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“I Wish I Was Back Painting–It Was Never As Bad As This”

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The following is a guest post by VHP Digital Conversion Specialist Matt McCrady, and is the fourth in a five-part series of blog posts related to correspondence in Veterans History Project collections.

Black and white photo of man in uniform squating.  Man appears to have something in his hands.  Below the image is a handwritten note stating: "Bob 69 Vietnam."
Photo of Robert Geisler, Jr., in Vietnam, taken in 1967 but dated 1969 (Robert Geisler Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/76576).

Like the soldiers discussed in the 1980s song about the Vietnam War, “19,” Corporal Robert Geisler was just 19 years old when he was flown to Vietnam in 1966. Over the span of 90 letters written in 1966 and ’67, he wrote of hardships and horrors that would later be reflected in other songs and films about the war. These letters are remarkable for their honesty and emotional resonance.

The son of an industrial steel painter from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Geisler had artistic aspirations and a sensitive eye for details, as well as a basic sense of pride in serving his country. Eventually, he would find these aspects of his personality in conflict as he witnessed some of the ugliest facets of the Vietnam War. By the end of his tour of duty, he would write about the Marines, “Pap said I should be proud of my outfit, but I’m not, I think the Marine Corps is the worst outfit there is [sic]” [1/8/1967]. Yet later he would also write that he wanted his father to be proud of him for serving in combat, rather than remaining behind the lines as an Military Policeman (MP) [4/21/1967]. Like many of his fellow soldiers, he found himself in a place and time where it was difficult to make out right from wrong, and he had to fall back on the most basic of moral litmus tests: would my parents be proud of me?

By the time that Geisler wrote his stinging rebuke of the Marines, he had seen enough that any man in his situation might feel embittered. Until he was called up to the infantry in spring 1967, he served in an MP company in Vietnam, guarding American servicemen who had committed crimes. “Most of them committed murder, or rape,” he told his parents, adding that perhaps “they wouldn’t do what they did under normal circumstances, but this place puts pressure on you” [8/22/1966]. As an MP, he had also experienced several prison riots. Writing just before leaving for the field, he reported, “We just had another riot in the brig, this one, was real wild. All of us were in there fighting with nightsticks, and the prisoners had clubs [sic.]” [3/7/1967].

Handwritten note and drawing of faceless person pointing at neck.  Note on American Red Cross letterhead.
Letter from Robert Geisler to his parents indicating location of his wounds, 6/28/1967 (AFC2001/001/76576).

In addition to the difficulty of his MP duties, he witnessed the “fragging” of an officer on his base [12/15/1966]. Geisler himself had been shot at by a sniper [10/7/1966], and he had heard about many of his buddies killed in action. “So far I know of at least 7 of my boot camp buddies got killed,” he wrote in a letter just before Christmas [12/10/1966]. By the spring of the following year, Geisler witnessed men he served with blown apart by landmines. Seeing men killed in such a gruesome way “brought tears to my eyes,” he wrote [5/16/1967].

No wonder, then, that he wrote his father: “Pap I wish I was back painting–it was never as bad as this” [8/11/1966]. His letters provide a raw look at the life of a Marine Corps “grunt” that is unusually candid, particularly because he was writing to his parents. He told no comforting lies, writing, “When a company goes out on an operation over here, they have more deaths and casualties than they ever report back home” [8/22/1966]. Nor did he spare them from learning about his private pain. “You were right about my being depressed,” he told his parents, “Everybody I know is depressed…” [2/5/1967]. And as the stress mounted, so did his drinking. “I’ve been drinking way too much,” he wrote, “and I wake up in the mornings a nervous wreck, I can hardly hold a cup of coffee I shake that bad” [4/5/1967]. However, Geisler did consider that he was telling his parents too much, writing at one point, “My buddies said that I shouldn’t write and tell you what’s going on in the field,” but he seemed compelled to share his pain with his parents. “I feel better telling you,” he wrote, “because it sort of gets it off my mind” [5/16/1967].

If writing was cathartic for him, he truly needed the release. Just a few days prior to the above letter, he had killed his first person, whom he refers to as “a V.C.”; and, initially, he says that “it was like shooting a rabbit” and that “I didn’t feel anything for the guy.” In the same paragraph, though, he contradicted this statement when he wrote, “When it was over I didn’t quite care for what I did” [5/4/1967]. No matter how much he tried to minimize what happened, he could not fully turn away from the horror of it.

Geisler himself would be wounded on June 27th, 1967. He was on patrol when the man in front of him tripped an explosive device. Both men were seriously wounded, Geisler in the neck and arm [6/28/1967]. At the time of his wounding, Geisler was already “short,” meaning he only had about eight weeks left to serve before being shipped home. He never saw combat again.

Drawing of man with beard, sunglasses, beret, shorts, sandals, cigarette in mouth and sign that says: "help." Sketech is signed "Your Son, Bob" and states he is leaving for Danang tomorrow Oct. 9.
Drawing included in one of Geisler’s letters to his parents, 10/8/1966 (Robert Geisler Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/76576).

Geisler’s letters weren’t always filled with the brutality of war. He could be unintentionally funny, such as when he wrote that “March was bad for me, I had a bad fungus infection in my crouch [sic.]…” [4/5/1967]. He had to clarify that it wasn’t a venereal disease. He included his art with his letters, he told jokes, he loved jazz and asked his parents to send him records to listen to. He wrote about his love for his family and his regret that he couldn’t be home to take his little brother hunting and fishing.

