Local writer recounts time in Vietnam

By Staff
Haley Aaron, Hartselle Enquirer
With his senior year behind him and his 18th birthday approaching, J.W. Hogan faced a life-changing decision. However, he wasn't choosing a college or starting a career. Instead, Hogan had two choices: enlist in the military or wait to be drafted. No matter which path he choose, there was one seeming inevitability: a year in Vietnam. It was the summer of 1967.
"If you were drafted, you were going into the Army and if you went into the Marines, but if you were in the Navy or the Air Force, you stood a fighting chance (of avoiding Vietnam]," Hogan said. Therefore, after he turned 18, he enlisted in the Air Force.
Unfortunately for Hogan and thousands of other young Americans, the war in Vietnam was escalating and they would be called to serve.
Over the course of the year following his enlistment, Hogan would go through several months of technical training and eventually serve as a mechanic at the Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam. He would turn 19 in Vietnam and spend Christmas on guard duty.
Although Hogan was proud of his service of Vietnam, he rarely talked about his wartime experiences. "I think I was not much different from most veterans, because I never really talked about it. My kids knew I was there, but I never really talked about where I was or what I did in Vietnam," he said.
However, as time passed, he was inspired to write a book for his wife and children about his experiences. A conversation with his oldest son about Vietnam was the "spark" that Hogan needed to start compiling his experiences. "As we talked a lot of things came back, but I couldn't remember some things, and that really bothered me, so I decided to write this story."
Hogan's book about his year in Vietnam, On Butterfly Wings, tells the story of Jeff and Katie [the fictional counterparts of Hogan and his wife, Karen] and how their love survived a year of separation and the difficulties of a relationship complicated by war.
"The 60s were really a magical time: the music, the politics, and the war," said Hogan. Writing this book allowed Hogan to relieve memories of being a teenager in the 60s and his service in Vietnam, both good and bad. It is a story about war, loss, and bittersweet homecomings, but it is also a story of unlikely friendships, hope and most importantly, love. "You have to remember that this is a love story, so I wrote it for my wife," said Hogan. "I was so, so lucky to meet the love of my life in high school, and we have been happily married for almost 40 years."
Like many books set in the 60s, both music and politics play an important role in Hogan's novel. "I'm not sure why the music was so important, but it was a really important part of the 60s," said Hogan. "I think part of the reason that the music was so important was because it allowed us to escape what was going on. At least past 1967, many of us were facing the draft, a trip to Vietnam and the bad things that had happened. I think the music allowed us to escape that."
While completing technical training at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois, when the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy occurred. After the death of Martin Luther King, relations at the base were strained. "I didn't realize that the Air Force had such a small number of recruits from the South and I was surrounded by people from the North," said Hogan. "When Martin Luther King was killed people looked down on me because I was from the south".
Hogan hopes that the memories and events he recounts in his book strike a chord with those who read his book, especially those who lived through the era. "I hope that for all of the people my age that grew up during that time, that it will take them back into time and allow them to relive their own memories from that time and I hope it will be a pleasant journey," he said.
For those who did not grow up during the 60s, Hogan hopes that his novel will dispel many of the myths that surround Vietnam Veterans. "Vietnam vets were viewed as wacko, crazy guys", a false image perpetrated by films such as Rambo, Platoon and The Deer Hunter, according to Hogan.
"I hope this book more closely reflects the experience of a young soldier serving in Vietnam," said Hogan.
Although Hogan faced many hardships during his year in Vietnam, in many ways, the most difficult part of his service was coming home to a nation either ashamed of or indifferent to his service. "I was in Vietnam at such a young age, the badness of coming home stuck with me for a long time," he said. His memories of coming home are tainted with the recollection of being spit on and screamed at by anti-war protesters, an experience that brought many of the men returning home to tears.
Although his reception in the South was better, it could also be cold. "In the South, people didn't want to talk about the war, but at the same time they didn't punish the soldiers," said Hogan. He recalls an encounter with a former classmate after he returned home. "I just got back," he told his classmate. "From where?" was the response he received, although the war (and the draft) was in full swing and many of his high school classmates had served or were still stationed in Vietnam. The conversation ended soon after.
Hogan was on hand to read excerpts from his novel and answer questions about the Vietnam War and its aftermath at the Hartselle Public Library last Thursday. He discussed the medical care of returning veterans and diseases such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and problems caused by Agent Orange. He also spoke about the stigma that was attached to being a Vietnam Veteran long after the war had ended. At Hogan's 20 year high school reunion in 1987, no one listed their service in Vietnam in their biography, although many of them did serve in Vietnam.
Time has eased the stigma surrounding Vietnam Veterans such as Hogan, he fears that a new generation of soldiers may also receive icy homecomings as support of the war in Iraq wanes. "When a country tires of war, it tires of its veterans," he said. Hogan encourages individuals to honor veterans of all wars and recognize their service. "Whenever you see a veteran, shake their hand. Hug them if you need to."

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