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Remembering Vietnam: Gulf of Tonkin cemented US war that scarred many veterans

Russell Carpenter, of Soulsbyville, served three tours of duty in Vietnam, totalling nearly two years.
 Fifty years ago, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution — which cemented the United States’ commitment to the Vietnam War, subsequently affecting the lives of many Mother Lode residents — was signed into law. 

Congress passed the resolution Aug. 7, 1964, following a report a few days earlier that North Vietnamese forces had attacked two American ships conducting surveillance offshore. Though the veracity of the report was later debated, the resolution was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on Aug. 10 and allowed him to commit regular military troops to aid South Vietnam in its war against the communist north.

The war eventually would touch millions of Americans’ lives, including the lives of untold thousands of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties residents.

Between the two counties, nearly two dozen people died in service. Families lost husbands, brothers and sons.

Today, those who made it back carry stories that few would want to remember — of patients dying on blood-soaked operating tables, of “Taps” playing in an endless loop, of friends lost and of the hatred encountered when arriving home.

“That resolution changed America,” is the way retired surgeon John Baldwin summed it up. “That resolution basically opened the door for 11 years of really hard fighting.”

‘A very bad situation’

Baldwin entered the war involuntarily in 1967. The telegram drafting Baldwin arrived as he was conducting surgery at a San Francisco hospital.

After he was drafted, he spent a year as chief of surgery at Fort Ord, a former U.S. Army post north of Monterey, before working a year in Vietnam. His job was to operate on injured soldiers and civilians.

“For a surgeon, it was the ultimate experience because there were no distractions — no family members in the waiting room, no bills, no lawyers,” he said. “It was pure. You could focus simply on being a surgeon.”

Baldwin, who now lives in Twain Harte, estimates he treated 1,800 patients in Vietnam. Of all his patients, he only lost two American soldiers, three children and four South Vietnamese. The names of the two Americans — rubbed from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. — are displayed on the wall of his home office. 

Baldwin has stayed in touch with 26 of his patients from Vietnam. Of those, 22 have stayed with the Baldwins at their home.

One of those patients was a Pennsylvania man, who was struck by a bullet on the right side of his head. At that moment, all of the neurosurgeons were busy operating so Baldwin stepped in and saved his life.

“I came home with an admiration for the American soldier — his courage and his love of country despite terrible odds and a very bad situation,” Baldwin, 79, said. 

While Baldwin has torn feelings about the war, it impacted his personal life in unexpected ways. He met his longtime wife, Jeannie, who served as his operating room nurse. 

“Her face was covered with a surgical mask, but I just fell in love with her eyes,” he recalled.

‘I will never forget’

With more than 500 members, the Tuolumne County chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America — Chapter 391 — is the largest VVA chapter in the state and the eighth largest in the national organization.

One of its members, Russell Carpenter, served three tours of duty in Vietnam from 1971 to 1973.

“I forgive the government for what they did to us Vietnam vets, but I will never forget,” the Navy veteran said. 

Even so, Carpenter said he would serve his country again.

“If I was 18, I would do it again,” he said. “Because I’m an American. I’m a very proud patriot.”

Carpenter, 62, of Soulsbyville, is the founder of the nonprofit Vets Helping Vets, which recently opened a thrift store in East Sonora. He said giving back to other veterans is part of his “own personal therapy.”

“By helping them, I feel a lot better,” said Carpenter, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and throat cancer as a result of serving in Vietnam.

A native of Los Angeles, Carpenter said he enlisted in the military because his country was “calling” on him. He said there’s not a day that goes by when he doesn’t think about his time in Vietnam. 

“I have bad days and good days, but when I have bad days I keep it to myself,” he said. 

One of the bad days that still stands out in his memory was arriving back from Vietnam at Los Angeles International Airport. Carpenter said he was wearing his uniform when someone spit on him.

Several years prior, Lou Domondon had a similar experience.

The Valley Springs resident said after he arrived at San Francisco International Airport in 1965, at the age of 20, a lady holding a young child spat in his face and called him a “baby killer.”

