Sergeant Tom Newton
A Company, 228th Aviation Bn., 1st Cavalry Division
I was drafted in the Army on 30 August 1966. I didn’t think about the war much. I was a 19-year-old brainless kid, who thought I was invincible. My father was a World War II Vet, all my buddy’s fathers were World War II vets too and nobody in my neighborhood was running for deferments. A couple of guys were going part-time to the junior college, but not many, and most of us were just in the pool for the draft. Two buddies and I were drafted on the same day, and we were the very first to go. We weren’t college material back then so we were grabbed first. One year and one month out of high school and we were gone. I was just kind of neutral about it; I said: “Well I guess if I get drafted, I get drafted.” If it’s meant to be then it’s meant to be, I’ll do what they want me to do, and I’ll give them two good years. I didn’t fight it, I didn’t think of running, I didn’t think of doing anything. I just went in and told my mother you’re going to have some more room here for two years. I was ambivalent about it. I was in the printing industry at that time and going nowhere. I needed a change or something different in my life, and it certainly gave me that.
I took Basic Training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and my AIT at Fort Dix, New Jersey where we lived in the old WW2 wooden barracks. The old, wooden, drafty, burn to the ground in two minutes type. My MOS was 05B20, Radio Operator. I don’t know how I got that. I must have tested well for that, but I’d say about 85%-95% of the graduates from Basic were going Infantry and the rest were combat support, and I was one of them. The rest were combat support MOS’s including linemen, cooks and office workers, many other combat support MOS’s.
I caught the tail end of the old-fashioned Korean War method of radio school. It was horrible and relentless, and all we did was practice Morse Code all the time. There was some radio voice procedure, but they concentrated on Morse Code. Of course, we never used it once when we got to Vietnam, so it was a total waste.
I wasn’t surprised when I received my orders for Vietnam. I was expecting it. I had a 30-day leave before heading to Vietnam. After my leave, I flew to Fort Lewis, Washington and reported in. I spent a day or two getting ready for Vietnam and then I flew to Kadena, Japan where I spent about 3 hours while the plane was refueled. Then it was on to Cam Ranh Bay. I spent about a day there waiting for my orders. I was assigned to the First Cavalry Division at An Khe. From there I was assigned to the 228 Aviation Battalion. I was lucky. Had I been assigned to an Infantry unit I would have been carrying a PRC25 radio.
I initially spent time getting acclimated to the country. I had an M14 in training, and I never saw an M16 in my life. When I got to Nam, they gave me an M16. They sent me to a three-day challenge school and taught me all I needed to know about Vietnam. I zeroed my M16 and received training about booby traps.
I also pulled guard duty. There was a starlight scope, and we learned how to work that. I wasn’t fond of it. Then I went on a patrol outside the wire of An Khe, and that was novel too. I don’t think it was a very dangerous area. But then again there was my invincibility playing a part.
I was then assigned to Alpha Company, 228th Aviation Bn. We had three companies of Chinooks in our battalion, and there were about 8 Chinooks in each company. We moved around all the time. 2 or 3 Chinooks from our Company would go out to one LZ and work there for eight weeks. Then 2 or 3 from our company would work in another LZ and every eight weeks we would hopscotch around to different LZ’s. So we kept Charlie guessing as to our habits. I picked up the pattern – every eight weeks we had to bag everything up, load up the helicopters and go to a new area. Once or twice I came back to An Khe, but I didn’t like that because it was a bit more boring. I usually just watched the overnight radio net and the perimeter radios of the guards. I would sleep in the morning if it wasn’t too hot and noisy. Then I had the day off.
I was there for TET of ’68. I was up at Phu Bai, near Hue. We watched Hue burn for the whole month. It seemed to burn in different colors almost every day – black, gray, brown and go back to black. I had been volunteering to fly door gunner and decided to stop. I figured I pushed my luck. I guess I was beginning to get smart. We didn’t know that they were making history back then. The history of it all wasn’t broadcast to us then just like the anti-war movement wasn’t broadcast to us.
