HAMPTON | When he received his notice to sign up for the draft, Jim Zacharias chose not to fight the inevitable — he joined the Army.
Just weeks out of high school in 1965, he took a bus to Des Moines to sign his service papers without telling his parents. He made a phone call home that night.
"I told my mom I won't be home for dinner," he said.
The Globe Gazette will publish 50 stories — starting on Veterans Day — about North Iowa’s Vietnam Veterans. The stories will appear on Sundays…
Six weeks of basic training and specialty training as a vehicle mechanic did not prepare him for Vietnam.
Although he did not see much combat, his experience at war has been a defining experience of his life.
It is a mission he continues today as a Franklin County commander in the American Legion.
When he landed onshore in Vietnam at 18, he didn't know what to expect. He picked the mechanic's job over the infantry figuring it would be a better change to avoid constant combat.
Stationed at Cam Ranh Base, he moved through different military occupations while completing his year tour of duty.
With tracers constantly in the night sky, he never really felt safe. The pressure and uncertainty of being in a war zone hardened him later in life.
"A little harder than I wanted to be," he said.
Danger was ever-present with Vietcong fighters dressing as and blending in with the population.
"You didn't know what you looked for each day over there," he said.
Vietnam taught him "how to be a man in a real big hurry," he said. "You knew if you didn't grow up at that point, you wouldn't have made it back."
Returning home in October 1967, he grew to view Vietnam as a lost cause.
"I felt like what we did was done in vain," he said. "It was a political war, not really a war to gain anything with."
He was offered a signing bonus to re-enlist, but turned it down, figuring he would go right back to Vietnam.
He eventually worked 18.5 years at Viking Pump in Cedar Falls.
The financial security of the military eventually called. Hoping to put in 20 years of service, he re-enlisted in the Army reserves in 1974.
He made it until 1977 when a back injury severely limited the weight he could support to no more than 5 pounds.
His return home from war was quiet, a painful reminder of the homecoming Vietnam veterans still have not properly received, he said.
People who dodged the draft and fled to Canada "got more of a welcome than we did," he said.
Despite his reservations about the conflict, he is still proud of serving his country.
"My country asked me to do a job and I did," he said. "I wasn't chicken enough to run."