A 70′s Actor Looks Back on His Hardest and Proudest Role: Veteran
Long before he found fame riding alongside fellow 70’s heartthrob Erik Estrada in the hit TV series “CHiPs”, Larry Wilcox took on a very different role, one far less glamorous and that won him few fans. In May of 1967, the then 19-year-old, knowing the draft was looming, followed in his older brother’s footsteps and joined the Marine Corps. His unit, the 12th Marines, fought in Vietnam in the I Corps which ranged in areas from Dong Ha to the DMZ and Con Thien, and eventually, the Tet Offensive.
“We were a recon survey team which was inserted by helicopter to survey a mountain top or area for an Artillery Fire Base and upon completion would then run the FDC (Fire Direction Control) by using and computing distance, range, and azimuth via Slide Rule for 105 Howitzer, 155, 175 and 8-inch Artillery,” he explains.
Wilcox actually credits growing up in Wyoming’s ranch life as helping him deal with the rigors of being a soldier. “Growing up in Wyoming amongst pragmatic cowboys was helpful as I transitioned to Vietnam and War. Wyoming was a place where the seasons could romantically hug you and mankind could slap you. The mentality regarding adversity was, find a solution, and move forward-charge! Blissful youth prepped with “cowboy try” is how I coped with the Tet Offensive. I learned to tackle adversity with solutions and not pity.”
He was honorably discharged in 1973 with the rank of Staff Sergeant. His unit was awarded three stars for unit commendation during various operations they ran during the Vietnam Campaign, and he was personally awarded the Navy Good Conduct Medal by the Commandant of the Marine Corps in Vietnam, and was invited to attend Officer Candidate School, but declined.
Like many Vietnam vets, his homecoming was not the joyous event it should have been.
“My memories of my returning home to San Francisco were ugly and I did not understand why people spat on you for risking your life,” he remembers. However, there was one bright spot.
“As I left the airport, I didn’t have much money as a young Marine and was excited to go and visit my older brother in the area. I took a bus to an area near my brother, Randy, who was also in the Marines during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I then took a taxi, and the taxi driver took me for what seemed like many miles to my brother and his wife’s apartment. I got out and asked him how much, and he (an older man) very quietly stared at me deeply and then quietly said, “Nothing…it is free. Welcome home Marine and thank you for your service.”
His stare was haunting….as we both knew we had both served in war without asking where he had been. It was a spiritual hug of sorts. Of course, he did not realize that the taxi fair would have taken most of my cash, and he didn’t realize how meaningful that free taxi ride was after the airport and the hippie protesters. It was a nice surprise and I was humbled and very grateful. I often wallow in the memory and how special the gift was as his eyes gave me the “gift”. And, hey, who knows how little cash he had in HIS pocket at the time of such sincere generosity!
I have handled the negativity with a certain amount of denial and anger over the years. Then Vietnam became fashionable so the guys who did not go to Vietnam who are my age usually apologize in some subtle or overt way when they talk about Vietnam and how they were not drafted, or they write some “script” that I listen with quiet sensitivity to and know that it is fiction. In most cases “they” are now in denial to some extent.”
Like many vets, Wilcox says he brought home the demons of war with him and believes he suffers from some form of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). He also wonders about the use of Agent Orange.
“I think that anyone who spent 13 long months in the Jungles of Vietnam has some PTSD, including me. The subtly of PTSD is often part of a reclusive life and anti social behavior. Anyway, I have never felt that anything but forward motion should be addressed and not inertia. I believe the friction coefficient for forward motion is reduced with psychological counseling.
I used to not believe I suffered from PTSD, however I had some alarming signals that I did not recognize in my past. Sobbing at speaking engagements on Memorial Day or a police funeral were wake up signs. Being a celebrity spokesperson for Save the Flag video and sobbing as I tried to get through the provocative dialogue was another signal. Bugles saying goodbye with the melancholy TAPS always elicits a lot of pain and memories for me. What helps me to avoid it is to never listen to TAPS, never speak at funeral-like ceremonies, keep busy with work and some continued counseling coupled with a family support system.
Vietnam and Agent Orange have been a very ugly form of denial for America’s youth, as it has evolved through the overt cancer and other side effects in many soldiers. Once again, this issue requires MONEY and MONEY drives many decisions in life. The Agent Orange issue has improved remarkably but required many deaths and many cases to bring attention to this defoliant we used in Nam called Agent Orange. To the best of my knowledge, I do not believe that I have any issues with Agent Orange; however, I did have a very large 8 cm fibrous tumor removed from my lung and heart area that was growing like a head of lettuce. Not sure where that benign fibrous tumor came from…
Perhaps things are different today for Vets because of media and the historic education the American population got from the ill treatment of the Vietnam Veteran. I think people realized that when a man risks his life for his country and for the leaders who found ways to avoid the draft, avoid military service through the National Guard or something thereof, America finally realized that death, and dismemberment and war injuries are HUGE sacrifices. The psychological loss of boys and their boyhood is another sad sacrifice that warrants paragraphs but I will not indulge in such catharsis. However, the inner rewards are significant.”