I didn’t know what the feelings were back in the world, and that’s what really got to me when I got home. The indifference I was shown. People didn’t even look at you. You came home in your khakis and people just didn’t even care. That’s what I think hurt me more than being over in Vietnam.
By the time I left, I was a hard 5, a Sergeant E-5 and I had about four guys working below me. I was still only 20 at that time and they really looked up to me. I didn’t feel worthy of that kind of respect. I didn’t know how to handle this, and I felt bad leaving them there up north in Phu Bai. I didn’t know where they would be going from there. They couldn’t go much further north; the DMZ was right up there. They finally went down south to Bearcat but I didn’t know it at the time.
I just felt bad that I left them, I really did. I tried to get in contact with some of them after I came home. One guy did call me; he came home about two months later. He was flying home to Michigan and had a layover in Chicago. He stopped by or called me, I can’t remember which. He is the one who told me the Company went down to Bearcat after I left.
He told me that one fellow we knew was killed when his helicopter went down. It went down, crashed and burned. They never found his body. That was another bad feeling. He was a nice guy. You don’t hear anything about the guys and unit once you leave. Everybody just wants to get away, get apart, and forget about it. You just could not maintain contact with anybody.
I felt bad about leaving, but I wasn’t willing to extend my tour or go back. I still had five months left to serve on my enlistment, so I had to go back to Fort Knox and teach radio school for five more months. They asked me to reenlist and I said “No thanks.”
I came home the exact same route I followed going there. I went to Cam Ranh Bay to catch my flight home. I spent about a day, a day and a half there, got new khakis and chevrons, and they put the medals on us we had earned and we left. We flew to Kadena, Japan and back to Fort Lewis, then to O’Hare and quietly slipped back into society.
I had no problems when I came home. No protesters, nothing. Again I was so early; this was March of ‘68, and it wasn’t really cranked up by then. We had no rebellious colleges around here yet. It might have been going on at the University of Wisconsin, but I don’t know.
We flew into O’Hare, and there were 3 or 4 of us who lived on the north side of Chicago. We shared a cab from the airport. We got out of the car one by one at their houses and walked into the house that was it. My folks knew that I was coming home but not exactly when. I didn’t want to give anybody heart attacks, so I had written them a letter and called them when I landed on the west coast.
People didn’t notice me. They didn’t say anything. A lot of people didn’t know I was gone except that I had shorter hair and a tan face. Being that it was March, everybody was white, and I was the only one that had a tan. There were no other Vietnam vets around, anywhere. I was the first and only one around. There was nobody to talk to or commiserate with and relate to.
Everything had changed. My friends had moved on. Many of them got married to get a deferment. I didn’t see many of them, maybe one or two and that was it. I felt out of place because a couple of them were smoking pot and taking drugs and I wouldn’t go in that direction. They had long hair and were thinking differently than me.
I only had 30 days leave, and I spent a lot of time with my girlfriend, and that was another story. My girlfriend was pregnant when I got home. I was totally upset, it wrecked me, it wrecked my homecoming, it wrecked everything – I didn’t know what to do. I got through that on my own, no counseling, nothing like that. It ended in disaster so I just went on to Fort Knox and that got me away from the neighborhood. I finished up my last five months at Fort Knox. So that was a nice welcome home for me. That didn’t help either. From there I just continued on – doing the best I could on my own. I was finally discharged in August of ’68.
After the war, I harbored it all inside. I didn’t even share much of it with my wife. She couldn’t relate to it. I mean she was sympathetic to the war and the veterans. Her father was a veteran, and her brother was in the Reserves and all that. Her family was very veteran positive, but I never shared much with her. I had a problem with anger control and wanting to be alone a lot. I now know that those were post-traumatic stress symptoms. I never sought treatment; I never thought I had any problems with that.
