Paul Brink recalls himself as a bad boy, looking for a fight, looking for the next party and looking all the while over his shoulder at a strict father he could never seem to please.
Brink, 68, of Bismarck, was at odds with his dad, a prominent doctor, in the way that some fathers and sons live in a push and pull of expectation and resentment that frustrates and fractures both.
Brink wasn’t going anywhere after he graduated from Bismarck High School in the spring of 1965, flunking college classes and partying hard in an era when hand-rolled joints and tie-dyed bandannas were edging out the cheap beer scene of the day.
“I was probably on the list to get drafted. I was such a partier,” Brink says.
He knew it was coming anyway, so he enlisted in the U.S. Army, 1st Infantry Division, ready, energetic and willing to do his time.
Going to war was better than going nowhere.
In early summer of ‘69, Brink landed at Cam Ranh Bay, north of Saigon. He deplaned at the army base and the heat on the tarmac was shocking to this northern boy.
“This was, `Hello, Vietnam.’ Right then, that was real,” he said.
Two days later, he was in a base camp, carrying 80 pounds on his back, armed with an M16 rifle, walking search-and-destroy missions in the interior jungle.
His company primarily engaged the Viet Cong, communist guerrilla forces that supported the North Vietnamese. The guerilla fighters were not easily distinguishable from the villagers of South Vietnam, and the company was instructed to look for suspiciously large food supplies and burn them.
He learned to sleep Army-style, one eye open, one ear listening, his helmet and pack for bedding. The killing was reduced to “them or us, alive or not. It’s pretty simple.”
No one talked those hot bug-infested nights, no one smoked cigarettes, snores were quickly squelched by the two keeping rotating watch.
“It was life or death, 24/7. Fear every minute, that’s how you live,” he said — and he prayed. “You have no idea what would happen. I prayed for the safety of me and my buddies, I asked God to keep me alive.”
He was never injured, but that’s not to say he was well when he came home in November of 1970 with commendations and an honorable discharge. He had jungle rot, a skin condition that persisted for years, lung scars from tuberculosis, post traumatic stress disorder, recurring malaria and eventually worse, a form of leukemia linked to Agent Orange, the defoliant chemical that harmed so many soldiers.
“War is the worst thing possible, so many bad things go on,” he said.
It is sickening to recall the soldiers who returned to base with strings of enemy ears around their necks, the rapes, the inhumanity beyond the war, those images as real as the bright artwork on the walls of his home and the yellow silk flowers on the dining table.
He was different in his mind, too, when he returned. He was a rebellious boy when he left and a man when he returned. The fight was all out of him after fighting for real and he was ready to grow up. He finished college, got his life in order and eventually married Bonnie Grey, the two owning and operating the successful Fiesta Villa restaurant for more than 30 years.
“I’m thankful for my service. I grew up so quick,” he said.
The war with his dad was over, too. He’d finally earned the respect of his father.
“He was so very proud; I finally did something good," he said.
But the truth was that Vietnam was a war of shame, one so opposed and so vividly horrific on American television, that Brink didn’t wear his uniform when he came home. He never talked about it because no one wanted to hear. He was harder inside himself, withdrawn into an emotional shell that only a determined family was able to crack open.
The best thing to come out of Vietnam was that it taught the American public the difference between the war and the soldier, he said.
“All the veterans now have been treated wonderfully,” said Brink, who stresses he is not jealous of that, but he wishes he hadn’t felt shamed by his own country.
“I wish I’d been thanked. I think I did a wonderful thing. There was no validation, nothing. That’s why so many Vietnam veterans turned to drugs and alcohol afterward — they were going through hell, ostracized and ridiculed,” he said.
Former Private First Class Paul Brink, Co. D, 2D Battalion, 2D Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, and Specialist 4th Class, 199th Support Battalion, was not that long in Vietnam but those 13 months shaped who he would become and will always be.
All these years later, the “whup-whup-whup” of a helicopter bends his mind and he sleeps lightly like he’s in the army still.
“I’m always listening, always hearing,” he said.