Tom Hennessey, PhD, carries a well-informed perspective on American military history and involvement during the past half-century. He and his father both served 28 years in the Army, with the son serving from July 1965 to January 1993, then earning his doctorate in public policy from George Mason University, where he taught for 20 years. He retired in 2013 and moved to Gainesville. Hennessey served two tours in Vietnam, from August 1966 to August 1967 and July 1968 to July 1969, and was twice wounded. Our conversation took place Aug. 15, 2017, at his home in Gainesville.
James Thomas Hennessey Jr. I go by Tom. Born in Covington, Kentucky, April 3, 1943.
What is your educational background?
I and my wife attended Eastern Kentucky University. I was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant Infantry in June 1965 and went back there after my second tour in Vietnam on ROTC duty. Received my masters in public administration. While I was in my last two years on active duty, I was working on my PhD in public policy and finished that in 1996.
When did you end up serving?
I served from July 1965 to January 1993.
When do you first recall hearing of a conflict in Vietnam? Can you pinpoint the moment?
That was easy. I was a senior in ROTC. This, of course, was end of 1964, beginning of 1965. One of the seniors that was in ROTC with me was actually serving in the 1st Cavalry Division. You learned all about that in ROTC — what was going on, got up to speed on it really quickly. John Hamlin was one of those wounded severely in the 1st Battle of Ia Drang. Great guy. He was a paraplegic, shot multiple times in the torso and severed his spine. He ended up in 30 surgeries and worked for the VA the rest of his active career.
Do you recall your response as you learned more about what was going on?
Being young and really not knowing precisely what was happening, you were more focused on these are the things I need to know to be a successful officer. That pretty much defines the difference between being an officer/leader and just being an enlisted man — not necessarily a non-commissioned officer. Being a leader responsible for men, you’re thinking more in terms of these are the things I need to know to accomplish the mission and take care of my soldiers.
Do you recall having any conversations with parents or family members about the conflict?
My dad served in both World War II and Korea. He didn’t talk much about his service, as I think is pretty characteristic of veterans of those days.
My dad served in both World War II and Korea. He didn’t talk much about his service, as I think is pretty characteristic of veterans of those days. It wasn’t until after I completed my second tour that he and I really talked about our combat experiences. There weren’t any combat vets in 1965, really, other than the Korean and Vietnam veterans. There weren’t many of them around.
…Coming back from my first tour, we landed in Seattle-Tacoma Airport. I was a lieutenant with three young sergeants. As was the want of the military in those days, we were on space-available tickets. We were flying from the west coast, east. It’s September, and one of the stewardesses came back and said, ‘You know, lieutenant, because it’s time for school, you may get bumped in one of these cities when we pick up college students going back to school. I said, ‘Ma’m, we just spent a year in the jungle. It’s going to take more than you and the crew to get us off this aircraft.’ Not long after that, the captain came back and said, ‘Lieutenant, don’t worry. You’re aboard until you get home.’
What were your exact dates of service in country?
August 1966 to August 1967 and July 1968 to July 1969.
When you first got to Vietnam, what was that date and your initial impression?
If you can take the hottest, most humid day in Gainesville, Florida, and add to that the overwhelming smell of fish sauce, human excrement, and charcoal fires.
We got there Aug. 15, 1966. I think the first thing that strikes you is the smell. And the heat. And the humidity. If you can take the hottest, most humid day in Gainesville, Florida, and add to that the overwhelming smell of fish sauce, human excrement, and charcoal fires. Put that all mixed together, that’s what the smell is when you first land and step outside the aircraft. It just hits you, and you think this is very, very different. I landed at Tan Son Nhut and immediately transferred by fixed-wing aircraft up to Pleiku in the northern highlands. I spent my first tour in the northern highlands.
What were some of your responsibilities on that first tour?
I was platoon leader. Platoons are the smallest units commanded by an officer. Lieutenants are platoon leaders. Depending upon how many troops are available at the time, you’ll have 30 to 40 you’re responsible for. I spent my first six months as a platoon leader, was wounded, pulled back to be a staff officer. Convinced them to let me back out into the field, commanded another platoon, and came back from my last couple months to be a battalion staff officer and was wounded again when the NVA attacked our base camp.
