Vietnam veteran shares stories about time in military



Guest column

As I think back on my military experience from 1966 to 1968, it was like a line from a Charles Dickens novel — it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times.

It was the best because I learned discipline, how to follow orders and respect for authority. It was the worst of times because I had to experience some rough ordeals to learn those lessons.

My military experience began when I turned 19 and received a letter telling me that I had been drafted into the U.S. Army. I went to the Jackson County Courthouse and boarded a bus for Indianapolis, where I took an oath to defend and protect the constitution of the United States. Then I got on another bus and rode to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to start my basic training.

While at Fort Knox for eight weeks, I learned a variety of things, such as marching, military discipline, physical training, firing a rifle and how to care for a weapon. During basic, I mostly kept my nose clean, followed orders and performed fairly well. At the end of basic training, I was promoted to E-2 and given an award for tying the range record for accuracy with my rifle.

After basic training, I reported to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for jungle survival training to prepare me for Vietnam. We were there for eight weeks, and I hated every day of it. The temperature pushed 95 to 100 degrees, and the training was brutal.

After my time there, I was given a 30-day leave to go home and spend time with my family. As you might guess, the days flew by, and soon, it was time for me to report to Fort Dix, New Jersey. After processing my paperwork, I boarded a C-130 cargo jet bound for Vietnam.

I left Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, flew to Anchorage, Alaska, then to Japan, on to Manila in the Philippines and finally to Saigon in Vietnam, which is now known as Ho Chin Minh City. The total time of the trip was about 28 hours.

After going through processing, they put me on a helicopter and flew me out to join my combat unit in the field. I was really green when I got there, but the guys helped me catch on quickly. My duties were walking point, using a machete to hack through the jungle while on patrol, dig foxholes, pull guard duty at night and occasionally go on night time ambushes.

I can’t tell you how physically demanding it was. I weighed 130 pounds and was carrying 94 pounds of equipment, the temperature would push 120 degrees and we would experience monsoon rains daily, so we were constantly wet. Then at night, we had to sleep on the jungle floor with the snakes, ants, leaches and mosquitoes crawling around.

In addition to dealing with all of the physical discomforts, I was mentally dealing with other stress, such as, will this be the day that I get shot or step on an explosive that will blow me up? After a couple of months, I found myself mentally and physically exhausted.

Some time later, I began to think that I had things under control. We were in a region known as the Iron Triangle and getting ready to go on patrol. We were riding on armored personal carriers and had dismounted to start into the jungle. My good friend, Robert Keener, and I were talking as we always did, when I heard a loud explosion and the concussion threw me through the air.

When I recovered from being stunned, I was in excruciating pain. I had been hit in the knee and suffered a broken leg. While my leg was throbbing, I looked over and saw that my friend had been hit in the throat. As he bled to death beside me, I learned firsthand how atrocious the realities of war are.

After the medics got to me, they loaded me on a medical evacuation helicopter and flew me to a field hospital. Upon arrival, they operated on my leg to remove the shrapnel. Since my injury involved the bone and the infection rate was so high in Vietnam, they then sent me to a hospital in Tokyo, Japan. One good thing about that was I got some much-needed rest. However, to this day, I still have shrapnel in my leg. I received my first Purple Heart from this wound.

After recuperating from my wounds, they sent me back to my old unit in Vietnam. I went back out into the field, but this time, they assigned me to an M-60 machine gun unit. Things went back to fairly normal, but we did encounter a small group of Viet Cong. During the exchange of fire, I suffered another wound from shrapnel from a hand grenade. For this wound, I received my second Purple Heart.

As I soldiered on, I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and my one-year of duty would be up. But then came the worst day that I experienced in Vietnam. It was a hot July day and my platoon had the lead position. Since I was on the machine gun crew, I was at the rear of the platoon. Suddenly, all heck broke loose. There were multiple explosions and a crescendo of automatic weapons firing such as I had never heard before.

Our platoon had walked into an ambush, and the enemy was in fortified bunkers. Once we got composed, the command came that I was dreading — machine gun up front. As we crawled forward, we had to help pull our dead and wounded back for medical attention. Also at that time, our forward observer was calling in artillery fire so that we could disengage from the enemy. But since we were so close, it sounded as if the shells were going to fall right on top of us.

