Veterans are treated a lot differently now than they were 50 years ago. Today, they are greeted with widespread respect and adoration for the sacrifices they made, but that respect was not given to soldiers coming home in the 1970s.
Robert Chandler was 19 years old when he got married on June 7, 1969, but his life was all torn away when he got a letter in the mail two days later. In it, he learned he had been drafted and was to report for duty just 17 days after his marriage. Though at the time he couldn’t understand why it was happening to him, he came to feel it was his place to protect the country.
“I got drafted and I just felt like it was my duty to go and, as Daddy said, ‘put my life on the line for this country,’ ” Chandler said. “That’s how much it means to me.”
He was drafted into the U.S. Air Force and sent to Vietnam in August 1970. At the time, his wife was five months pregnant with their first daughter, who eventually was born in January 1971. All Chandler could get in war-torn Vietnam were a picture and letters. Though his wife had written him over 300 times, he did not receive them very often.
He experienced a number of horrors while overseas, but one instance stood out in contrast to them and serves as an example of his unwavering faith in God.
At around midnight on Feb. 1, 1971, while in the barracks, Chandler was writing a birthday letter to his younger brother. He said they were attacked from mortars and rifles. An 18mm rocket tore into his elevated barracks, exploding just 67 feet from where he and his comrades slept. His bunk and footlocker were blown over on top of him.
After helping each other, his fellow soldiers — all of whom were 18-year-olds — looked to Chandler since he was the only sergeant among them. They told him the steps were destroyed, effectively trapping them in the structure. Chandler had them all tie sheets together and climb out safely to the ground below. But as he rounded the corner, he saw another 18mm rocket stuck in the ground ahead. It had not detonated.
The next morning, when it was successfully disarmed, he wondered why it did not explode. His fellow soldiers told him the Lord was not going to let anything happen to him, because he was destined to be a preacher.
He now preaches at New Hope Primitive Baptist Church in Benton.
Before Chandler initially left, he could not tell his distraught mother why he had to go. Upon his return, he told her that he went to keep America from being “tore all to pieces from bombs, and people laying all over the rice paddies dead,” and for his “children and grandchildren to grow up in a country that’s free.”
“If I could keep America from that, then I’d go back again if that’s what it took,” Chandler said. “But I sure didn’t get welcome home. I thought I’d done what was right.”
When he landed in San Bernardino California, he saw a large crowd and expected a hero’s welcome. Instead, he and his fellow soldiers were spat on and called “baby killers.”
Another veteran, Easton Edwards, who enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in April 2012, said he never experienced the sort of disgust Chandler endured and that he was always treated well by civilians.
“It was definitely a better reception than from what Vietnam veterans had, you know,” Edwards said. “A lot of people around here have respect for me because I served and I haven’t really received any negative feedback from being in the military, especially here in Kentucky.”
As an aviation resource manager he never experienced combat, but like Chandler had been on the receiving end of rocket-fire while on base.
Edwards has been on four deployments to Afghanistan and had also served three tours, including Operation Endearing Freedom, Operation Freedom Sentinel and Operation Resolute Support.
Chandler said it was only within the last 10 years that peoples’ perceptions on veterans began to change. Now, he’s regularly treated with respect for his sacrifice, and even invited to speak at schools. However, he feels there’s still much more that can be done for veterans.
“There’s no way,” Chandler said,” that the people of the United States of America could ever do enough to repay the veterans that put his life on the line for this country.”