It’s a hot, midsummer day in Ocean City, Maryland, and by early afternoon the boardwalk is teeming with tourists in their bathing suits and sun hats. My wife and daughters march on ahead with my mom while I fall behind to stay with my father. His poor health doesn’t let him get around too quickly these days, nor does he seem to be in any rush. He has reached an age where the passage of time is no longer of any consequence. As he ambles down the middle of the boardwalk, blissfully devouring a bowl of soft serve ice cream, he is oblivious to the hordes of people who have to maneuver around him.
“I’ve got to tell you again how much I appreciate you all coming to see this,” he says to me. That’s another thing old age has done. He is nothing if not sentimental these days.
It isn’t long before we see what we came for. My dad, David E. McAllister, Specialist Fourth Class in the U.S. Army from 1965-1967, is part of a tribute by the local Elks Club to honor Worcester County, Maryland’s war veterans. On banners hanging from light posts above the boardwalk are photos of several dozen military servicemen and women from throughout the area. They represent all of the branches and each of the wars going back to Korea. My dad lingers a moment under each one, reading their names out loud with a sense of reverence.
The girls notice it first, and by the time we catch up, they are beaming with pride. My dad’s banner features a black-and-white picture of him taken in 1965 at basic training. In his Bernard cap and crisp military uniform, he looks young and handsome and brimming with optimism. Above his name, rank, and service time appear the words “HOMETOWN HERO.”
My dad looks up at the younger version of himself and grows quiet. For a moment it seems like he might tear up. He thinks of the years since that picture was taken. Heaven knows they haven’t all been easy. That anyone would want to acknowledge his service now, all these years later, matters more to him than he cares to let on.
That evening, sitting on my parents’ back deck overlooking the Isle of Wight Bay, my dad regales us with stories about his time in Vietnam. He tells of the time he met General Westmoreland in Tay Ninh, of the hotel he stayed at during R&R in Taipei, of seeing Bob Hope and Miss America in Saigon on Christmas Day. And though they are all lighthearted stories, suitable for grandkids, our trip to the boardwalk must have jarred something loose in him. Suddenly, the man who never used to talk about Vietnam—who, when asked what he did during the war, would only ever say he peeled potatoes—is practically bursting at the seams with stories to tell.
Surviving the war
A carefree, amiable farm boy with a bit of a mischievous streak, my dad was 20 years old when he received his draft notice in September of 1965. At the time, most men his age were doing everything they could to avoid the draft. Those who could afford to do so, enrolled in college or started a family. Some half a million claimed "conscientious objector" status. About 100,000 moved to Canada. Countless more got their doctors to write up notes describing fake ailments. Others went even further: Musician Duane Allman once told Dan Rather about the “foot shooting party” he attended in order to get off the hook.
My dad did none of these things. In fact, he did exactly what you weren’t supposed to at the time: He dropped out of college, forfeiting the enrollment status that protected him.
He dropped out because his own dad had died before the start of his sophomore year, and he wanted to help take care of his mom and the farm. Of course, he knew there was a good chance he’d get drafted if he dropped out, but he didn’t let that scare him off. If his country needed him, he was going to be there for it. His own father had eschewed work on the farm to answer a higher calling into public service -- first on the local school board, then as a state senator and later as the County Sherif -- and he felt compelled to be useful in his own way. Besides, he yearned for adventure, and he was eager to explore beyond the pool rooms and dance halls of Southern Delaware.
So, even when he was offered a hardship deferment by a friend of his father’s who sat on the state draft board, he turned it down.
“I did feel, because of Dad, a sense of duty,” he says now, reflecting back on why he didn’t accept the deferment. “I felt you should be patriotic, you should be willing to defend your country if asked to,” he tells me. This was still very early in the war, when the prevailing narrative was that we were there to stop a dictator and prevent the spread of communism. “It was the right thing to do,” he says, “because back then the country wasn’t anti-Vietnam, not that I was aware of anyhow.”