Geisler’s relationship with his parents might seem unusual to those of us reticent about sharing details of our fungal infections and drinking habits, but it was precisely this relationship that allowed him to be honest about what he experienced and how he felt about it. Almost as if he were writing a diary or a letter to a therapist, sometimes what he revealed is shocking, but at other times he also provided rare glimpses of the inner life of a man who was far away from his home in in America, and who was afraid he might never see that home again. “I can’t remember what it sounds like to walk on a pavement, and hear my heels making a clicking sound. You think of little crazy things like that” [8/30/1966].

To view previous posts on correspondence in this series, please click on the following links: Moments with You, “Today Was Tough–But I Took It,” and Beyond “We Regret To Inform You.”

Comments (20)

  1. The young guy you see there,the brother I knew…never came back from there.Another casualty of war,it stinks.

  2. My uncle Bob was unlike any man you would meet. If only he was still around to express all this in person, you would see the real man he was. Loving, funny, and caring.

  3. I was very lucky to meet Bob later in his life. He was a generous, kind, loving person. His companionship and art was cherished by all who he touched in his life.

  4. Bob Geisler is my father. He was as honest and forthcoming as his letters til the very end. We all miss him terribly. I’m so happy his letters were accepted.

  5. My son-in-law! He was dearly loved and forever will be missed. Bobby was funny among many more good things But don’t tell him a secret!

  6. I never knew him but he seemed like a pretty awesome person. I wish I had the chance to meet him

  7. Bobby was our much loved son-in-law. He had a heart of gold, love for all and a great sense of humor.

  8. Growing up I only heard little stories of my uncles experiences. To be able to read all of these letters is shocking and revealing to how incredible painful in every way this war was to all the men who fought for our country. I only knew the loving, caring, funny uncle I could cuddle up to and laugh with. He will always be in my heart.

  9. My brother is missed dearly, as his humor, generosity, and honesty was always displayed wherever he went. An honest man that I regret, went to a war, that gave him an experience that I wish he didn’t have. Thank God he came home and we had him a little longer.

  10. I have some amazing memories from my childhood that come from time spent with my uncle Bob. He was like a second dad to me & my brothers and I miss him just as much as I do my own dad. To know him was to know his infectious laugh that I can still hear now. Thanks uncle Bobby. I love you, Christo.

  11. Grew up with Bob and was in the Corps and Vietnam at the same time.
    Painted bridges with him after we got out. Partied, laughed, and cried with this extremely talented man. The memories bring tears to my eyes.

  12. I am the eldest daughter of Bobby’s. I would like to thank you for accurately depicting his character without ever actually meeting him. He was always an open book, believed in honesty at all times (and COSTS! Ouch!) but was so very compassionate. He cared deeply for all living things and taught us girls to always try to do what’s right.
    Although I never knew the Bobby that went to Vietnsm, only the one who returned…..I feel truly blessed that he was able to share his stories with me so that I could understand how deeply war penetrates your soul.
    Thank you so much for sharing this…we miss him terribly.
    My son’s birthday is also the anniversary of his passing, so bittersweet. Xoxo

  13. I am the buddy, “Hanson”, referenced in the letters. Bob and I went through bootcamp at Parris Island and then to Vietnam together. We last spoke when I visited Bob in the hospital. Shortly after, I became ill and was sent home. We lost contact. Recently, after visiting Parris Island, I tried to locate Bob. After googling his name, this blog appeared. Upon reading the opening line, “I wish I was back painting…”, I knew it was him. Unfortunately, my search was too late to reconnect.
    Bob was a great friend during that period of our lives. We had similar personalities and got each other through the rough spots with humor.
    I would be happy to share photos and stories if interested.

  14. Paul Hanson- if you ever read this, I’d love to hear stories and see some of your pictures. I’m Bobby’s daughter. [email protected]

  15. What a wonderful record and history of a soldier’s account of Vietnam. I have learned that archives such as this are rare and am so happy that his family saved all his letters and generously shared them for all of us to learn from a soldiers experience. Thank you for sharing and for your service Bobby, you are missed.

  16. Bobby was a dear friend. I think of him often. He was one of those rare souls that emitted an uplifting vibe. Articulate, artistic beyond words,kind, caring, the kind of person that you just can’t spend enough time with. I was younger when he left for war and when he returned it was evident that he wanted to live his good life in spite of what the war had robbed him of. To run in to him on the street or sit and have a morning coffee or an afternoon beer was cause for celebration. Not enough guys like this.

  17. My family lived next door to his in Mt Washington. I remember how great he was and always wanting to go hunting with my father. I never knew him after his service and still remember him as he was. God bless you Bobby

  18. Reading this makes me cry, recalling my wonderful, witty, handsome, articulate, artistic brother. Unique in every way, when his life was lost to cancer; the world changed forever. I miss him so.

  19. Bobby Geisler was my buddy Phil’s big brother. I remember him as a kind, funny guy, and quite the
    artist. He could draw and paint some really stuff. I also remember when Phil told me of his being wounded.
    Many of the boys in our neighborhood served in
    Viet Nam, including myself Bob’s contribution no where compares to mine, but I thought of him often. He was a
    fine man from a very loving family.
    At His wake in 2008,I saw him too as a casualty of war, I said a prayer for him and his family, then

  20. I am a director of a small art museum in Bellevue. I would love to have an exhibit of Robert Geisler if his family would want one. The is no cost. I am a Vietnam Veteran Marine. Please contact me if you are interested.

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