Wes Thompson was born to be a Marine.
The idea of donning a uniform and serving his country had fascinated him all through his childhood, so for Thompson, at the age of 21, it only made sense to join the Marine Corps in the midst of a war.
When he went to sign up, his recruiter promised him a hard time – a promise Thompson took as a direct challenge that only made him more eager to join.
He spent a year and half stateside before he was shipped over to Vietnam in 1968. But despite the ominous warning from the recruiter, he still wasn’t prepared for what lay ahead. “Being in a war zone is nothing like you’d expect,” Thompson said. “You see things that totally amaze you, everything from how they got around on bikes and buses to the way they lived. It was a bit of a shock. It was primitive … the villages had no electricity, no running water. It was like stepping back in time.”
Thompson was stationed in the demilitarized zone, a strip of land separating North from South Vietnam, and two things hit him the instant he walked out the doors of his transport in Da Nang, Vietnam: The intense heat and the smell. “It was an awful smell. It was a mixture of everything from jet fuel to rice paddies to rotten vegetation. It’s one of those things you just can’t explain,” he said.
He spent much of his tour living in dugout bunkers, where you made your bed by filling the hole up with dirt, and eating C-rations, packages of pre-portioned canned meals, three meals a day every day for months on end.
He watched his friends die – men who just the year before had been at their senior proms and mere children. And, soon, the “mission” became less about government interests and fighting Communism and more about getting himself and his buddies back to stateside in one piece.
“There were moments of sheer boredom where nothing was happening, and there were moments in combat where it’s sheer terror,” Thompson said. “It’s hard to describe other than it’s a whole bag of emotions. You’re never totally relaxed.”
The shock of going was nothing compared to the shock of coming back. Thompson vividly remembers stepping off a plane at the San Francisco International Airport with a few other vets and having people refuse to look at them. “We were nonexistent. It was really strange in that they weren’t calling us names, but we just didn’t exist,” Thompson said. “There was no eye contact, and they definitely wouldn’t talk to us. It was disconcerting.”
Thompson said the reception was warmer when he returned home to Blaine, where he was born and raised, because people were just glad to see him make it back. But, he, like many other veterans, quickly found that it didn’t take long for them to stop talking about their service.
“People didn’t relate to us. They didn’t understand,” he said. “We weren’t telling war stories, but they just didn’t understand what life was like over there.” So, for decades, he pushed the stories away and refused to share.
Now, with 30 years of perspective, he said it’s become easier to talk. “Eventually it does come out,” he said. “But even my children didn’t know what I did for awhile. They knew I was in the Marine Corps and was proud of that.” But details such as how crowds can still be difficult and the incessant need to control his environment are slow to rise to the surface.
Thompson has turned his efforts to helping other veterans deal with their experiences by working with the Streets-Pike Post #9474 as a commander now. “I think that part of my calling as a veteran is to reach out to other veterans. Even though there’s a lot of inter-service rivalry, I have great respect for anyone who has or is wearing a uniform. They’ve all stepped up to volunteer to serve their country,” he said. Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraqi veterans are a huge concern for him. “I would like to help them realize that there are other veterans, older veterans who have been through what they have.”
Looking back, Thompson said he would do it all over again, given the opportunity. “It was a great experience,” he said. “I would recommend it for most to put on the uniform and serve your country. It gives you an opportunity to grow, and opportunity to see and experience other parts of the world. It’s hard to appreciate what you have until you see people who don’t have that.”
With Veterans Day approaching, he looks on his service with pride. “I’m proud to be a veteran. I’m proud to be an American, and I’m proud to be a Marine,” he said. “It gives you a purpose and a chance to grow up. And it gives you a chance to do things for other people and gain a different perspective on life. Serving challenges you to do something you didn’t think you could, or that you wouldn’t have done otherwise.”