LINDEN — In 1968, America was a wounded nation. These wounds ran deep as the country tried to understand and cope with the Vietnam War and three summers of riots that left cities burning. A half a world away, thousands of young men stepped off planes in Vietnam and got their first look at where they would be spending the next year.
Many would never leave Vietnam alive, but others, like Linden resident Ray Miskiewicz, would take the memories and nightmares of this tour of duty home with them and relive it endlessly in the decades to come.
This is one veteran’s story of his first impression of going to war at the age of 19.
In 1968, when his tour of duty was over, like most veterans, Miskiewicz would learn how to hide the memories that quickly turned into nightmares.
“What I saw, what I experienced, no young man should have to go through,” the 67-year old and father of three said, readily admitting that from the first day he never thought he would be coming home.
“I thought I was going to die there,” he said adding that as he climbed aboard an Army transport plane back home, he had no idea he was heading into the belly of a beast.
Sometimes the nightmares and flashbacks of that time can be triggered by a song, smell or helicopter flying overhead. Sometimes it takes even less for Miskiewicz to be carried back to that day when he was selected to serve with company B, 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division, Rangers.
He has no problem recalling the day he got off the plane at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, because it is the first time he realized he might not make it out of there alive.
“As I walked out the doorway of the plane the first thing that hit me was the heat and the stench. It was about 85 to 90 degrees and the air smelled of burning wood and human feces,” he said, adding that he barely got to a sheltered area before sirens went off and the area was under attack.
“People were running around, jeeps tore past me with machine guns mounted on them and although it didn’t last long, it sure scared the hell out of us,” he added.
Miskiewicz remembered getting on a bus and being told the screens on the windows were there to prevent hand grenades from being thrown into the bus. It was his first taste of what could happen during his tour of duty.
Along the dirt road, the 1967 Linden High School graduate vividly recalled Vietnamese men squatting down along the roadway, wearing what looked like black pajamas and rolling their own cigarettes.
He wondered, as he would every minute of every day for the next year, if they were the enemy. Because soldiers learned quickly in Vietnam the enemy did not wear a uniform and could be anywhere.
In the midst of all this, though, Miskiewicz noticed that first day how beautiful the white sand on the beach looked as the clear blue water of the South China Sea gently lapped on the shore. Nearby, in stark contrast, one black chopper after another landed, reminding him yet again that this was war and he was in the middle of it. If he still harbored any doubts, later he received a wakeup call that shook him to the core.
“It was about 10 o’clock that night and I was talking with the guys in my squad, but in the distance I could see red tracers being fired to the ground by gun ships as the Viet Cong fired green tracers back,” Miskiewicz said, adding the only thing he could think was “my God, there really is a war going on here.”
A chill ran down his spine, he said, as the platoon radio operator reported “alpha company popped an ambush.” When he heard this, he knew his squadron would be going to assist as soon as dawn broke.
Miskiewicz said he realized all the training he had before coming to Vietnam could not have prepared him for that moment.
“This is real, I thought. I’m actually going into the jungle,” he said, admitting at that moment he was not certain he would come out alive.
Before dawn the next morning, as they loaded up and moved into an open field to wait for the choppers that would take them to the ambush area, he began to doubt his ability to protect his fellow soldiers.
“A thousand things were going through my head, but in the back of my mind I think I really was preparing to die,” Miskiewicz admitted.
“Fifteen choppers were coming in. I can see them circling now… five at a time,” he said, adding they boarded silently and took off, but all he could see was red explosions in the distance.
“I was scared, but trying to control myself and concentrate on what I needed to do next,” Miskiewicz recalled, explaining as they neared the landing zone on the chopper, he could see the fire fighting was very heavy right before he jumped off.
“After several minutes of intense artillery fire, two jets dropped high explosive bombs and shrapnel was hitting all around us,” he said, adding it was then he saw the body of a young GI laying face down.
“He was dead,” Miskiewicz said, admitting his body went numb at the sight.
“This was the first time I experienced death on the battlefield,” he said. Sadly, for this Army soldier, it would not be the last.
A few minutes later the choppers returned, but as it turned out Miskiewicz would be the last man to be picked up. While laying in the hot wet muck waiting, he noticed yet another dead soldier and his heart began to pound heavily.
“I couldn’t help thinking about that dead GI lying in the rice paddy. His family didn’t even know he died, but I did,” he said with sadness that still lingered after all these years.
Finally, the last five choppers circled in and Miskiewicz jumped aboard, sitting with his M16 rifle across his chest, waiting for liftoff.
“The chopper did start to lift off but came down. It went up again and came down again. I heard the pilot yell that there were too many men on board and the next thing I knew a foot pushed me out,” he said.
“Here I am, the only man on the ground, the last of the five choppers is leaving the area and I thought this is it, I’m going to die right here,” Miskiewicz said, recalling how he thought “damn, they’re going to leave me here.”
Suddenly two Cobra Gun ships circled around him “like two guardian angels,” and one of the pilots gave him the thumbs up. Miskiewicz breathed a sigh of relief, realizing he was not going to die this time around.
A year on and endless stories later, he took a transport plane home while many of his buddies went home in coffins.
After Vietnam, Miskiewicz enrolled in Union County Vocational Technical School and trained to be an HVAC refrigeration specialist. In 1977 he married and had three children and three granddaughters.
After working for 42 years at Merck in Summit he retired in October 2011 and now occasionally volunteers with other Vietnam veterans at a local food kitchen. But, Vietnam will always be with this veteran and probably always will be.
The after affects of war are never easy to deal with, but Miskiewicz is honest about his journey.
“After a push from my family, I got help from the Veterans Administration and got into therapy,” he said, adding that he now copes by keeping busy, going to veterans meetings and spending time with his family.
“My family has put up with a lot and I thank them for being so supportive. Without them I don’t know where I would be,” said the Linden resident.
One thing Miskiewicz stressed is that every veteran who has fought for their country is always there for fellow veterans.
His favorite quote explains this bond veterans have with one another.
“We met as strangers and returned as brothers,” he said, adding his advice to fellow veterans dealing with PTSD is to get help and “don’t keep it inside.”
“Even if you just sit down and talk to another vet and let it out. It’s okay to cry,” Miskiewicz said.