BRITT | The sights and sounds of war still haunt Bob Steenlage 50 years after serving in Vietnam.
But it’s getting better.
“It did not take away all the (post-traumatic stress disorder), but it took away a lot of the torment,” he said.
In January, Steenlage, 74, a 1962 Britt High School graduate and Iowa's first four-time state wrestling champion, returned to Vietnam with four of his sons for a two-week trip.
The trip featured visits to Pleiku, Kontum and Dak To, where he served between 1967 and 1968 with the 4th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army.
The trip, he said, proved to be a much-needed healing experience.
“Before I went there, I couldn’t talk about it,” he said.
Growing up, Steenlage had no intention of serving in the military because of a strained relationship with his father, who served in World War II and returned with “bad battle fatigue” and struggled with alcoholism.
“I didn’t want to go through what my dad went through,” he said.
But Steenlage, the first in his family to attend college, was being looked at by scouts from West Point Military Academy, and after a brief visit to the academy, he decided to go without giving much thought to what he’d be doing upon graduation.
During his time at West Point, Steenlage wrestled for four years and became a Division I NCAA All-American. When he graduated from West Point and airborne and ranger schools in 1966, he had a four-year obligation to serve in the U.S. Army.
He was in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.
Steenlage, who completed his military service as a company commander, was assigned to the signal corps before he was transferred to patrol after the Tet Offensive began on Jan. 30, 1968, because of his West Point background, and that’s when things got dangerous.
Steenlage recalls almost getting killed twice during the war. Those experiences, as well as the “horrible things” he witnessed on patrol and learned of what the U.S. troops were doing to villagers once he returned, caused his PTSD.
You have free articles remaining.
“I started feeling guilty for what the United States did to them,” he said.
And like his father, he, too, struggled to connect with his two oldest sons when he returned from the war because of the guilt — something he’d carry for decades as he and his wife of 50-plus years, Bobbi, raised their five sons and three daughters.
In recent years with the growing instability in the world with IS and the “dishonesty of the government,” Steenlage, who now lives in Galesville, Wisconsin, said he started having regular nightmares, so he began checking in with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That’s what prompted a trip to Vietnam after his children had spent five years trying to coax him into returning to southeast Asia.
“That was huge,” Steenlage said. “I’m a changed person.”
During the trip, which was from Jan. 3 to 16, Steenlage and his sons started in Hanoi and traveled south to Ho Chi Minh City, known as Saigon during the war, where they encountered many relatives and friends of former North Vietnamese Army soldiers he — and many other American soldiers — fought against during the war. Many of whom, he said, also suffered from PTSD and were struggling to cope.
“What I found out is they are not blaming me, the soldier. They’re blaming their government and our government,” Steenlage said. “They want to be friends, and that took away … some of my torment.”
They Served with Honor: Chuck Machin, Alta Vista
ALTA VISTA — Engineering skills came in handy for a 1957 Osage High School graduate while he was stationed in Vietnam.
Chuck Machin, Alta Vista, enlisted and first served in the Air Force from 1958 to 1962, later working as a foreman in an Osage body shop for a few years.
“I didn’t have no money to buy the place, so that’s when I decided to go back to the Air Force,” said Machin, 77, who re-enlisted and served from 1965 to 1969.
While in the Air Force, Machin attended six different schools, learning to repair aircraft with sheet metal and to X-ray planes to find internal cracks.
He had no combat training when he was deployed to Vietnam in 1965 at age 26.
Although Marines could fix aircraft in a neighboring hangar with an M16 slung across their back, Machin said he wasn’t allowed to have a weapon due to his lack of training.
“When I got there, they took our rifles away,” he said. “I didn’t have a rifle or pistol the whole year there, no protection.”
Machin worked on planes within a guarded perimeter in Da Nang, the central part of the country. Since he had to “start over” when he re-enlisted, he often worked on big jobs, which meant a number of second shifts.
While their compound was supposed to be guarded, Machin said they were overrun by the enemy one time.
“I had bullets flying by me,” he said.
He was often in downtown Da Nang riding around in trucks, something he said wouldn’t have been safe near the end of war. “They would have shot you in a minute,” he said.
Skilled in plumbing and carpentry, Machin transformed his tent into deluxe accommodations, making a screened-in porch, floor, sidewalls and picnic table. He also had electricity, but since the wattage was different the light from bulbs was dim.
“I was kind of an engineer,” he said.
A handmade sign on the entrance read, “Home sweet home.”
But sometimes it wasn’t so sweet, sleeping close to the flight line.
“The young lieutenants would take off straight up, causing a sonic boom,” Machin said. “It was terribly noisy.”
He was also responsible for installing plumbing in a building that went up and he made a couple of inventions — a motor-operated sled ejection system and an apparatus to keep hands from getting burned while using flares at night.
Machin, who was married at the time with a family, was paid $3,000 — about $23,000 in today’s dollars — for his year in Vietnam. He fixed bicycles as a side job and used some of his earnings to buy equipment to shoot photos and video.
He also got to see a couple of celebrities — Roy Rogers and Dale Evans — in a USO show while in Vietnam, and was able to see Bob Hope from a distance.
He laments the fact that he missed an opportunity to talk with John Wayne by just a couple of minutes.
As he repaired bullet holes on aircraft, Machin was exposed to Agent Orange, which he said was stored in huge tanks inside the planes.
“It soaked into my shoes,” he said. “They didn’t wash the aircraft, so you had to watch your step because it was slippery.”
Machin has since had health problems he believes are related to Agent Orange exposure. He also struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, which he says “comes and goes.”
“My opinion of PTSD, it is real and it will get you,” he said.
After he returned home from Vietnam — to “not one person shaking your hand, no party, no parades” — he built an auto body shop in Topeka, Kansas.
Machin, who says he struggled in school and had trouble reading, has since owned five businesses and has been a plumber for 58 years. He is also a classic car enthusiast.
Proud to wear his newly-acquired Vietnam veteran cap, Machin has kept track of everyone who’s thanked him for his service — 30 people to date, he says.
They Served with Honor: Mark Smith, Buffalo Center
OLIVE BRANCH, Mississippi — A Buffalo Center native who served in Vietnam and Iraq has spent 31 years in the armed forces as a Marine and soldier.
In 1966, Mark Smith had the choice of taking a site test or enlisting in the Marines.
“With all the wisdom of an 18-year-old, I joined the Marines,” said Smith, who was attending Mason City Junior College at the time.
He enlisted with two others from Buffalo Center — Jerome Jensen and Walt Calhoun, who were his roommates and classmates at the junior college.
They went through boot camp together and were in Vietnam at the same time with different units in close proximity, but never saw each other.
Smith, who worked in general supply, was sent to northern Vietnam’s An Hoa Combat Base later that year. As a supply runner he saw a fair amount of action, especially July 4, 1967.
“The bad guys decided to make that a special holiday,” Smith said. “They provided all the fireworks.”
After completing his two-year enlistment, Smith returned to college as an education major, later teaching in Iowa for 20 years.
During that time, he sought to join the Marine Corps Reserve, but ended up in the Army Reserve as there wasn’t a Marine unit available.
In 1996 Smith was asked to enlist full-time in the Army. As a former Marine, he says, soldiers looked up to him.
Smith was deployed to Iraq for a year in 2004, working in counterintelligence. While he said he can’t talk much about what he did in the Middle East, he worked briefly at the Abu Ghraib prison, assisting interrogators with information they received.
He was later moved to Baghdad, where he says he lived in a tent and worked as an analyst in a palace — one of many formerly owned by Saddam Hussein.
Smith found combat situations in Vietnam and Iraq to be similar.
“We had a lot of trouble with booby traps along the road in Vietnam,” he said. “In Iraq, it was the same thing, but they were much more powerful and sophisticated.”
He struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after Vietnam, which was reignited in Iraq.
“I had come to grips with Vietnam’s demons but Iraq opened that can of worms again,” he said. “I had two to deal with but I got help. I was encouraged to get help.”
The experience returning home was “day and night.”
“When you came back from Vietnam, you didn’t tell anyone you were there other than family and close friends,” Smith said. “When I came back from Iraq, there were people at airports applauding and welcoming people home.”
He retired in 2008 after 29 years in the Army, 12 of which were active duty. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Olive Branch, Mississippi, a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee.
He feels it was an honor to serve his country.
“Without hesitation, I’d do that again,” Smith said. “I miss it — the military is like a close-knit community.”
They Served with Honor: Jim Marlow, Charles City
CHARLES CITY | A Charles City Marine seriously injured in Vietnam says fear helped keep him alive.
“Some guys got so lax with what they were doing and ran into problems,” said Jim Marlow, 66. “Staying on my guard helped me survive.”
Marlow, a Tama native, was 17 when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in Mason City in 1967.
“This may sound corny, but I wanted to be the best,” he said of choosing the branch.
Marlow was sent to Vietnam’s demilitarized zone in 1968 to provide motor transportation services. He ended up being in the country for 24 months.
“As a young kid over there, I hated it,” he said. “When they told me I would have to do two tours, I hated it even more.”
Marlow had a variety of responsibilities, He worked on a gun line; hauled ammunition, beer and food; and backed up door gunners on helicopters.
“I enjoyed every one of them,” he said.
Marlow sustained two life-threatening injuries while in southeast Asia. He lost a leg to an anti-tank mine and took a shell fragment to the chest.
After 18 months in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, Marlow was honorably discharged in November 1970.
He then tried to put his life back together. Marlow married a woman he had been dating before the war, but they soon divorced.
“When I came home, I wasn’t the person she had fallen in love with,” he said.
He moved to Charles City, marrying his current wife, Connie, in 1970. Marlow held a number of jobs — truck driving, roofing, working in a management office and managing the Charles Theatre.
He says he still has trouble coping with loud noises, especially thunder.
“It just bothers the heck out of me because I saw a significant amount of combat while I was there,” he said.
Operation LZ in Forest City last summer was a healing experience, he said.
Marlow has also been part of the Marine Corps League for about 20 years, currently serving a co-coordinator for Floyd County for the League’s North Iowa Detachment No. 859.
“Being around former Marines, it helps with processing,” he said.
The League, which is for Marine Corps veterans, supports injured Marines, youth programs and Toys for Tots and assists with veterans benefits.
They Served With Honor: Jerry Kelley, Nora Springs
NORA SPRINGS — Army Staff Sgt. Jerry Kelley’s fiancee met him at the airport with a change of civilian clothes when he flew home from Vietnam in 1969.
Kelley, of Nora Springs, changed in the airport bathroom, threw his Army uniform in the garbage and walked out the door.
At the time he would never have imagined going back to Vietnam, but five years ago that’s exactly what he did.
He’s been there every year since.
“I always wanted to go back, because I thought it was … I liked the country myself,” Kelley explained. “A lot of these guys are like, ‘What the hell’s wrong with that guy?’ But, I had the opportunity to go back.”
