MASON CITY — Retired Major Gen. Gary Wattnem of Mason City says it still bothers him when he hears people say the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam.
Wattnem, who spent 35 years in the military, much of it helping to train young soldiers, served in Vietnam for about a year in 1970 and 1971.
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“I don’t believe we lost the war. We never lost a battle. But politics didn’t see it that way,” he said, shaking his head. “War is just politics by another means.”
Wattnem grew up on a farm in eastern South Dakota and figured he would someday be a farmer himself.
He went to South Dakota State University where he received a bachelor’s degree in economics, but he also got involved in ROTC and received a commission as a second lieutenant in 1969.
That started him on a career that took him a long way from the farm fields of South Dakota.
In Vietnam, he served with the 71st Transportation Batallion at Long Binh.
When he and other soldiers were headed home from war in 1971, they received a directive in which they realized they would not receive a hero’s welcome.
“In the 1960s and early 1970s the country was torn apart at the seams by the war. When we came home, we were told to change into civilian clothes before we left the San Francisco airport,” he said.
Wattnem entered the active reserve in November 1971. He was a company commander in Waterloo, a signal officer in Ames and then was assigned to the 103rd Corps Support Command where he served as communications-electronics officer; executive officer, special troops battalion; plans officer; and movement control officer.
In 1987, he was named commander of the special troops battalion of the 103rd. In September 1993, he was selected chief of staff for the 19th Theater Army Area Command in Des Moines.
In June 1999, he was assigned to the Pentagon as the assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics. He retired in November 2003.
When he looks back on his days in Vietnam, he says, “It was not enjoyable when I was there. But when I look back, I know it sort of shaped me.
“I was watching leaders lead. I saw what it was like to have someone take you under his wing. I saw the value in it. We used to call it raising pups. And one day it was my turn,” he said.
Wattnem has lived in Mason City for more than 40 years and says he couldn’t have had the military career without the support of his wife and family, which includes two grown daughters and five grandchildren.
He also credits the support of his employer, Reichert Technologies, for whom he worked for 34 years before his retirement.
If there is a message he could impart from his days in Vietnam and later leading soldiers, he said it is this:
“Never underestimate the ingenuity of the American GI. If there is a way of getting it done, we’ll do it.”