He also worried what kind of legacy it would leave if he’d chickened out. “I didn’t want people to think of me -- whether it's a future wife or whether it’s a future kid -- as a loser, or a quitter, or that I was ashamed to go or didn't want to go. I just didn't want that stigma.”
A month later, he was in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, the farthest away from home he’d ever been. He learned how to shoot and clean a rifle. He did squats and jumping jacks in the dirt outside his barracks. He and the rest of his troop would go on maneuvers out in the field. Every day, they would pack up 90 pounds of gear and march their way up “Drag Ass Hill" while carrying heavy, WWII-era M1 rifles above their heads. On his 21st birthday, he was shuffled into a makeshift gas chamber and forced to practice putting a gas mask on before the clock ran out. “The idea of it scared the hell out of me,” he says now.
The fates bent in my dad’s favor for the first of many times when he got delayed reporting to Fort Devens by a snowstorm that blanketed the entire northeast. He’d stopped at home during his transfer from Fort Knox when the storm hit, and by the time he could make it to Massachusetts, the rest of his unit had already reported and been assigned to infantry. My dad didn’t like the sound of that, so he half-jokingly asked the assignment officer what else was available.
The officer happened to be looking for a driver for one of the brigade’s Majors. He asked my dad if he could drive a Jeep, to which my dad exaggerated his experience on the farm, assuring him he “could drive any vehicle the Army had.” The officer asked if my dad could type, and again my dad embellished his skills, claiming that he could type 60 words per minute. The officer doubted him but thought he seemed bright and personable and that the Major would like him.
That’s how he got assigned to the S2 Intelligence unit. He would spend the war in brigade headquarters, instead of out in the field.
He arrived in Vietnam in October of 1966, just as the great machinations of the war were ramping up. About 200,000 U.S. troops were stationed in the country when he arrived. By the time he left, their numbers would swell to more than half a million. He and the rest of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade were sent to a base camp outside Tay Ninh, where they were tasked with stopping the movement of enemy troops along the southern portions of the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was an arduous and practically impossible assignment, and they made little progress.
My dad spent most of the war chauffeuring the Major from place to place, usually within the base camp but sometimes into town or out into the field. He had other duties, too, like maintaining the Jeep, cleaning the latrines, and helping in the kitchen (it turns out he did, indeed, peel a lot of potatoes). Occasionally he’d serve as a helicopter gunner when intelligence needed to be urgently delivered to waystations out in the field. He’d also have to ID bodies as they came back from the front by relying on their dog tags. That’s the task that got to him most. “I mean, that guy had no more reason to be there than I had,” he remembers thinking. “And now he’s not here.”
The job wasn’t completely without its dangers, of course. About half a dozen times while he was in Tay Ninh, the basecamp was shelled by artillery, including his second or third day in-country. This was before they even had a chance to finish their bunkers; they’d built the sides, but the tops were left open to the sky. He remembers thinking, “If the guy really can pinpoint it and drop one right in the middle of this bunker, we are history.”
Another time, he and the Major went out into the field as part of a convoy while they were stationed in Chu Lai, where they were transferred to support the air raids taking off from the newly built air strip. As they headed north along the beach, preparing to turn into some woods, my dad noticed that a tank up near the front of the line had been blown off its tracks. He figured it had hit a mine. As he got closer and started to drive around it, a barrage of gunfire erupted from the woods. Viet Cong had laid in wait and ambushed them. My dad slammed the Jeep in reverse and floored the gas while the Major ducked for cover. “I remember looking over and thinking, ‘Do you want to drive, Buddy?’” my dad laughs. He called in for helicopter support, and the choppers came almost instantly, sending the Viet Cong scampering back into the woods. My dad and the Major escaped unharmed, if not unshaken.
“That was one experience I won’t forget,” he says.