Drafted into the Army in 1967, Kelley did basic training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Advanced training was in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
He went to non-commissioned officer school and arrived in South Vietnam in August 1968 as a sergeant in B Troop in the 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Americal Division.
A commander of an armored personnel carrier, Kelley rode on top of the vehicle issuing commands to the driver and two gunners as they rolled along wood lines and through the rice paddies.
They had some close calls as they went on search-and-destroy missions based out of Firebase Hawk Hill near Tam Ky, Vietnam.
His carrier hit two land mines and was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG.
Although the land mines were not direct hits, each triggered blasts that blew Kelley off the vehicle and the carrier off its track.
The RPG didn’t detonate, but left a fist-sized dent next to the Snoopy decal on the side of the personnel carrier.
“We didn’t know it was a dud until the next morning (when) it was laying on the ground,” Kelley said. “We were real fortunate nobody got killed.”
Kelley was injured later that night.
“The same night that that RPG rocket hit us, all this artillery was coming at us – rockets coming at us,” Kelley said. “Most of us got shrapnel in several places.”
He was eventually transferred to headquarters troop, whose commander oversaw the activities of the A, B and C troops. Kelley’s responsibilities at headquarters included keeping an eye on the Chinese man who served as the unit’s interpreter.
That could be an adventure.
“He could speak difference languages so they needed him,” Kelley said. “So, when he went to town, I had to go with him at night, too. I was scared.”
When asked to participate in the Globe’s series, Kelley wasn’t sure whether he wanted to share his story.
He eventually decided it was something he wanted to do. His wife, Connie, who met him at the airport in 1969, sat in on the interview.
Kelley figures that a lot of people probably don’t know he is a Vietnam veteran. It’s not something he’s talked about much, even to his sons.
“There’s a lot of veterans out there that people don’t know are Vietnam veterans,” Kelley said.
Many were recognized for the first time at Operation LZ, a large welcome-back event for Vietnam veterans held last year in Forest City.
Kelley’s convinced there’s more.
He hopes they’ll be able to step forward and get recognition for their service.
They Served With Honor: J.O. Benson, Mason City
MASON CITY — When J.O. Benson was on a plane approaching Vietnam, where he was to serve in the infantry, he looked down and saw explosions on the ground.
The Mason City resident remembers thinking, “Whoa, this is for real.”
Serving in the Vietnam War was “quite a life-changing event,” said Benson, now 71.
Benson, who is originally from a small town in Minnesota, was drafted into the Army in 1968 after graduating from Winona State University with a degree in business administration.
He said the draft board told his father, “We are just waiting for him to graduate.”
He was sent to Vietnam in May 1969 as part of a rifle platoon. He was a sergeant and second in command under a lieutenant.
“It made you grow up in a hurry,” he said. “You are responsible for guys’ lives.”
Benson said the most difficult part was “keeping everybody alert and aware.”
They would be inserted by helicopter into an area and left there for five to seven days. They did patrols during the day and ambushes during the night.
He said it was stressful but “you grew accustomed to it.”
Benson said the members of the platoon didn’t know each other at the beginning but became close as time went on. He said some of his friends were killed and others were injured.
He said he is glad there were no accidental shootings in his platoon.
“You are always worried about that,” he said.
He said some of the others had the following saying written on their helmets: “When I die I know I’m going to heaven because I’ve spent my time in hell.”
They fought mosquitoes, leeches and red ants. Benson came back with a staph infection in both feet because “we were always wet.”
A lot of the men developed skin issues, he said.
Benson was in Vietnam for 10½ months. He was sent home when President Richard Nixon began drawing down troops.
“I was elated,” he said.
After coming home he began working for Briggs Transportation in Minneapolis. In 1973 he moved to Mason City to become a Briggs terminal manager. He later served as manager of Fast Food Merchandisers.
In 1994 he developed a hearing problem that led to his retirement.
He and his wife, Gwen, have been married for 47 years. They have two children and four grandchildren.
Until recently “I didn’t talk about my experiences (in Vietnam) much,” he said.
Benson said a lot of people aren’t even aware he served there.
“The They Served With Honor” series in the Globe Gazette on Vietnam veterans “made me think a lot about that period of time,” he said.
Attending Operation LZ in Forest City with his friend Bob Kolbet also made him reflect on Vietnam.
“It was a hell of an experience,” he said. “I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
They Served with Honor: Larry Kearney, Forest City
FOREST CITY — Larry Kearney had worked at Winnebago Industries for less than a year when he received an Army draft letter.
It was March 1969. At 19, he figured it was his excuse to exit from the company.
Even if he came back from Vietnam, he figured he would find another job. Any career he might have had there was over before it had a chance to begin.
“Head of personnel came to me and said, ‘Sign this leave of absence form,’” said Kearney, 66.
“And I did,” he said. “I was a smart-ass kid and I thought, ‘I’ll never come back here.’”
But he went back to work upon his return. And, 45 years later, as head of maintenance, he is Winnebago’s longest tenured employee.
Rather than fight an inevitable path to Vietnam, he reported for basic training 13 days later in Fort Polk, Louisiana.
He said, “Let’s suck this up.”
At Fort Polk he trained for artillery, which became obsolete the moment he went to Vietnam in March 1970.
“They handed me a rifle and put me in the bush,” he said.
As part of the First Cavalry Division, he was stationed near Song Be by the Cambodian border.
“I’m in infantry,” he said. “I did not have that much training in maps and compasses.
“That was on-the-job training,” he said. “I was out of my realm at that time, but a couple of the other sergeants helped.
“You learn quick,” he said.
He celebrated his 21 birthday expecting guard duty.
“I turned 21 in the bush,” he said. A few buddies slipped him a few beers and worked his patrol shift that night.
“That was nice of them,” he said. “I would have done that for them, too.”
In July, he was less than three miles from a fire base in Vietnam near the Cambodian border when his patrol came under attack.
“We were in a bad spot,” he said. “A rocket came in and I think most of the energy got absorbed in the hill.”
The force of the blast “knocked me out,” he said. “I was peaceful and a few seconds later, I wasn’t.”
Bullets were flying over his head.
“I’m looking just above my head. It looked like ants above my head,” he said. “I grabbed my radio buddy and we slid down the hill.”
He was wounded with shrapnel in the chest and later received medals including a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
“I was the last one on that medevac chopper,” he said. “I ended up in the helicopter and I was the least hurt of anyone.”
“If you are a veteran and you have been in combat, war changes you,” he said. “After that, I decided I wasn’t going to be close to anybody.
“I tried to stay upbeat. I don’t dwell on the things the have happened. You want to reflect on it and put it aside and get busy again,” he said.
Vietnam by the numbers — Iowa
115,000 Iowans served in all branches of military during the Vietnam War years, 1964 to 1973.
Their average age was 19.
Most were in Vietnam for at least one year.
Of those 115,000, 869 were killed in action, 56 of whom were from North Iowa. Their names are inscribed on the Iowa Vietnam War Monument, which was dedicated in 1984 on state capitol grounds.
Five Iowans were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their bravery.
The Iowa Legislature officially thanked Vietnam veterans for their service in 2005, 30 years after the war ended.
They Served With Honor: Patrick Mackin, Osage
OSAGE — Patrick Mackin of Osage never stepped onto Vietnam soil. Instead, he spent his three Vietnam deployments on the U.S.S. Long Beach, a nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser.
“I had a different veteran’s experience,” Mackin said. “I didn’t lay in the jungles and get shot at.”
Mackin, 68, graduated from Osage High School in 1966 and was appointed to the Naval Academy in Annapolis that year. He graduated in 1970, then was accepted into the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program.
He was then assigned to the Long Beach to help operate the plants.
“Work days on a ship are very long because there’s a lot to keep functioning. They’re like a small city,” Mackin said. “I’d say we generally put in 16-hour days.”
His primary job was to ensure that the ship had propulsion and he was responsible for the electrical division.
“When I started I was a lieutenant junior grade, O2, and when I left the ship I was a lieutenant which is O3,” Mackin said.
The Long Beach monitored the Gulf of Tonkin, providing radar support and assisting damaged aircraft.
His first deployment lasted eight months, the second six months and the final deployment was scheduled to last six months.
“Halfway through that last deployment I was transferred off the ship to another assignment,” Mackin said. “I was off the coast the whole time.”
The ship monitored aircraft over Vietnam.
“We had missiles on our ship that were capable of engaging the enemy aircraft and on two occasions I remember, we actually fired missiles at North Vietnamese aircraft that was threatening returning aircraft and the ships we were with,” Mackin said.
Mackin did not see too much action during his service but he remembers those few times as tense. The whole ship is informed of the possible dangerous encounter, he said.
“You might save or not save the life of one of our pilots or our ship itself could be attacked,” Mackin said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The long hauls at sea made him miss civilian life, he said. “Go out with friends, go somewhere in your car, play sports, just those kinds of things.”
Adjustment back to civilian life was quick for Mackin, just a few days.
“You looked forward to getting back home,” he said.
Mackin spent 20 years in the Navy before retiring in 1990.
“The Vietnam War really did divide our country and various people have their strong opinions on whether that was something we should have done or not, but I would say those fighting the war were doing their duty,” Mackin said. “They are certainly not accountable for whether or not our country did the right thing or not.”
Mackin said he believes that the United States has learned important lessons from the war and has seen decisions over the years where the country has learned from that history and times where it has forgotten the past.
After living in California for a while and later San Antonio, Mackin came back to Osage with his wife three years ago.
They Served With Honor: Randy DeBour, Latimer
LATIMER — Randy DeBour of Latimer still has a small notebook he used during the Vietnam War.
The notebook has words such as “hammer,” “nail” and “cement” written in English, with the Vietnamese translation written beside them.
The 67-year-old Latimer resident, who was a U.S. Navy Seabee, used this notebook while serving as part of a mobile advisory team that traveled between six coastal bases in South Vietnam.
They worked with the Vietnamese on construction projects. They would show the Vietnamese how to do things and advised them while they did the work.
“Our job was to teach the Vietnamese to take care of themselves,” DeBour said.
DeBour served as the electrician for the four-person team, which also included a builder, a plumber and a chief petty officer who was in charge of the group.
“Some of our biggest difficulties were from Mother Nature,” he said, recalling the time they sat through a typhoon.
Then there were the mines, some of which would float.
Language barriers were another difficulty, he said.
He spent some time learning Vietnamese before starting work with the team, but he mostly picked up words as he went along.
DeBour, who grew up in Latimer and graduated from CAL High School in 1966, enlisted in the Navy in 1968.
He served in Vietnam from 1971 to 1972.
Compared to others who went to Vietnam, “I was kind of a latecomer,” he said.
After he returned to Iowa in 1972, DeBour moved to Des Moines to learn more about the electrical business. He returned to Latimer in 1979 and now has his own business, DeBour Electric Inc.
