Marine shares his truth about Vietnam
Memorial Day is a time of deep reflection for Charles A. Van Bibber of Waynesville — a day he spends thinking about his 13-month tour in Vietnam and the many Marines that fought beside him who never made it home.
“Memorial Day has always been a quiet one for me, reflecting on those we lost in Vietnam and all the sacrifice that has gone into preserving our country,” Van Bibber said. “Since it is all so personal for me, I found it hard to consider it a time for celebration.”
Though 40 years have passed since Van Bibber returned from Vietnam, he is just now releasing his book, “Valentine’s Day: A Marine Looks Back.” And since completing the book, he said he has become more active in honoring all veterans.
This Memorial Day, Monday, May 26, he will be at the Black Mountain Veterans Cemetery in the morning and will be signing copies of his book from 2 to 4 p.m. at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville.
The book is the account of his own experience as a young Marine sent to war for the first time on Feb. 14,1968. The book gives civilians insight into the experience of combat — both immediate and long lasting.
Van Bibber joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1967 when he was 20 years old. He had just finished his sophomore year of college and was thinking of quitting.
“I was tired of school. However, I knew once I did that, I would be up for the draft and I didn’t want to be drafted. I wanted to choose,” he said.
That summer, he saw a young Marine who had just returned from Vietnam. He was in his dress blues and he had a girl on each arm and some more behind him.
“That was when I decided that I wanted to be a Marine. Remember, I was a very naïve country boy,” the Texas native said.
Before the war, Van Bibber said he went along with what everyone was being told, which was that Communism needed to be stopped before it completely took over the Far East. But once he was in combat, the only thing he knew for sure was that he had to fight to survive and help save his fellow Marines.
“All other ideas soon became lost to the reality of combat,” he said. “After I returned home, I avoided any thoughts of the war and any communication with civilians about the war —1969 was not a good time to be a combat Marine returning from Vietnam. I caught a lot of grief over my service, so I just shut up about it.”
Van Bibber said he started writing the book in 2010 after discovering that no one had written about his units during that time. He had recently gotten together with some of his Vietnam buddies, which helped jog his wartime memories. But writing the book still required quite a bit of research on his part.
Memories do tend to change and fade throughout the years, but luckily Van Bibber’s family kept many of his letters he sent home while he was overseas, which adds a real glimpse into his every day life in Vietnam. Many of those letters are included in his memoir.
Van Bibber said writing the book about Vietnam was a therapeutic experience for him. Clarifying old memories brought the war to a place where he could deal with those memories instead of hiding from them like he did for so many years.
“I feel that the stigma of being a Vietnam Veteran has been lifted, allowing me to talk about it,” he said. “You asked how my tour in Vietnam affected my life after I returned home. Well, that in itself is a subject for another book, which I am working on now. Suffice it to say, that the war has been with me all this time, every day.”
While he has read many books on Vietnam and World War II, he said he never took anything personal away from it because they were others’ stories. And no book could have prepared him in writing his own story.
“My fervent hope is that people learn what the real life of a combat Marine/Soldier was like for those who served their country in the Vietnam War,” he said. “In the book, I take the reader with me to Vietnam and let them experience the war as I did.”
After returning from Vietnam, Van Bibber had a difficult time transitioning back into civilian life, especially because of the way Vietnam veterans were being treated by many Americans upon their return. He found himself needing the order and discipline offered by the military.
“After a few years of being treated like a dog, I knew that the best place for me was back in the service where I knew what to expect,” he said.
Since the war was winding down, the Marine Corps was being reduced in numbers and there wasn’t much room for Van Bibber, but the Navy took him right away. He made the Navy a career and retired with 20 years of service and a rank of E-8, Senior Chief.
He has lived in Haywood County for 18 years now and works as a grounds keeper at Biltmore Estate in Asheville.
“It is a beautiful place to work and I like working outdoors,” he said.
Even knowing what he knows today, and even though he admits the war turned him from a happy young man into a lost soul, Van Bibber wouldn’t change anything.
“When I look back and realize what happened to me, and compare that with the need for service to our country, especially as a U.S. Marine, then my answer is, yes, I would do it all over again or even now if necessary,” he said. “Without those men and women willing to fight and sacrifice to keep our country free, then Freedom is just a word.”
Excerpt from a letter Van Bibber wrote home:
“Let me let you in on something Chris, this war is really tough. I can’t really explain it, because there is so much that happens. Sometimes I feel like saying to hell with it and I don’t really care if the Gooks get me or not, but that doesn’t last long. I’m always on my toes out in the bush, I can’t afford to let my guard down. But sometimes you have to do certain things, or certain things just happen, and you wonder what this is all about, and why you do things you would never have thought of doing before. It kinda gets you down sometimes too…”