MSgt Arthur Roy Olson
37th Transportation Squadron, U.S. Air Force
My dad served in the Army during WWII. He was at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. One of my brothers joined the Air Force in the mid-1970s but didn’t last his whole enlistment. He couldn’t seem to get the hang of taking orders.
My dad spoke only briefly about WWII and what he went through. He did take me to see “The Longest Day” when I was a kid and expressed that the movie was very realistic. Other than that, he didn’t speak much about it.
I was drafted in 1966 and did not want to go into the Army because of what I perceived to be the lack of opportunity. I spoke to the local Air Force recruiter, and he asked me if I could leave the following week, and I said I was prepared to leave that day.
After basic, I was trained as a vehicle mechanic. I was very happy and relieved when I received my orders to Vietnam. At the time I was stationed in Grand Forks, ND, quite possibly the worst stateside assignment I could have had. I volunteered for Vietnam to get out of there. Not the best of motives but I assure you if I had stayed at Grand Forks, I would not have made the military a career.
In Vietnam I was assigned to the 37th Transportation Squadron at Phu Cat Air Base as a vehicle mechanic, serving there in 1967 and 1968. I spent most of my time there as a wrecker driver and emergency maintenance mechanic. This entailed retrieving inoperable and damaged vehicles from various locations around the base and in the local area. I usually worked at night, but any retrieval operation requiring a trip away from the base was always conducted during daylight hours. This is the very short version of my year in Vietnam.
My DEROS was on 5 August 1968, and I was on the edge waiting for the day. I spent time rehashing my year with the guys I was leaving behind. I felt for them because a change in supervision at my work center was making it miserable for all concerned. I had recently said goodbye to some close pals who left shortly before I did, and I already missed them. I gave a good bit of thought to being back in the states with my family and friends. Little did I know what awaited me. I just continued to think about what it was going to be like to take a hot shower, to be completely clean for the first time in a year, what it was going to be like to eat a meal that was edible, real milk, nothing canned.
I made the trip to Cam Ranh Bay and had about fourteen hours to kill before my Freedom Bird left. I ran into an old friend from a previous assignment who was stationed at Cam Ranh, and we spent quite some time reminiscing and swapping lies. A good time for both of us. Finally, the big jet was full, and I was on my way to McChord AFB. My stateside arrival was anticlimactic after all the counting of days left in Vietnam, all the “when I get home” stories and such. It wasn’t a letdown by any means, just a time to take a very deep breath and offer some thanks that I survived. Next up was arranging my flight to New York City and home.
I arrived at JFK two days after leaving McChord. Military travel in those days was via standby, and I was shuffled around a bit, hence the two-day trip from coast to coast. When I got off the plane at JFK, I was accompanied by an Army infantry officer whose mother and mine had known each other for years. We had a conversation on the plane and figured out our connection. He had a much rougher time during his tour than I did. We had both heard all the stories of returning vets being derided, insulted and even assaulted. We tossed off most of it as media hype but when we arrived in the terminal my companion was spit on, and we were definitely referred to as “baby killers.” I tried to ignore all of it since my parents were waiting. We had a brief reunion with the officer’s mother and then went our separate ways. The airport incident faded from memory pretty quickly, but it has come back to haunt me a bit over the years.
I spent a month at home renewing friendships, making new ones and just celebrating being back in civilization. A surprise was coming. While in school I hung around with a group that was not unlike myself, same values, same ethics. Most of them went on to college while I chose a different route, trade school, and a very good job. Of course, when I returned home, I sought them out. We had our reunions, and all and then I started to discover what their thoughts really were about the war. I was criticized for going, but I stood my ground and merely told them all that if they were not there, they really didn’t know what they were talking about. My parents threw me a backyard welcome home party and all of the detractors came, some even apologizing to me. Once I got to my next assignment, I put out a lot of things out of my mind. I still keep in touch with a few of my lifelong friends.