He and his wife, Sue, have been married almost 46 years. They have three children and five grandchildren.
DeBour said he is glad to have served in Vietnam.
“It enlightens all those who went about a lot of different conditions,” he said.
DeBour said he did have a problem with those who protested the war.
“Things weren’t exactly like they think they were,” he said.
They Served With Honor: Jerry Knoll, Mason City
MASON CITY — Jerry Knoll of Mason City vividly recalls the difficult conversation with his best friend’s mother in 1971.
It was in the kitchen of her home in Horton, Kansas. A photo of her son — Knoll’s friend and fallen soldier Danny Petersen — was hanging on the wall with medals he earned in Vietnam.
Petersen, in Knoll’s unit, was killed in a firefight on Jan. 9, 1970, in Tay Ninh Province. He would later be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Knoll, there with his wife, Barb, tried to answer as many questions from Petersen’s mother as he could.
It would be the last time he talked about Vietnam for decades.
“I wouldn’t talk about this to my kids,” Knoll, 67, said recently. “My kids, they, I don’t think they realized I was in Vietnam until somebody asked me one day and I admitted it.”
He was drafted into the Army shortly after graduating from North Iowa Area Community College in 1968.
Basic training was in Fort Polk, Louisiana. He landed in Vietnam in August 1969.
Knoll drove an armored personnel carrier for Company B, 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division. The unit worked an area west of what was then Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.
A few firefights from the approximately one year he spent in the country are burned into Knoll’s mind.
He remembers the day he drove down a stretch of road that hadn’t been swept for mines. They never did that, not without clearing the road first, but did it that day because another unit was getting hit by enemy fire.
Tension filled the air as Knoll’s vehicle safely rolled slowly through a big puddle filled with water. But the crew’s relief was shattered when a mine blast blew the next vehicle that rolled through that spot into the air and upside down.
Knoll can’t remember the day his friend, Petersen, was killed. Normally they rode in the same vehicle, but were separated because a platoon sergeant needed a replacement driver.
“I’ve forgotten so much,” Knoll said. “I’ve wiped a large portion of this out of my mind. For years.”
He figures part of it was his mind coping with the trauma. The hostile reception that greeted soldiers returning from Vietnam had a lot to do with why he never talked about it, Knoll said.
That reluctance began to fade in recent years. The breakthrough came at a reunion with soldiers in his unit last year.
They met in Kansas.
Knoll and his former unit-members traded stories and photos for hours, in many cases talking about things they hadn’t shared with anyone.
A few units of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a VFW auxiliary, local law-enforcement and 38 members of Petersen’s family attended.
“It really helped, I think, all of us, that week we were there together and were able to renew our friendships again and talk about our families and what you did for a living,” he said. “And, obviously we got to know Danny’s family very well.”
Knoll and two other men had the honor of putting flowers on Petersen’s grave during a prayer service at a country cemetery near Horton.
“That was really special,” Knoll said. “We’re all brothers. I’ve got a bigger family now than I ever had before.”
They Served With Honor: Gary Wattnem
MASON CITY — Retired Major Gen. Gary Wattnem of Mason City says it still bothers him when he hears people say the U.S. lost the war in Vietnam.
Wattnem, who spent 35 years in the military, much of it helping to train young soldiers, served in Vietnam for about a year in 1970 and 1971.
“I don’t believe we lost the war. We never lost a battle. But politics didn’t see it that way,” he said, shaking his head. “War is just politics by another means.”
Wattnem grew up on a farm in eastern South Dakota and figured he would someday be a farmer himself.
He went to South Dakota State University where he received a bachelor’s degree in economics, but he also got involved in ROTC and received a commission as a second lieutenant in 1969.
That started him on a career that took him a long way from the farm fields of South Dakota.
In Vietnam, he served with the 71st Transportation Batallion at Long Binh.
When he and other soldiers were headed home from war in 1971, they received a directive in which they realized they would not receive a hero’s welcome.
“In the 1960s and early 1970s the country was torn apart at the seams by the war. When we came home, we were told to change into civilian clothes before we left the San Francisco airport,” he said.
Wattnem entered the active reserve in November 1971. He was a company commander in Waterloo, a signal officer in Ames and then was assigned to the 103rd Corps Support Command where he served as communications-electronics officer; executive officer, special troops battalion; plans officer; and movement control officer.
In 1987, he was named commander of the special troops battalion of the 103rd. In September 1993, he was selected chief of staff for the 19th Theater Army Area Command in Des Moines.
In June 1999, he was assigned to the Pentagon as the assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics. He retired in November 2003.
When he looks back on his days in Vietnam, he says, “It was not enjoyable when I was there. But when I look back, I know it sort of shaped me.
“I was watching leaders lead. I saw what it was like to have someone take you under his wing. I saw the value in it. We used to call it raising pups. And one day it was my turn,” he said.
Wattnem has lived in Mason City for more than 40 years and says he couldn’t have had the military career without the support of his wife and family, which includes two grown daughters and five grandchildren.
He also credits the support of his employer, Reichert Technologies, for whom he worked for 34 years before his retirement.
If there is a message he could impart from his days in Vietnam and later leading soldiers, he said it is this:
“Never underestimate the ingenuity of the American GI. If there is a way of getting it done, we’ll do it.”
They Served With Honor: David Frederick, Mason City
MASON CITY — Two years ago, David Frederick was relaxing at a fishing camp when someone set off a cherry bomb outside.
“I hit the deck,” he said, an instinctive reaction to the sounds of war 46 years ago that have stayed with him for all the decades since.
“I hate the sound of loud noises,” said Frederick, a pharmacist who worked at both Easter’s and Drugtown before his retirement.
Another thing that was an after-affect from the war — prostate cancer, the result of Agent Orange being sprayed on and around the waters he patrolled in the Navy. From that he has fully recovered.
In looking back on his days in Vietnam, Frederick prefers to focus on the people he met, the Vietnamese who were innocent victims. “All that they wanted was to carry on their lives in peace,” he said.
One image that stays with him is that of an old man with gray hair and a long gray beard, a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, fishing from what the U.S. military referred to as a “junk” — a dilapidated boat typical of what many of the Vietnamese lived in.
“I think of that nice man and all that he wanted was to continue the peaceful life he had been leading,” said Frederick.
A native of Garner, Frederick graduated from Garner High School and North Iowa Area Community College. He joined the Naval Reserve in Mason City and went to Vietnam in 1969 after undergoing SERE training (survival, evasion, resistance, escape). “It is week-long training for going into a war zone,” he said.
He spent his entire tour at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. One of the first people he met upon his arrival was Louie Schmidt, who lived across the street from him in Garner.
Frederick was assigned to harbor patrol, which was involved with protecting the airport, hospital and the waters of the bay.
They were responsible for checking the junk boats as they came in to make sure there were no arms or supplies for the enemy Viet Cong on board.
“We were like the highway patrol,” said Frederick. “We went on board with our guns. The people were scared. They had to show their IDs. We always took candy with us to give to the kids. Most of the people there were your best allies. They meant no harm.”
Nighttime duty was the most dangerous, said Frederick. “We would go on patrol and throw grenades into the water to scare off the enemy. They had swimmers who were armed with grenades. It was scary at times.
“One time we were sent upriver and got caught in a crossfire. There was definitely friendly fire you had to be aware of,” he said.
Another time, a sniper had been firing for about a week at Frederick and those on patrol with him. They were given the go-ahead to go ashore and find him.
“I was having eye trouble at the time and it was dark, making it even more difficult to see. I had my M79 grenade launcher with me and it was my best friend. It was deadly accurate and had the range of three football fields,” said Frederick.
“We spotted the sniper and shot him. I don’t know who killed him and I’m glad I don’t.”
He would prefer to think about the old man fishing and the children who got the candy he passed out.
“My hope is they were able to return to the life they once had,” he said.
They Served with Honor: Dick Parcher, Rockford
ELKHORN, Neb. — Former North Iowan Dick Parcher served in Vietnam for only a little over two months, but 47 years later he bears the scars and the memories of one fateful day.
June 10, 1969 — the day he was shot.
Parcher, 72, now of Elkhorn, Nebraska, grew up in Rockford and graduated from Rockford High School in 1962. He studied forestry at Iowa State University where he was in the ROTC program. After graduating he went into the Army.
Parcher went to Vietnam on March 23, 1969, as a helicopter pilot, flying what he calls “ash and trash” missions — “supplying the grunts on the ground with whatever they needed — food, ammunition, transports, that sort of thing.”
June 10 started out as a normal day with not much happening. After lunch, he was sent on a mission as co-pilot on another routine “ash and trash” mission into a remote area.
As the helicopter approached, he and the pilot both noticed their destination had an extremely small landing zone.
“We tried to get into it but started taking the tops of trees off with our blades,” said Parcher. “We pulled back and tried to set down again. We were about 10 feet from the ground when a sniper fired off one shot and hit me in the arm,” he said.
“The bullet went all the way through my arm. We got out of there. I was going into shock,” said Parcher, who was 25 at the time and had a wife and child back home.
They flew to a first aid station for immediate help. Then Parcher was flown to Da Nang for further treatment and then home.
The bullet damaged the nerve in his left hand and resulted in Parcher having permanent limited use of his left thumb.
But, he said, he is ambidextrous, and that helps him compensate for his injury.
“When I was a kid, I was predominantly left-handed and my dad didn’t like it,” said Parcher. “So I had to learn to do things right-handed and even today I am able to do many things with either hand.”
He hasn’t had any other lasting effects but admits to looking up in the air anytime he hears the sound of a helicopter such as the ones hospitals use.
When he got out of the service, he went back to Iowa State on the GI Bill and got a degree in horticulture.
Now retired, he held several jobs over the years, including ones in forestry, horticulture and landscaping.
One day he got a special package in the mail from the pilot he was with on the day he was shot in Vietnam.
The gift was the bullet that had gone through his arm and lodged in padding on the helicopter.
Is it framed or in a display case in his home, he was asked.
“No,” Parcher said with a laugh. “It’s in a drawer somewhere.”
They Served With Honor: Ron Richtsmeier, Hampton
Retired Army Lt. Col. Ron Richtsmeier, a native of Hampton, was shot down in July 1966 while flying a helicopter gunship near the tri-border area of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
“You don’t have time to be scared,” Richtsmeier, 74, who now lives in San Antonio, recalled in a phone interview with the Globe Gazette.
The helicopter fell through 200 feet of jungle before hitting the ground so hard that his seat was torn off its mounts.
He had a concussion but was able to get the crew out of the aircraft, except for the co-pilot, whose legs were trapped.
They knew they were 18 miles from a Special Forces camp. Ricthsmieier tried to lead the way there, but he was so disoriented that he went in the wrong direction.