He tells me that the movie most closely resembling his experience was M*A*S*H, in which Hawkeye and Gunner end up enduring the war by not taking it -- or at least not taking themselves -- too seriously. “We were the ones who had the refrigerator in our barracks,” my dad says of himself and his partner-in-crime, Richie Meeley. “It had M&M on there, for McAllister and Meeley, and no one else was allowed to touch it.” They got in trouble for the refrigerator one day, of course, but my dad was able to escape culpability when Richie took the brunt of the blame. “Stuff like that, it was very much like M*A*S*H. The only thing we were missing was pretty girls,” he says. He pauses for a moment before correcting himself. “Except we had them in town, so we weren’t even missing them!“
One day in July 1967, while my dad was swimming in the waters of the South China Sea, Richie hurried down from the base and told him he’d been ordered to report right away or he’d lose his spot on the helicopter. His replacement had arrived. After nine months in-country, and nearly two years in the Army, he was heading home. He’d never once fired his gun.
An inglorious return
But for my dad, like many of the GIs coming home around that time, the real trauma of the war was just beginning. He returned in the summer of 1967 to a country that had been turned upside down since he’d left. When he’d entered the Army, the anti-war movement had barely registered as a blip on the national radar. He had no idea that it exploded like it had -- nor how big it was about to get.
“The only newspaper we had was Stars and Stripes,” he says, of how he got the news during his time in the Army. “So we never knew how people back home felt during the war. I’m sure Westmoreland and a lot of the generals under him knew all about it, but a guy like me never knew what was going on.” He wasn’t getting any information about it from his mom’s letters, either, explaining, “I think she didn’t want to worry me.”
Marches were happening in Washington, New York, Philadelphia and just about every major city in the country. The nightly news featured picketers outside the White House, students on strike, young men my dad's age burning their draft cards. When the Tet Offensive began in January, increasing the number of soldiers coming home in body bags, the movement only grew louder. Between the anti-war protests and the civil rights movement, the country had not been this divided since the Civil War.
“There was a very unfriendly attitude in the entire country,” he says. “I don't care if you went in to get a pack of cigarettes or a six pack of beer, everybody seemed to have an attitude about the war. And I understand that. I mean, it's a war. People are losing their sons and daughters, and they're getting tired of it. It’s going on and on and on.”
My dad would have been fine with the protests. He’d seen firsthand how dangerous the fighting was, and he felt certain that the war wasn’t going to end any time soon, not as long as we continued to fight it the way we were. But what really hurt him was the anti-soldier sentiment attached to the protests. While soldiers from the Korean War or WWII had been thrown ticker tape parades, those returning from Vietnam were routinely spat on and yelled at. My dad expected to be welcomed home a hero. Instead, he was labeled a baby killer.
“‘Why do they hate me?’” he remembers wondering. “‘I was just doing what I was told.’”
Then there were the stares. “Everybody seemed like they were giving me a weird look,” he says. He’d been the first from his hometown to serve in Vietnam, and after he got back, he felt like a subject in a science experiment. Even people he’d once been close to now eyed him suspiciously. They’d heard stories about soldiers coming home broken or damaged in some way, and whispers had been circulating that U.S. troops were killing innocent Vietnamese women and children. Had my father committed such atrocities, their eyes wondered. The looks he got at grocery stores and around town were enough to make him paranoid.
“It was sort of like, ‘How did the war affect you? Are you screwed up yet?’” he explains, raising one eyebrow to emphasize the point.
To deal with it all, he went into a shell. He avoided talking about Vietnam whenever possible, and disclosed his service only on a need-to-know basis. Whenever the topic of the war came up at work or in social situations, as it always did, he learned to deflect the conversation or respond in a way that made it sound as if he didn’t have an opinion on it one way or the other. “‘I’ll just shut up about it,’” he decided. “Which actually worked, it made it easier on them.”
It was easier on him, too, almost pretending like his Vietnam service never happened. Because it wasn’t just the country that had been turned upside down: my dad’s personal circumstances were nothing like those he had left behind two years earlier either. Most of his friends had moved on with their lives, settling into careers, getting married and starting families. He felt like his life was going nowhere by comparison. After leaving the Army, he had no purpose, no mission. He got a job in the accounting department of Perdue Chicken, but the work was hardly fulfilling. Mostly, it was just something to do before he could go to the bar and get drunk.
