Vietnam was the fiery crucible that forged a marine rifleman into a priest.

Rev. J. Houston Matthews
Alpha Company, 1/9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division

In March 1968, Houston had lost a leg and an eye after being wounded in a rocket attack on an outpost of the big marine combat base at Khe Sanh. “I don’t hold any bitterness about it.”

For Houston Matthews, Vietnam was the fiery crucible that forged a marine rifleman into a priest. “I was intrigued by what I thought was the glamour of war, John Wayne and all that sort of thing when Vietnam was coming along in the mid­ sixties,” Houston said. “I had spent a year in a military high school in Chattanooga and knew something about discipline and teamwork. I rather liked that kind of life. Just before graduating from high school in Gastonia, I told my father that I thought going into the military might be the best thing for me. I felt I was too unsettled to go right into college.”

Like a lot of other southern families, mine has a military tradition that goes back to the Civil War. My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge with General Patton’s Third Army and was very proud of that, but he didn’t want me to join one of the services, especially the marines, with Vietnam heating up. He had suffered a nervous breakdown after the war and spent eighteen months in a hospital during his recovery. After I went down to the Marine Corps recruiting office in Charlotte and signed up, he got very upset and told me that war was serious business. He was certain that I would go to Vietnam and get killed or injured. As a man of some influence in our community, he tried to pull some strings to keep me from going into the marines. My mother was more realistic about my decision. “He’s of age now,” she told my father, “and he signed the papers. As much as I don’t want him to go do this, we’ve got to let him follow his path.”

I wanted to be in the marines because I believed they prepared their people for combat better than the army did. At least, that’s what some of the people I talked to said. They had been through marine boot camp and extensive infantry training afterward. I liked the idea of being a grunt and even thought of going into special reconnaissance units; I was just intrigued by the excitement of that sort of thing.

I had just turned twenty when I got to boot camp at Parris Island. I was a year or two older than most of the other guys, and maybe that’s why I didn’t have much trouble with boot camp except for some of the psychological games the DI’s liked to play. I never felt anybody was badgering me, though, nor did I ever see a DI hit anybody.

I got my orders to Vietnam while I was at Oceanside, California, for three weeks of advanced infantry training. I guess 85 percent of the guys in my company got orders for Vietnam as either machine gunners or riflemen. My parents were in a state of shock when I told them I was going, even though they knew the handwriting was on the wall. I went home to Gastonia for my thirty-day leave and soon began to feel something was being left unsaid among us. We all went down to Fort Lauderdale for a week, but even in that relaxed atmosphere, my father and mother couldn’t bring themselves to tell me how afraid they were that something might happen to me in Vietnam.

I landed at Da Nang in what must have been hundred-degree heat. When the tailgate of the C-130 that had brought us over from Okinawa dropped down, I couldn’t believe the heat, the smell, and the dirt of Vietnam. Most of the marines I got thrown in with at Da Nang were dirty and grungy; they were half-shaven and hadn’t had a shower in at least a week. I stayed at Da Nang for two weeks in a staging area before I got to my unit, Alpha Company, 1/9th Marines. I remember getting on an H-34 chopper with six or seven other guys and flying from Da Nang up to Dong Ha, which was almost on the DMZ. I kept all my unit locations written in an old Bible that I took with me to Vietnam.

The guys at Alpha Company kidded me a lot about being a greenhorn. Fortunately, a young buck sergeant from Puerto Rico took me aside and told me about the things to watch out for. Apparently, he had lived most of his life in Puerto Rico before moving to New York City. with his family. He knew about tropical places and how to get around in them. This guy was almost like an Indian-he had a sixth sense in the field. He could look at a bush and tell if somebody had passed that way.

I also went through a two-week training program at Dong Ha in which I and the other new guys learned how to maintain our health in Vietnam, which meant taking malaria pills and purifying water with Halazone tablets as much as anything else. But we also learned about ambushes and using our M-16s on “rock and roll,” which meant automatic fire. My marine unit apparently was one of the first to get M-16s and we soon found that it was much harder to hit a target on automatic fire than on semi­ automatic.

I started going out on small patrols of five or six guys after I finished this course. A buck sergeant or a corporal was usually in charge when we went a couple of miles or so out in the hills, which resembled the Appalachians to a great extent. The company-size patrols that sometimes went out might go seven or eight miles.

The first time I went on a patrol, we were going through some woods when all of a sudden small-arms fire opened up on us. I heard a scream and looked around to see that a young guy about my age had been hit in the back. He was bleeding from three or four wounds Charlie had really nailed him good with an AK47 or a light machine gun. We all started shouting “Corpsman! Corpsman!” I ran back to the wounded grunt, but the corpsman beat me to him. He flipped the kid over and tried to put a big bandage on him, but there was nothing he could really do. The kid died within a few minutes of being hit.

While all this was going on, everybody was flat on the ground, firing wildly into the woods. We never saw the people who killed one of us. What we couldn’t see, we couldn’t hit. The kid’s death was a real shock to me. The only other dead person I had seen was at the site of an auto accident when I was a child. It really brought the seriousness of Vietnam together for me. I think my whole process of living out each day began then and there.

My outfit stayed at Dong Ha for three weeks and then moved on to the combat base at Con Thien. We took a lot of incoming rocket and mortar fire at Dong Ha, but Con Thien was much worse. I had been at Con Thien only three days when a 122mm rocket sailed over and hit a command bunker under construction. The rocket went right down the tube, instantly killing a lieutenant and a radioman because the sandbag roof hadn’t yet been put on the bunker. I vividly remember a captain, a guy from New York, being carried half alive out of all that smoking wreckage. He only lived a couple of days.

Con Thien was the first place I saw airbursts. The guys were always talking about them. One day I saw a puff of black smoke suddenly appear in the air. Somebody yelled at me, “That’s an airburst! Get down, get underneath something!” As I scrambled to find some shelter, a shower of hot metal hit me from the explosion. I was lucky that time. Marines were constantly getting killed by incoming fire at Con Thien.

I went to Khe Sanh in January of 1968 and it was like Con Thien all over again, only worse. One day we took seventeen hundred rounds of incoming fire; nobody could move without risking death. My battalion had a perimeter outside Khe Sanh proper, maybe a mile and a half from the base. We formed a kind of human tripwire, sent out there to help keep the NVA away from Khe Sanh. While I was there, another outpost on a little knoll a mile farther out was overrun by four hundred NVA. They charged a sixty-man platoon of marines and killed most of them in hand-to-hand combat. I had to go out there after it was all over to help secure the outpost and pick up the bodies.

By this time, I had seen a lot of people get killed in Vietnam. Every day to me became another day to survive, another day closer to going home.

I went to Vietnam as a spiritual person. I felt a calling to the ministry, but there were certain things about papal authority that I couldn’t buy into, so the priest steered me toward the Episcopal Church. It was there that I had a spiritual experience during communion. I believe I felt the presence of God at the altar rail. It was not an intellectual feeling, but something more physical, a feeling of warmth and security. In my mind, it was much like the times my grandmother would hold me close to her and assure me everything would be all right after I had been hurt.

And so, I looked at the things that were happening in Vietnam and I began to question the whole idea of war and why God could let these things happen. I didn’t feel that God was doing something terrible to us, but rather that we were doing something terrible to each other.

Let me give you an example. I saw the face of the first person I killed in Vietnam. We were in a village outside Cam Lo that had been infiltrated by VC and started to draw some fire from the rear of a building about forty yards away. I had an M-79 grenade launcher at the time and quickly dropped a couple of rounds in the area where the fire was coming from. When we went to check things out, a dead woman was back there. Beside her was some kind of bolt-action rifle I had never seen before, maybe a sniper rifle.

The woman was about twenty years old. She was wearing typical VC clothing, a conical straw hat, black pajamas, and sandals. I was responsible for the death of this woman, and even though I was well aware that she had been trying to kill us, what I had just done bothered me immensely. I tried to rationalize my way out of it: I didn’t really want to fight anybody, but this is war, I had to defend myself. Still, I felt a burning sense of guilt about the woman ‘s death.

