Voices of Veterans: Bob Tankard

Bob Tankard at his desk. —Sam Houghton

Bob Tankard served in Korea in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, guarding the border just outside North Korea.

Tankard is also a veterans outreach coordinator for the Island at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services. The organization provides readjustment counseling on a focused, individual level, as well as in group settings with fellow veterans. A support group meets weekly to discuss the challenges of reintegrating after the war experience.

I was in Korea for 13 months. Every once in a while, the North Koreans would come across [the border]. There would be little skirmishes. They gave us 30 minutes to get out of our area to go to our alert site. That’s it. Thirty minutes, or we all would have been dead.

When the sirens went off, everyone scrambled. You scrambled to get your gear. Get to your vehicle. Within 30 minutes. Usually that was once a month. Sometimes you would go out for two days. Other times, you would stay out for three weeks in the woods, sleeping on the ground.

So we had to live with that fear and anticipation for 13 months.

I saw a side of humanity there that was just terrible. Poverty. Abandonment. Fear. Loneliness. I felt it in myself sometimes. I felt it in the guys. I felt it in the people in Korea. It was a tremendous eye-opener. But when I got off the plane, and was called a baby killer, I thought to myself, Did I land in the right country? We couldn’t talk to people about our experience. People didn’t want to hear it. I couldn’t travel in my military clothes.

It was like we were the enemy in this country. When I got out in ’67, there was still that negativity. Our friends — who we thought were our friends — they didn’t want to hear about it because they were against the war. Which I understand, but what I couldn’t understand was why they treated me that way. I was sent there. Not by choice. I had four choices. Go. Go AWOL. Go to jail. Or go to Canada. Those were the choices. When I was sent over, I was a celebrated soldier. When I came back, I was a different person. The country had changed.

Now, the military realized that they had ignored Vietnam guys. They gave us nothing. When we came home from Korea and Vietnam, they were addicted. Cocaine, marijuana; whatever they needed to keep the fear down. That’s why you had so many Vietnam guys that were homeless; that were addicts, because nobody treated them. We got nothing.

There were guys during the Vietnam time — one day you were out there shooting, killing people — and a guy would come to you and tell you, “OK, you’re going home.” That day, you were going home. No rehabilitation. No nothing. You’re out on the streets in California, with your fatigues on.

Being in Korea and seeing some of the suffering of the kids over there and the people, I wanted to help people. My role now as a veteran advocate is to work with these guys. Some of them need housing. Some need food. Some need transportation. Whatever needs they have, we provide for them.

If someone is coming back from war, bring them in. Because what he really wants to do is talk. He wants someone to listen to him, to hear him, and to help provide him with the tools and the necessities he needs to succeed. He might just need someone to hug him and say, “Man, you’re all right. It’s all right to feel that way. It’s all right.”

Men are grown up to be fixers: “I’m going to fix everything.” And you’re not. Growing up, we’re told, “Don’t cry. If you cry, you’re a sissy.” Sometimes these guys got to cry. They got to be hugged. They have to be told, “No, you’re not a failure.”

And in a group, we can say that to each other. We can say that to each other because we’re brothers. No matter what color you are; no matter what nationality you are; no matter what religion you are: You’re brothers. And they understand exactly that. And that’s what we do.

Some of these guys, when I look at them, and they say, “You were there for me.” And I say,

“Well, that’s what we should do for each other. I’m there for you as a brother in the military.”

Interview by Sam Houghton.