ORCHARD — He had flashbacks for years.
“It could be a sound. It could be a smell. It could be a touch. It could be almost anything,” said John Ross of Orchard, recalling the effects of the year he spent in Vietnam.
“Whatever it is will put you back in the war zone. You can’t help it,” said Ross, 65. “I’m over most of it now but I still can’t watch movies about Vietnam and I don’t go to fireworks shows. I can watch them from a distance but I can’t handle the sound.”
Ross was drafted into the Army and was in Vietnam for 364 days in 1970-71. “I was actually there exactly a year — but I lost a day coming back,” he said with a laugh.
During that time, he was shot down twice —once in a helicopter and once in a plane.
“The helicopter was headed into a hot zone when we were hit. I would call it a controlled crash. We hid in a crater and were really pinned down. I kind of knew how Custer felt,” said Ross.
“You’re not really scared. But you do wonder who’s next — and is my number up?”
The incident with the plane came at a time when the company clerk helped Ross make arrangements to get home for a few days to see his girlfriend and future wife, Paula. He flew back into one area of Vietnam and then took another plane to get back with his company.
When that plane left the runway, it was hit by enemy fire when it was about 500 feet off the ground. “We did kind of a half-roll down and landed on another runway. We got out of there safe but it was pretty intense,” said Ross.
He said the experience of being in a war is hard to explain. “It’s like you’re waiting for the school bully to come after you and it can happen when you’re eating, when you’re sleeping, any time. You’re under this stress 24-7,” he said.
Ross said today he often gives talks to school children about his days in Vietnam. “I have to vary it, depending on the age of the kids. But I’m often asked why we were there.
“I tell them about an old man over there who always shook my hand when he saw me. Why did he do that? Because as long as I was there — as long as we were there — the North Vietnamese wouldn’t come down and steal everything he had,” he said.
“And he didn’t have that much — a few things in a little hut. But it was all he had, and we protected it for him.”
Ross said his homecoming back in the U.S. was not pleasant. “When we were flying back, we were to land in Seattle. We were told to get into civilian clothes as soon as we could. If we didn’t have any with us, go buy some, we were told,” said Ross.
It wasn’t long before he found out why. “When I first got back in the U.S., it was bad. If people knew I was a soldier in Vietnam, they were vicious. I was spat on and called a baby killer,” he said.
“Even when I got home to where I lived at that time, Austin, Minnesota, the townspeople weren’t very nice. It got to the point where you didn’t tell anyone you were a vet and it was even difficult getting a job,” he said.
At the urging of Mitchell County Sheriff Greg Beaver, Ross reluctantly went to the Operation LZ reunion last summer in Forest City. “I didn’t want to go but it turned out to be therapeutic,” he said.
When he thinks of his days in Vietnam, many memories come to mind, said Ross, but one in particular stands out.
“Anytime I held a wounded soldier in my arms, they always wanted two things — Mom and God, as in ‘God, please don’t let me die.’”