I tried to talk to some of the other guys about it, but most of them were at the point where killing just didn’t really make a damn to them. They had been close to buddies who got killed, and their hearts had become hardened. I know it was difficult for a lot of the guys to avoid hating the Vietnamese but thank God there were a few exceptions. One of them was a Navy corpsman with a real sensitivity to people; he would help every­ body. But his kind of compassion seemed rare.

I got wounded on March 28, 1968, while I was on the perimeter outside Khe Sanh. My company commander had warned all of us to stay in bunkers because the NVA had a habit of sending in rockets and artillery around noontime, but this was a bright, clear day, a good day to be outside. I had just come off a patrol and was standing around talking to some new guys when somebody asked me to distribute little cans of Dole pineapple juice around the area. I scooped up a bunch of cans in my shirt and started across the red dirt road to a bunker. Suddenly-bam! I was thrown flat on the ground. I felt like a football player who makes it to the end zone and gets tackled by somebody who isn’t supposed to be there.

I heard a couple of rockets go overhead and then the voice of Henry Radcliffe, my company commander. He was kneeling beside me. “What are you doing?” he yelled. “What are you doing? I told you not to get out of that bunker!”

I think a 122mm rocket got me. The explosion didn’t blow off my leg; it just filled the front of me with shrapnel, including my right eye. I started praying almost automatically when I felt the blast, and the same warm presence that I had known two years earlier at the altar rail in Gastonia flowed through my body. I asked God to pull me through whatever had happened to me. I knew, spiritually, that he was present with me and that he would not abandon me.

People kept pushing me down every time I tried to get up because a corpsman was putting a tourniquet on my left thigh. He popped me with morphine and put a patch over my bleeding eye. All the while, rockets were whistling over us, maybe twenty or thirty in all, on their way to Khe Sanh. The one that got me probably was a short round.

The marines who were helping the corpsman put me on a mule, a little flatbed utility cart used at a lot of firebases in Vietnam. The corpsman jumped on it and rode with me down to the underground surgical hospital at Khe Sanh. The people there put IVs in me and checked the extent of my wounds. I was moving in and out of consciousness because of the morphine, but I do remember that a medevac chopper came in later with several more wounded Marines. The NVA fired mortars at the chopper when I was rushed out to it on a stretcher for a flight to the USS Repose, a big white hospital ship on station off Danang. On the ship, I saw a long line of stretchers, America ns from all over Vietnam. I was just another body waiting for help.

When I finally got to the operating room, I was taken through doors that had blood all over them. The OR was a massive room inside the ship. On the operating tables were guys moaning in pain and seeing and hearing them shook me badly.

My surgeon was a Lieutenant Commander from Atlanta. I asked him, “Are you going to amputate my leg?”

“Not unless I have to, son. Not unless I have to.” Then I asked him, “Am I going to die?”

No, he said, I wasn’t going to die. I think I needed more comfort than that. I yelled to no one in particular, “Do you have a chaplain?” Somebody said a Catholic priest was in the operating room. When he got over to me, I said: “Start praying, Father.”

The next thing I knew, I was out. I woke up five days later with a feeling of sheer terror: both my eyes had patches on them. Everything was dark. “Oh, my God,” I thought, “am I blind?” I was truly frightened. Then I ran my left hand down my leg, but there was no left leg to feel. All I could do was scream in horror at what I was learning about myself. The surgeon heard me scream and came over to my bed.

“What’s worrying you?” he said in a reassuring voice. I told him I could see nothing and that I was afraid I was blind. He said a piece of shrapnel in my left eye had caused a traumatic cataract to form. A bandage had been put over it for protection. “Your left eye is fine,” he said. “And with surgery, your right eye should be corrected.” Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and I lost the right eye.

Coming Home
A lot of people who got badly wounded in Vietnam were sent to hospitals in Japan, but I went straight to the United States after five days on the Repose and a couple of nights at the Army hospital in Da Nang. The layover in Da Nang was very uncomfortable for me. In the bed next to me was a South Vietnamese soldier who had been hit by a flamethrower. He was burned over much of his body and screamed all night long in pain. The nurses gave him sedatives and put wet sheets over him, but there seemed to be little else they could do.

I went from Da Nang to Philadelphia Naval Hospital, where I stayed until November of 1968. The first time my parents came up to see me, they just went to pieces. It was tough on them and on me. But after that first time, they started to adjust to what had happened. They stayed a week in Philadelphia on their first visit and came to see me every day. After that, they came up once a month until I started going home on short leaves.

A lot of thoughts about my future were going through my head. I was twenty-one years old; I had lost a leg and an eye. Would a woman ever be attracted to me? Would I be able to get a job or finish college?

I was badly depressed for a month after getting to Philadelphia. The hospital had counselors who would come by and talk to patients if they wanted such help. The counselors didn’t force themselves on anybody, though I sometimes wish they had. A lot of guys there didn’t take advantage of the counselors, therapists, or ministers who were available to help them. The local Episcopal priest had a ministry in the hospital and he came to see me once a week. With his help, I started to work through my feelings and gain the strength to overcome what had happened to me.

I was really back in battle. I think I won it when the spiritual side of me allowed the emotional and physiological sides of me to be healed. I believe all of us are three-dimensional beings: mind, body, and spirit. If one of those dimensions is not in union with the others, we are out of balance. The spiritual dimension unlocked the door that allowed me to accept my disability and overcome it. That did not mean I had dealt with Vietnam in its totality or everything else that had happened. But by the time I left the hospital, I was happy with myself.

I went back to Gastonia and lived with my family for six months, doing very little. I was weak and had to get used to the prosthesis. I did nothing more strenuous than visiting friends at Wake Forest, Chapel Hill, Duke, and the University of Georgia. Although some of my friends were from families that didn’t support the war, most of them didn’t seem to hold the fact that I had fought in Vietnam against me. A couple of my friends at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest who were involved in protesting the war were very critical of the soldiers in Vietnam, however, and their attitude upset me enough to get into a fight with one of them.

I felt such comments attacked me personally. For about a year after I came back I gave talks to high school kids and civic groups about the war­ you know, the hero comes back. It seemed to me that most people in their thirties and forties supported the war, but the young people were all mixed up about it.

By late 1969, though, I had come to believe the war was a futile effort. I thought we really needed to get out of Vietnam, and I backed off from giving talks. I had begun to hope that the country would have enough sense to get the war over with.

Afterward
Several events came together about a year after I returned to Gastonia. My father died in a car accident and I got married to a girl who was four years younger than me. The marriage lasted all of four months. I had intended to start college at Chapel Hill, but after my father’s death, I felt I should stay close to home so that I could help my mother. Since Belmont Abbey College was only a few miles north of Gastonia, I enrolled there and earned my degree in psychology in 1974.

I was thinking seriously about entering the ministry during this time of transition. I went to see the Episcopal bishop of western North Carolina in the fall of 1972 and talked to him about my interest in the ministry. As a result, I met with the Commission on the Ministry several times and received enough encouragement to enter the General Theological Semi­ nary in New York. I was married to my second wife when I began three years of study for the ministry there in the fall of 1974.

After my ordination, I served Episcopal parishes in Louisiana for nine years. I was in Lafayette for three years and in Opelousas for six as the rector of a small parish before coming to West Columbia.

Yes, I think about Vietnam. I can see it now as a time and a place, one that in the end was a good experience for me. Coming from an upper-middle-class white background, it brought me together with people I might not have otherwise met-people who lived different lives, who had different religions and beliefs. It let me experience life in a way that showed me people are more important than money, power, or status.

It may seem paradoxical to say this, but Vietnam put my life back together. I think I was moving in a very destructive direction when I was in high school. I was a party boy and a hell-raiser. Vietnam made me realize that the world contains a lot of suffering as well as joy.

I’ll never be able to rationalize why we were in Vietnam or why we did the things we did. But I can truly say it was an experience that enabled me to be who I am today. I thank God for that and I’m glad I went.

“A Divine Plan?”

Corporal Phil Eldridge
U.S.M.C., In-Country Calibration Complex

I would say that the reason I went over when I did was to be sure that when I got back, I would be close to finishing my 4-year enlistment. I had seen many guys come back with 3 or 6 or 9 months or so left on their enlistment and they were having issues dealing with the regular stateside life. They would say “Back in the world, it is so different” Not that they were ungrateful for getting back in one piece, but they had issues dealing with the Chicken Shit that occurs on most military bases. So I decided to wait until it was the right time to pull the trigger so to speak and take the “Westpac” orders.

