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The real heroes never came home

Posted: May 23, 2009 10:08 p.m.
Updated: May 24, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Vietnam veteran Bruce Millhench flies his U.S. flag with U.S. Marine Corps logo over his house in Canyon Country.

 

Vietnam veteran Bruce Millhench, 60, of Canyon Country, says he’s not a hero.

He went on the occasional patrol, he says, but spent most of his time during the war cooking for several hundred fellow Marines.

The heroes, he said, are the ones who never came back, including some of his friends. He’ll remember them on Memorial Day, just as he does every other day of the year, he said. Especially prominent will be memories of the terrible night during the infamous Tet Offensive when friends and comrades died. Those memories have haunted him for decades, driving him to alcoholism and depression.

“I still have dreams about it, especially if thunder and lightning goes off. I kind of scare myself,” said Millhench, who enlisted in 1965.

“You can hear helicopters come by over my house. They rattle my windows, and if I’m not paying attention, I jump.”

Millhench recounted one of the first nights of the 1968 Tet Offensive — a push by the Viet Cong that occupied much of 1968 — when he and 100 Marines were sleeping in barracks near Freedom Hill, outside DaNang.

About 3 a.m., alarms blared. Soldiers who had been through a late-night raid before sprung up and started running. Others woke up in a state of shock and confusion.

The victims tended to be among the latter group.

Enemy soldiers broke into the camp and lobbed satchel-charge bombs into the barracks. Three of Millhench’s friends and a captain died.

“You know, you expect it, but then you don’t,” he said. “Anybody that was not scared 24 hours a day over there was crazy.”

His fallen buddies were the guys he would drink beer with on some nights, joke around and talk about what they wanted to do once they got back to the “real world” — the States. What they saw in Vietnam seemed too nightmarish to be real.

When he finally returned home in 1968 as a sergeant, he learned the nightmare wasn’t over.

He stepped off of an plane at Treasure Island, an artificial island in San Francisco Bay, and a first stop for many returning military personnel.

He recalled protesters were shouting insults at the Marines, and “baby-killer” was among the more charitable words.

“How can you come home as a 19-, 20-year-old kid and somebody calls you a baby-killer?” he said. “Life’s not fair. That kind of stuck with me for a long time.”

Some of his own family members refused to talk to him, as if they were ashamed of his service.

Millhench became an alcoholic and an introvert, far from the spunky teenager who went off to fight for the his country. He went through one marriage — his wife told him he had changed and wouldn’t talk to her. He told her he didn’t care. He also went through at least a 12-pack of beer a day, and had five arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol.

“I wanted to be left alone,” he said.

Finally, two decades later, he quit drinking. He says he hasn’t touched the stuff since he quit.

He since has remarried and now has two sons, two step sons, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandson.

For years, he was an umpire for Little League and high-school football games. Health problems have kept him off the field, but he can hear Canyon High School football games from his home.

But he still needs to be left alone, he said, and has few friends. And in his Canyon Country neighborhood, he prides himself on his reputation as a grumpy old man.

He recently joined the local chapter of the Lost Patrol, Vietnam Veterans of America.

And though sometimes it seems ridiculous to him that recognition and gratitude for his service took 40 years to arrive, he is glad it has.

“Vietnam was an unpopular war,” Millhench said. “To this day, it still is. Today, I’m getting people coming up to me and saying, ‘Thank you.’ That brings a tear to my eye. It brings warmth.

“I wasn’t no hero. I wasn’t no great person. I was scared the entire time I was there. I didn’t want to be there. There were days that I cried.

“But I did my job, and I was one of the lucky few that got to come home.”

 

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