Finally, after an hour or so of fighting, we took control of the battlefield. After the enemy dispersed, we had to regroup and clear a landing zone so our helicopters could land to resupply us with ammo and lift our dead and wounded out. My faith helped carry me through, but for a small-town boy from Indiana to see such carnage of war, it was all that I could take. I was beginning to wonder if I would see Indiana again.

After that, the commanders decided to pull us out of the field and send us back to base camp for a few weeks of rest. Needless to say, we were all overjoyed.

But things took an unexpected turn of events. Normally, when you are in base camp, it’s a pretty quiet time. It was the middle of the night, and I was asleep on my bunk when a loud explosion went off. A rocket had landed in the middle of our barracks.

At this time, I was carrying a radio for the platoon sergeant that was stored by my bunk. Knowing that the sergeant would need communications if we were attacked, I started running down the company street toward our outer perimeter. As I was running, I saw explosions all around me as the mortars were falling on us. I could hear the shrapnel flying all around me, but none of it hit me.

As I got to the outer perimeter foxhole and started to jump in, a mortar hit nearby. Most of the shrapnel hit my radio, but a few pieces hit my right armpit. I still have those in my chest today and have been told that I should not have a MRI of my chest because of the danger involved in the shrapnel moving and possibly puncturing a vital organ.

After the mortar attack stopped, the medic bandaged me up. This wound seemed so small, but it was the one that almost killed me. I’ll tell you more about that later. I received my third Purple Heart for this wound.

A few days later, we were on patrol in some rice patties, and I was in swamp water up to my neck. It was blistering hot, and I felt terrible. But the Army had taught me how to keep pushing, so I kept telling myself, “Just one more step, just one more step.”

The next thing you know, I passed out. When I came to, I was flying in a medivac helicopter and throwing up. When I got to the field hospital, they determined that my temperature was 105 degrees, and they needed to break my fever. So they stripped off all my clothes, put me in a large canvas bag and packed ice all around me. Eventually, it worked and began lowering my temperature.

Then the doctors started trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Each hospital that I was sent to had a different opinion. One was malaria, one was jungle fever, one was dengue fever, etc. But while they were trying to figure out what was wrong with me, my kidneys shut down, and the whites of my eyes turned red because of so much infection in my body.

Eventually, they decided that I needed to go back to the United States, so they put me on a plane and flew me to Walter Reed hospital in Washington, D.C.

While there, the doctors diagnosed that I had leptospirosis. I remember the doctor telling me that I was only the third G.I. to get it since it was carried by rats. So how did I get it? He figured out that after I got wounded by the mortar fragments and was patrolling in swamp water up to my neck, the water must have been infected by rats.

After a couple of months of recovery at Walter Reed hospital, the doctors decided that I was able to resume active duty. So I reported back to Fort Knox, Kentucky, to finish my two-year tour of duty.

While at Fort Knox for my last six months, I trained recruits, such as myself at one time, to go to Vietnam. I tried not to think about it, but I knew what was waiting for them as I trained them. Not much happened, but I was promoted to Sergeant E-5 just before I got out of the Army.

So that’s a little about my military days, but as we celebrate Veterans Day, what does Veterans Day mean to me?

It means that I believe in your school, I believe in your staff and teachers and most importantly, I believe in you.

In this great country of ours, we have the American dream. There are those that will say that it doesn’t exist, but I still believe in it.

If you have a goal and are willing to put in the work, along with getting an education, you can achieve your dream. Remember, education gives you the ability to change your world.

But while you live in a land that allows you to become educated and pursue your passions, there are those that would like to take that right away from you. For whatever reason, they don’t like our way of life.

And that’s where I’m so thankful for our military, the men and women past and present, who serve diligently to protect our freedoms. It may seem trite to some, but remember, freedom is not free. Some have paid the ultimate price to protect our freedoms, and to that, I will always be eternally grateful.

In one of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s speeches to Congress, he stated that the motto of the American soldier was duty, honor, country. In looking back on my military career, I would like to believe that I met my duty, I performed it with honor and I did it to serve this country that I love.

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