In fact, it seemed that was all he really wanted to do at the time. “I was drinking enough,” he says in his understated way. The beer helped him forget about it all. And it also helped ease his nerves, which had been on edge ever since he got back. It was as if his nervous system still thought he was in Tay Ninh under the threat of a mortar attack instead of safe and sound on U.S. soil. He had trouble sleeping, and when he did sleep he frequently woke up in a cold sweat from nightmares. Looking back on it now, it is clear that he had symptoms of PTSD, although the term for it wouldn’t appear until a dozen years later. At the time, it just wasn’t something people talked about.
The partying always involved lots of girls, and he met one in particular who was beautiful, and fun, and could drink with the best of them. They dated a very short time before they decided to get married. He wanted a big wedding, but she told him one day she wanted to do it right then and there, so they did.
Looking back on it now, he realizes that he’d jumped into the marriage as a way of trying to grasp onto a lifeline, to grab some sense of normalcy for himself.
In 1968, just as the country was being swept even further into turmoil by the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the walls caved in on him. He came home from work one day to find that his wife had cleaned out the one-bedroom apartment they shared, leaving him with nothing but his own meager belongings.
Then, just a few months later, his mom passed away, after a brief battle with uterine cancer -- one that she had hidden from her youngest son. She was just 50 years old.
“I remember how happy she was the day I walked in the house, and I was a complete surprise to her, how happy and excited she was, and then within a year, she's dead,” he says, looking off into the distance, and perhaps back through time. “That was emotional,” he admits.
Suddenly, he found himself lonely, angry, grief-stricken and completely unmoored all at the same time. But the Army had taught him that when times get tough, whether it’s hauling yourself up “Drag Ass Hill” or making it through another day in a war zone, you simply put one foot in front of the other. “One day at a time,” he says now of how he coped with all the tragedies. “Almost like an alcoholic, you just take one day at a time and you sort of move on.”
So that’s what he did. Brick by brick, he rebuilt his life. He got his drinking under control. He used the GI bill to go back to school. He landed a job in the sales department of an electronics supply company. He took advantage of loans from the Veterans Administration to buy his first house with favorable rates and no money down.
But more than anything, he says that what turned his life around was a chance encounter with another woman, this one a 19-year-old college student from the suburbs of Philadelphia. And even though he was five years older, and had all this baggage as a divorcee and a war veteran, she was willing to give him a chance.
“He had this sort of bad boy image,” my mom says, adding that she had heard he’d been to Vietnam but that it didn’t scare her off. She adds, “It was part of the allure, the mystique.”
This time, it stuck.
“Things just sort of fell into place as far as being horrible, but then when it was all over they fell into place in terms of being fantastic,” my dad explains. “Luckily, your grandfather had been in the military too, so he understood the situation completely and sort of took me under his wing, like, ‘Hey you’re going to be fine, don’t worry about it.’ I think at that point in my life, I needed that, to be honest with you.”
The lingering effects
The next three decades were very good to my dad. A successful marriage, good kids, a fulfilling career. But then, at the age of 55, life dealt him another blow. One day, the dentist told him he should have the white spots on his gums checked out. He visited an ear, nose and throat specialist and learned that he had oral cancer. Stage two. He would need to have it surgically removed. Doctors also advised radiation, which would risk his long-term health but increase his chances of survival, which were far from guaranteed.
From the start, my parents suspected the cancer might be connected to Agent Orange, one of the herbicides used by the Department of Defense to clear the foliage in the jungles of Vietnam. As it turned out, the chemical that was so effective at making leaves disappear as if by magic was also poisonous to humans, and by the time of my dad’s diagnosis -- 25 years after the war had ended -- more and more Vietnam Vets were getting sick because of it. My parents personally knew two vets who had died from it.
The Agent Orange Act of 1991 had promised to compensate the soldiers who were affected by use of the herbicide. But first, the government wanted to establish which illnesses were presumed to be connected to Agent Orange exposure, a process that got bogged down almost before it began. Two years after the bill passed, less than 500 victims had been paid out from the nearly 40,000 who had filed claims. When my parents looked into it, in the year 2000, studies had linked exposure to illnesses including soft tissue sarcoma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and a few other types of cancer. Oral cancer, however, was not among them.
