Fifty years after Vietnam, veteran recalls experience
Thomaston — Ernest Robinson Jr. and his wife, Sharon, were newlyweds when he received a draft letter in the winter of 1968. His two best friends were also drafted that winter — one month after the other.
"We all laughed, of course, we thought it was a hell of a joke. We didn't know what Vietnam really was — where it was," Robinson recalled.
Robinson, of Thomaston, was 25 years old and on the front lines in the 25th infantry. "It wasn't fun, I'll tell you, it was hell — if there ever is a hell, Vietnam was it."
The friends never saw each other in Vietnam, but they all came home alive.
Robinson said the military wanted Maine men because they knew how to fight and possessed a deft ability for survival from living off the land. "You never saw no Senator's son over there," he said. "My family was poor, I didn't have a chance."
"I was naive. I went to Fort Polk, La., and got the shock of my life," Sharon said.
Sharon said while Ernest was in Vietnam, she never read the paper or watched the news. "I just waited for his letters and calls once a month." She said the support of her family helped her through the tireless waiting for his return.
"I still and I never will, to this day, know everything that happened over there," she said.
Robinson's first exposure to the war-torn Southeast Asian nation was from a plane about to land amid intense action. "We looked down and said, 'they're having fireworks.'" The pilot answered, "fireworks, hell — that's a fire fight."
A lot of combat in Vietnam was fought underground in tunnels — "They had tunnels as big as this whole town," he said. Robinson said he wasn't crazy enough to go in the tunnels, searching for the enemy with a flashlight and rifle. "I wasn't afraid of nothing, but maybe a damn rat down there."
Robinson was awarded two bronze stars for bravery, but he declined to tell the story that garnered him the recognition. "The only medals that should have been awarded are to the ones who gave everything — their lives," he said. "I didn't go there to get a medal, just to see if I could save some lives and help people."
"We'd go into villages that were wiped out — not a boy in it, homes burned down. It was just terrible," he said.
The images of war Robinson commands from telling his experience are haunting, the terror and repugnance palpable. "We just don't know how lucky we are in this country, we take it for granted," he said. "If they ever went into a place like Vietnam, and knew what communism really is, they wouldn't think their life was so bad," he said.
From a family of 16 children, Ernest was the fourth born son and the only one to serve. He was christened after his father, who also experienced war in World War II. "There must have been a reason for it," he said, "he handed me down everything he had."
Despite the horror of war, Robinson said returning home made him want to go back. "I was treated better over there, not like an animal." He recalled the National Guard assisting troops from the plane in California. "They were throwing bottles at us and calling us baby killers."
"60,000 boys got killed and they were just kids," Robinson said. As Robinson was older, he was regarded as an older brother. "But you can't save them all," he said.
"It's nothing to be proud of. So many died for no reason and it was a long war," he said.
Robinson considered injuring himself to get home, but didn't because he couldn't bring himself to leave his brothers behind.
In June, Robinson went to Waterville for a 50th homecoming anniversary for Vietnam veterans. Veterans were invited to participate in a coming home march, crossing the Two Cent Bridge, which is symbolic of crossing the waters from Vietnam to California. His sisters, Carrie and Patty, along with his wife, accompanied him to the event.
Robinson said the ceremony in Waterville was too late for many veterans, but he accepted the recognition to help his healing. "They did a wonderful job," he said.
Robinson said he's grateful to see troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan are regarded with pride.
He said you can't put somebody in a war and expect them to come back whole.
Robinson said he's received good medical care at the the Togus VA hospital, able to access services to counseling to heal mental and emotional wounds. "There's help out there if you want it," he said.
Robinson said there's a lot of hate in the world, but his philosophy is to live and let live. "I pray every night that these soldiers come home and there are no more wars," he said.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at email@example.com.