Today we have the pleasure of speaking with the two authors of the new book, In Our Duffel Bags, Robert Toto and Richard Geschke. Thank you gentlemen for taking your time to join us.
RT: Thank you for allowing us to share our stories
RG: Thank you Mr. Sorkin for giving us the opportunity of this interview.
PBR: Your book, In Our Duffel Bags, is filled with stories of your past Vietnam War experiences. For each of you, writing this book had to dredge up some dramatic memories. Tell us please, how were you able to deal with those strong emotions that were evoked by remembering and bringing to life once again so many thoughts?
RT: My memories about that time were suppressed by me for a long time. I did not realize that I had PTSD, until I started to cry while I was out walking near my home. This book became part of my therapy.
RG: These memories lay dormant in my mind for over forty years. It wasn’t until I had a vivid dream of reality about a trip down the Hai Van Pass which occurred forty years ago that the thoughts of not only Vietnam but of my entire army experience came to my foremost thoughts. I immediately put them on paper, starting with the chapter titled “Going My Way” and followed by the chapter titled “Was That Forty-One or Forty-two Rockets?.” It was at this point I asked Bob to help me with my memory and he joined in the writing.
PBR: As young men that were drafted into a highly opposed and controversial war what emotions did you each experience the moment you knew you had been drafted?
RG: First of all as officers, we were not drafted, we were appointed commissions by the President of the United States. It was our choice to join ROTC in college knowing full well that during this time period that once we graduated without an ROTC commission, we would have been drafted. So in effect it was our choice to be officers in the army.
RT: Well, we were not drafted, however, at that time there was a draft lottery. My birth date was drawn #11, so I decided to continue ROTC and become an officer.
PBR: How did your family and friends initially react to your being drafted?
RT: Again, we were not drafted. However, my brother David consoled me on the luck of the draft lottery. Friends were in the same position. Most of them joined Reserve outfits, which at that time, had little chance of going to Vietnam.
RG: During this time in history family and friends knew the score. There was a war going on and everyone was subject to serve as citizen soldiers. It’s not like today when we have a professional volunteer army where there is no draft. During our day there were protests, draft card burnings and a very lively debate about the merits of the war. Today, because we have an all volunteer army, the regular population is more or less mute on the war. Current debates about the wars are timid in comparison to the Vietnam era.
PBR: In the book you indicate that other civilians treated you rather crudely for your participation in the war due to the sentiments that you were participating in killing innocent women and babies. Did your family and friends treat you differently after returning home from participating in the war because of similar sentiments?
RT: It was difficult being in grad school once I was discharged. The undergraduate students really had no clue of what military life was. I remember that the only person, outside of friends/family, was a RMV official. Most people put Vietnam out of their minds.
RG: Vietnam was a different era altogether, with the protests and the divisive politics of the times. As I mustered out of the army at Fort Lewis, I truly wanted to go home in my civilian clothes. However if I did that, my plane trip would be full price. If I wore my uniform I would fly military standby and receive a huge discount. Once you got home and began to socialize, you didn’t tell anyone you were in the army or Vietnam for that matter. My family on the other hand supported and comforted me. When I look back on this it really tells of a shameful time in our country’s history. I didn’t make military policy, all I did was to serve my country in an honorable way!
PBR: Many soldiers succumbed to the daily stresses of their military lives in the war by abusing drugs and or alcohol, how were you able to manage the stress and not give in to the escapism of drugs and alcohol?
RT: I never took drugs, and since most of my duties were at night, I slept during the day. I became more sensitive to my religious beliefs.
RG: I never took drugs but if you’re an infantry officer of the line by-golly you did drink. That was a fact of life! However I wasn’t an alcoholic.
PBR: Can you each define your worst moment while serving in the war?
RT: My worst moment was when I was talking to Dick, and told him I was leaving early…I wanted to bite off my arm. Other than that, it was a feeling of failure when I couldn’t transform one of my troopers into stopping his drug use…you always remember the one that got away. We shipped him to Japan, paralyzed from the waist down, due to heroin use (he was 19).
RG: There were several things that I would define as worst such as the exploding deuce and a half truck blowing two enlisted men through the front windshield right in front of me. However the worst thing I saw was a sergeant literally kicking a Vietnamese Papa-son on the floor of an army orderly room in front of a senior first sergeant who did nothing to stop it. I had to stop the beating or he would have been killed. I was furious with both sergeants and I told them so in no uncertain terms!
PBR: Can you please explain your best moment while serving in the war?
RT: When I was able to reach seven of my platoon to attend drug amnesty, and stop their addiction. Other than that, it was a fourth grade class that wrote me a Christmas greeting from my home town...I thought of them often.
RG: About a week before Christmas of 1971 in Phu Bai, my unit completed its primary and very critical mission well ahead of schedule. The mission was long and grueling, executed during the heavy rains of the monsoon season in which I led my men with a fractured ankle and a bout of a contaminated water induced stomach virus. When completed, I never have had that sense of completion and satisfaction like that before or since. Through the efforts of my men, I was lucky to have been awarded a Bronze Star for my leadership abilities.
PBR: We all know the expression, hindsight is 20-20. Knowing what you now know about serving in the military during that time, what is there, if anything, that you wish you would have done differently?
RT: I would have pushed harder for a branch transfer. Infantry was not my true calling. However, I met some great people that made it all worthwhile.
RG: Well this is like being a Monday morning quarterback. When I think of myself entering the gates of Fort Benning Georgia as a naive young officer, I wish that I had more experience. In reality I wouldn’t change anything, you live and you learn, all be it the hard way at times!
PBR: What advice would you give to any person thinking of enlisting in the military today?
RT: Choose your branch of service carefully, remember your roots, never underestimate your comrades or your enemies, and be prepared for some lonely times.
RG: In today’s military if one commits to the service of the arms of the military one must always remember that you will no longer be just an individual, you will be a small part of a large organization in which your dreams and wants are secondary to the wants of the military. Life in the military is like no other life in existence. So when you join such an organization make sure you know the consequences!
PBR: Based on your past experiences with being involved in a war in a foreign country, what advice would you give to this nation’s political leaders today about our military presence in foreign countries?
RT: We have to be smarter in whom we support. Today’s fighting needs great intelligence, and leadership in small, focused groups. The threats to the USA are real…I saw that in Berlin, when the Wall was still standing, and in Vietnam. Power hungry tyrants still exist; look at the human tragedies in Korea, China, Africa, and South America. We must engage our partners in treaties; we cannot be the world’s police force.
RG: You know my thoughts on this because you read our book. Today’s political leaders continue to try to solve geo-political problems by using the military as they were used in the 19th and 20th centuries. The wars of the 21st century have to be fought using superior intelligence and a solid economy. In fact this was done without the sounds of guns in the forty-four year Cold War standoff. No Medals of Honor, Silver Stars or Bronze Stars were awarded in which the West was victorious and the celebrations on the streets of Europe were far greater than the end of WWII. We have to use our intelligence without firing the weapons.
PBR: This has all been very interesting, and we wish you the best of success with your new book. Thank you again for taking your time to be with us.
RT: Thank you for allowing us to share our story.
RG: Mr. Sorkin, it’s been my pleasure.