Mike Foster remembers it like it was yesterday.
It was 1971 in Vietnam and Foster and others were trying to rescue South Vietnamese soldiers and get them on a helicopter.
“I had my hand on this guy’s stomach trying to keep his guts from falling out and I felt his heart stop beating. He died in my arms,” said Foster, 66, a retired Union Pacific railroad engineer and a graduate of Mason City High School.
“Those experiences stay with you for a long time,” he said.
There are other reminders. “The sound of river water always makes me think of Vietnam,” said Foster. “And the sound of a helicopter — oh, my God.
“When you were over there, when you heard a copter, you always hoped it was coming for you.”
Foster has suffered from prostate cancer and heart disease and he is convinced both are related to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
“Why would we do that?” he said. “There were babies over there who were exposed to that.”
But he dismisses the effects the war had on him. “I’m better off than 58,000 other guys who served over there,” said Foster.
“The Lord has been good to me,” he said, “to help me forget about a lot of this stuff. The Lord and my wife Kathy.”
Foster said when he came home, there wasn’t much time to adjust to civilian life. “I was in Vietnam one day, in San Francisco the next and in Mason City the next. That’s way too soon. There should have been maybe two weeks where we could have settled down a little,” he said.
“I loved the Vietnam people and I loved their country. We sure put a lot of holes in it,” he said.
“South Vietnam people just wanted to be left alone. They had to deal with their government, our government and the Viet Cong.”
Foster was an infantry airborne pathfinder. “I wasn’t really attached to a unit. I was attached to different people. I’d be dropped off somewhere, do my job and then be picked up days later.
“So I didn’t have the camaraderie that others had and that was probably a good thing. The guys you saw killed were not close friends so I suppose you could say it wasn’t as hard on your heart.”
He said when he first was drafted, he volunteered to go to one training school after another. “I tried to do that for my entire tour but didn’t quite make it,” he said.
His first night in Vietnam, he heard enemy rounds “and I thought, it sure would be nice to be back on the farm in Iowa.”
Nearly 50 years later, looking back on his days in Vietnam, Foster has mixed emotions.
“I always believed in stopping Communism and I still do,” he said. “But military operations should be handled by the military and not by a president. It should not be political.”
Another memory from Vietnam: “Every day I thought about food. Food and water. I missed that more than I missed my girlfriend.”