What was the nature of those wounds?
I was very, very fortunate. I was just blown up once by an IED when we were going to relief of the Plei Djereng special forces camp. The second time they blew up my bunker, and I went for the ditch, and the guy threw a hand grenade in after me. But I was fortunate. Just minor wounds.
Do you recall your first encounter with the enemy?
It wasn’t my first encounter with the enemy, per se, but it was my first combat assault. Combat assault is helicopters going into a landing zone. The landing zone was hot; the NVA were there. I had not had a whole lot of experience with helicopters, particularly in a combat situation where they fly in very fast, flare, and drop down. When they flared, my radio telephone operator, who’s sitting next to me on the aircraft, nudged me. I thought he told me it was time to get out. I stepped out at about 10 to 15 feet above ground. Fortunately, it was a very soft landing. But I do remember my medic and my RTO each grabbing me by an arm and getting me up out of the mud saying, ‘Let’s go, lieutenant.’ That first engagement was more keep your head down, figure out what’s going on, and then maneuver as you need to.
From there, you were involved in heavier fighting at times?
Yeah, we had some really tremendous engagements. It’s hard to explain every one of them because some of them were fleeting engagements, some of them were more static. We had a tendency in the U.S. military to use our indirect fire weapons very effectively. We don’t just line up and charge. That’s not a good way to do things.
During either tour, did you have any contact with the news media in the field?
There were a couple journalists who came out during my second tour. I’m trying to remember. It was Dan Rather or one of other ones. The field 1st sergeant came to me and said, ‘Captain, we got a problem.’ I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ He said, ‘They’re looking for a bad egg.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘They’re talking to everyone. They’re looking for a bad egg. They’re talking to everybody, but they’re not filming. They’re not recording.’ Well, the guy who ended up on television was a guy who’d just gotten out of jail for being AWOL and losing his weapon. He’s the one that represented us on national television. I thought to myself, ‘That’s the most dishonest thing I’ve seen in a long, long time.’ As a consequence, my view of combat journalists in that regard was pretty low.
Do you recall what they said on air?
(Paraphrasing): This is a tough time in Vietnam. The soldiers’ morale is not high…
This guy went on and on about how bad things were, how they were smoking dope all the time… OK… This was 1969.
When you returned, what was your adjustment like back to the world? You stayed on active duty, right?
That’s the biggest difference between those who stayed on active duty and those who immediately returned to civilian life. I’ll give you current examples of that. Once you’re part of the Army family, you’re part of the Army family. As a consequence, you’re shielded or protected from the outside influences significantly. The Army does tend to look after its own. For those of us that came back after multiple tours into the Army, it was life as usual.
I am very close to the men who served with me in my second tour in the 82nd Airborne. My wife and I just returned from Orlando, where the 82nd Airborne celebrated its annual convention and its 100th year of service. Those who served with me, who were what I call enlisted for a specific period of time, when they came back from Vietnam, they transitioned back into the civilian life. Their year in Vietnam was the most significant part of their life — not maybe the most important, not the most encouraging — and as a consequence, they tend to get together with other veterans. For many of them, it was difficult. I think you see the same thing today in the military, particularly with the National Guard and reserve soldiers, whose units are activated, they deploy for a year, they come back, and they’re expected to transition back into their civilian community. The active Army does a great job of helping soldiers decompress, transition back into the civilian world. But they’re still in the Army. National Guard and Reservists: Such is not the case. I don’t think they do a very good job of supporting their folks when they do transition back. Remember now in Vietnam, we didn’t deploy any National Guard or reserve troops. It was all active Army.
How could it have been improved?
That is our tragedy. We haven’t been able to take care of them.
I think we could have done much the same that they’re doing now, and that is no soldier returning from a combat zone is thrust directly back into the civilian community. They must go through a transition period, where they receive counseling, the necessary support. If they have medical/psychological needs, they’re addressed, and they’re given long-term support for those needs. The military is doing a much better job now of screening — psychologically — recruits for the military. I think one of our challenges has always been that not everyone should be a soldier, sailor, marine or airman. We tended to take those who volunteered. For some of them, a very small percentage, they were — if you will — damaged to begin with and we sent them into combat and further damaged them. That is our tragedy. We haven’t been able to take care of them. Twenty-two suicides a day is unacceptable.