He said if an Air Force helicopter hadn’t rescued them, they would have kept going into Laos and probably never have been heard from again.
After coming out of surgery the next morning at the hospital at Pleiku Air Base, he woke up and saw his future wife — Judie Dexter, now retired Col. Judie Richtsmeier — sitting beside him, asking him how he was doing.
Judie was the Army nurse assigned to care for him. The first thing she did was give him a shot because after the crash he and the other crew members drank from a stream the hospital staff knew was contaminated with Agent Orange.
Ron later learned the rest of the crew also survived the crash despite serious injuries.
Ron and Judie got to know each other well in the six weeks Ron was grounded because of his concussion. They got married in August 1967 and will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year.
Ron enlisted in the Army in 1960 at age 19. He trained as a paratrooper, but then decided he wanted to be a pilot instead.
In September 1965 he learned he was going to Vietnam as an aviator. He was assigned to the 119th Assault Helicopter Company based at Camp Holloway, which was a 20-minute flight from Plei Me.
He arrived in November. Two days later he was flying Huey gunships in support of "mop-op" operations following the LZ X-Ray battle. That battle was depicted in the movie “We Were Soldiers.”
Richtsmeier continued flying gunships almost every day until he was shot down eight months later.
After being stationed in Germany following the crash, he was sent back to Vietnam in October 1969. He was the chief of flight standards for the 101st Airborne Division for six months and then was given command of a Cobra helicopter gunship company based in Hue Phu Bai.
He left Vietnam after flying 868 combat missions. He received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Purple Heart and many other commendations.
Ricthsmeier retired from the Army in 1981 but kept flying as a Boeing 737 jetliner pilot for Southwest Airlines. He is now retired from that job as well.
He said the second time he was sent to Vietnam he was reluctant to go because he had become disenchanted with how the war was being fought.
“They weren’t letting us do what we needed to do,” he said.
But he is proud to have served.
“I would do it again,” he said.
They Served With Honor: Jim Cleveland, Forest City
FOREST CITY — Jim Cleveland was working as a carpenter in Boulder, Colorado, when he received an Army draft notice from Winnebago County. It was April 1965.
“I was kind of expecting it,” he said, reflecting 51 years later. “You just gotta take it for what it is. It is your responsibility. You just have to do it.”
At 21, he found himself headed to Vietnam within the year.
As a helicopter flight engineer assigned to the 147th Aviation Company, he was responsible for its maintenance and flight operations as his Chinook transport helicopter hauled troops, artillery, ammunition, fuel and American troops and Vietnamese evacuees around the country.
When he arrived in Saigon, then Vung Tau base in Easter 1966, “the war was really escalating,” he said. “In fact, that was what we were doing, help move new units into the country.”
Every time they flew they were vulnerable to enemy fire, he said.
“Sometimes in the morning you get on the aircraft and you wonder if it’s going to be the last time,” he said.
He was back at the base about halfway through his one-year tour when another Chinook helicopter landed with a hole blown out of its side.
“We were coming off the flight line one day and one Chinook got damaged so we went to see what had happened,” he said.
“These guys on the gun crew thought they would copy the Vietnamese troops and pull the pins out of their grenades and put rubber bands on them,” he said somberly. “They got up in the air and one of the guys got the handle of his grenade caught on the webbing on the seat.”
The grenade exploded mid-air not far from the Vung Tau base. Two were killed and others grievously wounded.
“That was all over foolishness,” Cleveland said.
The crew managed to fly the helicopter back to the base despite its damaged condition, saving several lives.
“They could have just set down where they were and had someone rescue them. But, there would have been more died,” Cleveland said. “How some people think there’s football heroes and baseball heroes — that’s the real heroes.”
Cleveland and some of the crew members cleaned the helicopter out after it returned.
“Quite a mess,” he said tearfully.
Now 71, Cleveland married and later divorced after his return from Vietnam. He has two children and four grandchildren.
Reflecting on his service, Vietnam “probably made me a little harder to get along with people,” he said. “There was just things that you didn’t talk about to anyone.
“There was no homecoming. People would shun you, ignore you. Look down their nose at you like you were some kind of a creep or something,” he said.
“A lot of people say the war was a waste, but I can’t totally agree with that,” he said. “My idea was that we were there fighting communism, but there hasn’t been any spread of communism since then.”
“It was a lot of work in Vietnam. We were busy all the time,” he said. “Us draftees just sort of took it as it came and did our jobs.”
They Served With Honor: Jim Eggers, Fertile
FERTILE — Jim Eggers spent his first night in Vietnam crouched on a rooftop in Saigon.
It was February 1968, the second month of the infamous Tet Offensive.
Not exactly what Eggers had in mind when he became a Navy firefighter.
“I spent the night on a rooftop behind a pile of sandbags with an M-14 rifle with orders to shoot anything that moved out there and my thought was, ‘How in the hell did a sailor get in a place like this?’,” the 67-year-old Eggers said recently, laughing at the memory.
Fortunately, it was only temporary.
Eggers, who now lives in Fertile, was assigned to the USS Colleton, a ship with the Mobile Riverine Force. Also called the APB-36, the ship patrolled the massive Mekong River from the ocean to near the Cambodian border. It provided medical care and gun support for the Army’s 9th Infantry division.
As a firefighter, Eggers was busiest when helicopters brought dead and wounded to the ship’s hospital.
“If there was a crash or anything like that we made sure we’d try to do the rescue and put out the fire,” he said. “We had a few of them — they never really caught fire but they were so shot up they kind of crash-landed.”
It could get very intense on deck.
“There were some battles where as soon as you got one landed (and) got the people off, there’d be one right behind it waiting to come in,” Eggers said. “Then you’d unload the dead and the wounded out of that one and another one would come right behind it.”
Always on the move, the Colleton was constantly trying to avoid enemy fire and mine blasts. At dark it would move to a new area to anchor for the night.
“During the night we would let out our anchor chain, so that’d move us 100 yards this way, and then they’d take (the slack) back up,” Eggers explained. “Every so often they’d run the engines and it would suck the (enemy) divers up through the propellers.”
One of the flotilla’s support ships, the USS Westchester County, was hit by a mine blast on Nov. 1, 1968.
Eggers was sleeping in the Colleton at the time.
“You could feel the arch,” he said. “The whole ship raised up out of the water and came down again.”
Supplies and artillery brought in by the Westchester County and other supply ships were loaded onto a barge towed behind the Colleton.
The barges also had another purpose — recreation.
Alcohol was banned on Navy vessels, but barges were not Navy vessels, which meant sailors could grill out, watch movies and have few beers on the barge.
The crew also passed time playing football on deck.
“It was more of a brawl than a football game, but we only had one football and if it went over the side into the river we’d turn the boat around and go get it,” Eggers said, chuckling.
Eggers spent a year in Vietnam and then worked as a firefighting instructor for a year and half on Guam. He also spent time traveling the Pacific on a repair ship, the USS Jason, and spent two more months on a ship offshore of Vietnam in 1971.
The Navy was a good experience, Eggers said, but he remains disappointed how the United States left the South Vietnamese in the lurch when it left Vietnam.
He sees a lot of similarities in the ways American forces pulled out of Vietnam and, much later, in Iraq.
“At the end (the South Vietnamese) didn’t have money for fuel, they didn’t have money for ammunition, because Congress cut off all the funding,” Eggers said. “And that’s why they couldn’t fight back on their own.”
They Served With Honor: Ed Buchanan, Clear Lake
CLEAR LAKE | Ed Buchanan spent 11 months in the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia.
It was difficult to comprehend at the time. Forty-six years later, it's almost hard to believe it was real.
"I can remember sitting in the jungle just as clear as it was yesterday, with leeches crawling on me, thinking this has got to be a bad dream," said Buchanan, now of Clear Lake "This is all gonna be over and it's going to be like it never happened."
A Marshalltown native, Buchanan was a specialist fourth class in the 1/12th Bravo Company, First Cavalry Division air mobile.
Drafted in March 1969, he enlisted after he got his notice. The theory was those who enlisted were treated better than those who were drafted, although Buchanan said he never noticed a difference.
Basic training was in Fort Polk near Leesville, Louisiana. Buchanan stayed at the sweltering base in southern Louisiana for much of the hot, humid summer in order to complete advanced infantry training.
"Honestly, the climate was worse than Vietnam, I thought," he said, laughing.
The flight into Vietnam was a terrifying experience.
"The only time I was really, really scared was flying in that first night into Vietnam, because I didn't know if they'd been shooting at us when we were getting out of the plane," Buchanan said. "I didn't know what was going to go on."
Those moments of trepidation before landing were worse than his duties of patrolling the jungle.
Buchanan was sent on missions with 12-14 other soldiers. They'd be dropped off and told to be at a predetermined location by a certain day.
Although based in the city of Bien Hoa, Buchanan spent most of his time west of there in the jungle along the Vietnam-Cambodian border.
"When I walked point I wasn't really scared, because all of your senses have to be on high alert so you can't really be scared," he said.
The goal was to get home. Going slow and paying attention helped get him there.
"I have to be here for a year and I'm going to stay alive for a year and I'm going to go home," Buchanan remembered telling himself. "I'm not in a hurry to get anyplace other than home."
He and his fellow soldiers saw some strange things.
Leeches as big as a man's finger. Communist propaganda stapled to trees.
Once they found a North Vietnamese flag hung in the middle of a patch of jungle they'd recently patrolled.
Then there was the tiger.
Although he'd heard tigers roamed the jungle, Buchanan had never seen one.
That changed when one of the elusive animals hit a mine tripwire strung around the American campsite and was killed by the blast.
"Our company commander wanted the hide so we butchered it and we said, well, let's eat it," Buchanan said. "It was wild-tasting. A little stringy."
He still has a faded picture of the tiger, it's hindquarters damaged by the mine blast, lying at the soldiers' feet while they skinned it the next morning.
He was in Vietnam from Dec. 5, 1969, to Nov. 11, 1970.
Overall, Buchanan considers it a good experience. He doesn't want everyone to have to go to war, but believes everybody should serve at least two years in the military.
And, he doesn't hold anything against the North Vietnamese soldiers or Viet Cong communist fighters.
They didn't want to go to war any more than he did. And Buchanan just wanted to do what he was told, get home and get on with his life.
"I just wanted to go home," he said.
They Served With Honor: Stephen Olmstead, Forest City
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.”
They Served with Honor: David Tvedt, Mason City
MASON CITY — David Tvedt’s memories were so painful when he returned from Vietnam in 1967 that he felt the only way to cope was to set his service pictures and clothes on fire.
For decades after that he deliberately buried all memories of the time he spent there as a 20-year-old artillery gunner.
But traumatic memories flooded back after a brush with death during emergency surgery for a bacterial lung infection in 2004.
“Just matter of a few days, all hell broke lose,” he said. “All those nightmares and everything else just came out with a vengeance.”