When I arrived in Vietnam I was assigned to In Country Calibration Complex in Da Nang. Our area of operations included all Marine bases where they had an avionics shop. Basically Chu Lai, Marble Mountain, Phu Bai, Quang Tri, Dong Ha and of course, Da Nang.

My time in country was relatively easy, being in the Air Wing we lived pretty well compared to our “Grunt” brothers. It was because of them that we did because we were always pretty safe, in the rear with the gear.

A DIVINE PLAN?
This is a story of Phil Eldridge, written by a friend, former Marine officer and retired FBI agent.

“Guys, this is a little tale about Phil, who was a Vietnam Marine like me. I was in-country until April 1967, whereas Phil was there in 1969. We didn’t know each other until a couple of years back, but we now have a very special connection. Like me, Phil readily indicates to folks that he was not a hero in Vietnam; he was just a survivor. He says he was “in the rear with the gear” and therefore out of harm’s way, but I can assure you that in Vietnam, one’s safety was always relative to where you were and what you were doing at any particular moment, for danger seems to have no borders in a war zone. I don’t know about Phil, but I have my personal thoughts about such things, and I trust that everyone fits into God’s plan. No one knows when his life will end. Only God knows that.”

“By the grace of God, Phil was one of those who survived Vietnam. He explained to me that when not “in the rear” he was flying on CH-46 helicopters from Marble Mountain, near Da Nang, to several exotic places like Chu Lai, Phu Bai, Quang Tri or Dong Ha. I also recall spending some time in two of those “delightful” locations during my Vietnam tour, and I visited Marble Mountain and actually purchased two beautifully carved, souvenir, marble objects from a little, old sculptor who looked very much like Ho Chi Minh. “

“Phil didn’t tell me exactly what he was doing for the Corps out of Marble Mountain, but he sincerely gave the credit for his relative safety to “the grunts (the infantry)” and the combat engineers. Well, just like he did on several different occasions, Phil began making his way by motor vehicle to the Marble Mountain airstrip on December 17, 1969. However, on that day, his road trip was somewhat delayed because of a Korean military convoy that blocked his progress. Though his name was on the printed manifest for a helicopter flight to Phu Bai, Phil missed the flight. When he arrived at the flight shack on the airstrip, he was informed that the helicopter he missed boarding had crashed against some mountain to the north, and everyone aboard had been killed. The fellow in the flight shack even joked with Phil about signing his name on the manifest, like he had actually been on the fateful flight, and he could then go home early with a check for his mom. Phil told me, “I was killed on paper,” that day.”

“He took the very next flight out of Marble Mountain to do his work in Phu Bai, but because the earlier crash had taken place on December 17, Phil thoughtfully adopted “17” as his lucky number from that day forward. Of course, Phil completed his 13-month tour in Vietnam and returned to CONUS (Continental United States) unscathed and initially told nobody about that unusual day in December. After about four months as a civilian again, he was chatting with his parents and told them about his close encounter with death. Phil’s mother silently but quickly left the room, and his father asked if he was sure about the date of the chopper crash. He assured his father that the crash date was December 17, and his dad then proceeded to explain why his mom had walked out of the room after hearing his story. You see, Phil was the youngest of three children, and apparently, his mother wore a special ring that bore the birthstones of each of her three children. On December 17, 1969, the date of the helicopter crash, Phil’s birthstone fell out of the ring, and Phil’s mother was convinced that her baby had died on that day in Vietnam. Phil’s name was on the flight manifest, but he missed the flight and did not die. Some would simply say that Phil was lucky or that what occurred was just a coincidence. He may have been lucky, but my faith tells me that what happened was no coincidence. God knew it was not Phil’s destiny to die on that flight, and The Lord purposely delayed Phil’s arrival at the flight line to fit into God’s later life plan for him. “

Coming Home
Coming home was easy. I partnered up with three other guys, and we drove a motorhome from Anaheim, California to, I think Canton, Ohio dropping off the coach at the dealership from which it was purchased. We had a nice experience coming across the country, blending back into our home country over a few days. We stopped in Denver, Colorado and other places on the way. Once we arrived in Ohio, we split up and went our separate ways home. From there I flew to Boston where my parents picked me up at the airport, and off we drove to my home Lynnfield Mass.

I had a job or two here or there and then got a job at a company called ITEK. I met my wife to be and pretty much that was it.

Afterward
I went to night school for a while for computer science and eventually got into field service working on computer-related equipment and still do to this day. I think the Vietnam experience for me was pretty good. But it did change me in some small ways. I remember seeing the caskets getting loaded on a C-141 in Da Nang from time to time, and it made me feel kind of inadequate but maybe blessed might be a better word.

I had my brush with death, but most of us did from time to time. The only thing that did change in me was my interest in hunting. Just like in the movie “The Deer Hunter” I no longer had any desire to kill an animal. I surely understand the need to keep the numbers down which is why there is a hunting season in many states, but there are plenty of sportsmen who enjoy the hunt, the challenge and the pride of accomplishment. For them, I say good going, glad you’re out there. I know that if I had to feed my family, I could do it, but now I just like to shoot paper. I am locked and loaded to protect my family, but I’ll shoot animals only with my camera. So I guess the war turned me into a sort of non-hunter and by the way, I never fired a shot in Vietnam. Before the service, I had always wanted to go hunting with my dad but never did. He had nearly 80 acres of his own to hunt in, but I never did. I have fished all my life, and that’s similar but somehow to me anyway, different.

I am grateful for my ability to serve and proud of those fellow brothers and sisters who did and still do today. So for those of us who did have a really bad time over there God Bless you all and thanks for your service. I was there in the background helping out to make sure when the Medivac bird got there, it knew how to get back to base, when the cargo plane arrived it knew how to get there, and when the F4 came in to drop some ordinance it knew where it was going and when the freedom bird arrived it knew how to get us home. Radio Navigation was my field then, and it was not such a big deal, but it helped. Welcome home, everyone.

“As a Vietnam veteran I wasn’t welcome”

BM3 Alan Van Bladel
USS Saint Paul, U.S. Navy

My younger brother Ken enlisted in the Navy Reserves in 1970. After boot camp, he went to Quartermaster ‘C’ School at Pearl Harbor. On July 25, 1971, he received orders for USS Epperson DD-719 (Gearing Class Destroyer). The ship was sent to Vietnam in September 1971 returning in February 1972. The Epperson was sent back in October 1972 until March 1973. Ken was released from Active Duty Apr 24, 1973. Discharged June 2, 1976, as QM3.

My brother, Jerry, enlisted in the Navy in 1966. After basic training, he attended Radar ‘A’ School. Upon completion, he received orders for Naval Special Warfare Beach Jumpers stationed at NAB Coronado, CA. He did three tours in Vietnam, ’67, ’68 & ’69 and was discharged in 1970 with the rank of 2nd Class Radarman.

My brother, Tom, enlisted in the Navy in 1965 after graduation from Dental School. Having thought about opening his own Dental Practice, he decided to join the Navy to keep from being drafted. He was stationed at Camp Pendleton for four years as a dentist. He was then transferred to a Sub-Tender out of Point Loma, Ca. until his discharge in 1971 with the rank of Lieutenant.

Jerry and Ken talked about their experiences only with some prodding. Not much from Tom.

In 1967, I was still in High School. I was in the 5-year plan. In April of that year, I enlisted in the Navy, figuring if I didn’t graduate again, I would work on my GED while serving.

I didn’t have a job specialty at first. When I was on board my ship in Vietnam, I was studying to be a Dental Assistant. But, when I requested a transfer for duty with my brother Tom, him being an officer, they would not allow it. So, I changed my studies to be a Boatswains Mate and hoped for a transfer to Naval Special Warfare Beach Jumpers with Jerry.

It didn’t surprise me when I received my orders for Vietnam. I had been stationed at NASNI (Naval Air Station North Island) for over a year already. I figured my time was due. I received orders to the USS Saint Paul CA-73, heavy cruiser stationed at 32nd Street Naval Yard. We deployed in February of 1969 to WESTPAC. Our station was just south of the DMZ and North of the Cua Viet River, I-Corps. Our ship provided troop gunfire support. I was assigned as a Lookout.