“That was my welcome home to the United States,” said Domondon, now 69. “I was shocked. I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t even talk. I can still picture that woman’s face.” 

Domondon said Vietnam veterans have a common saying among each other: “We are sure we’re going to heaven because we already served our time in Hell.”

‘It changes your life’

Valley Springs veteran Gail Belmont enlisted just after her 18th birthday.

Her first assignment was one that made a lifelong impression on her: Playing “Taps” at the funerals of fallen Vietnam soldiers. 

“It was awful, because when you’re young like that and you see that stuff it changes your life,” she said. 

As a member of the Women’s Army Corps Band, she played the bugle at funerals in rural Mississippi and Alabama from 1969 to 1972.

Belmont, herself, grew up in Merced County.

“They called me a Yankee because if you didn’t live in the South you were considered a Yankee,” she said. 

Belmont recalled being emotionally shaken by anti-war protesters along a funeral procession in Mississippi. 

“We were kind of scared for our lives,” she said. “They were screaming, and jumping up and down. They were against the war. They didn’t care about the military, the people serving.” 

Belmont, 62, is now the executive director of a Valley Springs-based nonprofit called Quilts of Honor, which awards handmade quilts to war veterans. She was honored in June as Veteran of the Year by state Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, who represents Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. 

“Now, Vietnam vets are finally coming forward and dealing with issues from the past 50 years,” Belmont said. 

‘Time carries on’

Vietnam veterans didn’t receive the homecoming that previous generations of servicemen experienced. 

Instead, a mounting anti-war movement caused most Vietnam veterans not to talk about their experiences. Some threw their uniforms away. Many turned to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope. 

Frank Smart, a Vietnam veteran and Sonora-area veterans-rights advocate, said at the time the American people “couldn’t separate the war from the warrior.”

Over time, counseling — both private and through Veterans Affairs — has helped Vietnam veterans “learn to deal with the nightmares, the hurt feelings, the rejection,” Smart said.

Murphys resident Tom Christian, who served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, said he noticed the stigma of being a Vietnam veteran change around the start of the new century. 

“In the past 10 to 15 years, I would consider it a healing time with society and Vietnam vets,” he said. “Time carries on.”

Christian, who was living in Huntington Beach,  was drafted into the Army in late 1969 at the age of 21. He said his options were to serve in the military, go to jail or flee to Canada. 

“I was convinced I could do some good,” said Christian, noting his father served in World War II and his grandfather in World War I.

Christian, now 66, spent most of 1970 in Vietnam.

“It just seems like a faraway dream now for the most part,” he said. “Arriving in Vietnam was very traumatic. I don’t care how well they trained you. You’re never ready for what you saw.”

He recalled fighter jets flying above, smoke rising in the surrounding mountains and gun-strapped soldiers in jungle fatigues.

“My attitude when I went is to try and help people, but after I was there awhile I realized there was no goal,” he said. “Do I agree with war? No, I think war is ugly. But if you’re going to send American soldiers to war, you need to go to win. If you’re not going to win, you don’t go because you’re sacrificing young American lives.”

Because of his experiences, he feels a bond to soldiers who followed him into battle on foreign soil.

On a wall in his home, a small memorial includes pictures of Army Sgt. Bobby Rapp, of Sonora, and Marine Lance Cpl. Gavin Brummund, of Arnold. Both were 22 when they were killed in Afghanistan, in 2008 and 2010 respectively. 

A sign above reads, “Land of the free because of the brave.”

Christian said after returning from Vietnam he was fortunate to have a strong support system of family.

“I’d been to Hell, and I was so free when I came back,” he said. 

Eventually, Christian trained to become a gym teacher, but he “found the attitude of a lot of kids not very positive,” especially the way they talked to adults.

“After what I saw in Vietnam, I just couldn’t deal with kids who weren’t thankful,” he said. 

Christian found that working with special-needs students was a better fit. In June, he retired from 35 years of teaching adapted physical education in the Mother Lode. 

“Looking back on that year, I’m glad I went because it gave me perspective for the rest of my life,” he said of Vietnam. “I’m very grateful to be sitting here today in a free country.” 

Contact Mike Morris at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it or 588-4585. 

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