“How We Survived I’ll Never Know”

Welcome to Veterans Week here at BPS.  Every day I will introduce a fellow Veteran and share his story of military service.

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Keith

While I have known Keith (name changed for anonymity) my entire life, I have never known him as a Vietnam Vet.

 Here is his story:

Hello Keith.  You enlisted in the Army in 1971.  Can you tell me where you were living at the time, how old you were and most importantly, why you joined?

I was drafted in July, 1971 and living in Warren, Michigan.  I was 21 and a newlywed.  My enlistment should have totaled two years but when my recruiter promised a 90-day delay if I enlisted for three years, I agreed.  My recruiter lied however, never giving me the 90-day extension, only garnering himself recruiting credit for my additional year.

Please tell me about your boot camp and training experience.

Boot Camp. Eight weeks of hell. North Carolina. After boot camp I was sent to Fayetteville, Georgia for Military Police Training and then on to Okinawa, Japan for six weeks of Sentry Dog Training.

You deployed to Vietnam in 1972.  Can you tell me exactly where you went?  Do you remember arriving and what it was like?  The weather, the land, the people?

I went to Long Bin.  Upon arriving there were thousands of troops going home after only 18 months’ served. I felt bad. I was made fun of for being “new meat”. It was hot and humid; too humid to move. I worked nights and slept days.  It took two weeks to adjust to the heat.

Long Binh exit. Click for source.

What was your job/assignment?

The dog I trained in Okinawa died of natural causes upon entering Vietnam so I was reassigned to Gate Duty, 12 hours/day, 7 days/week.  A month later I was reassigned again to Convoy Duty on 5 Vietnam Patrol car.  Convoy Duty was escorting supplies and men to different locations. Two-and-a-half ton trucks, usually 5-20 trucks in a convoy.  We also took five armored cars: two in front, one in middle, and two in rear.  If an ambush occurred we would split the convoy and stop and call air support. If needed, we went faster to escape, depended on the situation.

What was the food like?  Did you have plenty of supplies?  How did people entertain themselves?

The food was good at Main Base.  During three-to-four day convoys we ate c-rations which were nasty.  USO clubs had bands and drinks but overall there was not much to do.

C-rations.  Photo by Paul Mashburn

C-rations. Photo by Paul Mashburn

Did you see combat?  Were there many casualties in your unit?

I saw a lot of small fire fights which typically meant that with us traveling at 50mph the fight would last 1-5 minutes.  If any trucks got hit we would stop to pick up personnel.  I also saw a lot of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).  We did have casualties; in five cars with four crew members – 20 total – one got hit.  Another suffered minor injuries but not worth any hospital treatment.

What was the most difficult thing you’ve endured?

While on patrol in an open jeep, driving down the middle of an airstrip, all hell broke out.  Bullets were flying all around us and we had no cover.  The fight lasted 25 minutes.  How we survived I’ll never know.

Another time when we were just four in one armored car, I was in the turret manning the 50 caliber when out of the fields walk 25 guys wearing black pajamas carrying AK47s.  They started alongside the road in our direction and then they just passed us.  We couldn’t figure out who they were or where they came from – the closest thing was a rubber plantation five miles off the highway.  Scared the shit out of us.  One RPG and we would have been dead.  But they just kept walking.

What is the moment of which you are most proud?

Helping the orphans, getting supplies to them.  Most of the these children were GI kids born of Vietnamese women but they were not wanted in Vietnam.

Do you recall the day your service ended?  Where were you?

I was discharged at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  I was given $16 to get home.  A friend who lived near Warren gave me a ride home five days later.

What did you go on to do as a career after the war?

We returned from Vietnam to people hating us; the hippie movement, being called “baby killers”, etc.  Before being drafted I worked as an Auto Mechanic at Kmart so I returned to that job after coming home.  That was the law; they had to hire me back.

It’s been 40 years since your honorable discharge from the Army.  Does your veteran status affect your life today?  How?

I get a little financial aid for Agent Orange exposure.

One night we got sprayed with Agent Orange and our Commander stated “Take a shower and you will be ok”.  I’ve had 30 years’ of skin cancer, diabetes, voice box cancer and terrible nightmares.
U.S. Army Huey helicopter spraying Agent Orange over Vietnamese agricultural land. - via Wikipedia  *WARNING* Disturbing images upon link.

U.S. Army Huey helicopter spraying Agent Orange over Vietnamese agricultural land. – via Wikipedia *WARNING* Graphic images linked.

You are a father and grandfather.  What advice would you give a young person thinking of enlisting in today’s military?

To enlist today, it is an experience you will never forget.  From what I hear from new Vets, it a lot harder now because of being in the Middle East; no booze, no women.  A lot of guys will go nuts.

Thank you Keith for sharing your experiences as a Vietnam Vet.  It is a hard story to read which makes it important to share.  I’m glad you did and I’ll be thinking of you today.

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