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.
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].
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.
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].