Coming Home
On the way home, we had a bilge fire that could have sunk us. There wasn’t another ship around for 500 miles. The worse thing about it, some of the sailors who were into drugs had their stashes hidden below the bilge plates. The drugs went up in smoke but there was no major damage to the ship.

It was a very long cruise and we stopped in Hawaii overnight but no one was allowed to leave the ship. I would have to say, I was very happy to be returning state-side along with the other 1200+ enlisted and 300+ officers on board. We then sailed on to San Diego.

We returned to the base at 32nd Street in October 1969. San Diego is a very military town, so there weren’t many protesters. My fiancé was waiting for me at the pier. It was good to be home.

I got married in November and returned home for a 30 day leave over Christmas. I stayed in Naval Special Warfare for about a year, then was transferred to the Seabees until my discharge in August of 1971. I was an E-4, Boatswains Mate third class at discharge.

My father suggested that I visit the local VFW for a beer. I went in, sat down and ordered a beer, there were two older guys sitting down a few seats from me. One of them told me that I had to be a veteran to drink there. I told him that I was. The other guy said that I looked a little young to be a Korean War veteran. I told him that I wasn’t, but was a Vietnam veteran. The first guy said, as a Vietnam veteran I wasn’t welcome. I told them that my father had been Post Command for quite a few years. They said that they didn’t see him sitting next to me, and I wasn’t welcomed there. I turned my beer over on the bar and told these two guys to ‘F’ off and left. When I saw my father next, he asked how it was at the VFW. I told him that it was interesting. And, nothing more.

Afterward
Coming from a military family, I felt right at home. My brother, Ken, was still serving. Thirteen days after I was discharged, I went for a job interview. It was at the local High School District. The person doing the interview was the Vice-principle of the school I graduated from. He asked me what I had been doing since graduation? I had heard that a lot of employers would not hire Vietnam Veterans. I told him, that I was in the Navy. He then asked if I was a Vietnam Veteran. I told him, yes. What he said next surprised me. He said, when can you start? I started the next day.

In 1975 when Saigon fell I was at work at Buffalo Grove High School, I was glad that it was finally over. But, not with the outcome.

I didn’t have problems afterward for the longest time. July 4th, 2007 at the end of the Rolling Meadows fireworks show, as the concussion bombs were going off, my girlfriend said that she looked at me and I looked like a deer in the headlights. After calling me a few times, she had to touch me to get my attention. Now, the airborne explosions freak me out, along with lightning at night. I went to the VA and the shrink told me to stay away from fireworks and not to drive at night.

As far as Agent Orange, up until last month, it wouldn’t have made any difference. But, there is a lawsuit against the VA to consider Da Nang Harbor as an inter-coastal waterway for any military ship. The suit was won and the VA never challenged the ruling. The Blue Water Navy was not covered for Agent Orange exposure. It was 1978 when the VA decided that we wouldn’t be covered.

My ship was 2 miles offshore. I-Corps was the heaviest sprayed area in Vietnam. We always had an easterly wind. And, when we ran out of fresh water, we desalinated the sea water. When you take out the salt, you concentrate the chemicals. We drank it, showered in it and cooked our meals in it. But, we never walked in it.

Even though we supplied gunfire support for our troops, received combat pay and were awarded medals for various types of combat we never received a Combat Action Ribbon. Therefore, according to the VA, we are NOT combat vets and, don’t receive VA medical benefits. I’m in that group that makes too much money so I have no benefits. I have to rely on my Medicare and secondary insurance.

I have been to The Wall 3 times. I always stop to talk with my friend Harry Craig. He was a good friend through many years of school and church. I still miss him.

Looking back, I’m still mad at how our government handled it. Too many rules where the troops could and couldn’t go. Take an area and then leave it, just to lose it again. The way I look at it is, what were we doing there in the first place, didn’t we learn anything from the French? And, before them, the Japanese.

THAT’S MY STORY AND I’M STICKING TO IT

“Vietnam made my faith in God stronger than it was before”

SP/5 Frank Dillon
A Troop, 3/17th Cavalry
F Troop, 4th Cavalry

I joined the Army just a couple of weeks before I would have been drafted. I guess I did it to spite the draft board. Go figure. I reported in February 1971. My eight weeks of basic training was spent at Ft. Leonard Wood, then sixteen weeks of AIT at Ft. Gordon, Georgia. Upon graduation at Ft. Gordon, I was promoted to SP/4 with a MOS of 35M20. After graduation, I received orders for Vietnam. In the words of SFC (Sergeant First Class) Crocker, that thea, that thea, that thea goddamn orders to Vietnam. Rumor had it that SFC Crocker had contracted malaria in Vietnam which caused him to stutter quite a lot. One hell of a great guy. My reaction to receiving the orders was simply “Well shit!!!. Damn it!!”

After thirty days leave my parents drove me to the newly opened Kansas City International Airport. Not a word was spoken until I got out of the car and my Dad said, “Don’t get your feet wet over there.” That was it. On to Ft. Lewis for departure, given a bunk that they roused me out of about midnight, and they herded us into a second floor empty barracks. We slept on the hard floor until about 4 a.m when they loaded us up on Flying Tiger Airlines where I ended up sitting next to an older man who was who was going over for his second tour as a grunt. I didn’t know him well, but his sister was a year older than I, so I knew the family.

It seemed like we were in the air forever. My feet swelled up inside my new jungle boots. We landed in Tokyo to refuel and were allowed off the plane. I thought that was really cool having never been out of the U.S. before. Then we flew on to Cam Ranh Bay arriving in the late evening. I’d never been so dog ass tired in my life. It was my first experience with jet lag. In the middle of the night, I heard the first shot in my Vietnam time. A .45 and there was only one, but wtf? SOB, then I was put on KP the next morning. Pretty sure the cooks felt sorry for us newbies and gave us every break they could. We were all still dog ass tired.

I then flew to Phu Loi for two weeks of in-country training. What a joke that was. I think we shot the M16 and the M60 a few times and that was about it. I learned how to do that in basic training. To this day I fail to see the point in that “training.” I think it was about the second night at Phu Loi when the artillery opened up. Had I been told there was artillery there it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but since I didn’t know, it scared the bejesus out of me. When I learned what it was I was OK.

I was assigned to A Troop, 3/17th Cavalry at Lai Khe. I was Avionics and they were overstaffed, so I spent most of my time hanging out and doing what I could in the Motor Pool. Rats ran amuck on the hooch rafters at night and often would “drop in” on a fella. We kept our bayonets affixed to deter that issue. The mosquitoes were horrid. We slept under a mosquito net but still got upwards of 30 bites in a night. The malaria pills we took weekly gave us the shits.

A Troop, 3/17th stood down in December 1971 or so. I was transferred to F Troop (Air), 4th Cav which was next door at Lai Khe, but we moved to Sanford Army Airfield at Long Binh shortly after that. Long Binh was very secure, but we had a shit load of folks reassigned to us from units standing down. Too many with nothing to do was a problem. Race riots, stabbings, and even a murder occurred there.

April 1st, 1972 began the Easter Offensive. We were ordered up to I Corp. The unit became split 3 ways. Maintenance was at Marble-Asshole Mountain, we staged out of Phu Bai, and the misfits remained at Long Binh. Marble Mountain was a shit hole even without all the incoming. Early June 1972 we evacuated Phu Bai. It got too hazardous for our health. The forward unit began staging out of Tan My. (It’s rather difficult to find Tan My on a map today. It is about 8 miles east of Hue on the coast. It is a peninsula.) I went to Marble Mountain after the Phu Bai evacuation. In July 1972 or so, I was ordered to Tan My. That place was a paradise for a REMF like me.

