The number of casualties from Mason City when Dennis Withers joined the Army was around 5 or 6, he said.
“I knew them all and most had been personal friends,” said Withers, who now divides his time between Mason City and Cañon City, Colorado.
Withers thinks the loss of his friends was his motivator to join the Army. He said the patriotism for him didn’t really come until he was serving.
He joined the Army in November 1968, the same year he graduated from Mason City High School.
He took basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and Fort Knox, Kentucky.
In the service, Withers would mention that he was from Iowa. He often heard the response, “Oh, where they grow the potatoes.”
“My comment back would be, ‘No, that’s a little further northwest; we grow corn so the rest of the world can eat,’” Withers said.
Withers went to Vietnam in June 1969 with the 1st Infantry Division’s scout platoon, a mechanized infantry with armored personnel carriers.
He refers to the second day he spent with the platoon as a “day of wonder.”
“At the end of that day and night, I no longer wondered what it would be like to be fired at by the enemy or could I fire back and hit the target,” Withers said.
He didn’t have to wonder if blood and bodies would bother him. Withers saw a lot though his 24 months in Vietnam.
“What you did in combat was to keep you and your buddies alive. You were working on a bond that would always be there,” he said.
The importance of the senses in combat are a part of what sticks with veterans that others can’t fully understand, Withers said.
“The sights and sounds of combat have been reproduced by movie makers over the years and are becoming, with the help of technology, very realistic,” Withers said. But the smell, taste and feel cannot be reproduced.
“You do your best with what you’ve got and face the mission head on,” he said. “I can remember several times when the guys were complaining about the wet, cold dampness in the jungle rainy season.”
He mentioned several times to his friends that he would give anything to be back in a 10-below-zero day in North Iowa.
“You’re not going to be able to go to war, be in combat and come back unchanged,” Withers said. “That’s the nature of the beast.”
He returned to Mason City after his combat tour.
Today, Withers lives with his wife, Kim, in Cañon City, Colorado. He has a picture frame with his medals in it — several Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.
Withers took an interest in veterans coming home with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and the psychology involved. He wrote an article, “Reflections of a Veteran and Advice on Becoming One,” for Fremont County, Colorado’s War Memorial Park website.
“It took about 30 years for the first reunion of our platoon; now, we meet every year,” Withers said. “You were on the ground with these guys so there’s a lot of camaraderie.”
For him, reunion events and talking about the service are healing.
“I would recommend that to anybody who’s been in combat,” he said.
He attended Operation LZ in Forest City last summer, and said that event made him feel truly welcomed home.