Well, that helped to destroy my marriage on a low burn. And this was my second marriage. My first marriage only lasted a year because I was trying to make up for lost time but that was bad from the beginning and hardly counted. A year or two later after I was married the first time, I met my second wife, and I was totally different. I had a lot of faith in that, but that marriage broke up too. I would say 11, 12 years ago after 27 years of marriage and that was partly my fault too. I was out in left field for the last 20, 25 years and just couldn’t get over thinking about Vietnam and what went down and what went wrong and it was just no good. I can’t get it out of my mind – just totally sent my life off in a different direction. She told me “You’re not the man I married, and you got to get some help!” and I did. I said “Okay, I’m gonna do it. If you say so, I’ll do anything to try to save the marriage” and we were in big trouble by then and I went into private therapy for a year – one day a week for a whole year and then my therapist said you’re post-traumatic, and I said “How did you know I’m post-traumatic?” I don’t think I even told her I was a Vietnam vet; I don’t even think I told her I was a veteran. And she said, “You’re post-traumatic because I was trained by the VA and you are a post-traumatic gentleman,” I say “Oh great!” and then it started to come to me at that time. She saw me for a whole year, and she said I can’t help you anymore you’re going to have to go to the VA. So I went to a psychiatrist down at West Side Hospital – this was about 13 years ago, waited in line, waited in the lobby there for about an hour and a half, and I sat down with this guy. He was a foreign Romanian gentleman and as soon as I stepped down, he said “I’m diagnosing you with post-traumatic stress disorder” – I said “But I haven’t even said a thing.” he said “You don’t have to say much more, I’ll listen to you a bit, but we’ll be in touch with you shortly.”
About eight days later I got a call from Hines, and they asked me to come in and see a doctor Chimmas, he was a psychologist, and he headed up a group therapy for Vietnam vets with P.T.S.D., and that was very helpful for me. It was a group of about 14 guys, all my age and we all had the same crap. It was amazing because up till then I thought I was the only guy in the world that thought like me, and everybody else was wrong. I got a lot off my chest there and listened to a lot of other people and it was good, it was very good for me. I did that for two and a half years and then it became monotonous and repetitious and there were a couple of guys there who started to get on my nerves. I know some of these guys were sort of retired and not working, and I told the doctor, I said “Listen, it’s time for me to move on.” and he said okay.
When Saigon fell in ’75, I kept saying all this for nothing. I did all of that for nothing and I was unhappy about it that we pulled out and I just couldn’t stand to watch it happen. I was just unhappy, and I began my lifetime of depression over it, wasting all that for two years – all that for nothing and I couldn’t believe it. I think we should have put up more of a fight, but I guess we chose not to, politically.
I have never been to the Wall in Washington. I don’t think I’m avoiding it. I’ve been to the movable Wall and that’s been no problem. I don’t have a lot of deceased friends on the wall. Being combat support, we were lucky.
I have no interest in going back to Vietnam and visiting. And I think it’s so changed that I wouldn’t recognize anything. I don’t have any fond memories of going back there. I guess we did our best, I did anyhow, and I don’t have any regrets about that. It was a learning experience for me; it taught me how to survive on my own and learn about myself and others. I have to look at the positive side of that. I wish it hadn’t changed me so much for the negative because I don’t trust a lot of people today and even when I talk to my two brothers who were not in the service – they are similar to me as anybody in the world as can be. My brother was drafted right after me but went to Okinawa in the Army, and my older brother was never drafted, he had children, and he was five years older than. So I was the only bitter one among the three brothers. I think that’s made a negative change in me. But other than that, I don’t regret going into the service, it was a great experience for me all the way around including now. Those are my final thoughts; I just wish the ending would have turned out differently. As far as the World War II, guys, you’ll never see me at an honor flight. I am bitter about the way they treated us and abandoned us. Korean guys too. I don’t see anywhere in history where they’ve rallied to our assistance. Say, “Hey, let’s go support the Vietnam vets” You know, I’ll be okay with them I will shake hands with them, and be nice to everybody but I’ll never exonerate them. I’m not a forgetting type of guy I guess.