Serving as a soldier in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War was not a happy experience for Juil Robinson Jr.
“It was basically, in my opinion, it was a disaster because of the conditions in which we had to endure and the things I had to see as a youngster going there to fight that war. But the country called, I got drafted. They said, ‘Come,’ so I went.”
Robinson, who grew up in Orleans County and now lives in Rochester, was drafted in 1969 at the age of 20.
He had a terrifying introduction to Vietnam, he recalled.
“We were trying to land, we were being shot at on the plane,” he said.
When they got off the plane, the soldiers were told to run to get away from enemy fire — a tough task, he said, in Vietnam’s climate.
“It's like somebody took a wet towel and stuffed your face with it, and you couldn't breathe, and you almost collapse, but you still had to do the running, and so that particular, the first night we were there, we got attacked and all we could do is hide because we didn't have any weapons or anything to defend ourselves.”
He was first stationed at an ammunition dump — one that saw plenty of action, he said. On the second night he was there, he said he experienced a very close call while on a tower.
“I turned around, and I pulled my head back, and just as I pulled my head back, a bullet went — whoosh — right across. Needless to say, I regurgitated all over myself. I threw up all over myself.”
The rest of his tour as part of a heavy recovery unit would take him to various parts of Vietnam. After his tour ended, he served 10 more months at Fort Meade, Maryland, and exited the military in 1971. Like many Vietnam veterans, he faced judgment upon his return to civilian life.
“Well, the general feeling was that, ‘You guys are a bunch of baby-killers. You guys are a bunch of drug addicts. You guys are a bunch of losers. We don't want anything to do with you.’ That was the general consensus then.”
He said the formation of Chapter 20 of the Vietnam Veterans of America helped to turn back some of those feelings in Rochester.
“It since has gotten a lot better, but it's because of awareness that we have made in the community to let the people know, hey, we were not losers. We were not baby-killers, as you labeled us. We were people that was just trying to do a job which the American government said we had to go and do. Even though we didn't want to do it. But we had to follow the orders, or else go to Leavenworth, or some guys skipped out to go to Canada, and I wasn't about to go to Canada. Because of all the places I've been in this world, I still have not found a place like the United States.”
Decades later, what Robinson experienced in Vietnam lingers.
“It's 2017 now. In my head, I'm still fighting that war,” he said.
“Sometimes, you wake up, you think you're back in the combat zone,” he said. “It gets better with therapy, but it don't go away. It don't go away.”
Looking back, Robinson thinks the war could have been fought much differently.
“Our hands were tied,” he said. “If they had let us fight the war the way we wanted to fight it, and get it over with, I think it would have been a lot better. And maybe some of the trouble spots we have in the world today might not be here because of that situation. You know. Because I wasn't the only one that felt that way. Many, many GIs that I spoke with over there felt the same way that I did: Let's get it over with.”