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'I knew I had to go back': Vietnam War veteran finds closure

Last year, US Navy veteran Wayne Johnston made the long trip back to Vietnam for one thing: closure.

NOBLEBORO, Maine — Wayne Johnston was just 18 years old when he joined the U.S. Navy.

"I joined the Navy to see the world," Wayne said, sitting at the kitchen table of his Nobleboro home. "And, the world I saw."

At 19 he received his first set of official, military orders. Wayne was going to war.

"We’re standing in ranks and he goes, 'Johnston, Wayne. Destination, Vietnam,'" he says.

The Vietnam War divided the nation and claimed tens of thousands of American lives. In short, it was a battle between the Communist government of North Vietnam and their allies, the Viet Cong; and South Vietnam and their allies, the U.S.

Training would consist of five weeks. It's something Wayne will never forget. 

"The very last day [of training] we were put into a POW camp ... They’re putting us through this training on what could happen if you got captured over there," he says.

Wayne left for Vietnam on January 26, 1970. He says he was stationed on a base in Da Nang, which sat right below the Demilitarized Zone, which marked the border between North and South Vietnam. He hadn’t been there a month when he got his first taste of war.

"When I first took my income it was March 15th, 5:45 in the morning," Wayne says. "It's like a mortar or a rocket. They came in and hit just outside the mess hall."

Nobody was killed. 

Wayne spent the next 12 months in the naval support activity. His job was to maintain the base's staging area which housed everything from lumber to military tanks. He distinctly remembers coming across a pile of lumber from Maine. He couldn't believe it. In addition to the staging area, Wayne tended to the base's chief commanders. 

His comrades wanted him to stay longer, but Wayne had seen enough. He says the decision still haunts him.

"Knowing I left my comrades, there are times I wish I had stayed," Wayne says. "I left them behind."

RELATED: Seventy-six years after the war, Navy nurse shares her stories

The other memory that still stings is how he and others were treated when they got home. Wayne received no welcome home, no, "Thank you for your service." Instead, he and others who served during that time were essentially treated like outcasts. 

"Not fun," Wayne says. "I had one college fella' tell me he was glad it was me and not him ... I wanted to cold clonk him."

Even more than 50 years later, Wayne still carries the weight of the Vietnam War. He’s been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and says flashbacks happen out of the blue. However last year, Wayne decided it was time to replace those memories with new ones.

It was time to go back to Vietnam.

"I knew I had to go back," he says.

Joined by a close friend, Wayne spent the next several days getting reacquainted with the place that changed his life forever. He recalls when he realized it was time to let the past go.

"We started walking and I looked over my backside, I looked left, then right, then up," Wayne says. "And, I said, 'This is over, I don’t have to do this anymore.'"

Wayne didn't get to return to his old base. The entrance had been barricaded. He says that’s OK, though, because the trip gave him exactly what he was looking for without it; closure.

"It helped, going back but I still have my days," Wayne says. "It would either help me or it won’t ... but it did."

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