neverending conflict.
“You can’t do that to them because then they are going to have lifetime problems. Now looking at those pictures of the C-17 going down the runway with people hanging off the wings…We had to have been able to do all of this better,” he said.
The reason behind serving for him and most of the Korean and Vietnam Veterans he knows was simple.
But the wars just always seemed to keep coming.
It was this mindset which led Emmick to commissioning with the Air Force after graduating from college two years after the fall of Saigon in 1977. “I was always getting ready for the next one. All my years were spent trying to get the younger guys ready for their war. But we always thought it was going to be Russia and we never even talked about the Middle East,” he shared.
The attacks on 9/11 would change everything. The public response after the first few years of war would bring more distress for Emmick. “The first five years it was all we talked about but then they just didn’t pay attention to it anymore. It wasn’t on the daily news like Vietnam,” he said.
Although polling showed the majority of Americans wanted troops out of the Middle East, Afghanistan’s often predicted collapse to the Taliban is currently dominating the news cycle. Emmick recognizes the feelings of devastation and the question of “why” many veterans are grappling with.
As for veterans finding themselves struggling as they watch the events unfold in Afghanistan, Emmick encouraged them to talk to each other. No one will understand the war you served or the feelings experienced better than another warrior will, he said. It’s what led him to serving as the Quartermaster for VFW Post 215 in New Jersey, a role he’s held since 2011.
For Emmick, time always brings healing and it’s something he prays will help today’s troops. “Within a few years the helicopter on top of the embassy in Saigon was gone out of mind,” he shared. His final message to modern warriors working through the “why” of serving was heartfelt.
“Remember God, family and then country. That’s why we put our uniforms on.”