Bob Havner, 65, of Charles City Iowa, doesn’t like to talk to people about Vietnam, but will open up to a select few. He doesn’t reminisce about those days, doesn’t go to the Veterans’ Halls to tell or hear war stories. Instead, he chooses to serve others.
Havner joined the Navy in 1965 as the war in Vietnam was getting more intense. A friend of his from high school had returned from serving in Vietnam and invited Havner over to his home for a game of ping pong, Havner recalls.
“He asked me, ‘Bob, what are you going to do?'” said Havner, to which he replied. “I have absolutely no idea!”
Havner’s friend suggested he join the Navy and become a Navy Corpsman, the rough equivalent of an Army Medic and serve in Vietnam.
“He said, ‘why don’t you become a hospital Corpsman?'” recalls Havner. “‘I know you want to be a nurse. If you don’t get killed in Vietnam you can use the GI Bill.’ And you know that’s what I did.”
Many of the stories Havner tells are too horrific to relate here. A short example of two of Havner’s least graphic tales can be found below as he relates what happened at his base in Da Nang during two separate attacks.
Havner suffers from PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder, for which he takes medication. Without the medication, he’s a different person he says.
“You absolutely don’t want to be around me when I don’t take my medication,” Havner warns.
He doesn’t dwell on the negative, the depression or the end of two marriages. Instead he focuses on service. After leaving Vietnam he did become a nurse and worked in different hospitals his whole career, including work in a neonatal unit working with young mothers and their premature children.
In retirement, Havner hasn’t slowed down. He belongs to a number of organizations and is active in grassroots politics. He says one of the greatest joys he has is greeting home veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, and escorting the older veterans on “Freedom Honor Flights” to the World War II memorial in Washington D.C.
As a member of the Marine Corps League in Charles City, he and fellow veterans have sponsored veterans to fly to Washington to see their memorial.
“It’s therapeutic for me!” says Havner. “It’s important that veterans of that generation get to see their memorial before they are all gone.”
Issues of mental and physical health of veterans of Vietnam and the negative reception many of the veterans of that war received upon returning home has been an impetus for many veterans to never allow what happened to them to happen to another, Havner says. That’s why many Vietnam Veterans are advocates for education in Veterans Affairs, insuring that new veterans get better health care and better treatment as they return home.
Havner recalls how he missed his own grandmother’s funeral because he had orders to escort the remains of a fellow Marine home to his loved ones. Upon completion of his duty, he returned home, arriving at the airport in his Marine Corps Dress Uniform. An angry protestor greeted him with a snarl and a hot cup of coffee, which she poured all over Havner’s uniform.
“It wasn’t a popular war,” said Havner. “We were called all sorts of names, it wasn’t pleasant, that’s why we as veterans who had to go through this don’t allow it to happen to our men and women in uniform now.”
The Freedom Honor Flights are all done now, but the memory and the joy they brought rejuvenates the retired Havner. He recalls two incidents where he was able to help a veteran on those trips.
“An older veteran was told he had only a few months to live,” Havner said. “I asked him if he wanted to see the memorial. He said yes, but he said there wasn’t enough time. I said, ‘you think you can hang on a little while longer if I promise to take you?’ He said, ‘absolutely!’ and we went.”
“His family approached me after the old man had died, to thank me,” Havner said. “They said, ‘thank you for returning my father to me.'”
The old man had been bitter and angry since the close of World War II and hand been hard to deal with. Holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, birthdays weren’t celebrated, and nobody wanted to deal with the aging father. Following that trip to Washington, the old man invited his family over for Christmas. Havner recalls there was a reconciliation in that family, because the old veteran was finally able to hang up his grief.
On the last Freedom Flight, Havner had a chance to fly out to Washington with the good friend who convinced him to join the Navy in the first place. Havner’s friend had had a hard time ever since and had suffered health and social problems. Havner invited him as a gesture. On their return home, Havner played a little trick on his friend. The man’s family was there, waiting to give him the welcome home that he never received upon returning from Vietnam.
“You should have seen his face. It was priceless,” Havner said.
For information on Navy Hospital Corpsman in Vietnam and Navy Surgical Hospitals, click here. (Warning! Graphic content.)
For information on Freedom Honor Flights, visit freedomhonorflight.org.