Each year, the Anna Maria Island Sun features a local veteran for Veteran’s Day. We have introduced many Island and Cortez veterans of World War II to our readers, but this year, with the popularity of the Vietnam War series on PBS, we chose a Vietnam vet.
We didn’t have far to look.
Tom Vaught has been a reporter and photographer for the Sun since its first issue hit the street at the turn of this century.
A while back, he tacked a photo of a scene from the film “Apocalypse Now” on his cubicle wall in the newsroom showing Robert Duvall’s pronouncement that “Charlie don’t surf.” That’s when his service came to light.
“Charlie” is short for “Victor Charlie,” the name American troops gave the enemy Viet Cong, or North Vietnamese.
To Tom, “Charlie don’t surf” is a reminder that the enemy meant business.
Tom enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps for three years, following the lead of his brother, who also served in Vietnam.
It was the only branch of the service he ever considered. He never told their Mom that they were once in the same rocket attack.
After training in San Diego in July, 1968, he found himself in An Hoa, South Vietnam.
After that, he was “always on ready,” and didn’t have a good night’s sleep until he got back home.
“When Da Nang fell, I said to myself, ‘At least there are no more explosions,’ ” he said of the beginning of the end of the war, which resulted in a North Vietnamese victory.
The constant noise of battle has put him off Fourth of July fireworks on the Island, but the holiday is perhaps more meaningful to Tom because of it, and is one reason he looks forward every year to covering Peace Day at Anna Maria Elementary School.
“Everybody’s mad and upset, and everybody’s right, and we need to change it. We need to plant a seed with these kids and hope they go with it,” he said.
As Tom and his comrades listened to shots flying overhead, he said they knew about the peace-ins and anti-war protests back home, but didn’t take it personally. However, he objected to protesters who burned the American flag.
The troops got their news from DJs like Adrian Cronauer, made famous by Robin Williams in the film, “Good Morning Vietnam.” The real Cronauer had a calmer, more soothing delivery than the Williams version, Tom recalls, but was almost as entertaining.
Tom said he would like to visit Vietnam again, without the chaos of war, because he likes the people.
He probably won’t go surfing this time, though.
Surfing at China Beach, a recreational area for in-country U.S. troops, “is the closest I came to dying,” he joked, adding that he had to be rescued by a Navy lifeguard.
While struggling against the South China Sea, Tom said he was thinking that if he died, his epitaph would be, “He surfed his country well.”
Happy Veteran’s Day, Corporal Thomas Vaught, and to all Vietnam vets.
Welcome home, and thanks for your service.