MASON CITY — David Tvedt’s memories were so painful when he returned from Vietnam in 1967 that he felt the only way to cope was to set his service pictures and clothes on fire.
For decades after that he deliberately buried all memories of the time he spent there as a 20-year-old artillery gunner.
But traumatic memories flooded back after a brush with death during emergency surgery for a bacterial lung infection in 2004.
“Just matter of a few days, all hell broke lose,” he said. “All those nightmares and everything else just came out with a vengeance.”
His journey to Vietnam began at age 19, living in Garner, when he was drafted.
His plan had been to enlist in the Marines in November 1965, as his older brother had done. But when he received an Army draft letter one month before that date he chose to go into that branch, because it only had a two-year service commitment instead of four.
After basic and specialty training in Army intelligence at Fort Leonard Wood, he spent November 1966 to September 1967 in the 7th Battalion, 8th Field Artillery just northeast of Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam.
“When you’ve got big guns like that you don’t see anything up close,” he said of most of his combat experience. “Positions would be called in and our guys would shoot.”
One of his worst memories was watching a friend, also from Iowa, die after stepping on a landmine.
“You couldn’t even tell it was a human body,” Tvedt said. “The dirt was so embedded. We sat there and watched him die. His body was devastated with shrapnel and stuff.”
When he returned to Iowa, he said, he made every effort to forget about his experiences.
A year or two after he returned he decided fire was the best way to deal with his memories of the war.
“I destroyed all my clothes, destroyed everything,” he said. “Pictures ... that all went in the burning pile. Shoes, socks, anything I had that was military issue.”
Tvedt married his wife, Kay, in 1968. They had three children prior to her death in 1983.
He said his pain from Vietnam memories decreased as he buried them further and further in his mind, but his health trauma brought it all back.
“Since 2004 I haven’t been able to heal,” he said.
As a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, he said he wanted to go to Operation LZ last summer to hear retired Marine Lt. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, a former commanding general of Marine Forces Europe and Marine Corps Forces Command and a fellow hometown native.
“I always thought the world of him,” Tvedt said. He was “a little Garner, Iowa, farm boy made good.”
The event was the first time Tvedt felt he spent time with other Vietnam veterans without solely talking about the stress of their war experiences.
“It was a good time,” he said.