FOREST CITY — Two weeks past his college registration deadline, Stephen Olmstead received an Army draft letter.
In Oct. 1969 he was a 19-year-old business major. He decided to enlist.
“What options do you have?” he said. “Go to jail. In those days you had to go. You had no choice.”
After basic training in Fort Polk, Louisiana, he switched out of helicopter flight training to air traffic control school, because it was the longest training he could find.
“I was trying to stay out of Vietnam,” he said.
But the orders came anyway to go to Vietnam with the 1st Aviation Brigade.
“I was engaged to be married,” he said. “Three days before I was to come back to Cedar Rapids for (my) wedding. I told my fiancé, ‘you better cancel the wedding.’”
Beginning June 1970, Olmstead spent the next year in Vietnam, originally stationed at Quan Loi near the Cambodian border.
“They took a ... bomb and dropped it and that was our base,” he said.
Nine days in the country, he was wounded by a mortar round in the chin, back and shoulder.
“I was up in the tower,” he said, “That’s where I got hit. (The) mortar came, hit the top of the tree, then it came in.”
“You don’t really feel any pain,” he said. “It hurts later, but at first you don’t feel it.”
He ran down 40 feet of stairs and was knocked down with a concussion from a rocket.
He was transferred to Saigon for his last seven months, and then moved around south Vietnam setting up air traffic control towers.
He returned home, emotionally drained and unsure if he was ready for marriage.
“After a year you don’t know what your feelings were anymore,” he said. “I didn’t know how I had changed. I guess it was a matter of I wasn’t ready then.”
After a ten-day fishing trip with his brother, he married his fiancé, Barb, in July 1971, Olmstead said. They had three children, but divorced about 25 years later.
He remarried his wife, Audrey, about eight years ago.
Over the years, his war experiences were something he tried to bury. Although he helped organize Operation LZ last summer, for many the recognition was “too late,” he said.
“A lot of people, when they came back, we didn’t talk about it,” he said. “I didn’t tell my children about it.”
He felt the draft was a system that allowed the privileged, like sons of politicians, to skip out of military service, he said.
“Nobody understands. Only another veteran understands what it is all about,” he said. “We had no reason to be there.”