Coming Home
My Deros date was October 5th, 1972. Four of us flew in a slick down to Tan Son Nhut. I’m guessing that it was about a 5-hour flight. Upon arrival, we were greeted with some smart ass SGT who told us “You boys are going to have to get home the best way you can. There are no flights going out”. I SO wanted to bloody his nose and blacken both of his eyes to get the smirk off of his face. The next day we were told there was a C5A heading back to the states, but we were cautioned that the C5’s usually didn’t get too far before breaking down as it turned out we made it as far as Kadina AFB, Okinawa. Air Force billets filled up and the 4 of us were told to get a room outside the base in a hotel. We did. Crown Hotel, Koza City, Okinawa. The hotel had a small bar. Three of us kept the bar open about 3 hours past closing time by throwing money to the barmaid. The other guy among us had enough sense to go to bed.

The next morning we went to the Kadina AFB terminal and learned that all the others that were on the C5A flight out of Tan Son Nhut had caught a flight out early that morning. The four of us sat in the terminal for hours and hours until we were told there was a C141 morgue flight going to Dover, Delaware. The AF dude that told us said he didn’t know if we wanted to get on it or not, but it was available. I wanted the hell out of there, and I guess the other three did too because we all got on.

There was just one casket on the plane. PFC William Terry. Accidentally killed himself somehow. Saigon, I think. His casket was directly in front of where we had to sit. I think we all knew that could easily have been one of us. It would have been less disconcerting if the casket had been located towards the back some instead of directly in front of us. We looked at it the entire flight. It was not a pleasant view for all those hours.

We flew non-stop to Elmendorf AFB in Alaska. We sat in jump seats and ate the brown bag food the Air Force provided for us. It was cold, and the view in front of us was Willie’s casket. Upon landing at Anchorage, AK my gut was in a turmoil. I was the last one off the C141 because I was in the outhouse with the dry heaves. Guys were outside telling me to get off. American soil??? Too many days I tasted my asshole in my mouth and was sure I wouldn’t make it home alive. I was a REMF. I had it easy compared to a lot of my Brothers. Go figure. Upon landing, the pilot told us we could stay aboard, but he was going to Dover. No one lived near Dover, so the four of us took a cab to the Anchorage Airport and bought our own tickets home.

We caught a flight to Seattle that evening. SeaTac had a military room at the airport with a few bunks in it so we all settled in there until another smart ass Sergeant appeared and spouted off. I said fuck you and went out in the terminal to sleep on whatever. One of the guys came out later and said come on back and get a bunk. I was too pissed off to do that. Fuck, by that time I had slept in less comfortable places than a concrete floor, so it wasn’t a big deal.

The next day I got on a flight to Kansas City. Thick fog forced us to land in Wichita, KS. A dear, dear friend who had written me every day while I was in Vietnam was the only one who knew when I would arrive, but I was able to call her to let her know of the delay. She picked me up at KCI and I finally got home. Mom wasn’t home yet so I took a walk down Main Street of Archie, MO checking it out. There never was much there, but it was kinda home. I recall I was walking down the middle of Main Street when Mom came driving up the street. (Upon reflection I ask myself why the hell I was walking down the middle of the street. There were sidewalks of sorts even back then.)The look on Mom’s face was a mixture of shock and happiness….I guess. Whatever Mom was doing, she canceled, and loaded me up and took me back to the house. That night I went to bed and slept 14 hours straight. Well, except for the moment Mom’s yellow tom cat decided to jump on me. I was back at Lai Khe fending off a rat and that poor cat hit the wall on the other side of the bedroom. I still feel bad about that.

I stayed drunk for my 30 days of leave. I couldn’t hold food down unless I had booze to relax me. My Dear, Dear Friend told me not so long ago, that she didn’t know who was more “shell-shocked” me or my Mother.

Afterward
I never really felt comfortable back home. I don’t think family and friends knew quite what to make of me, however, I was treated with respect. I never really connected with my family or friends after that. And, I still feel disconnected to this day.

I stayed in the Army until 1978. I was stationed in Mannheim, Germany when Saigon fell. I don’t remember feeling much of anything about. I expected it to happen sooner than it did.

I had problems after I left the Army. I was an alcoholic and workaholic until 2005 when some events occurred putting me “back in the war with a vengeance.” I became too depressed to function and work any longer. I was fired from my job of nearly 30 years in June 2007. I have gotten counseling off and on since the early 90’s.

Five years ago I went to a mini-reunion. It was hard to go. Too much at one time for me and I left a day early. The next year the same thing. The third year I didn’t go (didn’t want to drive that far). Last year it was easy to go and I stayed for the whole thing. I am going again this year. I still have not been to the Wall. Right now I just can’t do it.

Vietnam made my faith in God stronger than it was before. I always figured if a fella didn’t believe in God, he would after getting shot at a few times.

Looking back, I don’t regret going. I do regret that we just abandoned those people when the war was the same as won. It’s almost as if it was all for nothing.

“Depression and booze became my main-stay in life”

Specialist 6th Class Nelson Wheatley
Multiple tours of duty in Vietnam

I’m 73 years old. I have been married for 43 years to a pen pal I had while I was over in Vietnam. I am Army retired and 100% disabled. I am homebound, so I spend a lot of time on this computer. I can’t walk so I use a wheelchair everywhere I go.

I joined the Army to get the training I wanted. I served from December 1962 to January 1983. While in the Army I held several MOS’s. I was an 11B (Infantry), 05C (Radio Teletypewriter Operator) and a 71D (Legal Specialist).

I volunteered for Vietnam and spent five tours over there. I was assigned to 13th Aviation Bn. at Can Tho from 65-66 (was medivaced to Camp Zama, Japan). I then served in Company B., 37th Signal Bn. at Hue/Phu Bai, Dong Ha, Quang Tri and Camp Evans from 67-68 (I was in Hue during Tet 1968). I also served with the 7/1st Cavalry at Vinh Long from 1971-1972, and the 131st Military Intelligence Company at Da Nang in 1972.

Coming Home
My last few days in-country were very exhausting. Saying goodbye to most of my friends and wishing them the best of luck was kind of rough on my nerves. It seemed like it was the longest flight. I made four trips back home from there. I had a lot of adjusting to do

The trip home was uneventful. I slept most of the way. My thoughts were of the different actions me and my friends went through while there. Some were flashbacks especially of what we found during the battle of Hue in Tet 1968. So much needless killing and just plain slaughter to the civilian population. Especially the pits full of bodies of men, women and especially the babies.

The reception in the States was horrible. I was spit on. I put up with rude comments and had bags of shit thrown at me.

I wrote my family that I was coming home, but they weren’t waiting for me. I stood at the train station by myself for a long time just trying to understand no one was there to meet me. That’s something I’ll never get over. Actually, I guess I had no real family of my own to care whether or not I came home.

While home I was treated like hell. My family and friends could care less that I made it back. I pretty much was alone almost all the time. I was never comfortable because the vets at the VFW and American Legion did not want to let me join them. They called me “a loser.” They made that perfectly clear so after a few days, I just left and headed to my next assignment

Afterward
I never really felt connected with my family after this. Now I am the sole survivor of my family.

In 1975 when Saigon fell it was just another day at Fort Bliss. I didn’t really care.

I had real problems that began after Tet of 1968 at Hue. The army wouldn’t give me any help what so ever. They didn’t even want to talk about it. They just pushed me away and said I was a mental case.

Depression and booze became my main-stay in life but with the help of a really good 1st Sergeant and a wonderful woman (who I have been married to for over 43 years now) I pulled out of the mess I got myself mixed up in. I was drinking myself into a stupor every moment, on duty or off. And now I have been able to leave it alone for over 43 years. Those two were angels to me. God bless them both.

I have some bad medical problems due to my multiple tours in Vietnam. Heart, lungs, arthritis in both knees, diabetes, hearing loss and bad PTSD.

Looking back, I have to say my wartime experiences completely changed me. I have a whole different outlook on life and people. It is very hard for me to trust and befriend people.

Vietnam was hell on this earth the 42 months I spent there, and I’ve really wondered if it was even worth it.

I hope that helps you fill in my interview. It has brought some very bloody, bad memories and nightmares back to me. Let me know if you need more information. I had a real bad time growing up and also when I spent my first years in the army. When your family treats you like hell your whole life, it takes a while to bring it all out.

Everyone acted as though I was home from college. No questions about the war or anything related to my service. No one wanted to hear it.

