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.

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.

Coming Home
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.

Afterward
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.

“What sickened me was the unconcern for the War”

Sergeant Jim Markson
377th Security Police Squadron, U.S. Air Force

My Father was a World War One Veteran, infantry. He was wounded twice and discharged under general conditions for “Misrepresentation of Age.” He had run away from home, joined the Army at 16. His mother informed the Army about this and he was sent back to Virginia and discharged. I was from a second marriage; my Father was 46 years old when I was born in 1947.

My Uncle Joe on my mother’s side of the family was an infantry officer and was killed outside of Berlin during World War Two. My Uncle Ernie was with the Army Engineers, Uncle Mickey was in the Navy, and my Uncle Frank was in the Army Intelligence in World War Two.

My Uncles never spoke of the war. My Father very briefly. However I’ll never forget one day riding in the car with him, I was 16, it was a freezing morning and I was trying to make the heat come on real fast in the car, which was not going to happen until the car warmed up. He looked at what I was doing and sarcastically said, “When I was your age, I had a bayonet on my side and a rifle in my hands, and I wasn’t shitting in my pants either.”

I enlisted in the Air Force. I had a friend who was a civilian air traffic controller, it was an excellent job and he learned it in the Air Force. After he had been discharged, he went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration. It sounded like a good deal to me.

I failed the eye exam for Air Traffic Controller so they put me in Security Police. I was in tears at the time. I spent my entire four years in the Air Force as a Security Policeman.

After boot camp and Security Police School, I was assigned to a Strategic Air Command base at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It would turn out to be the strictest military environment I would ever experience in my four years in the Air Force. I guarded B-52’s carrying nuclear weapons on 24-hour alert status, day and night. The winters were brutally cold and I would be out on the flight line for 8 hours.

I knew I could not take this for four years and the only way out was to volunteer for Vietnam, which I did and to this day I don’t regret it one bit. I was fortunate only to spend six months in SAC. Many years later I would hear similar stories from other Security Policemen who did multiple tours in Vietnam rather than take a chance and be stationed at a SAC base back in the States.

I arrived in Saigon, Vietnam on 14 March 1967. I went to Vietnam alone, not with any unit as a group. I came home alone. I was assigned to Security Police Squadrons and went where I was needed.

My first base was Phu Cat in Binh Dinh Province. I was only there for one month and then I was reassigned to Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base. I was sent TDY (temporary duty) to Bien Hoa for 30 days; then I returned to Tan Son Nhut until my DEROS (Date Eligible for Return from Overseas, the date we came home) on March 14, 1968. I survived the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Coming Home
The 377th Security Police Squadron had a tradition when it was finally your time to go home. At what is known as Guard mount, the NCOIC would read off the post assignments and any other necessary information before we would go out to our assigned post. The security policeman who was going home would then address the flight with any words of wisdom or goodbye or whatever he wanted to say. It was going to be his last night on post. Then at exactly midnight, not a second after, the SAT (Security Alert Team) would come out to your post with your relief, take you to the armory where you would turn in your rifle forever. You would spend the next three nights alone and unarmed in the barracks, waiting to go home.

I finally made it to Travis Air Force Base outside of San Francisco on March 15, 1968, and the Tet Offensive was still sending shockwaves throughout the United States. I can remember going through Customs, the Agents didn’t check a thing but I do remember very clearly one agent gave us a big, “Welcome Home, Boys” as he just waved us through to the World.

I was determined to travel straight through to New York, no matter how many stops we made all over the Pacific, nor how long I had to wait at the airport for a flight. There would be no checking into a hotel for the night. I had only one thing on my mind ….HOME.

I can clearly remember landing in the early morning hours at New York City’s JFK airport. It was Sunday, a typical March morning, sunny and cold. I was purposely wearing my summer dress uniform and sporting my Vietnam tan. The airport was not busy and it was easy getting a taxi. The cab driver was an older, heavy-set, grisly kind of a guy and I could see him checking me out in the rearview mirror. Finally, he spoke to me, “Where you comin from man”? Vietnam, I replied. “You a lucky sumna a bitch.” New York, Ya gotta luv it.

