Spit or no spit, we’re still sorting out what happened to our Vietnam servicemen

I was looking for something completely different today when I ran across a disturbing story about the death of Robert W. Jaronik.

Robert was born April 25, 1936, attended Washington High School, worked at a grocery and generally lived a normal life in South Bend when he wasn’t on duty with the Marine Corps. 

On June 29, 1968, he was killed by shrapnel while on patrol in the Quang Nam province. He has a place – Line 54 on Panel 54W — on the Wall of Faces that accompanies the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 

Online, I read a dozen or so tributes that have been left by folks who call him brother, father or the granddad they never knew.

He had served 10 years with the Marines and was married to the former Mary Jane Dobrzykowski. His death left her alone to raise a son and two daughters. His mother, Sarah, and grandmother, Pearl, survived Robert, as did three brothers and five sisters. 

The Associated Press said he was the 700th Indiana serviceman to die in Vietnam. By the time the war ended, 1,531 Hoosiers were reported dead.

The story I read about his funeral came about two weeks after he bled to death 8,600 miles away from home. 

His wake was at St. Joseph Funeral Home, then on West Napier Street, and his large family had gathered. Two men they didn’t know walked in and asked an employee if this man had died in Vietnam. Then they spat on the floor next to the casket and left. 

Moments later, a third man came into the funeral home, threatened the employee with a large knife and demanded his money. After a push and a shove, the employee was on the floor with the armed intruder on top of him.

One of Sgt. Jaronik’s sisters rushed over and pulled the attacker away. Other family members joined in, trying to subdue this stranger, who escaped out the front door and ran down an alley. As far as I can tell from reading old South Bend Tribunes, the attacker got away.

I found this story on newspapers.com while I was trying to settle something in my mind about how our troops were treated during the Vietnam War. The question was this: Were servicemen returning from Vietnam actually spat upon in airports and public places?

I was a young teen during the worst stretch of the Vietnam War. I was 18 years old for the 1972 draft lottery, and Aug. 24 ended up at No. 256. That meant that young men with 255 other birthdates would be drafted before I would. It was a fairly safe bet, with the war winding down, that I would be spared from going there.

I didn’t support the war, in part because I didn’t understand it. For every argument made by the Johnson and Nixon administrations for propping up the South Vietnamese army, I would hear coherent reasons why we should step away.

But I didn’t hate the men – some of them from my neighborhood and school – who fought there. As far as I could tell, they were no different than my father or his friends who served in World War II. The country needed fighters and it was their duty to go.

I didn’t hear of spitting incidents when I was young, but it’s an accepted theme now. It is one of those oft-repeated stories that has no details, no time or place. We are just supposed to believe it.

Stories like that often turn out to be urban legends. Someone says it, someone else repeats it, and we hear it often enough that we accept it. That’s how we end up believing in the Loch Ness monster, Elvis Presley living incognito in Kalamazoo or dead alien pilots in Area 51.

There’s a book written on the topic – “The Spitting Image” by Jerry Lembcke in 1998. His conclusion was that this was a myth created in the pro-war community to disparage those who opposed the war.

I decided to check for myself by looking at newspaper archives. Certainly, if there had been widespread spitting on servicemen, it would have shown up in our daily news. 

From what I can tell, it did not. I used the newspapers.com database between 1969 and 1976, the years after the war became a divisive issue, and I typed in three key search words – Vietnam, spat and soldiers. 

I came up with 5,198 pages with all three of those words. Newspapers.com searches by pages, not by stories, so the results mainly were where a story about Vietnam would be on the same page as an unrelated story about someone spitting.

I didn’t look at all 5,198 pages because my clicking finger tired out after about 600. Spitting seemed to be a popular way then to show disrespect. Soldiers were spat upon in Ireland, Lebanon, Israel and Malta. White racists spat at Black activists. Stay-at-home moms spat at feminist crusaders. Convicted criminals spat at lawyers.

But I never saw a story with verified details about servicemen returning from Vietnam being spat at in airports. The closest I came was a syndicated column by Ralph McGill in which he complained that war protesters during a march on the nation’s capital showed their hatred for America by spitting on service members who were onlookers. But again, no definite details.

I don’t write this as a defense of how America treated its Vietnam troops. It was bad. A July 1969 story I saw during my search stated, “U.S. War Losses Fall to Seven-Week Low,” and the text said only 241 Americans died with an additional 1,674 wounded during the previous week. The general quoted in the story had no real explanation for this decline, but the implication was that more troops would have been killed if they were working harder at fighting the enemy.

Imagine that. We weren’t dying because we weren’t working hard enough. It was a different time, with a different mindset.

And whether they were spat on or not, these men returned to an America that didn’t always open its arms in an eager embrace. There are similarities with racism, which didn’t end here with the last lynching or sexism with the first woman placed on the Supreme Court. 

America should have done much better then and I think we’re trying to do better now.

I didn’t find a definite answer in my archives search. But I did find that story about the family of Sgt. Robert Jaronik trying to bury him with the dignity he earned. I won’t be able to forget it.