- Written by Robert Naeye Robert Naeye
Like many Vietnam War veterans, Rich Burton feels he was victimized by government lies.
Those lies started with the war itself and continue to this day, Burton says, where every effort is made to deny our nation’s wounded warriors desperately needed healthcare.
Burton has responded by helping local veterans get the benefits they earned and by helping to form the Central Pennsylvania Vietnam Round Table.
Burton was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, in 1946. His father served in the Navy during World War II, but he never talked about his experiences as Burton was growing up.
The family moved to Central Pennsylvania when Burton was about 10, and he graduated from high school in 1964.
Burton joined the ROTC while attending Furman University in South Carolina, graduating in 1968. He decided early on that he wanted to be an Army infantry officer. At that young age, Burton believed the government propaganda that it was urgent for the United States to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia.
Burton trained to become an officer at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning, where he earned his airborne jump wings and became a Special Forces officer. He flew to Vietnam in November 1969 to serve as a replacement. But when he arrived, an enlisted clerk told him that the Army didn’t need any more Special Forces lieutenants.
Looking at Burton’s military records, the clerk noticed that Burton had taken courses in psychology. He said the Marines were looking for psychological operations officers in the Da Nang area and asked Burton if he wanted to go there.
“I said to myself that I’d be dead in two months as an infantry lieutenant, so if I go with the Marines, maybe I’ll survive,” recalls Burton.
After being shipped to Da Nang, Burton joined the Army’s 7th Psychological Operations Battalion, which was attached to the 1st Marine Division.
During his one-year deployment, this unit went into villages and hamlets during the daytime. With help from a Vietnamese interpreter, they made broadcasts, dropped leaflets, and assisted Marines in treating locals for various ailments. At night they showed movies.
“I was out with the locals because my job was to win their hearts and minds,” says Burton.
Winning hearts and minds also meant playing soccer. Burton recalls four games between Americans and barefooted Vietnamese, with each side winning twice. But before the games could begin, Marines would have to clear the field of possible landmines.
Burton never had to fire his weapon. Marines protected his unit, and the enemy didn’t think it was prudent to attack while movies were being shown. But Burton had the uneasy feeling that North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers were sitting in the audience.
Even if the locals felt sympathy for the Americans, enemy guerillas would return at night to terrorize or murder any civilians who cooperated too closely with the foreigners. But on occasion, the locals would surrender weapons and ammunition to Burton’s unit that would have otherwise been used to kill Marines.
Burton points to a vast gulf between what the U.S. government was saying about the war and what he was seeing on the ground.
It was obvious to Burton that the U.S. was not winning. No matter how many enemy combatants were killed, they could always replenish their numbers while the American public was growing war weary.
“When I went over to Vietnam, I believed all the lies the government said that we’re winning the war, and we just need a few more troops to come in to pacify the country. But when I was there on the ground, it didn’t take very long to figure out that it was all a lie,” he says, with a tone of bitterness.
He came to believe many years later that the U.S. never should have been in Vietnam. According to Burton, it was a civil war between the Vietnamese, and that “58,000 American men and women died for no reason, and hundreds of thousands were screwed up mentally and physically.”
Burton is still angry at Johnson, Nixon, and Kissinger for prolonging the war for political purposes, even though they knew it was unwinnable.
“None of it happened the way the government said it did,” he says. “I know it’s shocking to some people that the government lies, but Vietnam was never a place we had to go.”
According to Burton, the Veterans Administration (VA) still doesn’t want to compensate Vietnam vets for their physical and mental wounds. In particular, it continues to deny payments to veterans exposed to Agent Orange, a defoliant widely used by the U.S. military during the war that causes many forms of cancer and other diseases.
“It’s all about the money. If the VA would pay every Vietnam veteran, the VA wouldn’t have any money left in its budget,” says Burton, who is active with the Vietnam Veterans of America.
Burton says the VA hopes that veterans who are denied claims will give up. Instead, he encourages veterans to consult an attorney or a veteran’s service officer. Vets who appeal over and over sometimes receive compensation.
Burton worked 27 years for Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare, Labor and Industry, retiring in 2005. He and his wife, Evelyn, have two sons and three grandchildren.
Burton wrote many letters to his parents from Vietnam, but he didn’t read them until long after the war, when Evelyn encouraged him.
“I blocked out 90 percent of whatever I did in Vietnam. I didn’t remember because I didn’t want to remember,” he says.
Burton and several veterans founded the Central Pennsylvania Vietnam Round Table in January 2013.
This nonprofit is the only known Vietnam-specific oral history group in the country. Vietnam veterans share their stories every month at free meetings. It also serves as a safe haven for Vietnam veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The round table has also donated $7,000 to local veterans’ organizations. The meetings are held every second Thursday of the month at 8000 Derry St., Harrisburg.
For more information about the Central Pennsylvania Vietnam Round Table, visit http://centralpavietnamroundtable.com.
Robert Naeye is a freelance journalist living in Derry Township. He is the former editor-in-chief of Sky & Telescope magazine.