MOUNT VERNON — Mount Vernon News recognizes one of its own as a Vietnam veteran this Veterans Day. Cedric Schreefel has been working in the mailroom and Marketing Insert Distribution Service (MIDS) department at the News for nine years.
Schreefel is a friendly, authentic and free-loving seventy-year-old with snow-white hair and a slim build. He possesses an upbeat demeanor and a youthful look which he attributes to his half Asian heritage. He served two years in Vietnam between 1970-1972.
Born in Indonesia to Indonesian and Dutch parents, Schreefel’s family emigrated to Holland when he was eight years old to avoid the ramifications of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. Around 1964, the family moved to the United States and settled in New Orleans. He graduated from high school in 1967 and two years later was drafted by the military.
“Did my basic training in Fort Polk, Louisiana, and everybody was headed to Vietnam,” Schreefel said. Schreefel that he was not ready for it, so he re-upped his service from two years to three years in exchange for deployment in Germany. Although, after one year in Germany, the military eventually sent Schreefel to Vietnam.
“I was in Logistics, so I saw very little combat if any,” Schreefel explained that his job involved supply, inventory and repair which he described was like “the AAA of Vietnam.”
Half of the American military personnel who served in Vietnam were noncombatants providing support for the front line.
Schreefel served with the 136th Light Maintenance Company based in Camrahn Bay, South Vietnam. The company took him all around Vietnam. He remembered it was very hot with mosquitos the size of finches, and the military base had an unpleasant smell from the wooden outhouses with fifty-gallon drums cut in half to catch the human waste.
The mundane convenience of indoor plumbing that we enjoy every day was a luxury on the military base. It gives Schreefel a perspective on when things are good. He said that a lot of people don’t realize how the other half of the world is living.
Speaking of the Vietnam War, Schreefel expressed an ambivalence. Schreefel said that the Vietnamese people were not oppressed—compared to in Afghanistan, Iraq or Nicaragua—and did not want the American troops in their country.
Schreefel remembered arriving in Saigon and boarding a converted bus with no windows but chicken wire all across it. He asked what the wires were for and was told that it was so the local population could not throw explosives into the bus.
Meanwhile, about half of the Vietnam-era military members were draftees according to United States Government Selective Service System statistics. Many of them did not believe in the war but nevertheless had to participate in it, like Schreefel.
“Vietnam was a beautiful country,” Schreefel said, “Until we got done with it, and we made lakes and ponds that were never there.”
He could laugh about it now and said that at least the Vietnamese farmers make use of the lakes and ponds to grow rice today.
Still, Schreefel said he couldn’t see the reason for the war which took many lives.
Toward the end of the war, racism and drug abuse also became an issue. Because the Vietnamese soldiers were doing most of the fighting, American soldiers were left on the base with little to do. Drugs were cheap and ubiquitous and quickly spread among the stressed out and bored soldiers.
At the same time, black soldiers were catching onto the fact that the induction process disproportionally affected non-white Americans due to the selection algorithm; blacks were also more likely to be assigned unfavorable jobs in the military than whites because of educational disparity. Some whites simply disliked being around blacks. The discontent of both white and black soldiers led to mounting racial tension and Schreefel was caught in the middle as a mixed-race person.
“You got the black man, the white man, over there fighting the yellow man,” Schreefel said, “People used to kid me or joked, ‘You belong to the other side.’ I had to put up with shit like that.”
Schreefel said that people tend to forget or deny how it was like for veterans to return from Vietnam in the 70s. At the time soldiers coming back from Vietnam were looked down upon, Schreefel recalled.
“It wasn’t like people coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan now where they have a parade,” Schreefel said that even now it still hurts him to see something that Vietnam-era veterans contributed but received no credit for it.
But Schreefel said he has no regrets. Despite anything, he sees that there are better days than bad days.
The military made him grow up fast, Schreefel reflected, and eventually, it did give him a “great upbringing” by putting him together with many different personalities where they all needed to learn how to get along.
Today, Schreefel often approaches people and initiates conversations. He said it is how he stays connected; he saw many veterans unable to reconnect with civilian life after returning from service and losing “the brotherhood.” He believes it is why the suicide rate for veterans is so high.
Schreefel loves Mount Vernon and describes it as “homely, close-knitted,” where “people care.”
It took a long time for things to change for Vietnam-era veterans, but now people come up to them and say “Thank you for your service.” A phrase Schreefel holds conflicting feelings about.
“I know they mean well, but I never could respond well to it,” Schreefel said with an awkward chuckle, “Because to me, ‘You’re welcome’…It just don’t sit right.”
Many people also do not realize that he was drafted and react differently when they found out.
When asked about how he wished people would react, Schreefel thought for a few moments before answering: “I don’t know. Even though I was drafted, I still have a sense of duty. I care a lot, in other words.”
Discussions around veterans often fall into an oversimplified dichotomy — framing veterans as either selfless patriots or unwilling victims, combatants or civilians, Americans or otherwise. Schreefel’s story reminds us of the in-between place, where many people reside.
“War is war. I don’t care where it is or who you’re fighting, it’s war. War is not good. It kills,” Schreefel said, “I prefer peace over war.”
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