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This song about a Vietnam War veteran returning home to face a new set of challenges in America was written by Dan Daley, a songwriter/journalist who did not serve in the military. He based the song on stories he heard from those fought in the war, including his cousin.
"It was a narrative," Daley told us. "It starts in one place, San Francisco, because that fit the lyric nicely. The narrative starts there and basically ends upon his return. So in three and a half minutes, we cross the Pacific twice. It didn't occur to me that it was a narrative while I was writing it, but that's how it turned out. I think that's just deeply embedded in our brains. We're storytellers and we're story listeners, so it just came out naturally as a narrative arc. I also think the song has a lot to do with a personal sense, which a lot of people experience, of not being accepted for who you are. That's the subtext within this song."
In 1961, President-Elect John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, stated, "To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required," thereby clearing the way for the US presence in the Vietnam War; a war that would eventually claim more than 58,000 young American men, who averaged 18 years of age. In 1962 the first US troops were flown to Vietnam, a tiny state in Asia bordering China, Cambodia and Laos. The war sparked riots and protests nationwide in the US, and the as-yet-undefined "Hippie" movement largely rebelled against the soldiers returning home, not understanding that these soldiers had no choice but to go when called and try their best to maintain physical possession of their entire anatomy. The returning soldiers were met with hostility, anger, threats, and violence.
Due to the horrific experiences the soldiers endured in combat, many of them suffer(ed) from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or "Shell Shock," as it was known during World War I. PTSD affects people who have experienced extreme stress and trauma. It wasn't until the Vietnam War that PTSD entered the public consciousness and became widely recognized as a medical condition.
Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh city, was the South Vietnamese capital during the Vietnam War. "This song," Daniels told us, "came at me from two different directions; from our producer at the time, John Bowman, and from a group called Vietnam Vets of America, somebody had found it. Dan Daley had written it and it was very much in with the way that I felt about the Vietnam veterans, because it was so totally unfair how these people were treated when they came back from a war that they had nothing to do with starting. That was the drug generation - and how screwed up their minds could get - and people acted as if our young men and women would go over and start a war in Southeast Asia and then intentionally kill babies and stuff. I mean, that's not what our military's about. It's picking bad apples, I know that. Every time there's the slightest misstep they blow it up and magnify it all out of proportion while the good things that are done are not even mentioned. It's a proven fact now that that prolonged the war. It cost the lives of Americans, because the Vietnamese had already admitted that they had thought about quitting, about giving up. And along comes John Kerry, and along comes all the stuff that was generated by the media, basically. And when these guys came home from over there, some had the temerity to spit on these people. That's beyond the pale. You can't spit on somebody. That's a huge, huge insult. I went around and talked to Vietnam vets before I recorded that song, because I'd never been to Vietnam. I thought it was a very personal experience. And I went around and talked to some of the guys, 'How do you feel about me recording this?' I had a guy, ex-Green-Beret, working security with me at the time, and he said, 'Do it.' So I did. And I've always been glad that I did, because it was, I guess, the first song of support for the Vietnam veterans." (Check out our interview with Charlie Daniels
Dan Daley was working for a publishing company when he wrote this song in 1981. He performed it around New York City with his band, and made a demo that was pitched to two specific artists who had made statements in support of Vietnam veterans: Charlie Daniels and Bruce Springsteen. Both artists write most of their own songs, so this was a tough sell, but Daniels eventually recorded it. (Springsteen had a huge hit two years later with another song about the plight of a Vietnam veteran returning home: "Born In The U.S.A.
The song became one of the biggest hits for The Charlie Daniels Band, and improved the fortunes of its writer, who said the song "definitely contributed to my first piece of real estate." Daley became friends with the band and performed it at one of Daniels' Volunteer Jam concerts. "They were very cool guys and they liked the song," Daley told us. "I mean, they genuinely liked the song, which always made me feel good."
Daley pitched this song to the music supervisor of the 1986 movie Platoon, which was about the Vietnam War. The song was rejected on the grounds that it was too literal for the film. "That's not the kind of song you put in the movie," Daley was told. "That's the kind of song you make a movie about."
To many Vietnam veterans, this was a very important song, since shows of support rarely came their way in 1982. When it became clear that the song spoke for many of these veterans, its writer Dan Daley reached out to Bobby Muller, who founded the organization Vietnam Veterans of America.
"The more I learned about what people go through in wars and what people in the Vietnam War in particular went through, the more I realized I could not speak for them," Daley said. "I could maybe create a voice in the form of a song, and that's exactly what happened. There was no way I could put myself out there and say, 'This is how a Vietnam veteran feels.' I didn't have the bona fides for that. It's one thing to make a work of art and interpret what you think someone has gone through, but to put yourself out there and to say, 'I'm speaking for them,' no, you can't do that. They have to speak for themselves. That's why someone like a Bobby Muller was so important."
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