LTC Roger D. Shiley
18th Signal Detachment (TI), U.S. Army
AVEL Central, 520th Transportation Bn.
I joined the Florida National Guard in 1956 while I was a junior in high school. I had taken JROTC the year before, and the new high school did not offer the program. The main reason I joined was that I needed spending money and the Guard paid about $90 per quarter, which paid my car insurance. (And I kind of liked wearing a uniform !!!!)
In 1960, my company commander convinced me to attend OCS at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I graduated and returned to the National Guard as a 2nd Lieutenant. In March 1965, I applied for active duty. I received a form letter stating that the “Army had all the company grade officers they needed.” In October of 1965, I received a letter from the Army stating that if I wanted to come on active duty my application, which was “on file” would be used and I would receive orders in 30 days.
I reported to Ft Gordon Georgia to attend the Signal Corps Officer Basic Course and from there I was on my way to “Southeast Asia,” better known as “The Republic of Vietnam.” I understood that when I volunteered for active duty that I was going to Vietnam and I looked forward to it as an adventure. My second tour came in 1970, and I had mixed emotions about it because I had just graduated from flight school. My family now included five children, and I realized that the life insurance would be a “drop in the bucket” compared to the real needs would be.
I had just been promoted to Captain when I went to Vietnam, and I was assigned to the 18th Signal Detachment (TI). The TI stood for Technical Intelligence, and my detachment processed all captured communication equipment. We wrote several studies and backed up our work by translations of captured documents and interrogation of over 40 NVA/VC POWs.
I was stationed in Saigon in 1966, and I lived a sheltered life. The 18th was the largest intelligence HQ in Vietnam and had a pretty easy life until I started going out to interrogate POWs. I learned real early that if you were a Captain, you were expected to look out for yourself and any soldiers around you. I was demonstrating how to use a CHICOM radio, to some fellow officers, one day and we started receiving fire from a sniper. Some of the officers were not even armed, and my driver, and I returned fire while the twelve officers attending the demonstration headed for cover.
During this tour, I went to the First CAV headquarters to interrogate two prisoners. When I reported to the Colonel, in charge of the POW camp, he informed me that there was only one POW for me to interview. I was told that he would answer any questions I had. This POW (LT Van Ty) was captured with his radio operator, and he had decided not to answer any questions. On the flight from the point of capture to the POW camp, someone decided that Lt Van Ty would be more willing to talk to us if he didn’t have his radio operator with him so he “jumped” out of the helicopter at 3,000 ft. AGL. Lt Van Ty provided me with over forty pages of ORDER OF BATTLE information. For his help, I gave him two cans of SPAM.
I interrogated a POW at the 4th ID HQ, and he was terrified. I told him that he was alive because I needed some answers about a special radio that he was using and would he “help” me. He stated that he would answer questions if I would give him a canteen cup so he could drink water in the camp. I gave him a canteen cup, and a package of Lucky Strike cigarettes after he responded to 30 questions I had prepared for him. I never heard what happened to him, but I mentioned him in a special report that was sent to the Vietnamese Army POW commander.
When I received orders for my second tour in Vietnam, I asked my Signal Assignment Officer if I could go to a specialty school before returning and stated that the only school that he had allocations for was helicopter school. He also stated that he had six slots for the school, and he was required to turn the slots over to the Infantry branch if he couldn’t fill them in eight days. I was the class leader at the Signal Advanced Officers Class and I ask the class if anyone wanted to go to flight school…..Five days later I hand carried six applications for flight school to Signal Branch in Washington. All six of us graduated from flight school, and we all came back from Vietnam and retired after 20 – 30 years service.
At the time I went to Vietnam everyone was going and the ones that didn’t go were draft dodgers …
While serving my second tour in Vietnam, I had a company that had one soldier with a master’s degree, six that had a bachelor’s degree, and seven that had, at least, one year of college. Can you imagine what it was like being the commanding officer of a unit with these soldiers and you only had about two years of college credit?????
I had two homecoming experiences, and they were as different as night and day. In 1967, I arrived at Travis Air Force Base, and there were people waving “Welcome Home” signs. There was a two-night stay in the processing center and three other Captains, and I went into San Francisco to see the big city. We all wore our uniforms and people would come up to us and shake hands and talk “happy talk.” We had a big meal in a night club, and the head waiter came over and informed us that our tab was being paid by the owner.
My second homecoming was a lot different. After landing at Travis AFB we were bussed over to the processing center and about two miles out of the airport, our bus picked up an “escort” of about twenty bikers. The long-haired riders “escorted” the bus and we were subjected to catcalls and hand signals.
I had been appointed as the “bus commander” and several of us decided that we ought to stop the bus and meet these nice hippies. When I ask the bus driver to pull over for a few minutes, he refused and informed me that he had worked for the bus company for 24 years and if he stopped the bus he would be fired.
When we arrived at Travis AFB, we were processed in. As before we would be spending two nights before flying home. We were told, by the commanding officer of the center, that we could have a two-hour pass to go into town IF WE HAD CIVILIAN CLOTHES. No one would be allowed off base in uniform. Since none of us had civilian clothes we were stuck on base. One Major had civilian clothing, but he tried to get out wearing Army issue low quarter shoes, and he was not permitted to go.
I was comfortable to be home after both tours. After the first tour, I was assigned to Ft Gordon and my family lived “on post”. We did not feel the tension that was building up.
After the second tour I was assigned to a college to finish my college degree, and I wore civilian clothes for two years. I did have some high school friends that I would meet from time to time and sometimes I would feel that they were avoiding me but no one ever “got in my face” about my service in Vietnam.
In 1975, when Saigon fell, I was in Germany and watched the event on TV in the Stuttgart BOQ. I feel that I wasted two years of my life on a war that was a big political experiment, led by people that had no idea what they were doing.
Many years later I found out that I had prostate cancer and several other health issues related to the exposure to Agent Orange, I found out the details of Agent Orange and after a lot of hospital time, I have “recovered” from cancer. I have so many of the illnesses associated with Agent Orange that I have a 125% disability. I now spend a great deal of time working with our soldiers that have Agent Orange problems. I visit the Asheville VA hospital and encourage servicemen to file for VA benefits.
My children ask me, every once in a while, about my time in Vietnam. I once told one of them that I was sorry that I spent two years away from them just to further my career. To this, I was surprised that one of the boys said: “Dad, you did what you thought was right, and we are better off because you did serve.” Now, where is the logic of that??????
Did my service in Vietnam change my faith in God? Not so much at the time. Now that I have allowed time to take effect, I know that HE was watching over me all the time. He helped me through the tough times and prepared me for my next assignment.
I have been to the wall, and it is something that must be seen to believe. I found the names of soldiers that I had known, and it seemed that for just a few minutes they were alive again…….
In summary, I served in the Army for a total of 31 years. I served two years in Vietnam and eight years in Germany. I commanded units from the size of a 14 man detachment to a battalion that had over 1,400 soldiers. I held a top secret security clearance with special intelligence (SI) suffix. I was honored to have served with soldiers that were dedicated to their work and always made me look good.