JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA –
Service to one’s country and the sacrifices made in doing so are normally respected by the general public. However, it’s not always the case. Many Vietnam veterans experienced unwelcome returns home.
“I entered the Air Force in 1968 after the riots in Harlem, NY spurred by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. As a South Carolina native seeing the burning and destruction of a city, I decided to get ahead of the draft and join the Air Force,” said Mitchell Jenkins, chief of logistics at the 1st Combat Camera Squadron.
Jenkins enlisted in 1968 as an Airman Basic. Later, he was transferred from a job in missile electronics to Combat Camera and Jenkins got his wish to travel around the world...
“I served two tours of duty in Vietnam as an aerial and ground combat cameraman,” said Jenkins. “The Air Force during my time was adjusting to a new reality. Culturally, blacks were voicing demands for change. Minorities had to protest that Military Exchanges did not carry any black magazines, clothing or grooming products.”
The Vietnam conflict had been ongoing for more than a decade when Jenkins joined the Air Force. As a broadcast journalist, his job was to record what he encountered during his time overseas.
“We were there to document our war effort,” said Jenkins. “I got to travel around and document other people doing their job toward the war effort. I traveled throughout Southeast Asia, Thailand and every place that had an interest in the war. As an Airman, I got to work alone quite a bit. You did not have people supervising you all the time so you had to be a self-starter. You had to be motivated, understanding you were part of a team and everybody had a job to do.”
Motivation was only one of the characteristics Jenkins recalled needing while trying to survive the war.
“Your life depends on someone else and someone else’s life depends on you and that’s how you have to look at it regardless of who you are,” said Jenkins. “It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from.”
Another characteristic Jenkins mentioned was duty.
“Duty … Duty is everything,” said Jenkins. “Can you be depended on? I learned from war, I can be depended on to do what is expected of me. Duty always trumps everything else. Do your job.”
Jenkins did his job and, like many other Vietnam veterans, he returned home to a less than welcoming United States population. Support for the war had waned.
“It was kind of confusing to us. We came home but, initially we weren’t welcomed back,” said Jenkins. “You had war protesters and we were being called baby killers. After such an accusation, you just shut down; you didn’t talk about war. It took about 20 years for me to talk about what I saw or what I went through over there. I felt like no one cared about it. It was your job, you did it and you took care of each other. It was like us against the world because Vietnam veterans felt like they had been ousted by their countrymen.”
Jenkins made a decision to return to Vietnam to get away from the negative environment in his next assignment.
“The reason I went back to Vietnam for a second tour is because of bigotry at my stateside assignment. Returning from a war zone at that time, there were no support agencies to address my transition back into a piece time mission. I was the only black in my unit and the NCOs wouldn’t even respond to my morning greetings. As a result, I never felt like part of that team. I was a highly decorated combat veteran airman who was not comfortable with the leadership. I saw signs indicating the assignment would not end well. When my evaluation confirmed my suspicions, I had to leave that situation. Thus, I volunteered for another tour of duty in Vietnam.
Jenkins continued to serve his country after his 20 year military career.
“I still work for the Department of the Air Force as a civilian,” said Jenkins. “I’ve been doing that for the last 22 years. Also, I’ve been teaching martial arts at the youth center for more than30 years. It instills a kind of discipline in the kids. I think that it’s worthwhile.”
Jenkins recalls his favorite memory from Veteran’s Day and what the day means to him.
“On Veteran’s Day, I used to get up early and go to a fast food place and get coffee,” said Jenkins. “About 15 years ago I was at a McDonalds. I got my coffee and asked the young man behind the counter how much I owed and he said, ‘Nothing, it’s on me.’ I felt like I had been vindicated by the young folks. This young person appreciated my service and that makes me feel good. Every time someone says, ‘Thank you for your service’ it makes you feel like ‘Okay,’ our service is being appreciated. That’s what Veteran’s Day means to me.”