SSGT Lee Bishop
Army Security Agency

I came from a family rich in military history. My family has fought in every war the United States has waged with the exception of the Spanish-American War (no one was the right age, and it barely lasted a year). I am particularly proud of my cousin, George Waterman’s service in the Civil War. He was killed by a Copperhead in Dayton. The GAR Hall in Peninsula, OH was named for him. I had a cousin on the other side of the family (George Fisher or Fischer) who was in Texas on cattle business when the war broke out. He wrote a book, “A Confederate Conscript or Eighteen Months in Dixie” about his being conscripted and then biding his time until he could escape and make his way back to Ohio. Members of my family spoke of their military experiences but never as braggarts or whiners.

I joined the Army in 1965 because of our family’s history of wartime service. Also, I’d lost my driver’s license because I liked to speed, so it made sense at the time.

Shortly after I arrived at basic training at the age of 19, I was called in to choose an MOS. Don’t remember them saying anything about my test scores. I had no idea what I was doing. I put down intelligence research analyst first because they only took one every two years. Then I put down voice monitor; I liked the word “monitor”. Couldn’t decide on a third. The guy said go to language school. I said, “No way. I had two years of Spanish in high school and hated it!” He said put it down anyhow; you’ll get your first choice. Everybody always does.

A few weeks later they pull me back in and said, “Congratulations! You got language school! Geez. “Now pick out ten languages you’d be interested in.” Well, I was going to outfox them this time: Where would I like to be stationed? #1- Italian, #2- Japanese, etc. Do you know how hard it is to pick ten languages? Well, this was roughly March 1965, and by the time I got to choices #9 and #10 I noticed as I reviewed my list that there was a fair number of Asian languages. I’d been hearing something about Vietnam, so I listed that one. Surely I’d get one of my first three. So, comes graduation from basic and I get my orders for Monterey. Included in my orders was a long numerical designation that was something like 1653489845168543456VN0565. Well, by this time I knew a lot about Vietnam. And I was quite sure I knew the Army well enough to know that there was no way that the “VN” in that number stood for Vietnamese. I was wrong.

So, I was trained to speak Vietnamese at the Defense Language Institute, West Coast – Presidio of Monterey 1965-66. My MOS was 98G 4L80, Vietnamese Voice Intercept Operator, Cryptographer, and Traffic Analyst. Army Security Agency. I had a Top Secret/Crypto Security Clearance.

I was sent to Vietnam in May 1966 and remained until May 1967. I did low-level voice intercept work with Detachment 3 of the 3rd RRU (the Lost Detachment, 101st ABN Div.) which became the 406th Detachment of the 509th RRG, TDY’d to the 8th RRU (Phu Bai), then sent to the 330th RRC in Pleiku where I worked as trick chief. I spent my tour in Saigon, Nha Trang, Phan Rang, Dak To, Tuy Hoa, Phuc My, Hue, Phu Bai, Pleiku, Phan Thiet, Kontum, Cam Ranh Bay, and points betwixt and between.

I served with combat units of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and in support of the 25th and 4th Infantry Divisions. After my return, I was with the National Security Agency from 1967-69 with a three-month TDY to Okinawa in 1968 (Operation Purple Dragon – Top Secret/Umbra).

Coming Home
I returned home from Vietnam in a chartered Flying Tiger 707. Flights were coming out of Cam Ranh Bay constantly. In May of 1967, there were roughly 485,000 American soldiers there so, with a one-year tour of duty, you can imagine the turnaround. I smuggled back the .32 Colt my father had given me that I brought with when I first came to Vietnam. It proved helpful on several occasions. It had been given to him by a friend who retired after decades of working Vice for the Cleveland Police Department.

Like other Vietnamese linguists, I was kept over a few days beyond my normal return date; there were less than a hundred of us in-country. Anyhow, I get on the aircraft, find my seat, sit down, turn to introduce myself to the guy on my left, and its Tom Bray, one of 16 guys I graduated with from South Amherst High School! Can the world be that small?

I don’t even remember what city or airbase we flew into and processed at. I do remember steak and real milk. I also remember that I was very impatient to get back to friends and family.

I was so excited at getting home to South Amherst that around eight o’clock I jumped in my new ’67 Ford Mustang convertible and headed out to meet my friends. I went through two red lights in town, a bank parking lot to avoid another light, and was speeding like a fiend. A cop pulled me over. I explained that I was just back from Vietnam. He’d heard that story before and asked for my orders. I gave them to me. He said slow down and be careful. No ticket.

One time I was driving my new ’67 Mustang convertible with a Challenger V8 w/ a 4-barrel. My sister was in the front seat with me, and my parents were in the back. We were going to visit my grandparents. We were in the little town of Tiffin, Ohio when there was a backfire. I downshifted and punched it for all I was worth (instinct). My parents about crapped themselves.

I still remember the strange look I got when I knocked the ashes of the end of my cigarette onto the carpet while talking with my mother in her living room. Having spent so long living in hooches and tents with dirt floors, I had developed some bad habits.

Shortly after returning from Viet Nam I was on my folk’s farm in West Virginia. We heard a horn blaring and blaring, and blaring up on the State Road around dinnertime. My stepfather said it was probably a bunch of drunks from McFarland and to ignore them. Nope. It was the owner of the grocery store (complete with potbelly stove) down the road. He came tearing down our long driveway in his pickup yelling “those bastards stole my car! I cut them off with my truck, but they went high-tailing it into the woods!” I grabbed my .32 Colt Auto jumped in the cab of Mr. McCauley’s truck and said, “Let’s go!” And off we went.

Not knowing if they were armed or not, I entered the woods cautiously then just hunkered down figuring they’d make some noise. They did. I fired a shot in the air and said in a booming voice, “Gentlemen, I’m just back from Vietnam and as you heard I am armed. You can come out quietly, or I will kill you.” Out they came, hands in the air. From the looks of things, I was glad I was the only one with a weapon.

I had them squat down on the road between pickup and car and kept them at gunpoint until the state police arrived. I was enrolled at Ohio State, but I came back for the trial. Those boys were sent to prison for 3 – 5 years.

Those were the days…

Afterward
Everyone acted as though I was home from college. No questions about the war or anything related to my service. No one wanted to hear it, and in time, it became a priority to simply ignore my service in Vietnam. I put memories and photos away for thirty years and felt despised by my country for those three decades because of the way we were portrayed by the media, Hollywood, and the political left. In roughly 2002 a fellow vet managed to track me down, and I began interacting with other veterans on the Internet. That was good.

My friend, John Clark had picked up on a program at Fresno State that would pay linguists to teach English to Vietnamese engineering students of the campus. Plus John also knew about the early out program if we were accepted to a college. Through his efforts, we both were discharged in January 1969 and were offered positions. That sounded good to me. I left the Army in Maryland, drove home to Ohio for a few days with my family, then to California in 3 days. Got to about 30 miles east of St. Louis the first day, Gallup NM the second day, and Fresno the third. Slept about 5 hours each night in the car. The only place I can remember stopping was the Meteor Crater in AZ for about an hour. Now that’s a big hole.

The program we were hired into was terminated while I was driving west, so I supported myself as a laborer (Donald Fantz’ Solid Waste Disposal Company). But that worked out fine.

I ended up at Fresno State College (now UC-Fresno) for a semester in ’69. I was walking on the campus wearing my field jacket one morning when a female voice shouted, “Are you a Vietnam veteran?” I turned, and it was like the clouds parted, the sun shined down, the angels were singing, and I was looking at one of the most beautiful girls ever. Cat had my tongue, but I said, “Yes, I am.” She asked, “How did it feel to kill little babies?” I was stunned and abruptly turned and walked on.

When the North defeated the South in 1975, one million South Vietnamese were executed…a minor event that the American press did not bother to report. As a college dean, I had befriended a Vietnamese engineering student. She told me that ten of her closest relatives were among those who were slaughtered.

It has been my observation that Vietnam Vets who came back and got active on the left were guys who didn’t fit very well in Vietnam and who were desperate for approval back here in the States. Kent State was a terrible mistake for both sides. When I left the army, after some time at the University of California, I returned to Ohio and finished my degree at Ohio State. I was president of the OSU Veterans Assn during the riots of 1970; my friends and I took rocks away from protesters (one of whom, Michael White, became mayor of Cleveland) so that they couldn’t throw them at the Guard.