They were told they did not qualify.
Not that it mattered a whole lot. The money would have been nice, but my parents could get by without it. What bothered them more was that other veterans who actually did need the help might not be getting it either. These were veterans who had put their lives on the line for their country, and they were paying a steep price for it. Yet very few were getting any compensation. So my dad and other veterans he knew made a point of telling every Vietnam Vet they met, especially anyone who had any type of health issue that was possibly related to Agent Orange, to schedule a checkup with the VA.
The pressure campaign worked, to an extent. Though change has been slow, in 2010 the VA did add Parkinson’s Disease, Chronic B-Cell Leukemia, and ischemic heart disease to the list of presumptive disabilities. In 2015, it started paying compensation to Air Force personnel who had served on the flight and ground crews of the aircrafts used to spray Agent Orange. In 2019, “blue water” Navy veterans who had served on ships off the coast of Vietnam were added. And as recently as 2021, bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism were added to the list of presumed illnesses with links to Agent Orange.
But there is still more work to do, and more Vietnam Vets who might not even know yet that they’re sick from the effects of Agent Orange or who don’t realize they are entitled to compensation.
“I know there’s a lot of guys out there who have something wrong -- prostate cancer or other types of cancer -- and aren’t doing anything about it,” my dad worries.
So he continues to urge his fellow vets to visit the VA and get a free checkup. And he makes sure they know about the Agent Orange registry so they can file a claim for benefits. It’s part of the reason he is so eager to tell his story and spread the word. Early intervention helped save his life, and he hopes it can help save other Vietnam Vets' lives as well.
The price we pay
My dad recovered from the oral cancer, though it left half of his face disfigured and would, decades later, lead to other serious health problems. But in 2020, at the age of 76, he was diagnosed with cancer again, this time in his prostate. Within days of receiving the diagnosis, he was on the phone with the same woman at the VA who’d told him they would have to deny his benefits claim from oral cancer 20 years earlier. The first check came a few weeks later.
He says now that he was never resentful that he didn’t get any compensation when he was first diagnosed. My mom, however, is less diplomatic.
“I thought, ‘Doggone it all, how can you prove to me that this hasn’t been caused by Agent Orange?’ He was there, he was in it. They knew they were using it,” she says.
What upsets her more, however, is the fact of the cancer itself. “Looking at this end of it, where it has taken so much away from him, I feel resentful of that,” she admits. Then she rethinks her feelings and decides they go beyond resentment. “Angry,” she clarifies. “That he had to go through that and that he’s paying for it.” Breaking down in tears, she points out that they’ve been fortunate to have traveled early in their retirement, and to have lived a good life into their seventies. “But I look at it now and I think, ‘Wow this is hard’—hard for him, ergo hard for me.”
Even so, my dad says he’s glad that he served, and he would do it again “in a heartbeat,” he says. He would have served even had he known that he would be sent to Vietnam in the first place and how horribly south the war would go. Had he known the turmoil he would come home to and the shell it would send him into, even had he known of the cancer that would rob him of his health in later years, he insists that he still would have gone.
Because that’s the kind of guy my dad is. Unselfish. Brave. Unflinchingly patriotic. But also because it changed his life in so many ways. “I would’ve been in Laurel the rest of my life,” he says. “I could be working in a chicken house right now!” But more than anything, he’s glad he served because being a veteran has filled his life with meaning. He became a man during those two years in the Army, learning of sacrifice and honor, of putting others first, of committing to something bigger than yourself.
Without those lessons, who knows where he’d be.
He says it wasn’t until about 20 years ago that he started feeling comfortable telling people he’d been to Vietnam. As vets were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and being treated with all of the respect they deserved, my dad says he noticed a shift in the way Vietnam Vets were treated around that time, too. People seemed more appreciative of his service. That made it easier for him to open up about it.
