SANTA CLARA — Almost every day, Santa Clara resident John Vinzant goes a few blocks from his home to the Veterans Memorial at the Santa Clara City Cemetery.
He recognizes some of the names etched in the concrete. For him, they’re not just names but also brothers he served with in the Vietnam War.
For Vinzant and other local residents who served, Veterans Day is not a day to mourn brothers lost but rather to feel the honor that comes with the uniform and defending the county.
“Memorial Day is a tough day for me, but this day is a celebration,” Vinzant said.
“I think of all the people that I served with and those that were hurt and those that lost their lives on a daily basis, but I remember it at a greater depth on Veterans Day.”
Vinzant has lived in Santa Clara for the last five years. He served as part of the 1st and 5th Battalions of the 25th Infantry in the early 1960s in Vietnam and Cambodia.
While for many, Veterans Day is seeing flags and retail military discounts, Vinzant said it is something different to people like him and others who faced combat.
“Unless you’ve been in combat, you just don’t know. It’s bittersweet. When a battle is over, you’re, you’re excited that you’re fine. Then comes into the casualty reports, and you’re not so fine,” he said. “My wife gave us four beautiful daughters. She cannot share the experience of childbirth because it’s unique to her. And somewhat, I guess, it would be the same thing with veterans.”
Vinzant is more than happy to tell his children and grandchildren the tales of being among his band of brothers, but the worst details are still tough to relate.
“I give a real G-rated version of Vietnam,” he said. “There is a PG and an R-rated, but I give a G-rated because it’s the only way I’m comfortable.”
One of the toughest moments was when his unit went into Cambodia to find a North Vietnamese regiment and ended up under heavy attack. Vinzant said seven out of every 10 of the soldiers in his unit didn’t come home.
He said it took at least 20 years for him to recover from the post-traumatic stress disorder from that incident, in a time before PTSD had entered most vocabularies.
The initial treatment of Vietnam veterans from the public didn’t help.
“When we got back to Travis Air Force Base, the people were there throwing eggs and tomatoes at the buses. Of course we couldn’t wear our uniforms into the airport,” Vinzant said.
Even when he got home, it was hard to leave Vietnam behind, he said.
“I’d get nightmares and I’d wake up in the middle of the night, paralyzed from my nose down. All I can move would be my eyeballs. And I laid there for what seemed like endless amounts of time,” Vinzant said. “I still have flashbacks and thoughts of it all the time. Never a day goes by, but, but I’ve overcome the PTSD pretty much.”
Helping Vinzant through those difficult moments was his wife, Kathy.
She and Vinzant had known each other since middle school but didn’t start dating until a year after high school. She was pregnant with their first child when he left on his first tour of Vietnam.
This Sunday, they will celebrate their 53rd anniversary. Kathy Vinzant remembers the importance of her physical touch and voice when her husband’s PTSD would strike in the middle of the night.
“The first time that this happened with John, he didn’t say anything, but I could hear him groaning,” she said. “And then I saw his eyes wide open. And so I just kind of started from the shoulders on down and started talking to him. I said, ‘You’re home, you’re home. You’re not in Vietnam anymore. You’re here, you’re with your two children, and we’re going to be OK.’”
John Vinzant credits three Fs with helping him recover: faith, family and friends. His best friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, Fred Davis, whom Vinzant’s kids and grandkids called “Uncle Fred,” passed away two years ago from Parkinsons.
Along with those three F’s, something else Vinzant appreciates is that the days of thrown tomatoes are long gone.
“Now we’re treated so well. You know, it’s unbelievable,” he said, noting that the 25th Regiment Vietnam Veteran hat he wears gets him an almost celebrity status when people see it. “What we learned from Vietnam is now we don’t have to support the war to support the troops. We support the troops. Always.”
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