During all of this, I observed a leader of Vietnam Veterans against the War, who wore an old army blouse (shirt) with a 101st Airborne patch on the sleeve. During a lull I figured everyone has a right to his opinion, we’d still served together, so I went up and introduced myself. He told me he had served with the “Lost Detachment,” probably the smallest unit to serve in Vietnam (roughly 30 men doing radio intercept work, code breaking, and translations; the linguists and directional finding guys were going out with combat units). When I heard that, since that was the unit I had served with, I got really excited and asked if he knew Wild Bill Cody, Shaky, Buddha, Rooster, Cherry, Lt. Castleman, and some others. You should have seen the look on his face. Turned out, he was a cook in Saigon. Not that cooks weren’t important (my Dad was one in WWII), but I couldn’t believe that he would try to promote himself by stealing the reputation of heroes. I turned on my heel and left. I’m sure he understood my contempt for him.

One thing led to another, and I ended up spending an afternoon at the White House with Charles Colson discussing perceptions of the war. I was in DC originally to appear with Senator Taft (the governor’s father) on John Gardner’s Common Cause to debate the subject of amnesty for draft dodgers. Senator Taft supported me in my opinion that those who fled the country should not be allowed to return. We all had to make decisions and certainly we veterans had to live with the consequences of those decisions (death, loss of limbs, malaria, Black Water Fever, Dengue fever, dysentery, etc.). The cowards should have had to live with the consequences of their decisions. Of course, Presidents Ford and Carter let them return to the US with no consequences.

I was visiting at the Pentagon when a major protest occurred and so had access to information as it was being given to the commanding officers. There was a very impressive picture published nationally in newspapers of “veterans” in wheelchairs throwing their medals over a fence (as did Kerry, one of the most despicable people on the planet). I don’t know if they were actually handicapped, but I seriously doubt that many of them were veterans, and I’d bet money their “medals” came from pawnshops.

Agent Orange was far more insidious than the government has ever let on. I can trace my family back several hundred years on both sides, and no one ever had a heart problem except an old lady in the 1800s that had to chew digitalis for an irregular heartbeat. Ischemic Heart Disease was added to the AO list in 2010, and I was rated at 30% disabled (now 60%).

In November 1995, I went Code Blue; then suffered another heart attack a month later. The first angioplasty required my wife to refinance our home to pay the hospital $68,000 in cash; don’t know details of the second experience, but she had to refinance again. We had to pay for open heart in 2001, and then for a coronary ablation a few years later. So, the government’s decision to use us as guinea pigs cost my family and me, and I’m sure many others, hundreds of thousands of dollars just to serve.

Today they cover all expenses related to IHD. But they will cover nothing that was done before 2009 to keep me from dying because of Agent Orange exposure.

Looking back, I would have to say that I value my experiences in Vietnam as much as I value any of my experiences. I would not give it up.

“After knowing what I know now, I think the war was a waste of lives and money”

CSN Johnnie Albanese
USS Jason (AR-8)
Fleet Air Support Unit, Da Nang

I joined the Navy for four years in August 1970 and served until August 1973 taking a one-year cut in my enlistment. I enlisted in the Navy for a number of reasons. First and foremost was because my father was in the Navy and I had a sense of duty. I also loved ships (still do). My neighbor across the street was a 1st Class Boatswains Mate on the USS Coral Sea and a neighbor a few doors down was a carrier pilot on the USS Orinsky.

Out of boot camp, I was assigned to the USS Jason (AR-8) as a Boiler Technician. I worked in the “hole” (boiler room) for about three months and hated it. I was then sent to be a “mess cook” and enjoyed being above deck. We only had three cooks for a crew of 800 so I requested a change of rate to SN (Seaman) and was granted it. (While on the USS Jason, AR-8 I put in a request chit for shore duty in Vietnam. Dad had always glorified war). From that point on I was a cook.

I first went to Vietnam on the USS Jason (AR-8) in 1971 anchoring in Vung Tau Harbor servicing the “Brown Water Navy”. When we returned from WESTPAC to San Diego, the word was sent out that the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2) was shifting from the West Coast to the East Coast to be stationed out of Norfolk, VA. I asked for the transfer because my goal in the Navy was to work with aircraft. I was granted the transfer and was assigned to the flight deck. Hot Dog!

While assigned (1972) to the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2) I came off Liberty and was informed by crewmembers that I was going to be transferred to Da Nang, RVN. It seemed that most everyone knew of my orders before Personnel called me to ask if I wanted to accept. Accept? I didn’t know that I could refuse them. I should note here that a 1st & 2nd Class Petty Officer had offered me as much as $1,500 for my orders. Again, I didn’t know that could happen. I accepted the orders. This was less than a week before the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2) sailed for the Mediterranean.

When I was told by Personnel about my orders, I was a little numb and surprised that all this had come about. I was reserved because I didn’t know what my future held. Hell, I was going to a war zone, a combat zone where people get killed. But I was never afraid. I was on the USS Iwo Jima for three more days and was somewhat of a celebrity on board ship. People pointing at me and whispering or just coming up and asking me if I was “that” guy, the guy going to Vietnam.

There was so much racial tension aboard the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2) that I wanted off her. I was born and raised in Northern California and was never exposed nor did I understand the racial problem. 3 to 5 days after the Iwo Jima left Norfork, Virginia for the Med there was a race riot on board forcing the ship to return to port.

I was given a 30-day leave before reporting to Naval Station Coronado Island, San Diego for “training.” We also were helped to get our “affairs” in order (just in case). From there I was off to Vietnam. I flew from Travis Air Force Base California on now-defunct World Airways to Saigon. From Saigon (I was there three days because a chief petty officer would not let me leave until I got a haircut. The CPO walked me to the barbershop and sat with me until I got my haircut).

I was then sent to the Fleet Air Support Unit (FASU), Da Nang. Now FASU was a unit at the base of Marble Mountain and the Port of Da Nang Air Base operated by the USAF. We nicknamed it “Rocket City”.

I was first assigned to GSE (General Supply and Engineering) Division until they figured out what to do with me. GSE Division put me in charge of the air terminal where I met the aircraft and helicopters that flew in, mostly from the Philippines or the fleet (Yankee Station) and guided them to the air terminal. Then after they were refueled, I would lead passengers to the outbound aircraft. I would turn the names into personnel of the people that were going to be there overnight, so they had a bed for the night and explained to them what to do and where to go during an attack. I also told them where to report within five minutes after an attack.

GSE finally assigned me to the fuel farm where I learned to drive a truck and fuel aircraft and choppers. After four months I was sent to mess cooking for a month.

We were subjected to many rocket attacks during this period. I was only an E3, and if a pilot went down, I went out to the rice paddies to help clean up the mess and pick up aircraft parts.

When a B-52 was hit by a SAM missile and couldn’t make it back to Thailand or Guam, they would land on our base for repairs since we had the only runway long enough for them to land and take off. When B-52s were on base, we knew we would get rockets and mortars as the NVA tried to take out the B-52s. They moved the B-52s approximately every hour so the NVA couldn’t pinpoint the location of the aircraft.

On 8 January 1973, we had a friendly fire incident. About 08:20, five aircraft – one Air Force and 2 Marine F-4’s and 2 A-7’s from the fleet dropped 34, 500-pound bombs on us taking out three fuel tanks at the northwest fuel farm and wounding ten men. I was watching a movie at the enlisted man’s club when this happened. I remember seeing the ceiling drop about 3 feet and then pop back up again in place, there was a loud jet engine roar and then the impacting of the bombs followed by explosions. Running out of the EM club to the bunker I could see the intense fire to the north and could feel the heat from the flames. It burned over seven days.

After the cease-fire was announced many of us had to provide help with the security division in addition to our regular assignment. Prisoner swaps began at this time. We had VC and NVA prisoners returning to Hanoi. They went through the 15th Aerial Port, which was on the other side of the fence from our barracks. We had to guard the perimeter but were not allowed to take photos of the prisoners. There were thousands that went through there in the time we had left in Da Nang.