His journey to Vietnam began at age 19, living in Garner, when he was drafted.
His plan had been to enlist in the Marines in November 1965, as his older brother had done. But when he received an Army draft letter one month before that date he chose to go into that branch, because it only had a two-year service commitment instead of four.
After basic and specialty training in Army intelligence at Fort Leonard Wood, he spent November 1966 to September 1967 in the 7th Battalion, 8th Field Artillery just northeast of Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam.
“When you’ve got big guns like that you don’t see anything up close,” he said of most of his combat experience. “Positions would be called in and our guys would shoot.”
One of his worst memories was watching a friend, also from Iowa, die after stepping on a landmine.
“You couldn’t even tell it was a human body,” Tvedt said. “The dirt was so embedded. We sat there and watched him die. His body was devastated with shrapnel and stuff.”
When he returned to Iowa, he said, he made every effort to forget about his experiences.
A year or two after he returned he decided fire was the best way to deal with his memories of the war.
“I destroyed all my clothes, destroyed everything,” he said. “Pictures ... that all went in the burning pile. Shoes, socks, anything I had that was military issue.”
Tvedt married his wife, Kay, in 1968. They had three children prior to her death in 1983.
He said his pain from Vietnam memories decreased as he buried them further and further in his mind, but his health trauma brought it all back.
“Since 2004 I haven’t been able to heal,” he said.
As a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, he said he wanted to go to Operation LZ last summer to hear retired Marine Lt. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, a former commanding general of Marine Forces Europe and Marine Corps Forces Command and a fellow hometown native.
“I always thought the world of him,” Tvedt said. He was “a little Garner, Iowa, farm boy made good.”
The event was the first time Tvedt felt he spent time with other Vietnam veterans without solely talking about the stress of their war experiences.
“It was a good time,” he said.
They Served with Honor: Lee Aldrich, Belmond
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.
They Served With Honor
They Served with Honor: Alan Ebert, Mason City
Alan Ebert never planned on being in the Marines.
The 1968 Mason City graduate was drafted by the Army after one semester at North Iowa Area Community College.
He was getting ready to fly from Des Moines to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, when Marine officers approached.
Two Marines who had enlisted had been hurt in a car crash, so they wanted Army soldiers to take their places.
Ebert was one of the soldiers who switched.
“They just wrote a big ‘MC’ across my papers and sent me back in for processing and that was how it started,” said Ebert.
Much to his parents’ confusion, Ebert was flown to Marine Corps Recruit Depot south of Camp Pendleton, California, instead of Missouri.
He landed in Da Nang, Vietnam, in July 1970, with the 1st Marine Division. A quick reaction force, Ebert’s unit would be sent in when additional support was needed.
They worked an area from Da Nang to the Laotian border, clashing with the Viet Cong communist fighters as well as the larger, more disciplined units from the North Vietnamese Army.
It got bloody, and there are sights and smells that are with Ebert to this day.
Ebert, who now lives near Denver, knows his personality was affected.
“My ex-wife told me I have the emotions of a rock. And I know that,” Ebert said. “Because nothing excites me any more.”
He believes it stems from the intensity of combat compared to everyday life.
“You spend a year in those situations and they say that the experience is so overwhelmingly intense that it just puts your mind in a place where it just takes a higher level (of stimulation), and you don’t get that stimulation on a daily basis, so lots of times you just feel numb,” he explained.
Ebert is proud to have served in Vietnam, but doesn’t think the end result justified the sacrifices people made.
So many people died, but the effort didn’t improve the lives of people in Vietnam, he said.
“To me it was just a waste of lives for politicians to, you know, play their games,” he said. “When we were over there our hands were tied in so many situations by politics.”
He and the other members of his unit were there to do what the government told them to do. For that reason, Ebert doesn’t harbor any animosity toward the Vietnamese.
“Those soldiers were put in the same situations we were,” he said.
Even though he’s proud to have done his part, Ebert wouldn’t want to do it again.
“A lot of people say they wouldn’t trade that experience for a million dollars, but I wouldn’t give a nickel to do it again,” he said.
They Served With Honor: Mavis Schmidt, Northwood
NORTHWOOD — After Mavis “May” Schmidt graduated from Lake Mills High School in 1962, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps because she wanted more education and an opportunity to see the world.
“I made a pretty good run at it,” said Schmidt, who now lives in Northwood.
She served in Vietnam for three years. She was a secretary/stenographer/receptionist for Gen. Creighton Abrams, who was first deputy commander and then commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).
One of her tasks was typing top-secret messages.
She met movie stars touring with the USO, as well as ambassadors and TV news broadcasters. But it wasn’t all glamorous.
She said Americans in Vietnam were in danger of being bombed or shot at everywhere they went.
On Jan. 30, 1968, the beginning of the Tet Offensive, Schmidt was at a hotel in downtown Saigon with some friends. That night the Viet Cong tried to take over the city. Schmidt and the others heard machine guns firing and explosions all night long.
She said she and two GIs decided to leave the hotel and go back to MACV headquarters, which was just a few miles away.
As they were driving through a dark alley, an MP on the roof of a nearby building yelled at the top of his lungs, “Get the (bleep) out of here!” Schmidt recalled.
As they took off, they heard automatic weapons firing right behind them.
“We were scared to death,” Schmidt said.
When they got to the Third Field Hospital there were 13 dead bodies hanging on the wire. Schmidt said they were members of the VC who were trying to get into the hospital and were killed by American MPs.
When Schmidt and the GIs got back to headquarters, they found out no one else had been able to make it in.
Schmidt watched two Cobra helicopters dive-bomb the VC.
“I’ll never forget the sound,” she said.
Before being transferred to MACV headquarters, Schmidt was at Long Binh Post for eight months.
When Schmidt first joined the Army, she played the trombone in the Women’s Army Corps Band in Alabama. The band toured the country and played at places like Cape Canaveral.
Then she worked as a clerk/typist for Army Chief of Staff Harold K. Johnson at the Pentagon, as well as Abrams, who was vice chief of staff at that time.
“I just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” she said.
She remained in the Army for a time after returning from Vietnam.
After she was honorably discharged from the Army in 1974, Schmidt went to Colorado. She attended college and worked as a geologist in the oil fields in Wyoming.
She returned to Iowa to raise her daughter. Schmidt now has two grandchildren.
Schmidt said she feels lucky compared to all those who were killed in Vietnam. She said she doesn’t think they lost their lives in vain because the cause was just.
Schmidt is writing a book about her experiences.
“I never guessed I would do all this,” she said.
They Served with Honor: Steve Lane, Latimer
LATIMER — When Steve Lane dropped a single college class at Westmar University, it put him on a path to Vietnam.
In 1969, with more than half a million soldiers already in the country, he figured the draft board wouldn’t notice he was one credit short of the 12 required to keep his full-time college exemption.
“Well, they did,” he said.
At 20, faced with an Army draft letter, he decided to join the service.
“Everyone that enlisted at that time, you knew you were going to Vietnam,” he said.
In early 1969 he took the bus down to Fort Polk, Louisiana, for basic and advanced training. By late April he was an armored vehicle driver in Vietnam.
He spent 15 months there, first as a driver with the First Infantry Division, then as a helicopter gunner.
When he first became a helicopter gunner he was told the average life expectancy was 19 days, he said.
Near the end of his 12-month tour, the Army made an offer: If he stayed in Vietnam three more months he could leave the service outright. He accepted.
Once back home in 1970, he briefly returned to college, got married in 1971, had kids and farmed for about a decade until the 1980s farm crisis pushed him back to school. He became a history teacher then school superintendent, now at CAL in Latimer.
When a special education teacher asked if her fifth-grade students could write to him as if he were still a soldier in Vietnam, he dutifully responded to their handwritten letters telling stories from his time on the battlefield.
Lane said he couldn’t know for sure if he had killed anyone, but spoke of the anguish of war and how he was dismayed when he found pictures of families in the wallets of dead Vietnamese soldiers.
“Kids need to understand that war is not fascinating,” he said.
Looking back after nearly half a century, “you wonder how necessary it was,” he said. “By 1975, when the North Vietnamese took over, it was all for a lost cause.”
Coming home, he said, he was fine with folks not knowing he was a Vietnam veteran, simply choosing not to wear it as a central part of his identity.
But the solitary nature of how soldiers went and returned made it difficult to cope at times with his combat experiences.
“I went to a couple of parties right away when I came home and I guess my friends were just happy to see me,” he said. “I think they knew we didn’t want to talk about it, so nobody asked.”
While he was in Vietnam, writing gave him a different way to bond with his now deceased father, Joe, a reserved man who drove a truck in the Army Air Corps during World War II in France.
“He wasn’t emotional. I don’t remember in my lifetime he ever said, ‘I love you,’” he said, “but, he did a few times in those letters.
“That time, I did get a hug out of him,” Lane said when he returned home. “He said, ‘I’m glad to have you home all in one piece.’”
They Served with Honor: Dennis Withers, Mason City
The number of casualties from Mason City when Dennis Withers joined the Army was around 5 or 6, he said.
“I knew them all and most had been personal friends,” said Withers, who now divides his time between Mason City and Cañon City, Colorado.
Withers thinks the loss of his friends was his motivator to join the Army. He said the patriotism for him didn’t really come until he was serving.
He joined the Army in November 1968, the same year he graduated from Mason City High School.
He took basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and Fort Knox, Kentucky.
In the service, Withers would mention that he was from Iowa. He often heard the response, “Oh, where they grow the potatoes.”
“My comment back would be, ‘No, that’s a little further northwest; we grow corn so the rest of the world can eat,’” Withers said.
Withers went to Vietnam in June 1969 with the 1st Infantry Division’s scout platoon, a mechanized infantry with armored personnel carriers.
He refers to the second day he spent with the platoon as a “day of wonder.”
“At the end of that day and night, I no longer wondered what it would be like to be fired at by the enemy or could I fire back and hit the target,” Withers said.
He didn’t have to wonder if blood and bodies would bother him. Withers saw a lot though his 24 months in Vietnam.
“What you did in combat was to keep you and your buddies alive. You were working on a bond that would always be there,” he said.
The importance of the senses in combat are a part of what sticks with veterans that others can’t fully understand, Withers said.
“The sights and sounds of combat have been reproduced by movie makers over the years and are becoming, with the help of technology, very realistic,” Withers said. But the smell, taste and feel cannot be reproduced.
“You do your best with what you’ve got and face the mission head on,” he said. “I can remember several times when the guys were complaining about the wet, cold dampness in the jungle rainy season.”
He mentioned several times to his friends that he would give anything to be back in a 10-below-zero day in North Iowa.
“You’re not going to be able to go to war, be in combat and come back unchanged,” Withers said. “That’s the nature of the beast.”
He returned to Mason City after his combat tour.
