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Vietnam veteran's combat experiences left him disillusioned with the war

“One-third of the casualties in Vietnam were because of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), because of bombs and booby traps,” Barry Romo, 67, said while recording this week’s StoryCorps.

Romo is a Vietnam veteran who lives in Chicago and is associated with the group, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Earlier this week, Romo spoke about how his wartime experiences changed him.

“Part of my job was to pay money to people who would bring back unexploded rounds,” Romo said. “The U.S. dropped more explosives on Vietnam than in the Second World War and 11 percent of those bombs were duds. And the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese would literally saw them in half, get that explosive and make mines to blow up Americans.”

“One day, there was an explosion on the other side of the base, and what had happened was two or three or four Vietnamese children were bringing back a white phosphorous artillery round to get paid a buck and something happened to it just as they were reaching the base and two or three of the children literally ceased to exist. And one little girl was left, somewhere between the ages of 10 and 14. And she was bleeding, and in pain, and her clothes had been burned onto her. And I took off my poncho, wrapped her in that, and put her on the floor of the helicopter.”

“And we flew to where there was a giant military hospital. I jumped out with the little girl in my arms. And I ran to an attendant. He was a white Caucasian male. And he took one look and said, “We don’t treat Vietnamese nationals here. You’re going to have to take her to the Catholic orphanage.”

“And we got into the helicopter and I put the girl on the floor again. And she whimpered like a little kitten in pain. The pilot landed and there was a Caucasian woman. And I jumped out, put the little girl in her arms and we flew off…I don’t know whether she lived or she died.”

“We had been told, ‘You’re going to Vietnam to fight for the future, for freedom and democracy.’ And here was a little girl whose friends had all died. And it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was the color of her skin and the shape of her eyes.”

“But the way you deal with combat is: You get through the night and then you get through the day and then you get through the night and then you get through the day. You put those things away, not to revisit them until you get back to the United States.”

Romo lost a nephew, with whom he was close, fighting in Vietnam as well. And the experience of bringing his body back to the United States from Vietnam shook him to the core.

“I couldn’t admit the war was wrong to begin with. It took me a year of doing drugs and drinking and not sleeping.”

Romo survived and became an active member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But for some veterans, the memories of their combat prove too much to bear.

According to the VA, an average of 22 U.S. veterans kill themselves each day. A crisis line created specifically for veterans has fielded more than a million calls since it began in 2007.

Since Romo finished his military service, the VA has made an effort to address the issue, as evidenced by a 2012 report from the Veterans Administration compiling veteran suicide data.

But Romo is convinced the issue is far from over. "Twenty-two vets a day are killing themselves,” he said. “Twenty two vets. And it’s important because when the war ends, it doesn’t really end for the people who fought it or who are victims of it.”

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