Coming Home
Because of the Peace Treaty my tour was cut short. I processed out and caught my Freedom Bird. We took off at 12:03 AM on 5 March 1973. About halfway to Japan, we lost a number three engine. We stayed in Japan about 1 1/2 to 2 hours while they fixed it so after repair, replenishment and refuel we were off again. Just past the point of no return, we lost number three engine again, and we diverted to Kobe Alaska for more repairs. After being on the ground for about three hours they announced that they could not repair the number three engine and they would be sending another aircraft from Travis Air Force Base to pick us up, but that plane would be here for five or six hours. The pilots were going to fly the United 707 back to Travis on three engines, and anyone that wanted to go with them on three engines was welcome the go. Every single man reboarded that United 707 for the flight back to Travis. I called my parents, collect of course, at about 02:15 and let them know that I was expected to land a Travis Air Force Base at about 05:00. This was the first news they had that I was coming home. Until that phone call they had no idea when I would be back.

We had an uneventful flight from Alaska. All of our excitement was building the closer to the world we got. At about 05:30 we landed at Travis Air Force Base and to my surprise ushered into customs. That leads me to a funny story. While in customs, someone kept trying to enter the customs area. One and then another and then several customs agents were yelling at the people who were trying to enter through those doors. Finally, one of the customs agents barked “If you open those doors one more time you’ll be arrested.” As it turns out, those people were my mom, dad, sister and four-year-old niece.

My family lived one and a half hours from Travis Air Force Base. The trip home was full of stories of things I missed and how happy they were that I was home safe. They were going to plan a welcome home barbecue for that upcoming Saturday. I could have whatever I wanted for lunch and dinner after we arrived home. At about 9 o’clock my dad left for work, and I was sent to relax after the 21-hour flight. Not! There were hundreds of questions most of which I didn’t answer.

After people got off work and heard that I was home, they started coming over. Everyone said I was different. Now I didn’t know what to think after that, so I kept to myself. As it turned out, they meant that I’d matured and grown up. I wasn’t the same 17-year-old that joined the Navy and went to Vietnam at 18 and back home at 19, then went back to Vietnam at 19 and finally came home at 20 years old.

My family was happy to see me. All the neighbors were also, but they were reserved. As it turned out, I’d changed from before I left for in-country service. I was talkative and outgoing then but upon my return, I was very quiet and reserved. I preferred being away from others. I didn’t realize it at the time.

The first night home I went to a place called Porky’s Pizza where we all hung out. When I got there, I ran into one of my friends, and he asked: “Where you been?” I responded somewhat proudly “I just got back from Vietnam at 05:30 this morning.” The next words out of his mouth were “Did you kill anyone?” I looked down at the ground and said: “Fuck you, Mark, what kind of question is that?” I left and never saw any of my friends from school again. To this day, I don’t want to see any of my classmates. It turned out that I was the only one for my graduating class who was in-country. These people were still hanging out doing the same things they did in high school. They had no idea what I had experienced, seen or felt. They had no respect or knowledge of how many times I had been shelled and had rockets falling. They would never understand how you felt knowing that what you did caused people to lose their lives.

After my conversation with Mark at Porky’s Pizza, I didn’t feel that I had friends in town anymore. If I ran into someone, I went the other way. I did not feel comfortable at all. I struggled for years afterward to try to fit in. I still do sometimes. I was not comfortable at home around people. I am still not comfortable.

I felt numb and unsure. I was happy I was home but was unsure how to act. I jumped or dived for cover at any loud noise. A few times I even yelled, “Down!” I was embarrassed every time I jumped. My mom went to wake me up once, and when I opened my eyes, I didn’t recognize where I was and nearly attacked her. My Mom started keeping a basket of socks outside my bedroom door to wake me. To this day, I still jump awake with a start and closed fist when someone wakes me.

The public was standoffish. I was called baby killer and spit at. There were rude comments. I lived near Berkeley and San Francisco, California where there were many hippies and antiwar protesters. For the most part, I was welcomed but at a distance. I was and still am most comfortable around other veterans. I consider it a brotherhood. But not just veterans but in-country veterans not Vietnam era veterans.

I traded an 18 month early out for my choice of duty station. I chose NAS Alameda, California. I wanted to make the Navy my career. Big mistake. After another 30 days of free leave, I reported to my duty station. All my gear was shipped via a MAC flight and had not arrived as of yet, so I reported for duty in combat fatigues, the only uniform I had. I was informed that the uniform of the day was whites. I was assigned to the galley, what a surprise. I asked to be assigned to the flight line. I had taken the test for CS4 (Commissaryman 3rd Class) and passed but hadn’t been awarded it as of yet. They promptly change my rate to CSSN (Rated Commissary Seaman). Anyway, in the galley, others I worked with saw how easily it was to make me jump and dive for cover. They kept dropping pots and pans and laughed at my reaction. They did it one too many times, and I attacked a guy which cost me my E4 chevrons. At that time, they had no idea what PTSD was. After a few weeks at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, I decided it was time to get out. I asked for and received a 12 month cut in my enlistment

I considered these questions for a few days before answering. My girlfriend Kathleen kept asking me if I was mad. When I dream about the past or remember something or smell something that reminds me of the past I guess I get this “look” and get quiet. I’m not mad, my mind is just drifting back to a bad time. Vietnam is the single most dominating part of my life. It has defined my life and who I am. I know who I am and what I am. I am Johnny Albanese, and I’m not afraid of anything or anyone. Before Vietnam, I was shy and embarrassed easy. Now I speak up my mind. I stand up for myself and others. I am defined not just by the way I was raised but by my life experiences.

After mom passed away, I became somewhat distant from my family. Today I am estranged from my only sibling and rarely speak with my children. I am closer to my girlfriend’s daughter than my own kids. Sad, before Vietnam I was very close to my family. Sometimes they treated me like I was king

Afterward
I became disconnected with my friends the day I got back to the World. Today I have two close friends that I still keep at arm’s length my girlfriend/other half Kathleen and my friend Mario. I have become disconnected with my family for various reasons. I will do about anything for my kids. My sister married a deserter. We didn’t know it at the time, and although he takes good care of her, it is still part of my issue with her. I don’t want her to dump him. I want him to apologize.

When Saigon fell, I had just bought my first house with my first wife and my newborn son. I felt angry that they couldn’t hang on and sad for the people. I thought the deal was that we as a nation would go back and help. President Ford refused them. At that point, I knew that we wasted over 58,000 lives. I was embarrassed for our nation.

I guess I started having problems from the first day I got home. I had changed. People didn’t. Looking back, I guess I didn’t know how to handle what I experienced. I saw the napalm scarred people and the poverty. I had been shot at, mortared, bombed by my own people and had a rocket land yards from me. They were trying to kill me. I was 17 when I joined, served a WESTPAC Tour, an in-country tour and finally came home at the age of 20. Hell, I grew up, matured and became a man in Vietnam. My problem is now called PTSD. It cost me a career. I am mostly sad about that.

I have not gone for help for PTSD although my doctor advised me to. I always felt that if my father could tough it out so could I. My closest golf friend, a Purple Heart veteran, sees it in me and has asked me a few times to go in. I don’t think so. Dad didn’t.

My experiences in Vietnam have defined me and who I am today. Before Nam, I was not always tough and backed down. Today I don’t back down from anything. I discovered how tough I really am. I want to be respected but for some reason, some people are afraid of me. I don’t know why. I try to be friendly and outgoing however to coin a phrase I’m the meanest son of a bitch in the valley. I don’t put up with much. I am only 5’7″ 195 pounds but all tough. Now I don’t back down from a challenge.

After knowing what I know now, I think the war was a waste of lives and money. I learned that Johnson didn’t want to give other countries the impression that the US turned tail and ran from a fight. I’ve learned that it wasn’t our fight. It was only supposed to be advisory troops only.

I do not trust our government. When the war ended, I thought about all the people that worked on the base and what would happen to them. It wouldn’t be good. I also thought about all the employees that saw possible targets and sold the information to the VC. They deserved what they got. It was a beautiful country with good people, but I will never go there again.

As far as Agent Orange goes, so far I seem to be clear the symptoms however I had a heart attack at 52. My right hand has begun to have tremors which is another possible symptom. I may have had a second and third unreported heart attack.