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Reunion helps vet cope with return home

November 10, 2012

When the famous quote "War is Hell" is heard, many associate it with soldiers on the battlefield. But for many Vietnam War veterans, there is an association with "hell" being on American soil.
Forty-six years ago U.S. Marine Cpl. Bill Scrimager, today 68, was severely wounded in the Vietnam War. He watched his best friend die before his own eyes. He lost an eye, was severely burned, and he lost his hearing. After a year in a Navy hospital in San Diego, Calif., Scrimager returned home and enrolled in the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville in 1969.
"I was on the battlefield one year and then the next year I'm on a college campus with a bunch of hostile Americans that were opposed to the war. I had a difficult time when I got back to the States, but I also had a unique experience in my return because of attending college," the soft-spoken, humble Scrimager said.
"I heard so much on the college campus. A lot of (people) were actually praising communism. They seemed to worship Fidel Castro and Che Guevara who executed thousands of people. They kind of admired them."
But instead of turning to anger, Scrimager found the self-discipline to turn the other cheek. He said Vietnam veterans on the campus had decided not to speak.
"It was basically my responsibility to not talk about the Vietnam War with them. If they found out I was a Vietnam veteran, I would have been treated like a criminal," Scrimager explained. "They called us baby killers and things like that. I never saw any babies killed. "They kept talking about the virtues of communism, but they didn't know what they were talking about. We were over there fighting the communists and we saw what they did. I had to live through that and I thought they (anti-Vietnam War protesters) were kind of misinformed."
He added, "But I did get together with other Vietnam veterans on campus. We were a very small group, but we supported each other."
Scrimager said many protesters were fueled by politicians in that time period that "pandered" to their thoughts in order to be elected. He said what the protesters did not know was exactly what he and other veterans witnessed on the battlefield. They also forgot that the young men in that period didn't have many options other than joining in the war.
"We all had to join (a military branch) back then because of the draft, so I chose the Marine Corps," Scrimager said. "I also had an uncle that was a Korean War veteran as a Marine and he was very impressive. It was the challenge of the Marine Corps and my uncle that inspired me to join the Marines."
After basic training in San Diego, Calif., Scrimager was sent overseas where he joined Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 11th Marines, also known as Alpha North. The Alpha North base camp was located just south of Da Nang where they were assigned to support the infantry, including the use of M105 howitzers.
"Those guns will fire about five miles, so we didn't have to really get close to the action," Scrimager said, but that all changed on April 18, 1966. "That night we found out what it was like to be close up with the enemy. That night they came after us.
"I was standing outpost that night," he said. "All of a sudden, we were overrun by a company of hard-core Viet Cong (National Liberation Front). When the battle started, the Viet Cong was already inside our fence line. They were that quiet and that stealthy that they got through the fence (undetected). They were all over the place."
Scrimager saw all the howitzers destroyed and best friend Arnold shot in the chest multiple times. He jumped down into a bunker with his weapon when suddenly there was an explosion. In total, he said there were three explosions at his bunker, one outside and two inside.
"The first explosion went off and I woke up on the ground. When I realized what was going on, I grabbed another weapon and went back to work, just to get hit again," Scrimager said.
The battle lasted for 45 minutes, he said. When it ended, five Marines were dead and 28 were wounded.
"The way my military records describe it, I was wounded over the entire body," Scrimager said. "I had second-degree flash burns on my face, legs and arms. I had lost an eye and both my eardrums were popped. I have both vision and hearing impairment, but I am thankful to have one eye and I'm very thankful to be alive. I probably should have died, too."
But Scrimager survived and later was given numerous medals, including a Purple Heart, Presidential Unit Citation, Combat Action Ribbon, National Defense Good Conduct, Vietnam Service award, and even three medals awarded by the South Vietnam government — Vietnam Campaign Medal, Gallantry Cross Unit Citation and Civil Action Medal. Now Scrimager was ready to heal physically, and he hoped to heal emotionally. But there were the anti-Vietnam War protesters determined to get underneath the skin of a man who nearly died to protect their rights to protest.