By this point he felt like he had “made it,” to some extent—he’d started his own business and was doing well financially, he’d put both of his kids through college, had bought a townhouse as a second home, and he saw his stature as a veteran as something to be proud of. “That was not a negative,” he says, of having served in Vietnam. “I looked at it as a positive.” That was a new feeling for him.
Even so, there were things that he continued to keep bottled up, whether out of force of habit or because they were too difficult to think about. Like the queasiness of identifying the bodies as they came back from the front, or the terror of being ambushed by the Viet Cong. Mostly, he hadn’t talked about the way he felt upon his return, and the damage it had done to his psyche. It had taken him years to feel like himself again, and decades to come to terms with the fact that so many of his countrymen had reviled him for nothing more than the fact that he’d done what he felt was the moral thing to do.
That’s another thing he wants people to know. With the number of Vietnam Vets dwindling and his own time running short, he wants people to understand that they weren’t all bad guys. They might have gotten swept up in an unpopular and ultimately doomed war, but most of them were decent men who were doing what they felt was right. It seems obvious to say that now, but for a long time, there was nothing obvious about it.
Ocean City is a different town when the summer is over and the tourists have gone. It is much quieter now, and you can almost imagine it as the kind of place where people actually live instead of just vacation. The banners have come down, and the Elks Club is hosting a luncheon to give them to the veterans who were featured in their exhibit.
My dad dons his best suit and a black baseball cap emblazoned with Vietnam service ribbons. My mom looks elegant and beautiful as ever. Some family friends have come down from Pennsylvania to join us, a Navy veteran and his wife. Together we drive across the bay to a nondescript, two-story building sandwiched between a miniature golf course and an economy hotel in the middle of the island.
The emcee of the ceremony, Pat Riordan, is also the organizer of the exhibit. A retired police officer, Riordan says he got the idea to honor local veterans from a similar tribute he saw while on vacation in California. “Vietnam guys, they were (criticized) when they came back,” Riordan told a reporter from the local newspaper. “It was tough. We just wanted to give them some recognition. Some of these guys, they’re dying of Agent Orange now. They have problems going on. We did this to try to give them some recognition in the area.”
Riordan invites each of the honorees to come up and say a few words as they receive their banner. The veterans all express their gratitude for the recognition, but they seem a little uncomfortable with it too, as if they’re somewhat embarrassed by it. Or maybe it’s just that they’re not used to being hailed as heroes. One woman, the only active duty soldier to be recognized, talks of her children and the sacrifices she has made, leaving everyone in the room wiping tears from their eyes.
When it is my dad’s turn, he opens with a joke. Even speaking into a microphone, his voice is low and raspy due to his diminished lung capacity. His words are sometimes muddled because of his jaw issues, but he has learned to speak slowly so that people can understand him better. He points to his banner, at the handsome young man with the full face and the twinkling eyes. “I don’t know about anybody else,” he says, “But wouldn’t it be great to still look like that?”
The room fills with laughter. The veterans all know that there is no going back—the older ones especially. They carry too many reminders of what they’ve been through. But for today, at least, they can look back on their younger selves and think about how far they’ve come. They can reflect on the hopes and dreams they might’ve had when they were younger, and they can laugh at the passage of time and the absurdity of what it has done to them.
My dad thanks Pat Riordan and the Elks Club for doing this. He points out that his son flew in from San Francisco to be here, which draws a round of applause, and that his good friends drove down from Pennsylvania. “And to my beautiful bride,” he says, his voice cracking, “who’s held me together for 55 years.” The applause drowns out his final words, but they hardly matter. The point has been made.
As he hands off the microphone, he walks back to his seat with a renewed sense of pride and dignity. The ceremony wasn’t exactly the ticker tape parade he might’ve imagined receiving at one point in his life. But it was special nevertheless.
It was a gesture from his community telling him they appreciated what he did. It was a reflection of the sacrifices he made to give back to his country. And it was proof that he didn’t do it all for nothing—that his future wife and future kids did in fact hold him in high regard.
It might’ve been 50 years later than he expected. But in the end, it was more than enough.