Vietnam Veterans were treated like garbage when they returned from war. There were no ticker-tape parades, only people like John Kerry calling them “baby-killers, village burners,” Jane Fonda consorting with the enemy, “peace demonstrations,” and people spitting at them. But one Marine who lived through it, Jack Cunningham, has been working for decades to restore dignity to Vietnam Veterans.
Duc Duc, Vietnam, 1970
US Marine Lance Corporal Jack Cunningham was in the Combined Action Program (CAP). Their deployment took them to a peasant farming village in the An Hoa Valley called Duc Duc (Phu Da). That village was made up of “refugees” – people who had been resettled there after the Communists took over their home villages.
His unit, the CAP 2-9-2, only had on average 8 marines and a Navy Corpsman. The CAP programs were all volunteer units. They lived in the villages with the peasants for their tour of duty. They also had a high mortality rate…something Jack didn’t know when he signed up.
The village was about 25 miles southwest of the Vietnamese city of Da Nang. In addition to the small Marine contingent, the village also had about 20 South Vietnamese Militiamen known as PFs or Popular Forces.
Intelligence reports continually told them that hundreds of Communists were coming through their village and would wipe them all out.
“When the communists did hit the village they started to probe by firing aimlessly into the village. This they did in the hope that the PFs militiamen would panic and return fire, thereby giving away our ambush site. (Surprise was our best weapon against much larger enemy units.) Since this was the first of many times that I was told we would be wiped out, I was scared shitless.
I knew I had to fight like a Marine, but I was so scared my chest felt like it was going to explode from my pounding heart. Finally, with God’s help, it started to pour rain. The PFs militiamen held their fire. For whatever reason the communists left. After that Marine combat veteran had really gotten me going about dying, it took me a while to calm down.” Jack Cunningham
Life in the village
Living with the threat of being wiped out day after day, night after night, was not easy. Especially since their ROEs were not to inflict civilian casualties, and don’t dig up the local’s yards to make bunkers.
The peasants generally liked these Americans, as they lived among them and essentially became villagers themselves. Jack told us that he used to go to the market to buy bananas in his shorts and flip-flops with a gun slung over his shoulder.
Once one of the women in the village provided the men with popcorn…only they covered it with fish sauce. You know, the kind that was a combination of ground up maggots that had festered inside of the fish left out in the hot jungle sun. It was not one of his favorite treats. They did ask for a bowl without the sauce. Must have been the gagging…
The peasants provided valuable intelligence information, even over and above the concern about Communist ‘moles’ that might be living in the village.
The horrors of war -with a homegrown support base
The Communist activity was increasing against their village, so the 5th Marines sent about 150 Marines and two tanks to take care of the problem. Jack’s CAP unit walked directly behind the tanks, following carefully in the tank treads.
One of the 5th Marines walked just outside the tracks, and stepped on a booby trap. His legs were blown off in the explosion.
The men eventually found a tunnel that hid the Communists…but in that tunnel was a shocking surprise. It was filled with boxes and boxes of medical supplies and clothing donated by students from UC Berkeley, as well as piles of American money. It stunned the Marines.
And it begged the question, “What are we doing this for?”
Word of massive anti-war protests, confrontations like Kent State, and the desecration of a war memorial back home weighed heavily on Jack and the remaining Marines with him.
“It was also around this time that I heard about the Kent State deaths. This was all tearing me apart. I was exhausted from all the intelligence reports about us getting wiped out. I was tired of seeing friends get hurt. All for nothing. No one really cared!! They hated us back home and people were trying to kill us here. Why were we fighting?? Everything sucked!! The fear of dying for nothing…is the ugliest fear of all. I hated the people back home more than the communists who were trying to kill us. I wanted to be left alone.”
Eventually, the pullout of troops was ordered, and the CAP team departed Duc Duc for good. Two days before they left, 2 Marines were killed, so it wasn’t a moment too soon for the Americans.
Seven months later, the Communists went through the village, massacring the people and burning it to the ground because they helped the Americans. Hundreds and hundreds of innocent Vietnamese civilians were killed, wounded or missing. Many of them had been Jack’s friends. The devastation from the war was complete. And after all the experiences he went through, Jack had developed PTSD.
You can read some of Jack’s experiences in Vietnam here at capveterans.com.
Over the course of his tour, Jack was wounded three times, and eventually received a purple heart. But homecoming wasn’t sweet, it was difficult. He was angry that he had PTSD. Angry at the way things were. Angry at the people who hated them. Angry at the politicians who made such a hash of things.
From wounded Marine to Advocate
Jack became an advocate for Vietnam Veterans, a man who desires that people understand that the Americans did some good things there. In addition to his website “capveteran,” he has started causes.com where his contact to Congressman Darrell Issa and others including Governor Chris Christie has been yielding mixed results for veteran’s issues. That website has garnered 28, 000 supporters.
He wrote several screenplays about his experiences after the interest began to change with regard to Vietnam. While producers have expressed interest, he will not change the story line.
He is outspoken, and has even been interviewed by the FBI for those outspoken comments. They found nothing in his remarks that could be considered a threat. But Jack Cunningham wants people to understand what is happening in America. He is a Trump supporter, and believes Hillary Clinton belongs in prison.
And he’s not about to back down for any of it.
“You can’t be afraid to speak your mind. In Vietnam, the Communists were outside the village. Now they are inside the government.” Jack Cunningham