A Veteran Reflects
The Buffalo News, Living
Outside, in his front yard, the Marine Corps flag flies at half mast. Inside the walls of his home adorned with medals and citations, Walter C. Reitmeier contemplates a long time ago and the changes of the present.
The flag is at half mast to honor the men who died in Grenada and Lebanon. The medals, including the Bronze Star, are reminders of a different conflict - Vietnam.
Mr. Reitmeier is asked if Vietnam was worth it. "You're asking me," he retorts incredulously, his voice rising in mock seriousness, "was Vietnam worth it?"
His voice is still rising as he moves off a chair in the finished basement of his home in Clarence Center, New York. "That was the biggest waste of young lives. The only thing we got out of Vietnam was a painful lesson.
"Guys like me, and anyone else who was over there, will never forget Vietnam. I've got a son, and you think I'm going to let him go to another war like Vietnam? No way."
He is 38 now, and his wavy brown hair is flecked with gray. He looked different back in March 1970, when he was a first lieutenant in the Marines, responsible for an engineering platoon of 50 men in Vietnam, stationed about 35 miles south of Da Nang.
He was 25 then, and fresh out of Buffalo State College, with a degree in industrial arts education. He enlisted in the Marines because "there's a feeling of camaraderie in the Marines. All the guys are your brothers. I wanted to be with guys I could depend on. Besides, I didn't want to get drafted."
Lt. Reitmeier and his platoon were clearing a minefield that warm March day in 1970. The job was finished and he was walking back, alone, the last man out.
A mortar shell landed about 3 feet in front of him. Instantly it blew off both his legs just below the knees. It also blinded him.
"It just came out of the blue, this mortar round dropped right on my head," Mr. Reitmeier said. "I was all by myself, but the guys came out to help me. When I was first wounded, I was still conscious. I told the guys, 'Get out of here.' I thought we were still under attack."
The Vietnam War ended for Mr. Reitmeier on that day, but his battle to readjust to life was just beginning. He met the challenge. Three months after returning to a hospital in the United States, he was using his artificial legs and was out of physical therapy.
Though he lost the sight in his left eye, his vision did return to his right one. After the hospital stay, he returned to Buffalo and his former world. He believes his time at the hospital helped him adjust to it.
"A lot of Vietnam veterans came back from the war and the next day were out on the streets," he said. "I was phased back into society. I spent three months at the hospital. I knew what was going on and what to expect.
"But you have to make adjustments. The biggest thing is you've to have a sense of humor. If somebody mocks you out or calls you a cripple, you can't let it get to you or you'll go crazy.
"When somebody looks at me and says, 'I'm sorry about your legs.' I say, 'Don't be sorry for me. I'm still a pretty good dancer.'"
Mr. Reitmeier attributes much of the success of his readjustment to his wife, Diane. "You have to be loved by a good woman," he said.
Then there was his willingness to meet head on any obstacle he might face. Mr. Reitmeier attended New York University and received a master's degree in 1972. He became involved in vocational rehabilitation counseling and studied clinical psychology.
"I learned all the little trip wires to keep somebody sane," he said. "It would have been awful tough for me without that knowledge."
Unable to find a permanent job after his own rehabilitation, Mr. Reitmeier started businesses of his own. He is currently chief consultant for Alternative Energy Systems, Inc., a firm that deals with architectural design pertaining to energy conversion.
Mr. Reitmeier also is active in many veterans' organizations and is junior commander of the J. Michael Hens Post VFW 7870, in Clarence. In that role he is participating in ceremonies today to mark Veterans Day.
"To me, basically, Veterans Day is my own personal little remembrance of the people I knew who were killed in Vietnam."
He leans back on the chair remembering. His 5-foot-9-inch frame is wedged in, near the desk. Wearing a beige shirt and blue jeans, he is able to walk at a brisk pace, and there is no apparent sign of the war injury.
Later, he rolls up his right shirt sleeve to reveal a badly scarred arm, another souvenir from the war. "I still carry Vietnam with me," he said.
Vietnam: That's where his thoughts are on Veterans Day. He ticks off the names of at least five persons he knew who died there. "These are the people I remember," he says, slowly inhaling on his cigarette. "Veterans Day is a sad day, a time to reflect.
"A lot of people look at Veterans Day and associate it with war. I always associate it with peace and the price you pay for peace."
Does anyone but the soldier understand the price of peace? Vietnam was a television war, but the news reports didn't tell the whole story.
"People understood about the killing and the suffering; they saw it all on TV," he said. "But they didn't understand the emotional strain that our people over there went through.
"A lot of guys came back and never adjusted. They're still fighting the Vietnam War. They're bitter. People say they lost the war. They didn't lose the war. The whole thing is Vietnam wasn't worth it. And that's the toughest thing for Vietnam veterans to deal with."
Today the questions are different. Instead of Vietnam, the price for peace is being paid in places like Grenada and Lebanon. There appears to have been a fundamental change in the public acceptance of the use of American military force.
"I don't know if that's good or bad," Mr. Reitmeier said. "I'm scared. There are a lot of nuclear weapons out there.
"But what happened to this country is that the American public just got fed up being pushed around by smaller countries like Cuba and Iran.
"After Vietnam, we didn't want to get involved in any conflicts anymore. So what happened? The Russians, the Cubans and all the rest took advantage.
"I think Grenada made it clear we're not going to be humiliated anymore. They didn't want another hostage situation. From a military and tactical standpoint, Grenada was a good thing.
"Lebanon is a different story. It's a real tragedy, especially for those Marines killed over there. From a strategic standpoint, it doesn't make sense. All they were doing is sitting there acting as targets.
"In Grenada you accomplished something. In Lebanon you're not accomplishing anything."
Mr. Reitmeier believes there will be more and more such conflicts in the coming years. "I don't know if they (the armed services) want them so much as they don't mind 'little' conflicts. They keep up morale.
"Besides, you can't learn to fight a war by going out on maneuvers in the desert in Arizona, firing blanks. You'll probably see more and more of these conflicts."