I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. I had the cab driver let me out on the corner and I walked home and slowly let myself in as I had the key to our house. My folks didn’t know when I was coming, I wanted it to be a surprise. I saw my Father with his back to me just as he was leaving his bedroom, headed for the bathroom.

“Dad,” he turned and looked at me and yelled back into his bedroom, “Mother, Jimmy’s home.” I can re-live that moment as if it is happening right now. Then in my Father’s inimitable way, he said to me “Why didn’t you tell us you were coming home, there’s nothing to eat in the house.” That would be the day; we were fortunate to have always eaten well, and today would be no different.

I wasn’t spat on or treated poorly. People that knew me well gave me a big smile and were glad to see I made it home safe. Others were not so kind and for the most part uninterested and I was just ignored. After maybe one or two forced questions of concern, no one really cared. I had two more years to serve in the Air Force and after my leave I would be going to Holland. There was a mistake on my reporting date. I was originally going to take six weeks leave in Brooklyn but they made a mistake and I was supposed to report back in four. But I felt so sickened in my hometown that I cut my leave short after three weeks.

What sickened me was the unconcern for the War, no one was paying any attention and could care less that I had just returned. I could not relate to my friends who had not served, they just had no clue to what it was like and lost interest very fast in what I had to say, so I stopped saying anything except to friends that had been in Vietnam. We kept it very private amongst ourselves and when a non-vet friend would walk in on our conversation we would quickly dummy up and change the subject. My Mother was in tears when I left but I just couldn’t take it here anymore.

Afterward
I did not feel disconnected with my family. They were great. I come from a family with a large veteran involvement, World War One, and Two.

My friends were another story. It didn’t take me long to find out that I could not discuss Vietnam with them at all. When I was with a friend that also returned from Vietnam we would kind of look around before we spoke about Vietnam to see if any civilians were within earshot. Imagine; we had to kind of keep it a secret, we didn’t want anyone to know we were Vietnam veterans. Sad.

April 30th, 1975, the day Saigon fell. I remember that day vividly. And it has affected me for the rest of my life. I was living in Miami Florida at the time. The Miami Dolphins were all the talk of the town and they had won a game of some sort. People came out in the streets, set off fireworks and drove through the streets blowing their horns. I was home April 30th, 1975 and heard briefly that the war in Vietnam was officially over! I went outside to listen and see what kind of a reaction there would be to this. There was absolutely nothing! To this day, I look at all the emphasis and adulation given to sports figures with scorn. Since when did being able to catch a ball or run fast equate with moral integrity and role models for our youth. Something is wrong with this picture, and more and more I can’t stand professional sports of any kind.

My problems followed me from Vietnam to this very day. The biggest hurdle was to seek out help from the Veterans Administration, which I did not do until 2007. This was after the suicides of 2 neighborhood friends, who I was most fortunate enough to be stationed with for a month in Bien Hoa in 1967. I was diagnosed with PTSD in December 2007, 39 years after I left Vietnam. It is an insidious situation; there is no ”cure”, yet you can learn why you do the things that you do and be aware of what is going on.

Agent Orange issues? The jury is still out on that. Maybe, maybe not. Nothing specific at this time.

Looking back, 45 years, I can now say I have NEVER been prouder to be a Vietnam Veteran, I have a Vietnam Veterans of America license plate on my car and I kind of look down on that 99%, that never served.

In my travels, I meet a lot of people and always try to strike up a conversation when I come across a stranger who looks like he or she may have been in the military. This kind of sums it up as to how I feel now. If I meet a guy, and he tells me he was an Army Chopper pilot, of course, my immediate response is “Vietnam?” He says, “No I was lucky, I went to Germany.”

“Lucky” I don’t know about that. I believe that other Vietnam vets and I truly know the meaning of that word. We are the “Lucky” ones who have returned home alive, who witnessed the unfairness and horror of life in a war zone, survived and have weathered the ridicule, harassment, and disdain of our own countrymen, with a dignity and honor that no other generation of Veterans has ever displayed. And to finally be treated with the respect we so sorely deserve 50 years later!

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.