Hear more stories from this series, “Florida Voices: Vietnam Veterans”
How did the war change you? Did it change you?
It did. There’s no question. I think for those who have been in combat zones, it gives you a better appreciation for life in general. It gives you a greater appreciation for what we have in the United States and what we actually treasure in the United States more so than those who haven’t (served). There’s a very trite saying: ‘For those who have fought for it, our freedom has a flavor the protected will never know.’
Did your views on the worthiness of the cause change over time or did they remain pretty steadfast?
I’m pretty steadfast. The military never lost a battle. The military never lost the war. Congress lost the war in Vietnam.
The peace treaty that the U.S. and the North Vietnamese signed in Paris stipulated that the U.S. would replace bullet-for-bullet, weapon-for-weapon, aircraft-for-aircraft, every loss that the South Vietnamese Army had. When they Democrats took control of Congress, they abrogated that treaty. The South Vietnamese had no support. The North Vietnamese then launched a conventional warfare against the South Vietnamese and had the support of Russia and China. It was pretty much easy after that. 1974 and 1975, yeah.
Do you have any lingering mental effects — PTSD or anything of that nature?
My wife would say I probably have TBI (traumatic brain injury), but I don’t think so. But I don’t know… Was I afraid? Did I suffer? So on and so forth. One of the things that keeps officers more level is that we’re not thinking about our own personal safety. We’re not thinking about how to survive. We’re thinking about accomplishing the mission and taking care of your soldiers. When that becomes your first priority, it — I hate to say the word ‘stabilizes’ your mind — it keeps you focused so that all of the other things become peripheral. Whether that’s your own safety or whatever. As a consequence, you don’t suffer that terror the individual soldier does when they see all hell breaking loose around them. It’s a very different situation.
Did you lose any men there?
A lot. In January 1969, my company fought a 10-day battle in Parrot’s Beak, just outside the Laotian border. We were dropped in the midst of three regiments of the North Vietnamese 9th NVA Division. We fought for 10 days. We went in with 121 soldiers and came out with 80. Fortunately, only 12 were killed. The rest were wounded and evacuated. But we effectively stopped the 9th NVA Division from moving in toward Saigon. We learned later they were combat ineffective for the better part of a year. The body count doesn’t matter. It was what it was.
What haven’t I asked that you want to share?
I think the biggest thing that all of us in the military have learned is that political decisions are the most important decisions when it comes to a conflict. Once the political decision is made to engage in a conflict, then the will needs to be there to support the military in the way it needs to be supported. I think those who experienced Vietnam — General Colin Powell, I worked for him when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs — understood that and understood it well. The 1st Gulf War was the best example of that. If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right and we’re going to do it quickly and get it over with. It’s one of those truisms of public policy. That is, if you decide to do something, you have to commit your resources completely to do it. Unfortunately, we’re beginning to slide away from that and believe we can actually do things in an incremental way. The use of drones is giving far too much credence to that view. There’s nothing truer than what General Patton said, and that is ‘It’s only boots on the ground that hold ground.’ You can send up all the drones and shoot all the missiles you want, but unless you’re willing to commit to hold ground and to take on a regime, it’s going to be a long, protracted affair. I have one concern. As we have begun to support the military, the military has become more and more withdrawn. They are, to some extent, very insulated.My concern is the same is true of the civilian
My concern is the same is true of the civilian population because the 99 percent have less understanding about what the one percent does. Likewise, the one percent has less understanding about what the 99 percent feels is important. And that divide is not healthy for us, is not useful to us as a nation, and I don’t think it bodes anything bad happening, but it’s just not a healthy situation for us as a company. When you think about World War II and everyone who could possibly have served in some fashion, people served and committed and sacrificed in order to be successful. That spirit does not exist in this country now. It’s sad, because it does not support the ideals upon which this country was founded.
This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.