Today continues The Times and Democrat's print and online series, “Vietnam: They Served With Honor.” The stories based on interviews with local veterans of the Vietnam War will continue on Sundays and Wednesdays through Nov. 11, Veterans Day. For more photos and video, visit this story at TheTandD.com.
David Franklin says “it’s been heavy on my mind.”
The veteran from Orangeburg was just a 20-year-old squad leader in 1969, anxious to get out of Vietnam.
One of the men in his eight-man engineering unit near Buon Ma Thuot in South Vietnam’s central highlands received a surprise package in the mail.
His wife sent him photos of her in the nude, images that others in the squad pointed out had to have been taken by someone else.
“It messed with him and messed with him … messing with his mind,” Franklin said.
A month later, the soldier came to Franklin. “I’m gonna kill myself,” he told his squad leader.
Franklin didn’t know how to deal with the situation. He told the young man that death was no solution.
Then came the day.
“As I walked out of the hooches, (the bunkers covered with sand built by Franklin’s unit and where soldiers lived) I heard a bow!” Franklin said.
The soldier killed himself. “The man blew his brains out with his .45,” with the pictures of his wife scattered about on the bed where he was found.
“That has bothered me throughout my years,” Franklin said. “Seeing someone kill themselves is a hard thing to get over.”
There were many other bad days, said Franklin, who made a decision soon after arriving in Vietnam on his 20th birthday, Jan. 13, 1969: “My main objective was to get out of there.”
He did so just more than a year later in January 1970 after taking on the engineering job and making rank quickly as an E5 squad leader, a position unusual for someone of his age and short span of service.
“You don’t volunteer for nothing when you get to Vietnam,” Franklin said he was told during basic training and at every stop prior to going to Southeast Asia.
But he did.
“I was supposed to be in the First Cav,” Franklin said. Fifty volunteers were being sought for training as engineers to build temporary bridges, bunkers and other structures. “I raised my hand.”
“I volunteered for the engineers … which I believe saved my life.”
It was safer than being a foot soldier, Franklin said. “I didn’t want to go through that.”
Like so many others, he was glad to get home, reiterating now what he told The Times and Democrat in a 1981 interview: “When I got off that plane in Oakland, California, I kissed the ground.”
Franklin wanted no part of the Army’s offer of re-enlistment and returned home to Orangeburg to embark on a civilian life. He worked for 16 years with the South Carolina Regional Housing Authority and, as he said, went about life in pretty normal fashion -- until 2010.
“Deep down inside, some things were bothering me,” Franklin said. "From 1970-2010, I went through three marriages. I did not know I had this trauma in my life.”
His third wife told him, “David, there is something wrong with you.”
Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2010, Franklin nonetheless continued about life, focused on plans to retire at 65 in 2013.
But things changed for the worse.
While eating his favorite snack (Oreos with milk) one evening in 2012, he had a problem swallowing. That sent him to the Veterans Administration, where unwelcome news came from his doctor.
“Cancer! Cancer! I am about to retire. When he told me that, I was out of it,” Franklin said.
“That was a hard shot. I didn’t say nothing all the way back to Orangeburg.”
The cancer was confined to one kidney and had not spread, Franklin said, showing the huge scar from where surgeons removed the diseased kidney in October 2012.
Months later in January 2013, Franklin retired and today remains cancer-free. But he has a new Vietnam War mission.
With time on his hands, Franklin researched the VA’s own information about the impact of Agent Orange on Vietnam veterans, finding that kidney cancer is prevalent.
“I believe my cancer came from this,” he said. “I am suffering the repercussions of that Vietnam War.”
Franklin is battling the VA over his case, saying Vietnam veterans are not getting treatment equal to veterans of modern-day wars.
“We didn’t ask to be sprayed with Agent Orange (a defoliant sprayed liberally on jungle areas in Vietnam). I’ve got a lot of friends who are dead now,” he said.
“I am angrier now,” Franklin said. “I was quiet all these years until this happened.”
“I am really going after them now,” Franklin said. “The government wants these Vietnam veterans to die off. That’s what they are waiting for.”
The war was senseless, Franklin said. “I can’t even answer my own self right now why I was over there.”
A lot of Vietnam veterans are angry, he said.
“They don’t give Vietnam veterans enough recognition. They just set us on the back burner. They are really hoping that we die off. I’m not. I’ve got all the time in the world now to fight.”