By Ian Graham
Veterans’ Reflections is a collection of stories of men and women who served their country in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Desert Shield and Desert Storm and present-day conflicts. They will be posted throughout November in honor of Veteran’s Day.
In the San Francisco Bay area of California in 1967, “Vietnam” was a dirty word.
But for Nick Gillen, it meant an opportunity to put his money where his mouth was and serve his country. Though he was already planning to enlist, the draft expedited his enlistment.
“I’ve always been a bit of a redneck and firmly believed in what our country was doing there, and I still do today,” he said. “I think we were doing what was required of us as soldiers.”
The then-20-year-old hopped on a plane, unsure of what to expect as he crossed the Pacific Ocean. One thing he knew was that there was a good chance he wouldn’t be flying home – at least not in the state he arrived.
“When I got on the plane and we took off, I was looking out the window, I thought it was the last time I’d see my country,” Gillen said.
He was lucky in combat, and returned from Vietnam in 1968 relatively unscathed. He said he’s fortunate to come back, because a lot of people didn’t. Even more important to remember, though, is that each of the young servicemembers who died in Vietnam left families, friends and loved ones behind – they’re unrecognized casualties, Gillen said.
“I’m married to a lovely lady, who couldn’t be here [in Washington, D.C.] with me today,” he said. “A young man she was engaged to, his name is on the wall. So I’m going to be getting a rubbing of his name for her.”
“He gave everything; I always say to [my wife] I can’t compete with him, because he died a hero,” he added.
Gillen said his memories from Vietnam are largely about the people he served with. It was a brotherhood of sorts; a lot of people worked hard to get the job done, he said, and he’ll never forget the people who shared his service.
“I was fortunate enough in this last year, 42 years later, I got to meet up with a few guys that I served with in Vietnam,” Gillen said. “In fact, while I’m here in Washington, D.C., I’ll be meeting up with my old commanding officer, who retired from the military as a colonel recently.”
Servicemembers today share that same bond, he said, and deserve the same respect as any previous generation of servicemembers.
“Those that are in uniform today are putting their lives on the line and risking everything. Their families are risking everything, too,” he said. “They’re stepping up to do things that people shouldn’t have to do, but people are continually asked to do.”
Gillen, a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, spent Veterans Day marching in a parade in Carson City, Nev., where he now lives. Memories of serving in Vietnam brought a tear to his eye, though a bit of soldier’s bravado contained his emotion.
“Being a veteran is probably the thing that draws the most pride out of me,” he said. “I’m proud to have served my country. I’m proud to be a veteran today. So many people weren’t as fortunate as me – they didn’t come back. As veterans, we have a responsibility to those who gave everything – to serve, and to never forget.”