It is Getting Better

by Sergeant Major (Ret) George S. Kulas

At last I was home. It was June 7, 1969 and I had just been released from my Marine Corps tour, which included 18 months in Vietnam. It felt great wandering the sidewalks in my hometown of Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Finally I was on solid ground.

Green lawns and trees surrounded me. My feet were not sinking in mud; the air was fresh and clean. Safe and secure, I was home. Wearing my uniform one last time, this was my solo homecoming parade.

A day earlier in California, our group of newly discharged Marines traveled by bus from Camp Pendleton to the airport. Numerous vehicles passed us on the freeway, their occupants sneering at our Marine Corps bus. A few passengers waved and displayed peace signs, but more of them displayed middle fingers, while some spat at our bus.

The joyful atmosphere present upon departing Camp Pendleton had changed to quiet anger. A tough looking combat vet I sat next to lowered his head, saying, “As soon as we get to the airport, this uniform is coming off. I don’t want anyone to know I was a Marine. Nobody cares what we went through in Vietnam.”

We both needed cheering up. “It will get better when we get to our homes, “ I said.

Close to tears, he replied, “It will never get better.”

Now back home, California seemed like 10 years past and a million miles away. I wanted to believe that because this was Small-town U.S.A.; attitudes would be different. After all, boys had always gone to war from here and come back as men and heroes; Vietnam vets wouldn’t be treated any different. At the corner of Eighth and Erie, I heard someone call out, “George! You’re back.”

The young man approaching me was unfamiliar. Then I recognized the voice as he asked, “Hey man, you don’t recognize your old buddy Bob?” A beard and shoulder length hair masked his features. He didn’t resemble the crew cut Bob I knew in high school. He wore a “Make Love Not War” T-shirt; a peace symbol hung from his neck on a chain.

Chuckling, Bob said, “Back from the war, eh, George? I can dig that. I’m just mellowing out during summer break. Don’t want to go back to school in the fall, but it always keeps me out of Nam, know what I mean, George? I’d rather party than fight.”

With my anger and frustration building, all I could do was mutter, “I can see that,” and kept on walking.”

Bob shouted at my back, “hey George, welcome home! Get the monkey suit off and we’ll party!” To this day, it was the hardest time I ever had restraining myself from committing a Class A felony.

At college a couple of months later, I encountered many people like Bob. During one class, my professor asked whether anyone had been to a foreign country. When I said I had been to Vietnam, he and most of the students laughed. He said he was interested in cultural, not combat, experiences. I said I’d rather be in combat than listen to your bullshit and walked out.

In 1972 I enlisted in the Army, to eventually retire after 20 years-combined service, once again moving home to Wisconsin. Soon after my return, our forces were battling in Desert Storm. Later, not long after the Gulf War ended, I attended a victory celebration and almost fell over when I saw Bob there. Now a well off businessman, he wore a $500.00 suit with a yellow ribbon pinned to his chest.

“Hey Kulas, how you doing? Good to see you again,” Bob said while approaching me with his arm extended for a handshake.

Keeping my hands to myself, I asked, “What are you doing here?” Smiling broadly, Bob boasted of how his son fought in Desert Storm, saying how proud he was of him and of all the troops who served there. Pulling out a wallet, he said, “Kulas, he’s still in Saudi. Let me show you his picture. He’s a sharp looking Marine.”

Looking at his son’s picture, I said, “Bob, he does look good. We are all proud of our troops.” Looking Bob up and down, I added, “But you’re a walking definition of a hypocrite dressed in a monkey suit.”

As Bob glared at me in shock and disbelief, I bellowed, “Semper Fi!” Walking away with my head tall, I told myself, “It is getting better.”