Today, Withers lives with his wife, Kim, in Cañon City, Colorado. He has a picture frame with his medals in it — several Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.
Withers took an interest in veterans coming home with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) and the psychology involved. He wrote an article, “Reflections of a Veteran and Advice on Becoming One,” for Fremont County, Colorado’s War Memorial Park website.
“It took about 30 years for the first reunion of our platoon; now, we meet every year,” Withers said. “You were on the ground with these guys so there’s a lot of camaraderie.”
For him, reunion events and talking about the service are healing.
“I would recommend that to anybody who’s been in combat,” he said.
He attended Operation LZ in Forest City last summer, and said that event made him feel truly welcomed home.
They Served with Honor: Rod Tripp, Garner
GARNER — A year after graduating Charles City High School, Rod Tripp found himself on perimeter guard duty 10 miles from the DMZ in Vietnam.
A member of the Army motor pool, he was armed with a rifle, grenade launcher and other weapons, but it was a lonely, solitary duty.
“They put you out in the middle of nowhere, just you and your sleeping bag,” said Tripp, now 68. “You’re on, like, four hours, off two hours, back on for four.
“Rain or shine. Lots of rain.”
Tripp, now in Garner, had joined the Army after losing his welding job to a large layoff.
He figured he might as well get it over with.
Basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas, was followed by track vehicle mechanical training in Huachuca, Arizona.
He and his unit, the 108th Artillery Group, met up in Fort Riley, Kansas, and then took a troop ship from Oakland, California, to Da Nang, Vietnam.
Then it was up the river to the post in Dong Ha, an area about 10 miles from the Demilitarized Zone, separating North Vietnam and South Vietnam territories.
Tripp’s pictures of Dong Ha show a barren, almost prairie-like place.
“We had to build our own compound, make our own living quarters, build bunkers,” he said. “I pulled perimeter guard for like the first three months and there was no foxholes or bunkers or anything at the time.”
Troops lived in plywood buildings called hooches. They were protected from incoming artillery fire by bunkers, which were about half the size of a metal shipping container and buried into the ground with sand bags thrown on top.
Tripp and other soldiers ran to the bunkers at the first sign of incoming artillery rounds. It often happened at night.
“You didn’t have to wait for an explosion. You could tell when a round went over your hooch, and you automatically jumped up and ran to your bunker,” he said.
Tripp’s unit was tasked with tracing back the incoming fire to its source. They sent this information to other American units in the area, which would fire at the now-known enemy locations.
“Our company would figure out where they had shot and how far the round had traveled,” he said. “And, then we would give commands to the other outpost artillery to start firing back.”
One day, the Viet Cong hit the Americans’ ammo supply.
Tripp, who had driven a lieutenant to the airport, was stranded and unable to get safely back to his unit. The explosions lasted eight hours, causing such compression that it blew in the sides of buildings at the Marine compound in which Tripp sheltered.
“I sat in a Marine bunker with a Marine like a half a mile away, because there was no way I could drive back to the compound,” Tripp said. “So, I just parked on the road and ran into his bunker and we sat there and watched the fireworks.”
Six of the seven hooches burned to the ground, but solders escaped injury by hunkering down in the bunkers.
Tripp spent 13 months in Vietnam.
He finished his career with stints at the U.S. Field Artillery School in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and at Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert near Barstow, California.
The transition to civilian life was a difficult one.
Tripp says he drank a lot, until his first marriage.
“I could be up five, six times a night. Wouldn’t be able to sleep,” he said. So I’d be up, spit-shine my shoes. Or, any little noise outside...I knew something was going on.”
Even now, 50 years later, he still has a difficult time sleeping through the night.
He also has symptoms of exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide widely used in Vietnam, and post-traumatic stress.
He finds it helps to talk about it, especially with other veterans. He also participates in a veterans motorcycle group.
“It’s easier to talk about it now,” he said.
They Served With Honor
They Served With Honor: Jim Knutson, Clear Lake
CLEAR LAKE — When Jim Knutson drove a tank retriever during the Vietnam War, he faced two foes: the Viet Cong and the jungle.
“It was no place for a tank,” said the Clear Lake resident. “The terrain was terrible. The enemy could see us coming a mile away.”
Knutson and the others in his unit had to deal with mud during the monsoon season as well as mosquitoes and biting ants. They also were in danger of contracting disease.
His unit’s job was to seek out the enemy and keep them from establishing themselves deep in the jungle.
Knutson said the Viet Cong tried to pick them off one at a time through snipers and land mines.
“You never knew when your number was up,” he said.
Knutson was injured during an ambush and received a Purple Heart.
He said he was never a lucky guy but considers himself “very lucky to make it out alive.”
Knutson, 70, grew up in southern Minnesota and graduated from Kiester High School in 1963.
He was drafted in 1965 and enlisted in the Army after that so he could get a better choice of what he would do and where he would go.
Knutson said he had the chance to train as a helicopter pilot but turned it down because “all those guys were going to Vietnam.”
He went to tank mechanic school instead, but still ended up going to Vietnam.
A tank retriever is like a wrecker for tanks, according to Knutson. The M-88 retriever he operated weighed 62 tons.
It was his job to pull out tanks that got stuck in the mud or tow tanks that got hit.
“We never left anything behind,” Knutson said.
He once towed away a tank while it was still burning after being hit. Ammo was still going off at the time.
The four members of the tank crew were badly burned.
Another time five tanks got stuck in quicksand. Knutson said they couldn’t be moved so they had to spend the night where they were.
“Good thing the enemy didn’t know,” he said.
The next day chainsaws were flown out to them so they could build a log road to get out.
Knutson’s unit lived in the jungle for two or three months at a time and ate C-rations. He said he would dream about McDonald’s cheeseburgers, fries and chocolate shakes.
Knutson served in Vietnam from January 1967 to January 1968.
When he flew back to the U.S. it was “one of the happiest days of my life,” Knutson said.
He said he kissed the ground when his plane landed in San Francisco.
Knutson worked at Jerry’s Body Shop in Clear Lake for a decade after coming home. He has worked for McKiness Excavating in Mason City for the past 38 years.
Every Vietnam veteran had a different experience, according to Knutson.
“I think about Vietnam every day, but don’t let it affect my daily life,” he said. “I forget a lot about it until I start talking about it.”
They Served With Honor: Bob Marreel, Osage
OSAGE — Ten days before his 21st birthday, Bob Marreel received his Army draft letter.
Sitting as his kitchen table nearly 50 years later, he flipped through a wartime scrapbook, recalling a conflict he felt Americans were never allowed to win.
Marreel was drafted in 1968 and spent about a year in Vietnam in Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 47th Regiment of the 9th Infantry Division, stationed near a base in the Mekong Delta.
“I was trained in the States here for anti-tank fare and demolition,” he said. “When I got to Vietnam, down in the Delta that wasn’t needed so I carried a machine gun.”
He carried a machine gun for 3½ months, and then served as a radio operator.
“You never saluted anybody,” he said. “Some of the people who first went to Vietnam, they wore bright (patches) and they paid for it.”
In charge of bridge security, his unit often saw combat, he said.
“Most of our combat was during night ambushes, but during the daytime we would search various areas, secure engineers, roads and bridges, and medics while they treated the Vietnamese people,” he said later in an email.
Once, while he was recording a message to send home to his family, mortar rounds inched closer until one “landed right on us” and he got wounded with shrapnel to the back.
It was on April 1, 1969, he said. “I was the fool that day.”
His platoon sergeant was killed the next day.
Graffiti from American soldiers was present all over Vietnam, he said. One he later recalled: “If I had a farm in Viet Nam and a home in hell, I would sell my farm and go home.”
Marreel came home with combat honors including three Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart and Combat Infantry Badge.
In 1979, he met his wife, Donna. They eventually had two children. Marreel worked for the Postal Service for 33 years and was a Mitchell County supervisor for more than six years.
“When I came back from Vietnam there was nothing here for veterans,” Marreel said. “You just came home, you threw all your stuff in the closet and you went about being a civilian again.”
Of five men including himself that joined his unit in the same day, all survived their tours. He began to reunite with men from his unit more than 25 years later.
“I think the Vietnam vets are supportive of (post-9/11 vets) coming back now, because we knew how bad we were treated,” he said.
“I was never called a ‘baby killer’ myself,” Marreel said. “People wanted to fight. They wanted to pick a fight with us. I said, “We were not trained to fight, we were trained to kill,’ and that kind of solved it.”
“The press said we lost,” he said. “We did not lose, because we weren’t there. Saigon fell two years after the Americans left.”
“It was a war just to have a war. There was never a plan to win,” he said. “We weren’t allowed to win.”
They Served with Honor: Mark Reinsmoen, Joice
Mark Reinsmoen, 70, grew up in Joice, graduated from Luther College and became an English teacher before he was drafted for Vietnam.
“In June 1969, I received that infamous letter that said ‘Greetings...’,” Reinsmoen said. By then, Reinsmoen was married.
He made a personal appearance before the draft board where he was told that he already received two deferments, one for college and a two-year deferment for work when he taught in New Hampton.
“They told me that if I were a math or science teacher then maybe I could get a deferment, but I was an English teacher and the country had a lot of those,” Reinsmoen said.
From Worth County he left for Fort Polk in Louisiana for training and was sent to Vietnam on Thanksgiving Day.
Reinsmoen said he was scared to death and didn’t know what to expect when he arrived.
He served as an M16-carrying infantryman in the 3rd Brigade of the Ninth Infantry Division at Rach Kien.
For a while he patrolled in rice paddies. They would also run ambush patrols.
He later became a combat photographer.
“I would go up in a helicopter and shoot pictures of soldiers doing their jobs,” Reinsmoen said. “If I have one claim to fame, it’s that one of my photos appeared in the Pacific Stars and Stripes.”
Reinsmoen continued to serve until March 1971 when he was honorably discharged. He worked his way up from private (E-2) to sergeant (E-5).
Reinsmoen ended up going “back to the world” to Fort Benning after a little less than a year in Vietnam from November 1969 to November 1970.
“While I was there I believe I had a whole entire fleet of guardian angels watching over me,” he said. “When I came back I was physically, mentally and emotionally unscarred and I was able to step right back into society.”
Veterans of different wars cannot be compared, according to Reinsmoen, because veterans of other wars left and came back in groups while Vietnam veterans left and returned as individuals.
“When I came back from Vietnam, I didn’t tell anyone I was a vet,” he said. “We didn’t expect parades but we didn’t expect to be spit on.”
When he returned, he went to graduate school and taught elementary school in Rosemount, Minnesota, for 34 years.
“I was living a good life after the conflict,” he said.
Like many others who served in Vietnam, Reinsmoen was exposed to Agent Orange and was unaware that his health was at risk.
“In 2006, at age 60, the hammer fell and I was diagnosed with prostate cancer,” he said.
