Michael Buckley was 19 years old when he joined the Army. It was the early 1960s, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam had yet to escalate to full-blown ground war. But the draft was in effect, and Buckley wanted his choice of assignments.
More than that, he craved a life of adventure, and saw the Army as his chance.
“I wanted to be a paratrooper and jump out of airplanes and be a tough guy — jump all over the world and do that kind of thing,” said Buckley, who grew up in Glendale in Southern California.
Just a few years later, he was assigned to the first regimental combat team in Vietnam, the 101st Airborne Division, or the Screaming Eagles, as they were known. The Eagles have roots dating back to World War II, and are often the first troops to penetrate enemy territory, securing key terrain.
Buckley says he never would have joined up if he had known the war was coming.
“I didn’t want to kill people. I wasn’t interested in being a bad guy at all,” he said. Back home, Buckley had a wife, small child and another on the way to think about.
In Vietnam, the thrill of jumping out of airplanes — which Buckley had thought was “better than surfing” — lost its luster. “I realized: Hey, I could get hurt here, I could really get hurt here, I could die.”
In his roughly seven months of combat, Buckley witnessed fellow jumpers smash into the ground after their chutes malfunctioned, bullets whizzing past his head and soldiers who had become like family, killed in front of his eyes.
“Hell” is the word he uses to describe the experience.
A case of appendicitis and secondary bout with dengue fever ended Buckley’s tour in Vietnam. The soldier who replaced Buckley in his unit died in combat.
After returning home, Buckley attended the University of Southern California, and eventually spoke out against the war.
“I saw what war could do to people and I didn’t want to be a part of that,” he said. Instead, Buckley decided he wanted to spend his time helping other people. He became a school counselor and family therapist.
Of his time in Vietnam, Buckley, now 72, said, “I don’t think about it very much. I try not to. And when I do think about it, I’m so thankful that I got out of there. I’m thankful to be alive.”
While he considers himself one of the lucky ones, the effects of Vietnam haunt Buckley’s civilian life. He suffers from PTSD, and the psychological trauma contributed to the dissolution of his first marriage.
Several years after the war, when Buckley was in his early 60s, he began to have trouble walking.
“I was athletic, but all of a sudden I couldn’t walk appropriately,” he said.
Buckley was subsequently diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His doctors believe his condition is linked to his exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide used by the U.S. in Vietnam to destroy jungle foliage and the food supply of guerrilla fighters.
“I was in the jungle and they were spraying. I thought it looked like crop dusters. And I realized later that it was Agent Orange. Much later,” Buckley said.
The effects of Agent Orange can take years to show up. While scientists still don’t know the exact mechanisms of how it acts, exposure has been implicated in the progression of several diseases, including a number of cancers, Parkinson’s, heart disease and diabetes, which Buckley also has.
In 1991, Congress passed the Agent Orange Act, providing disability compensation and medical care to veterans of Vietnam and Korea.
Following his retirement in 2012, Buckley suffered a bicycle accident that caused his condition to further deteriorate. Earlier this year, he moved to an assisted living home at the San Francisco VA Medical Center. Buckley says he receives top-notch medical care and has plenty of activities to keep him busy. He is particularly fond of gardening.
“There is a community of veterans here,” Buckley said. “I know a number of them, and we all feel like we’re well taken care of.”
Buckley’s wife of 22 years, a licensed therapist named Mary Helm, calls him every day and visits two or three times a week. Helm says there are times when her husband tells her he feels like he’s still at war.
“The effects of what he experienced has had a major impact on our life together,” Helm said. “We’ve had to work hard at our relationship to get this far.”
Buckley says he wants people to see how far the reach of war goes.
“War is terrible for everybody, for people who were in it, for people who are around it, the atmosphere,” he said. “And I think the United States is so warmongering. It makes me sick. It makes me sad.”
This story is part of a series called “Faces of the Vietnam War.” Last month, KQED asked our audience to submit their stories about the Vietnam War. We heard from refugees, military veterans, journalists, activists and more.
KQED’s Bert Johnson contributed to this story.