Eye Witness Testimonies: Rick Barr
Edited from interviews by Josh Eadie, May 2005
My name is Rick Barr and I was in Vietnam from July of 1971, to January of 1972. I was drafted earlier but went through advanced individual training and MCO School. MCO School was a quick way to become a Sergeant E5. I was in the army for about a year and a half and in Vietnam for about 6 months. Most people who were drafted during the time were sent to Infantry school. I didn’t like the idea of guns and shooting people and I had a degree in psychology, so I applied for a secondary MOS or military occupational specialty.
I was going into college guidance back in the states so I wound up in a drug rehab program in Long Binh, South Vietnam. There was a little less than 32,000 troops at my base which was one of the largest bases in Vietnam. The base was cleared jungle and not a pre-existing city. I counseled heroin addicts for six months and was never even issued a weapon.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s, the war was very unpopular and my options were: to go into the army like I was supposed to, to join the National Guard, or to flee to Canada. I just wanted to get in and get it over with and serve my country. My first impression of Vietnam when I got there in July was that it was extremely hot and dry. There are two seasons in Vietnam because of the monsoons. The dry season is really hot and dry and the rainy season is a little cooler and very wet. The living conditions were nice at the hospital where I was. I slept in a clean Quonset hut with bunk beds and had a pretty good mess hall. There were rats in the huts but not many. I think I actually gained weight over there from eating the four meals a day. Midnight chow was the fourth meal and was served as an early breakfast for anyone who was still up at midnight.
In Vietnam I was attached to the 935th medical detachment which is a detachment of the 24th EVAC hospital. There was a total of about twenty counselors with whom I worked. My patients were there because it was a time when the war had wound down and there was a lot of waiting around. There were less search and destroy missions and the soldiers were not in harms way as much. The heroin was so pure that it was not injected or mainlined into your system, but sprinkled on cigarettes and smoked or snorted. They became addicted to it very easily and a vial of it would only cost about five dollars. A big problem for the soldiers was that before they could leave the country they had to take a urine test. If they failed then they were not allowed to leave on their estimated date of departure and had to wait for another one. This was a very big motivator to get the soldiers off of the drugs, which was very hard, but they knew they had to do it to leave.
The program I was involved with was a voluntary amnesty program called Crossroads. If they came to us they could not be prosecuted or jailed but if they were caught using or dealing they would be jailed in the Long Binh jail or the LBJ. The program was run by a major with a medical degree and there was a lot of effort put into it. The soldiers came in
by themselves and wanted to get off of the drugs. I worked shift work with about five other counselors at one time and we used some medication to help take away the cravings and get them off. We found that there was an inverse relationship between the date of departure and the use of the drug. If the date was close then they would be more likely to stay off the drug but if it was far away they would probably get back on it. A lot of people went through the program and at any given time there were about twenty to twenty-five beds full. The soldiers stayed for about three to four days to get the drug out of their systems, but it was much harder to get rid of it psychologically.
The hospital was about fifteen miles north of Saigon in southern Vietnam and the terrain was very flat, very populated, and it was surrounded by jungle. At night there was no TV, just Armed Forces Radio. One of my buddies was really into Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and I remember singing along to his tape at night on our stereos. We would also just sit under the stars or go to movies on base. One weekend we went to a nice resort along the South China Sea called Vung Tao. A couple of my buddies and I just took a jeep and went for a couple of days. During the day you would see normal looking Vietnamese but at night those same people would become the Viet Cong you were fighting.
I felt that most of the guys in the drug rehab program were schmucks. People with no direction in life who would do a lot of drugs back in the states and probably drink a lot of alcohol. Marijuana was everywhere and we did not even try to combat it; heroin was the main problem among the soldiers. Almost all of the patients in the program were hooked on it but some were on LSD. The program was a very good one put together by the government.
During R & R I flew home from Vietnam via the polar route which was actually faster than flying straight around the equator. I remember leaving Vietnam in December where it was ninety-five to ninety-six degrees and one-hundred percent humidity and arriving in Anchorage, Alaska, where it was eight degrees. In Vietnam we couldn’t wait to get on the plane because it was cool and in Anchorage we couldn’t wait to get back on it because it was so warm. When I got home the first thing I did was eat two Whoppers from Burger King. During my break time I loved seeing Louise and my family. I wanted to see them and everyone around wanted to see me. I remember going to a lot of Christmas parties that year and going on vacation to Williamsburg for the New Year’s holiday.
During my spare time in Vietnam, I was very active. We had a pool and I was the head recreational counselor. I played basketball with the patients and developed a real nice tan. While I was there, it was the first year of Monday Night Football back here in the states. We could listen to it early Tuesday morning on the radio because we were twelve hours ahead. We also had access to the NFL highlight film reels. The patients really enjoyed all of it especially the sports. At night we would sit under the stars and drink beer. We saw lots of meteor and lightning shows. Some simple pleasures that we have now were the leisure time over there.
The Monday night football and letters from Louise helped me stay connected with the outside world. I was really into rock and roll and there was great music back then. Louise would send me tapes of Black Sabbath, The Who, and Grand Funk Railroad. I can honestly say that I wrote Louise every single day that I was in Vietnam. It was easy because I had a lot of time and I could just jot off a quick letter. Also, in a war zone everything is free. All I had to do was write “Free” in the upper right hand corner whether it was a letter or a box of trinkets.
When I came back there were reports of hatred towards the vets but I never witnessed any of this. Today I think the vets are looked upon a little more favorably because back then the war and the government were much more unpopular.
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