When he was diagnosed, his mother, Lois, told him he needed to get in touch with the Veterans Administration. According to the VA, he is considered “permanently and totally disabled.”
“I go the VA monthly for treatments and medication,” he said. “My wife, Dianne, is just a wonderful supporter.”
In the summer, the Reinsmoens live in Burnsville, Minnesota, and they spend the winter in Surprise, Arizona, closer to their children and grandchildren.
Though he no longer lives in Iowa, he still feels connected. In 2013, he self-published a fictional book, “J-Hawk Nation,” about growing up in Joice by following a basketball team in their final season before school consolidation.
Even 45 years since his return from Vietnam, he thinks about the destruction and the loss of life.
“I find that if I ever watch a Vietnam film, I find myself sinking further and further into my chair,” he said. “I wonder if it was worth it.”
They Served with Honor: Dan Gatton, Mason City
The nightmares were vivid and frightening for Dan Gatton after serving two tours of duty in Vietnam.
“I would see four cadavers at the end of my bed. I don’t know why I dreamed that. I never killed anybody to the best of my knowledge,” said Gatton, 66, who grew up in Algona and now lives in Mason City.
“In another dream I was caught in an ambush. I could feel the bullets hitting my chest and blood coming out of my nose. It was the feeling of blood coming out of my nose that woke me up,” he said.
The nightmares are gone now, but the memories of war remain.
“Anytime anyone says they can imagine what we went through, I tell them that unless you were there, unless you saw the blood, heard the explosions, smelled the stench, you have no idea what it was like.”
Asked how he got rid of the nightmares, he laughed and said, “Maybe it was because I quit drinking.”
Gatton, who is retired after 37 years with Mason City Rent-All (now United Rent-All) said his military experience started because of an argument he had with his father when he was in high school.
“He wouldn’t let me have a car,” said Gatton. “We argued about it. I got mad and decided to join the Army. And the next thing you know, I’m in Vietnam. When I look back on it now, I think, all of that over a ’55 Ford.”
He was assigned to the Army Seaborne on the USSN Corpus Christi Bay ship, whose job it was to supply parts to repair helicopters.
“We were referred to as the floating machine shop,” said Gatton.
The Corpus Christi Bay was a built-up superstructure topped by a helicopter landing pad measuring 50 by 150 feet.
With the advent of ships like the Corpus Christi Bay, damaged helicopters could be barged out to the ship and lifted on board by two 20-ton capacity cranes to be repaired, rather than being shipped back to the U.S. for repairs.
Gatton and others were there to supply the parts needed for the repairs.
But when he thinks about his days in Vietnam, his thoughts quickly turn to people rather than ships or helicopters. “What I remember about Vietnam is there was a lot of dying going on. You knew every day could be your last day.”
Gatton was never in combat, but like all service personnel, he was always in danger.
“One day when I was on leave in downtown Saigon a jeep in front of me blew up. Here I was, a 19-year-old kid in the middle of all of this.
“On my second tour, I came out of a building one day and someone flung a grenade at me. But it didn’t go off. That was my lucky day.”
Gatton said when he came home from Vietnam, arriving at the airport in Oakland, he heard people shouting “baby killer” and other insults at him and other soldiers as they got off the plane.
It was disappointing and discouraging, he said, but he was able to put it in perspective. “At least I never had feces thrown at me like some of the guys did,” said Gatton.
Another thing he remembers about coming home: “I wasn’t old enough to buy a beer. I guess I wasn’t responsible enough.”
Public reaction to his service in Vietnam has changed in the past 50 years. He now proudly wears a cap and jacket (in Iowa Hawkeye colors) that proclaim his status as a Vietnam veteran.
People notice it and treat him with respect, he said. “It’s cool to be a veteran now.”
They Served with Honor: Don Latham, Alexander
ALEXANDER — When Don Latham returned on leave from Vietnam for his brother’s wedding, he didn’t think he’d make it home again.
“I was never afraid of dying when I went to Vietnam,” said Latham, who flew Huey helicopters. “I’ve never been afraid to this day.
“It’s just what I felt because of what we were going through, with a couple close friends of mine being shot down and killed.”
As an Iowa State student, Latham trained as a pilot through the Army’s ROTC program. After graduating college and finishing flight school, he joined the 129th Assault Helicopter Company in November 1970, where he regularly flew South Vietnamese and Korean troops on combat missions.
His company had a good relationship with those soldiers, Latham said. They felt especially secure with the Koreans, who had a reputation of not taking prisoners.
A week after he arrived, he was involved in a skirmish at a base overrun by a North Vietnamese Army unit. After diesel fuel was dropped by Chinooks, his and other helicopters were to fire, in an effort to ignite the gas.
Latham said it took three passes, since weapons had jammed.
“After the third pass, we had tracers (ammunition) coming back at us,” he recalled. “You’re so busy, you don’t have a chance to think about that much, but later that night, it hit me — these guys are trying to kill me.”
Another memorable task involved rescuing Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers who were scattered in trees after a fire base was overrun near the Cambodian/Laotian border.
“I still vividly recall the helicopters hovering into the 200-foot-tall trees and the ARVN soldiers just piling on,” he said.
The capacity of his Huey was 13. At one point the helicopter had 27 on board and was unable to take off. Latham said the crew chief and gunner had to push people back out, instead making multiple rescue trips.
“It’s an experience I would never want to go through again, but it’s an experience I’d never give up,” he said of his year in Vietnam.
Latham was later stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he worked as an instrument instructor pilot and officer in charge of school for pilots returning home.
Following four years in the military, Latham returned home to Alexander, where he spent 37 years as owner/operator of Latham Seed Co. He has since retired from the seed business but continues to farm.
He hasn’t felt any lasting effects of serving in combat.
“My wife might disagree with me on that,” Latham said. “She likes to joke for a couple of years I’d be standing up in bed in the middle of the night, trying to untie rotor blades.”
Latham has been back to Vietnam twice on business, which he said was an emotional experience.
In talking with a friend who was a major in the North Vietnamese Army and now manages the American Soybean Office there, he learned about the regard North Vietnamese had for American soldiers, who targeted the military, not civilians.
“They had a lot of respect for our ethics and the way we conducted ourselves in the war,” Latham said.
As an agronomy major on a trip to Communist Poland in 1968, a professor from the University of Warsaw was excited to talk to his group about his sister, who was living in Philadelphia.
A guide questioned what the professor had been telling them — he said just crop talk — and told their group to disregard anything that was discussed.
“I’m not sure if there was retribution for that little man, but it made a lasting impression on me about what communism’s control mindset can do to a population,” Latham said.
“The fact that the U.S. took a stand in Vietnam — we stopped the spread of communism in southeast Asia,” he continued. “What we did was the right thing. It was successful in a way that most people don’t realize.”
They Served With Honor: Chuck Thome, Mason City
MASON CITY — Chuck Thome of Mason City helped build airstrips and mess halls while serving in the Army in Vietnam.
He and other members of the engineering battalion he was with once loaded their earth-moving equipment onto a ship and went up the South China Sea so they could build an airstrip near Bong Son.
They arrived to find the beach was being shelled.
“That was quite an experience,” he said.
Fortunately, they didn’t meet any further resistance.
“We were lucky,” Thome said.
Thome, 70, grew up in Stacville. He’s a 1963 graduate of Visitation High School.
He was 20 years old in 1965. He didn’t have a job and his draft number was up. He decided to volunteer for the Army so he wouldn’t have to wait another month.
Thome was assigned to the 84th Engineering Battalion. He was sent to Vietnam as a radio operator, but was assigned as a driver for a sergeant because radio operators weren’t needed.
He also operated earth-moving equipment.
When Thome and other members of his company were working on a construction project, they had to have an armed guard with them.
As the sergeant’s driver, Thome did the courier run several times a week. The trip was 70 miles one way.
“You didn’t dare do it at night,” he said.
In February 1966 his company was sent to An Khe. They set up camp next to an artillery unit.
“They would shoot off the big guns all night long,” Thome said.
Thome finally got his orders to go home but he had to go to Germany for six months first.
When he got back to the U.S., he was sent to Fort Sheridan near Chicago for the final five months of his service. He was part of the honor guard that traveled all over Illinois for military funerals.
After he came back to North Iowa, he went to work at Blue Ribbon Beef in Mason City for a few years before going to work for Pepsi for 30 years. He now drives a truck for a farmer.
He and his wife, Diane, have five children and 13 grandchildren. Their son, Bruce, spent 20 years in the Navy.
Thome said he still has dreams about the war, but the dreams aren’t as bad as they used to be.
He had a triple bypass two or three years ago. He said the doctors attributed his heart disease to exposure to Agent Orange.
For the past decade Thome has been in the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America.
“What a wonderful bunch of guys,” he said. “They are all like brothers.”
Thome attended Operation LZ, a five-day thank-you event for Vietnam veterans held in Forest City in August.
“It healed a lot of broken hearts,” he said.
Thome said his attitude toward his time in Vietnam is, “I would go again if I got called up.”
They Served with Honor: Frank Uhde, Sr., Thornton
THORNTON — Frank Uhde Sr. of Thornton served in the U.S. Army for 21 years as a medic. He enlisted in 1953 and went to Vietnam in 1966.
“I had been to Korea, Japan, two tours in Alaska and then stateside duty at Fitzsimons Army Hospital before I went to Vietnam,” said Uhde, 79.
He was in the 25th Infantry Division as a medical platoon sergeant.
“The first big operation I went on when I got there was Christmas Eve of 1966. It was an air assault,” Uhde said.
There were more than 20 choppers sent in to Cambodia to pick up some American POWs, but when they arrived the prisoners had already been moved. He remembers that there was a firefight.
“In January of 1967 I was on Operation Cedar Falls in the Iron Triangle,” Udhe said.
Operation Cedar Falls was a mission to eradicate the Iron Triangle, a major Viet Cong stronghold in a 125-square-mile area close to Saigon. It was the largest American ground operation of the Vietnam War, involving 30,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese troops.
“We set up the aid station and I went out with the infantry platoons — that’s when I was hit with shrapnel,” Uhde said.
On another operation his company spent 21 days in the jungle and suffered a few casualties.
“You’d roast in the daytime and freeze at night,” he laughed. “Oh, at night it was damp and cold and you’d give anything for a little space heater, then in the daytime you’d wish you had an air conditioner!”
He was later promoted to first sergeant then relocated to the 25th Medical Battalion and became first sergeant of D Company.
“I lost a lot of good men, a lot of medics,” Udhe said. “In 1967 I commanded a young man who came up from Eldora. He was so proud to say his first sergeant was from Marshalltown — that’s where I was born and raised. It wasn’t about a month later he was killed.”
Uhde said the worst part was the casualties he saw.
In 1968 he was stationed in Madison, Wisconsin, where he was an adviser for the Army Reserve program, which he said he enjoyed. Unfortunately, that station had to do death notifications for next of kin, which he said was the worst part.
