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December 14, 2011

Nee: Remembering, forgetting Vietnam

By Michael Lewis

KINGS POINT, N.Y. -- It's not that sometimes Danny Nee will refuse to talk about his entire Vietnam experience; it's that he doesn't necessarily remember all of it.

The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy head men's basketball coach served two years as a corporal with the U.S. Marine Corps during that unpopular war.

When he took coach the University of Nebraska coaching reins in1986, he told the Omaha media that he wasn't going to talk about his experiences there.

"When I was younger, I just couldn't," Nee said. "The scars, the emotions. I got very sick over there."

He had to cope with a bleeding ulcer. He got medevac'd out of the area.

"That's 40-something, almost 50 years ago," Nee said. I think a lot of the [U.S. Merchant Marine] commanders; they're all shocked when they hear I'm a Marine. They say, 'You're a real Marine, You're a combat Marine.' "

Khe Sanh (pronounced Kay-san), was a strategic post for the United States near the borders of North Vietnam and Laos. The North Vietnamese laid siege to the base, forcing the Americans to air-drop supplies and ammunition in. One of the deadliest battles of the war waged for 77 days in which U.S. and South Vietnam forces suffered more than 700 dead and more than 2,600 injuries. Estimates of North Vietnam casualties were in the 10,000-15,000 range of soldiers killed.

"Khe Sanh for the 27th Marine Corps was a living hell," Nee said. "We were getting hundreds of men killed weekly. In the height of it, in the Tet Offensive, I was there for all of that. It was horrendous. It was like the Marines talking about Iwo Jima or Tarawa."

 Nee was referring to two of the deadliest battles of World War II.

"It was an ass kicking," Nee said of the Vietnam battles. "There was nothing good about that. Parts of it I can remember like it was yesterday, like looking out that window. But there were other parts of it I don't remember."

Sometimes for the better, sometimes not.

"My psychologist or sports psychologist said, 'Dan you have black holes that you have blocked out?' I understand it now," Nee said. "My kids, used to tease me because they would say something about 1967 or 1968 and Dad, what kind of music do you like?"

Nee admitted he couldn't remember a lot from back then.

"My son, said, 'You have these holes.' The psychologist told me, 'Keep the holes. Don't worry about it.' What are you going to do? That's a long time ago, but I'm proud of being an ex-Marine."

Nee admitted he had survivors' guilt. When he was asked he felt fortunate to be alive today to continue to pursue his passion, Nee replied, "For a tremendous amount of time, I had this guilt, a question of why I made it and why other guys didn't make it. You can't answer that.

"That's why some people think I'm kind of a little brash, a little rough on the edges. That's me and I don't want to change. I don't want to change. I want to be me. Sometimes I'm a little too straight forward. But you know, I feel at this point of my life that I have nothing to apologize about. I did what I did and I called a spade a spade. That's it. I'm not John Wooden, but I feel I'm a coach and I'm a coach at the Merchant Marine Academy and I really like it."

Photo: Danny Nee admits he doesn't remember everything about his Vietnam experience. Photo by Shawn Antonelli