Lee Aldrich says his story is very different than that of many Vietnam veterans.
“I never fired my weapon in Vietnam,” said Aldrich, who was born and raised in Belmond.
After attending Iowa State University in ROTC, Aldrich was commissioned in 1963 as an Army officer with the rank of second lieutenant.
“I didn’t know what would happen; it was the Cold War, not long after Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs,” said Aldrich, 76. “I was sent to Germany first.”
He became a line officer in the 24th Infantry Division in Augsburg, Germany. At the time, troops in Germany were prepared for an altercation with Russia that, in their minds, could happen at any time.
“We were prepared for Russia: my wife had dog tags, my infant son had dog tags and we always had at least a half tank of gas in the car,” Aldrich said. “My wife had to learn to get to Switzerland, just in case.”
He was later sent to Bavaria to conduct military maneuvers in preparation for fighting with the Russians and East Germans.
He and his wife, Lynne, of 53 years, started the Aldrich Christmas Tree Farm near Belmond shortly after he returned to farming because of their time in Bavaria’s Black Forest.
After he was promoted to captain, Aldrich was given orders to attend Vietnamese language school in California and special warfare school.
Aldrich served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967, one year beyond his commitment, to work with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as an agricultural adviser on loan from the Army.
Raised on a farm, Aldrich also had a degree in agricultural education.
He was sent to Ban Me Thuot in the Darlac Province. It was a small city in the Vietnamese highlands where he helped locals learn better farming methods including animal husbandry, fishery, forestry and agronomy.
“I made flights in a Huey helicopter each Friday through Sunday to one of six Special Forces camps to assist their civil affairs officer,” Aldrich said.
The camps were near villages of the Montagnards, indigenous peoples in the highlands.
“They were and are an extremely honorable people,” Aldrich said.
He assisted in growing vegetable gardens, setting up a pig sty and helping fish populations in ponds flourish. At one point Aldrich went to Saigon to barter for silk worm eggs. He gave them to a farmer who had planted mulberry trees, the food silk worms eat.
“After they were grown and had spun cocoons, we sold them to the silk factory in Saigon,” Aldrich said.
Once, a small South Vietnamese detachment escorted Aldrich to a Montagnard village to help improve rice patty irrigation. According to Aldrich, he was the first white man to visit the village.
“My favorite ‘medal’ is the cross bow and darts that the Montagnard chief walked three miles to the airport to give to me on my departure,” Aldrich said. “It was to help ‘keep the monkeys out of my corn’ on my farm back in the U.S.A.”
He attended Operation LZ in Forest City, something he said was an amazing experience.
“Finally, somebody appreciated you,” Aldrich said.