How a Vietnam Vet Found Peace and Purpose 40 Years Later

He was the first Vietnam veteran to enter Harvard University and was a highly successful
marketing executive. But Jack McLean is best known as a best-selling author. When his first book, Loon: A Marine Story, was released in 2009, he hardly expected its success. It not only became a national bestseller, but allowed him to channel his unresolved emotional experiences, surrounding his time in Vietnam, into a cathartic outlet – for the first time in his life.

Now, with his second book, “Found: A Veteran Story,” set to be released Nov. 7, we spoke with the 76-year-old Huntington resident. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did you grow up?
So, I was born in Huntington. How about this, Huntington Hospital. My mother’s family was living in Northport, so that was where we lived, at the time. It was after the war, [WWII] and when my father got home from overseas, we moved to Summit, N.J. That’s where I grew up.

I was born in Huntington Hospital!
My wife may have delivered you, (laughs.)

What did your parents do for a living? Did your father being a soldier influence your decision to enlist?

My father was an attorney before and after the war. And, while my father was in the army, he wasn’t really a soldier. He was already older and was involved in the reconstruction of Germany. He helped set up its post-war government. He didn’t discuss his time there much. I remember, when I was little, asking him if he, at least, got to carry a gun. And, when he said yes, I thought that was the coolest thing ever. (laughs.)

Q. So, tell me about your path to becoming a Marine.
I was like a first-wave Baby Boomer. I went to Phillips Academy in Andover, M.A., which was definitely not the type of school that bred boys wanting to become soldiers. That’s not why parents sent their kids to places like this. Almost every single kid in my 250-person class went on to an Ivy League school. George Bush Jr. was, actually, in my class. But, despite all that, there was a great sense of reverence for the military there. We had just won the big war, and being in the marching band, we’d celebrate veterans’ day, and I’d hear “Taps” play, etc. So, I was really into all the paramilitary elements around me.

What came next for you?
My family was living in Boston, when my spring semester of my senior year rolled around. I got turned down by the last college I applied to, and I knew that if I didn’t go to college, I was gonna get drafted. So, I said, “You can’t draft me, because I’m gonna enlist.” (laughs.)

Kind of the same mentality as, “You can’t fire me. I quit!”
Exactly. So, with all the sense God gave 18-year-old boys, I enlisted in the Marine Corps, because they had a two-year program. It was 1966, and I say that Vietnam was still a country, not a war. So, I figured by the time I got out of boot camp, it would be over. Nobody dreamed it was going to go on as long as it did.

How did your peers react?
My classmates were shocked. Nobody from Andover since, maybe WWII, had ever gone directly into the service. It was just totally unheard of. Unlike most American high schools, where it wasn’t uncommon at all. But the decision felt totally natural to me. They could’ve gotten me into college someplace, but I was sort of exhausted, academically. These days, you say you’re going to take a gap year. But you couldn’t take a gap year. You got drafted. Needless to say, it didn’t feel as abnormal to me as it did to my friends. And, to my parents.

Where were you first sent, after enlistment?
I went down to Parris Island, S.C., where the Marine Corps boot camp is. Then, I was stationed out in California for a year. So, at this point, I have less than a year left. And, if you’re going to go to Vietnam, it was usually 13 months. So, I figured I wasn’t gonna go. But, it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. So finally, anybody who could walk and chew gum, and carry a rifle, was sent to Vietnam.

But you were sent to Vietnam. Were you petrified?
I was relieved, actually. I had gone through so much training, and to just not use it, seemed like a waste, in a way. Especially being a Marine. I made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t volunteer to go, but I wasn’t going to protest either. Not that I could’ve anyway.

Where were you stationed in Vietnam?
I joined an infantry company, in a place called Con Thien and Khe Sanh, Vietnam, which both became legendary places. I went into the Marines in August of ‘66, I went to Vietnam in, like, September of ‘67, and I came home when my enlistment was up, in August of 1968.

Did you consider staying in the military longer?
I applied to college in Vietnam, and started Harvard two weeks after I got home. I have a funny spot in the book, where I talk about my exit interview, and my company commander gives me the exit interview, and he goes “If you stay in, we’ll promote you from corporal to sergeant, we’ll put you in an easy place, etc. etc., and I said “Boy, you sure know how to sweet talk a guy!” (laughs). But, I was set to go to college. I figured my deal was two years, and I had done my two years. That was my deal with myself.

What made you want to write a second book?
I didn’t want to (laughs.) My first book, “Loon,” was published by Random House in 2009, and was about, pretty much, everything I just told you. Then, Loon, itself, was a battle that took place on June 4th, 5th, and 6th 1968, near the Laotian border, in which 40 of us were killed, and 100 of us were wounded. We got overrun. So, it was a really seminal moment for me, but six weeks later I came home. And, I never really processed anything I went through. I came home, worked, started a family, and began to really decline. My marriage fell apart, I was drinking, and, overall, just not well. But, through the help of the VA I was able to get the help I needed, in the early 2000s. I started writing more and more, after “Loon,” and decided I wanted to tell the rest of my story, and, hopefully, help not only vets, but anybody struggling. I found love again, and
am feeling much better, so there is hope.