After the war, I decided to stay in the Air Force and made it a career. I had some very good assignments and jobs, not typical of someone in my career field, learned volumes not only about technical matters but also about the human condition. Economics had quite a bit to do with my decision to stay also. If I had not stayed, I would have just gone back home and stagnated rather than taken advantage of the broadening of my horizons.
I had no PTSD problems that I knew of, but family members and colleagues may have seen it differently, not sure. I do have some Agent Orange issues. I have a 20% disability from the VA, Diabetes Type II attributed to Agent Orange exposure.
I have not been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington but have seen the traveling version a time or two, and all I can think about is “What a colossal waste of life!”
Lessons learned (or not): Americans can learn volumes from Viet Nam vets. First of all, a great many of us are still alive and functioning and have come to terms with our Vietnam service. Others continue to be haunted by their memories. One thing to be learned from our years in Vietnam is to be extremely cautious of foreign entanglements. Judging by today’s events, we haven’t yet learned that lesson. Another lesson would be to be considerate of our military members. Now we have an all-volunteer military, so no member has been forced to join. At least, that’s the theory. During Vietnam, the draft was still in effect and many service members ended up in the middle of that conflict through no fault of their own. Many suffered, many died, and many are permanently disabled yet were vilified for their participation. We have learned to be more sympathetic to the military and its pitfalls and hardships, and I think that’s a great step in the right direction. Most Americans are proud of the military and support the job it does. There will always be dissenters, but that’s a good thing too. It keeps things in balance most of the time and causes us to think and discern. I see nothing wrong with dissent as long as you do it with pride and respect.
I’m glad I went, for no other reason than to be able to speak intelligently about the war. I’ve read many accounts, historical reports and books about our involvement in Vietnam and have several conclusions, most end with the opinion that our mixing in the affairs of the Vietnamese was a mistake. I am to this day proud I served over there.
In the forty-six years since I came home from Vietnam, I’ve done lots of soul searching, conducted research into the war’s causes and witnessed its aftermath, and have concluded that our involvement was a waste of resources, especially our most precious one, the lives of our military members. We are now embroiled in multiple actions in the Middle East, all of which have the potential to end badly for us. We have not learned from our past mistakes and probably never will.
Roy Olson committed Suicide On 24 January 2016. I received the following from his wife to be added to his story.
Diana’s story. (Roy’s wife,)
When I met Roy, I knew he was a Vietnam Vet. Little did I realize, until much later in our relationship, how the year that he was in Vietnam had such a deep impact on him.
His two previous marriages ended and as he talked and shared his life, the more I realized just how much his emotions were shut down, as he was told, just get on with your life.
He buried his emotions very well from those around him and then along came, Diana.
I had attended a yearly event here in Tucson, The Nam Jam, a gathering of Vets, music and sharing of their stories and a lot of healing.
I asked Roy to go with me. He was extremely resistant but agreed to go and his friend Ralph, from the Air Force, whom he had known for many years, joined us.
What a breakthrough. It was then that I saw how deeply he was affected. What a great day and a new beginning, or so I thought.
I found out from Ralph the severe flash backs that Roy had and only recently did he go into detail of how he helped him through those tough times.
During our time together, Roy would quite often, scream out in the night. There were times he would retreat into what I called “his cave”, as though he were in a coma. Shutting me and the world out.
He opened up to me more in the past 11 of our 18 years together and those times didn’t occur often.
One of the more intense issues that troubled him in the past few years was the lack of consideration from the VA for the Vietnam vets.
We are a military town here in Tucson and the attention given to recently retired Vets applying for disability far surpasses those of the Vietnam era. (Maybe hoping they would just disappear) I am very proud to be a military wife and have total understanding of military service.
We had a great life together and many happy times, but I never saw it coming the day he snapped.
January 24, 2016, he ended his life.
Who can ever know the mind of another?
With all my Love
In memory of
Arthur “Roy” Olson