Through it all, Scrimager remained silent. What the protesters didn't know was that the war veterans remained quiet for reasons other than avoiding a fight. Scrimager said he personally knew five Vietnam War veterans who committed suicide because of the treatment they received upon their return home.
" I was determined that I was not going to do that (suicide), I wasn't going to be like that, and I had decided that I wasn't going to fall prey to any of that stuff. I wasn't going to let them get me down," he said. "I was determined to get my college degree and live my life. I owe it to (Vietnam veterans) to succeed in life. This is my country; I fought for it; I have rights, and I'm not going to give them up."
But Scrimager wasn't just dealing with student war protesters. He said it seemed that the entire country was against him.
"I discovered quickly that it was not a popular thing to be a Vietnam veteran. It counted against you back then in our society," Scrimager said. "I know darn well that when I interviewed for jobs that I was not given a job because I was a Vietnam veteran. I know darn well that some of the professors did not give me the grade I earned because I was a Vietnam veteran."
That determination paid off for Scrimager. In 1973, he earned a business degree with a major in accounting.
"When people used to ask me what I did, I would say I'm one of those sissy accountants, formerly a Marine combat veteran," Scrimager said with a laugh. "I had a 35-year career as an accountant, and I retired in 2009."
Forty-six years later, Scrimager had rarely, if ever, talked about his time in the Vietnam War, nor his experience upon his return home. He took solace in that popular communes of the late '60s/early '70s that had spawned support of communism in his homeland had closed their doors, or at least have become secretive and unpopular places today. But the ghosts of the past remained locked inside.
A few months ago, Scrimager turned on his answering machine and heard a woman ask if he was Bill Scrimager that was with Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 11th Marines.
"It was kind of surreal to hear that and I called her back," he said. "She said the (Alpha North) guys were putting a reunion together."
Scrimager learned that the reunion was set for Oct. 14-17 in Las Vegas.
"I was reluctant about going because I really hadn't put that behind me, so I was glad that I actually went. There was a lot of excitement, but also lot of nervousness because that night came back and … " Scrimager halted, took a breath with slight emotion and changed the subject. "It was the first time I had seen them in 46 years. I hadn't even talked to any of these guys for 46 years. The last time I saw these guys, they were all teenagers. Now, we are just a bunch of old guys."
Though it is still hard for Scrimager to open up and discuss about the details of April 18, 1966, he said going to the reunion has helped him heal. He realized at the reunion that the time of American society despising Vietnam War veterans is long gone. No longer are the they spit on, or called baby-killers, or turned down for employment simply because they are veterans. Today, these same men largely are honored and respected by society.
"I didn't talk about the war (in the past). Vietnam was a very unpopular war and nobody wanted to hear about it," Scrimager said. "But now I've got some people that I can call and talk to. I believe (the reunion) did help me. I really haven't had enough time for it all to really soak in, but I feel some sort of relief by going there. Just talking to the guys there that night and finding out all the details that went on there that night, I think that helped."
Today he proudly talks about his son, Aaron, who holds the rank of Petty Officer 1st Class in the U.S. Navy. Scrimager said he never pushed the military on his son and was surprised that his son joined.
"He had gone to college, graduated from the University of Arkansas and showed no interest in the military," he said. "I left the decision of joining the military up to him. I didn't push him to join the military because I figured we'd paid enough. Then about a year after he graduated, he joined the Navy. I wish he would have thought of that earlier, because he could have joined the ROTC and saved me a lot of money."
With a smile and a laugh, he said he is not reluctant to admit that he worries about his son being a deep-sea diver for the Navy. And he encourages others to at least consider the military.
"Military service is not for everyone, but I would encourage someone to join if that is what they want to do," Scrimager said. "It is a unique experience, and it is a maturing experience. You will definitely grow up and mature in the military."
Bill Scrimager is not afraid to admit that war is indeed hell on the battlefield, but hopes that Americans have learned from their mistakes in the treatment of Vietnam War veterans on U.S. soil.
Today Scrimager is honored for the valor he displayed on the battlefield overseas and for the courageous stance he took in the face of adversity.
His life is a testament to heroism.

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