Joe Finnie, who grew up in Como, is glad to see troops being welcomed home today with open arms. When he was returning from Vietnam three decades ago, soldiers were greeted with spit and insults like "baby killer." "They looked down on us bad. They treated us like dirt," recalls Finnie with tears in his eyes.
Staff photo by Angela Pitts
A Soldier's Story
Joe Finnie talks about two tours of duty in Vietnam, and the similarities between two controversial wars
By PATTI SELLS, News-Telegram Feature Writer
March 23, 2008 - Patriotism and support for American troops runs high compared to the days when Army infantry men like Joe Finnie served during the Vietnam War; coming home to a plethora of negative propaganda.
"I see how they treat them boys when they're coming in at the airport these days, and it just gets my heart going to see them welcomed home like that," said Finnie, a native of Como who went on to complete a 20-year career with the United States Army. "We didn't get that kind of treatment."
According to Finnie, upon his return to the states from "Nam," service men were spit on and called baby killers, in addition to all manner of other horrible names and insults
"Americans treating American soldiers like that -- it was unbelievable. I just never expected that," Finnie recalled with tears in his eyes. "They looked down on us bad. They treated us like dirt."
Finnie recalled being brought through Oakland, Calif., in the middle of the night so as to avoid the crowds.
"They got us in, processed us out, and got us gone before daylight, so we wouldn't have to deal with the public," Finnie remembered.
Though the treatment of today's soldiers differs dramatically from that of the Vietnam era, Finnie does make some comparisons between the two wars.
"Things should have been handled differently (in both Vietnam and Iraq). We should have hit them hard early on and finished the job -- been over with it," Finnie emphasized.
Finnie accused politicians from his era of holding back troops, saying 400,000 soldiers were on hand ready to fight, but only 100,000 were out in the field on the front lines fighting the war. The other 300,000 were there only as support.
"Everybody over there didn't fight," he said. "They had their starched fatigues on, name tags, looked like they was back in the States. That's the difference between combat and support. Some of them never even heard a round fired in anger.
"We could have won Vietnam if they hadn't backed up on our troops," he emphasized. "We had the weapons and we could of won if they had just turned us loose on them. But we just did what we was told. You did your job, watched each other's back, and that was about it."
Fear was constant. recalled Finnie, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C., who jumped into fields of ribbon cane that was 12-feet tall.
"Oh, we jumped right in on it. And there was fear all right. If you didn't have fear, you'd find yourself dead," said Finnie.
He recalled seeing men paralyzed with fright.
"You couldn't pry them off the ground -- big knots popping up all over, bullets whizzing by your head breaking the sound barrier. That's what comes to mind most. And the smell."
Tears flowed from his eyes as he remembered a friend from Alabama being shot through the heart as they sat side-by-side against a tree.
"We carried him through the jungle about a mile on a makeshift sling 'cause there was nowhere for the helicopter to come in and lift his body out," he recalled.
Although he does have a couple of friends he still corresponds with occasionally, for the most part, Finnie said, he chose not to get close to his comrades.
"The next day they might get shot through the head; then that friendship's gone," he said. "But I knew what I was getting in to when I signed on. It was no surprise."
Finnie himself almost got his right arm shot off, and suffered bullet wounds to his right leg, as well. He spent six months at the hospital in Fort Bragg before later being sent to a second tour of duty in Vietnam from 1970 to 1972.
"That's when I got my second Purple Heart," Finnie said referring to his first tour from 1966 to 1967.
the first Purple Heart was received in 1965 when he was one of 30,000 paratroopers and Marines sent to the Dominican Republic to isolate rebel leaders of a revolutionary uprising in the capitol city of Santa Domingo.
"An explosion hit me in back of the head with some shrapnel," explained Finnie. "That put me in a hospital for a while down in South America."
According to Finnie, Purple Hearts aren't something to really be proud of. What he considers accomplishments throughout his military career, which he began at age 17, are becoming a master jumper, platoon sergeant and first sergeant.
"I was just a boy from Como trying to find a job," said Finnie with a laugh. "It was either join the military or wash cars. That's about all a black man could do back then (1957). I believe it all paid off."
Finnie, 68, said he's been well taken care of by the U.S. Army, then and now, and encourages young people to consider serving.
"I have a nephew that just went in," Finnie said. "I urged him to go on in and do the best he could. You get in there, get a job; you learn to stand on your own two feet. They'll make a man out of you."
As for the war on terrorism in Iraq, Finnie said there is much he disagrees with.
"I don't like the way we got into it. We should have got in there and got it over with early on; hit'em hard," he said with a look of sternness. "We've got people over there fighting and losing their lives. It's not a war I really look up to."
But as for America, Finnie stands tall and proud.
"Now let me tell you about America. For a black man that's been around the world and seen all different types of people, America is the best country in the world for a black man," he said with pride. "I love America. I love this country, but it's because I've been in other countries. I sure don't won't to ever live nowhere else."
(Editor's Note: As the war in Iraq continues to deploy American young men and women into harm's way, it's an appropriate time to turn to the veterans of Hopkins County to share their own military experiences and views on today's war. The following is the first in an this ongoing series in the Sulphur Springs News-Telegram exploring our veterans.)