Why did it take so long for you to get the help you needed?
Coming home from Vietnam was like entering a different world. Not only had society completely shifted, but we were the “Baby Killers.” We were traitors for having gone. It felt like everyone got us soldiers confused with the government. So, when I got home, the thing to do was to really just get on with my life and keep Vietnam in my rearview mirror. I remember mentioning to a girl that I was in Vietnam, and she literally walked away from me. It was not a point to brag about. I never even put on a job resume that I was there.

That is fascinating to me. I grew up in an age where servicemen and women were thanked for their service
Not back then. The country was not proud to have participated in Vietnam, and my GI Bill was a $200 dollar check, (laughs.) The country wanted to forget the war, and that included the people who were there. I think the first time someone said, “Thank you for your service,” was in 2005. I didn’t even know what that was about. I had no health insurance through the VA. I received no compensation. I wasn’t even properly evaluated by a doctor when I came home. The doctor pretty much said, “You’re good to go.” It was not until the ‘90s, when the V.A. became the VA you might think about today – a place of support for veterans. Jimmy Carter really turned that around. As you can tell I’m a big fan of the VA. Not the one I came home to, but the one that exists now.

Could you elaborate more on your struggles?
It took years for me to be found 100% disabled, which has allowed me to have a living wage for the rest of my life. But, as far as everyone was concerned, I was considered fine. I remember when the VA doctors finally deemed that my PTSD made me 20% disabled, (laughs,) and I got a couple hundred dollar check. It was reaffirming.
It wasn’t just the emotional troubles, though. I had developed diabetes and various forms of skin cancer, from being exposed to Agent Orange. (Agent Orange was a toxic chemical agent used by U.S. forces to destroy Vietnam’s jungles, which were thought of as cover for the Viet Cong.) It was a long and arduous process, to get the help I needed. Thankfully, the VA now runs much more smoothly. The amount of paperwork was incredible, and it would just not be sent to where it needed to go. There was a New York Times article, in 2009 that originally showed the claims office in Winston-Salem, North Carolina stacked up with tens of thousands of Vietnam Vets’ disability claims. And, the point of the article was that the office was shut down, because the fire marshal thought it would collapse under the weight of the files, (laughs.) By the 2000s, I could no longer hold a job, and was a complete wreck. I started going to group therapy, where I talked with guys about what we had been through. I had a shrink ask me once, “So, you were in Vietnam, watched your friends get killed, came home, pretended it never happened, and think you’re not even a little f-ed up?” And I said, “Yeah,” (laughs.)

It is astounding that it took 40 years for you to receive treatment.
It took all that time for things to really unravel. When I first came home, I had things to keep me occupied. But the toll the war had was slowly creeping up on me, for years, until I was completely emotionally paralyzed. I have to give Margaret, a social worker at the VA, the credit for single-handedly changing my life, and initiating my recovery. We spoke for one day, but her no BS approach gave me the courage I needed to get help. We’ve corresponded sporadically through the years, and she always answers with, “Thank you,” or “Looks like you’ve been busy.” She was a woman of few words, (laughs) and never wanted a thing from me. People like her never get recognition from anyone. She makes a meager salary, so she’s not exactly killing it, financially. They simply do what they do because they think it is important. It is deeper than a job for them.

What made you break the book up into a diary-like format, where you focused on specific dates and people/friends?
My editor told me to (laughs.) No, that was very good advice. Through the stories of my
brothers, I was able to find healing, by focusing on key moments from my life. Reconnecting with the families of some of my platoon buddies, decades after they died, was an experience like no other. It allowed me to make amends with my past and remember my fellow soldiers’ sacrifices. Writing this book has been therapeutic, and deeply personal, for me.
What do you hope people take away from this book?
I was an 18-year-old kid, caught up in it all. There weren’t many people like me who had been to Vietnam. That was the impetus for “Loon.” You know, “Loon” had success beyond anything I could’ve imagined. It’s funny, people who were anti-war, thought it was an anti-war book, and people who were sort of “ra ra” Marines, thought it was a great pro-Marines book. But, it was about neither. But, this story, I believe, will get through to many people. I want to make people aware of what it was like to be in Vietnam, to be a Vietnam veteran. Younger people, around my kids’ ages, don’t know a lot about that time, and it is important that people know, and acknowledge, the trials and tribulations of that era. And, again, I want to help people struggling know they are not alone.

And, finally, if you could go back, would you still be a Marine?
I am so proud to have been a Marine. I am so fortunate to have survived it, I am so fortunate to have had the wherewithal to put my experiences down on paper.
I’ll tell you a story. One day, I was doing a talk at a community college, up in Northern
Connecticut. So, I start to give my talk to 100, 150 students, and, then, we break for lunch. People are coming up to me, asking questions, when all of a sudden, this guy comes up to me, and says, “Welcome home. Jimmy Thompson, C-Company 54.” And, I said, “Welcome home, brother.” We hugged. We hugged. When we pulled away, I started to cry, and my buddy on the other side of me goes, “What is it about you Marines, anyway? Anytime you guys run into each other, it’s like you’ve known each other all your life.”
And, we both turned to him, with misty eyes, and said, “We have.”

Toni-Elena Gallo is a reporter with The SBU Media Group, part of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism’s Working Newsroom program for students and local media.


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