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NEWS | July 14, 2015

Vietnam, A Look Back: Part IV

By Michaela Judge Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

Editor's Note: Mr. Michael Petersen's story is a four-part series that takes an in-depth look at the hardships, camaraderie and challenges of the Vietnam War and integration back into daily life once returning home. Petersen is a retired Air Force Reserve command chief master sergeant and currently works as a government civilian leading Joint Base Charleston's Equal Opportunity Office.

When we left off last week Michael Petersen talked about losing his good friend Norman Francis Evans who was killed after a Vietnamese helicopter cut Evans' plane in half, leading to the entire crew falling to their deaths. In the final week of this four-part series, Petersen discusses what life was like when it came time for him to return home.

Coming Home

When it came time to come home, Petersen flew out of Vietnam on a DC-8; the excitement among the departing men was evident.

"We took off and when we got high enough where we really knew we were leaving, everybody got unstrapped out of their seats and basically jumped for joy. The plane actually rocked because we were just so glad to leave," he said.  The return to American soil, though, was anticlimactic compared to their initial exodus out of Vietnam.

"We went back to Travis and, here is what I remember, and this is the part that is interesting: We were still wearing our jungle fatigues.  We were herded into a building and changed clothes, they had army dress uniforms there for us," he said.

There were a lot of women sitting there, he recalled, who would measure and hem their pants right there.

"When you walked out you were wearing an Army dress uniform. You looked like an Army guy that could go out on the street of anywhere USA," said Petersen.

Petersen remembers clearly walking out of the building in his dress uniform at 4 a.m. He went to a phone booth where he called a cab to take him and four others to San Francisco Airport.

"We sat in the airport until the plane started running, and that was it...I've thought about this a lot, especially the way guys and gals come home today.  Today's warriors return with respect. It's the right way to do it. For us, there was no one asking if we were ok or if we needed any counseling. There was nothing. We just got new clothes, went to the airport and that was it," he said.

The transition from war to home was drastic and the support systems weren't there.

"I was with guys that had been out killing people two days before on jungle patrols. I have to tell you, in Vietnam there were not a lot of rules that people enforced. It was a war environment. But it was more than that -- it changed a lot of people for the bad," he said.

The guys that were there, said Petersen, were very dedicated to the mission. However, no one ever took the time to why they were there or if they were making a difference. "No one really explained to you the objective. Our thing was just to show up at the flight line, keep the planes running and flying every day and that was it. As far as mission achievements and if we were meeting any objectives, I just don't remember anything like that," said Petersen.

Although proud to have served, he equated the homecoming experience to feeling somewhat used and then quickly discarded.  However, thinking back he doesn't I don't think anyone really expected anything ...they were just glad to be home.

Life after War

Although many fared badly with the transition, Petersen's upbringing and family provided him the direction he needed to succeed after his war experience.

"I was the kind of guy that had a good family, good upbringing -- all of those choices that came along, I already knew what my answer would be," he said.

"Family was my compass. It always gave me direction. Having a good strong family when you leave the nest, is the key to anything you do; any endeavor whether military or not."

Now years later, Petersen used that same compass to successfully navigate life's many challenges.

After a transition to the Air Force Reserve in 1977, Petersen went on to serve 29 additional years and retired as the Command Chief Master Sergeant, 315th Airlift Wing (Reserve).

Together, he and his wife Lorraine boast 11 children and 27 grandchildren, a support system that continues to be his rock even today.

"Nothing can compensate for failure in the home," he said.

If there is one thing Petersen wants people to take away from his story, it's the importance of taking care of our service members and making sure they are valued for what they do.

"[The way we came home], we don't ever want to do that again. We need to make sure [troops] come home the right way," he said.

This piece of wisdom is something that Petersen lived out in his Air Force career.

"I remember anytime reservists came back from deployment, no matter what time, we made a point to go there. We always got the boss to come and make sure they were greeted properly," said Petersen.

Though three decades of military service lies between Petersen and Vietnam, he his humble about his story and his own career legacy.

"Now my time is over and it's someone else's time."