A Civilian Soldier Tells His Story of Vietnam
By Katie McFadden
When U.S. servicemembers returned home from the Vietnam War, many weren’t given a warm welcome. Yet many of these soldiers, including many who were drafted, came home carrying the weight of the horrors they experienced in war, including injuries and losing friends. Many kept it to themselves. However, years after, some decided to share their stories, as personal historic records of what they experienced, and in tribute to those who weren’t lucky enough to come home. Rockaway resident Dennis Graham is one such U.S. Army Veteran who recently published his own story in a new book called, “On an Unknown and Distant Hill: A Citizen Soldiers’ Journey to War and Home.”
After returning home from the Army in 1970, 21-year-old Dennis Graham thought he was OK after serving in Vietnam during the war. And no one ever asked if he was. Nine months after, he got into a severe car accident. “When I made it home, I thought I was fine. I was young and strong, but I wasn’t fine, and I didn’t know it. I got into a bad car accident, almost killing myself and being read my last rites. Even after that I thought I was OK, but over the years, I realized maybe I could use some help, so now I’m in a cognitive therapy group in a VA hospital in Brooklyn and we get together weekly and tell our experiences in the military,” Graham said.
Graham is no stranger to hospitals. After the military, he got into healthcare and went on to become a nurse, a career he held for 41 years, last working at Sloan Kettering. After seeing what can happen to people in war, and in hospitals, Graham decided maybe it was time to start sharing his story. “I got up at the crack of dawn and would take out a tape recorder and started to dictate my experiences in Vietnam. I did that for ten and a half years, and in 2006, as I was getting closer to retirement, I realized how many patients I was taking care of and staff I was working with who were veterans. I had met a trauma surgeon who I learned served in Vietnam and they looked like everybody else, but they were walking around with this story in their back pocket. One doctor wrote a book about his experience as a surgeon in Vietnam and decided to publish it,” he said. “So, I got on my trusty computer and went to work. In 2007, I had a lady from Rockaway transcribe my tapes and I worked on the copy. I found out about self-publishing. It’s been a journey.”
In March, Graham’s book was officially published, almost 53 years from the day he was inducted into the U.S. Army. Getting drafted was something Graham had tried to avoid by enrolling in college. “I had to take 12 credits to get a deferral. I went to Queensborough Community College and signed up for what I thought was 12 credits in September 1968 and I’m in one of the classes, and after two hours, the professor said, ‘come back next week.’ I realized it should’ve been three hours and I looked it up in the course book and found out it was only two credits. I only had 11 credits, and that’s how I got drafted. There was nothing I could do. I thought maybe it wouldn’t happen, but it did.
“When I got to Fort Hamilton to get inducted on March 13, 1969, I thought maybe I could explain about the mistake with the credits, but I saw 200 other guys there like me and I said to myself, ‘why not me? I’m not better or worse than they are.’ I wasn’t sure I could do it physically. I didn’t know where they would send me or what I would become, but my father and uncles were all in the military during WWII. As a kid, I grew up listening to their stories.”
And so began his own. After going through basic training, Graham became an infantry soldier and was shipped out to Vietnam on September 30, 1969. He was assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion 8th Cavalry.
“Within the first 45 days, I was wounded twice,” Graham said. “I have a piece of shrapnel in my left arm and one in my back. I had a CAT scan at a VA hospital after and the tech goes, ‘you’re a lucky boy.’ I said ‘why is that?’ They said, ‘I saw your CAT scan.’ I could have been in a grave instead of having this conversation.” Graham was awarded a Purple Heart for his injuries.
Others were not as lucky. Graham says he lost 13 guys from his company. Graham had served 19 months, five days and six hours with the U.S. Army in Vietnam. He finally returned home on October 14, 1970. Between August 1969 to October 1970, 69 soldiers from 1st Battalion 8th Cavalry 1st Air Cavalry had died.
Graham pays tribute to them all in his book, with their photos and brief information as listed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. His book also contains poems from his fellow soldier, Jim Ellis, who pays tribute to some of their fallen brothers. Graham also includes several photos from his experience in and out of the jungles of Vietnam.
Despite the hardships of war and after, Graham looks back as his experience and says, “It was an amazing journey. War changes you forever, but we did what we were supposed to do and what we did was try to keep one another alive.”
Graham is still striving to keep soldiers alive. After his experience, he created the Center for Veterans Health, a not-for-profit organization that helps veterans with things like housing, healthcare, food and other services. While out on the boardwalk, trying to let veterans know about the organization, he found the inspiration he needed to finish telling his own story. “A couple years ago, I see one guy with a 101 Airborne hat on and he told me his son served in Iraq and he died from an overdose on drugs from PTSD. He was wearing the hat for his son. I walked further and saw two guys that had no military apparel, but I asked, and one guy said he was. He said, ‘I was in Vietnam in the 4th Infantry. I was in mortuary affairs.’ I said to him, ‘That must have been very difficult,’ and he said, ‘It still is.’ That made it all come together for me to finish the book,” Graham said.
Fifty percent of the proceeds Graham makes from his book, will go right to the Center for Veterans Health to help fellow veterans. The book is available for purchase on Lulu Books. Search “Dennis Graham” on Lulu.com to buy a copy.
Graham hopes his book may one day make it into libraries so others can know how war impacts people. “I hope it reaches some people so they understand how war can make you who you are,” he said.