While many media outlets have been comparing the current conflict in Afghanistan with Vietnam and even labeling it “Obama’s Vietnam”, Wilcox disagrees that any comparisons at all can be made between the two.
“Most people in the “know” understand that these wars have different agendas versus what the President of the United States or the media tell us. Many books came out before the Pentagon Papers explaining to us what Vietnam was protecting capitalism against the bad word, called communism. Many Presidents lied to the American public about this war while many mothers lost their wonderful 18 year old sons and daughters who had been conditioned to honor his/her country with being a SOLDIER, the irony or paradox of ”Be All You Can Be”. The question really is “Who dictates what is right or wrong” and perhaps as that is defined we can compare and define some clarity in the wars. This is an awful word to be plural.
In Afghanistan the sacrifices seems worse than Vietnam but not as many boys will or have been killed. I think we are in another bad war and each month we complicate the exit strategy with rhetoric and with media.”
Wilcox has two sons still living at home, ages 17 and 19 and says if they wanted to follow in his footsteps and join the military, he wouldn’t stand in their way.
“I would allow them to join the military but I would first attempt to teach them “spirit honing” and a compass and map. I would teach them that vocabulary is not wisdom. I would educate them with multiple points of view and with passion hoping to teach them principled discernment as this is a work in progress for all of us. I would share with them what leadership is and is not. I would provoke inner debate, and logic patterns. I would try to show clarity and not wordsmithng. I would share with them what loyalty is and is not. I would attempt to share with them what HONOR means short term and long term and not to be misled. I would attempt to make sure that their choices were made with logic and values and I would honor their choices with my own loyalty and unconditional love and respect. The same unconditional love and respect we would ask from the President who asks us to give our lives for the Country in good faith!
I would tell them that a leader, whether a Pope, or a pauper should be questioned with their own inner debate. I would remind them that they will make mistakes, but, to continue to try and put their signature on their lives with more deposits than withdrawals. I would tell them to perpetuate a better offspring than themselves and if they have no offspring then to help society with principled mentoring. I would try to add a good base, a base of wisdom for them as litmus paper with a historic signature. I would tell them to beware of judgment and focus on inner truth and good intent. Educating one on discernment is a lifelong task filled with reward and injury. I would tell them to give community service and try to give more than they take. I would tell them to take the high road with good intent. I would tell them to love themselves and their family unconditionally.
I would tell them that the military is a personal choice and it is a choice you may or may not be destined for but for me, it was an envelope of time blessed with some defining inner clarity. There may not be martyrdom, or reciprocity from the external forces, but there will be inner rewards that will forever honor one’s signature on one’s life and the depth of such a choice in this dimension. I would remind them that neither friend nor foe, neither government nor spectators will define who they are…..but their history of time honored choices will define them and give them inner peace and honor that cannot be stolen!”
Despite the pain and horrors of Vietnam, Wilcox says he doesn’t regret his own service to the country.
“I am very proud to have served with the Few, the Proud, the Marines. The evolution of such a person, his character, his quiet honor, and his core beliefs comes from many experiences that shed a unique light on something called truth. Truth can change with geography, and can change with history and time, but one’s inner truth in war, is searing, and more clearly defined. This definition of truth runs deeper than a spectator’s definition.
Perhaps my joining the Marines was a positive, adding enormous amounts of clarity for my soul. I had and have relationships in Vietnam that I will never have again. But it was lonely and scary and I know I must have had some protective golden shield around me from my poor old Mom or God. Night often brought the scream of an incoming rocket, or the hiss of an artillery round coming at you as small arms sounded like July 4th fireworks. Think of the boys who slept with “death” as their friends lie bleeding or dead in the night of a monsoon soaked triple canopy jungle waiting for daylight and the angelic hum of the MediVac with body bags. I often wondered about the “reciprocity of their truth” and their inner reward or injury.
Now that I am older, and grateful for the over 50,000 men and women who gave their LIVES for this country I know my destiny was defined with the honor to make this choice. As Vietnam Vets continue to move through the wall and into the dimension of death, one struggles with the rhetoric and our futility within a system encumbered with greed, with economics, with health, with religious crimes and terror being defined by the new and mercurial rules of engagement.”
-By Sue Walsh