“My wife and I dreaded when the phone would ring because I knew I would have to go,” Uhde said. “That was hard.”
He was there for two years before he was sent back to Vietnam.
“You never knew who your enemy was,” Uhde said.
The military would hire indigenous personnel to help out in the camps. Uhde said that there would be firefights at night and in the morning they would find out that some of the people who they had hired were attacking them.
“Someone planted a mine in the mess hall. You’d see them counting their steps, marking off for mortar targets at night and a kid could come up and drop a grenade at your feet,” Uhde said. “I mean they used kids, women, old people and when we got home, they called us baby killers and whatnot, but you never knew who you were fighting.”
Like many others, the return home was difficult.
“I was like a lot of the rest of them — when you came back, you were treated like dirt,” Udhe said. “Not so much here in Iowa.”
The big cities were the worst, he said.
When Uhde returned to North Iowa he worked for the Cerro Gordo County Sherriff’s Department at the jail and Metalcraft for a while.
“I retired from the military in December 1973,” Uhde said. “I’d do it again if I had to.”
They Served with Honor: Ernie L. Martinez, Mason City
MASON CITY — Ernie L. Martinez expected to be drafted, but it was a brush with the police that sent him to Vietnam.
He got busted drag racing in 1969 in Pueblo, Colorado.
The judge made him choose between jail and the military.
“Everybody got drafted into the Army, and Fort Carson (Army base) wasn’t too far away and all the (Army) guys, we called ‘em doggies, they came to town and was dating all our girls in high school,’ Martinez, now of Mason City, said with a laugh.
“We didn’t like that, so I said ‘I ain’t gonna be a doggie,’ so the judge said that would be fine, but I had to do four years” in the Marines.
“So I was in for four years instead of two, like the draft, and I ended up doing six.”
In those six years he would go from the jungles of Vietnam to the rubble of a devastating earthquake in Managua, Nicaragua.
He was sent to Vietnam in 1970 as a member of a Combined Action Program, or CAP, unit. The program sent small teams to help protect Vietnamese villages from attacks from the Viet Cong communist fighters (VC) and to help with local projects.
American troops killed many of the VC in response to the Tet Offensive, a series of coordinated attacks by VC and North Vietnamese military in 1968, but remaining communists were terrorizing villagers, Martinez said.
Decades later, Martinez is still disturbed by the horrors the VC inflicted on the villagers.
“They would attack villages, rape, pillage, kill, murder,” he said. “They’re the same as ISIS is right now. That’s the kind of people the VC were.”
Many of the VC’s operations were hit-and-run attacks, which meant Martinez and his comrades had to go after them.
“I humped a lot of hills,” he said. “We tracked them down and we went to a lot of different villages all the way from Phu Bai up north all the way down to Khe Sanh Valley.”
“Basically, our job was to hunt them down and kill ‘em. Period,” he said. “They’re just like ISIS. You don’t keep these kind of guys. What they did to kids and women was totally appalling.”
It’s the children and villagers that stand out the most to Martinez.
The children would chant “Marines No. 1!” Women in the village said, “Marines Dinky Dau,” he said.
The latter translates into ‘Marines crazy,” Martinez explained.
He was fascinated by the culture — it was the first time Martinez, a Wyoming native, heard about Buddha — and the people he met in the villages.
“It was really unique listening to the kids. And the girls, there was girls there that, at 17, 18 years old, they knew much about weapons,” he said. “They protected their own villages and that’s who we worked with to teach them to take care of themselves.”
He stayed in Vietnam for just over a year, then returned to the United States.
Martinez worked as a Marines range coach and later got clearance to join the Marine Security Guard, which provides security at American embassies and consulates
He almost ended up back in Vietnam, in Saigon, but that was now an in-demand post.
“There was people fighting to go to Vietnam. They wanted to go there,” he said. “They wanted to serve there and I’d already been there so someone took that spot.”
He almost got sent to the northwest African nation of Mali, but instead was assigned to the Central American city of Managua, Nicaragua.
“A sergeant was getting married down in Nicaragua and they needed a sergeant down there, so they changed me to Managua — which I went all over the map of Africa to look for,” he said.
It turned out to be a pivotal assignment. That’s where he met his wife, Minon.
They both survived Managua’s devastating earthquake in 1972
Officials say 3,000 to 7,000 residents were killed, 15,000 were hurt and three-quarters of the city’s population was left homeless. Because people were buried in mass graves the exact death toll is unknown.
Martinez saw those graves.
“You wanna talk about war zone. That was terrible,” he said. “Mother Nature can get ticked off. People don’t realize how mean an earthquake is.”
These days, Martinez is in the roofing business.
He runs Mason City Roofing and also serves as the main coordinator for Mason City’s Marine Toys For Tots program.
And, all his roofing bids bear the Marine Corps motto: Semper Fidelis: Always loyal.
They Served with Honor: Carlos Melendez, Mason City
MASON CITY — His life in the Army grew out of a childhood playing soldier in the yard.
After summers spent using sticks for guns and imitating John Wayne with friends outside his house, the journey toward military life for Carlos Melendez seemed inevitable.
“I was going to grow up to be a Marine,” he said via phone.
“We’d play army almost every day,” the Mason City native said of his childhood friends. “I had a wooden stick that was my tomahawk, was my machine gun.”
Now 76 and living in Tamarack, Florida, as a young man college was not his calling. The military’s offer of order and structure appealed over the temptations of college life.
“I was not what you call a stellar student,” he said. “In those days, you were a sissy if you got good grades.”
A lot of his free time was spent “partying and chasing girls and going to football games,” he said. “I’m just wasting my parents money, so I thought I’ll join the Army.”
By 1961, he had enlisted and was attending officer training school. He loved the structured environment, opportunity to meet people from all walks of life and ability to learn whatever job he wanted.
“The Army kept on saying, ‘Yeah , I will send you to that school,’” he said.
Over the course of a 20-year career in the service, Melendez, a retired major, served in several capacities including attending infantry, airborne and Ranger schools.
He went to Vietnam as a helicopter pilot first in first 1966 before returning for a second tour in 1969. He logged more than 1,000 combat flying hours transporting and extracting soldiers from combat zones, eventually earning a Distinguished Flying Cross.
His helicopter was hit three times by enemy fire, he said.
The second time, it was “pitch dark out in the mountains,” he said. “You could see all the tracers out there. It looked like the Fourth of July.”
Coming home between tours as an officer, he said he didn’t feel the same sense of being ostracized in the same way commonly felt by enlisted soldiers.
“Professional soldiers, which I considered myself to be at the time, you have a different perspective,” he said.
“My second I came (home), I went to San Francisco ... I was there at the time when” there were protesters.
Officers, “we’d go out, go get a drink,” he said. “Of course, aviators like to have a good time. There was a street there, we used to go in our uniforms, people used to buy us drinks.”
“Never forget the inhumanity of war and the men who we ask to send to war,” he said.
For combat, “There’s no way to anticipate what that’s going to be like,” he said. “It was a very intense experience in terms of requiring your attention and focus all the time.
“Were were very cocky back then,” he said. “And for the troops (we flew) to support them, so we (never quit).”
“You didn’t think about the politics of what (you were doing), because soldiers are not political,” he said.
“The guys that were there, we know what we did. We did our duty,” he said.
They Served with Honor: Teddy F. Bassett, Jr., Northwood
A Northwood native who had never traveled by public bus, train or plane prior to his military career found himself flying on a regular basis as an aerovac medic in Vietnam.
Teddy F. Bassett Jr. enlisted in the Air Force in May 1965 after receiving notice he’d been selected by the draft. After scoring high in the medical field, he was selected to be a corpsman, later working his way up to run the aerospace medicine clinic at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois.
Following advanced medical training, Bassett was chosen for aeromedical evacuation training at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas, where he learned how to provide in-flight medical care to injured soldiers.
Bassett was then reassigned to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines in December 1969.
He left behind his wife, Joyce, and two young children, Jeff and Lori, in Mason City. They were later allowed to join him in the Philippines after Bassett extended his assignment from 18 to 30 months.
He and Joyce were high school sweethearts. They married after Bassett completed 24 weeks of training in Texas and Alabama.
While in Southeast Asia, his squadron began supporting missions in Vietnam. They used C-118, C-130 and C-141 aircraft to transport injured or sick soldiers, sometimes making as many as five or six stops in one day at various bases.
“It was actually rather exhilarating,” he said. “When you’re that young, you don’t know what fear is.
“You’re fixated on getting the mission done and don’t think about the consequences; you just go and do what needs to be done.”
Bassett said the planes would hold 30 to 70 stretchers called litters, plus space for ambulatory patients, medics and nurses.
When he wasn’t flying in Vietnam, Bassett was assigned to rescue missions in Cambodia and Laos.
One mission required a C-130 aircraft to be flown into Cambodia to rescue injured soldiers. Pilots landed the plane on a dirt road and kept the engines running as patients were loaded to ensure a speedy take-off.
While aerovac flights were normally routed around hostilities, Bassett said that didn’t keep them from being shot at.
His plane was once mistakenly routed into an active air campaign, where bombs were being dropped and anti-aircraft guns were being shot. Bassett said the aircraft had to quickly leave the area and return another day for wounded soldiers.
During another mission, a Korean flight crew assisted as a C-47 was flown into Vietnam to rescue a valuable wounded asset.
Not being able to understand Korean compounded the challenge of providing medical care under fire, Bassett said.
During his last mission before returning home, their plane came under fire as it was taking off. Bassett said it had a fairly full load of 50 litters and several ambulatory patients.
“I felt really bad for the patients who were already suffering and now wondering if they were going to make it out alive,” he said.
Since he had to frequently monitor patients’ vital signs, Bassett couldn’t wear ear protection while flying on the noisy planes.
Like most aerovac medics, he has hearing loss and back problems due to carrying heavy litters. He was diagnosed with stenosis of the spine — narrowing of the spinal canal — which requires lifelong treatment.
Despite his injuries, he says it was rewarding getting wounded soldiers to treatment in a safe place.
After Vietnam, Bassett spent 11 months in the U.S. before being assigned to independent duty in Greece.
He served in the Air Force until 1985, retiring as a chief master sergeant. During his service, he was assigned to either temporary or permanent duty in 13 countries and nine states.
“I just really enjoyed it,” he said of his 20-year military career. “What I was doing was really rewarding.”
Bassett was awarded 11 medals, including the Meritorious Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal, the Air Force Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars and the Vietnam Gallantry Cross with palm.
He now lives in North Carolina.
They Served with Honor: Mike Foster, Mason City
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.”
They Served with Honor: Ron Stroup, Mason City
MASON CITY — Retired Mason City High School teacher Ron Stroup spent a year as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam and took enemy rounds three times.
He escaped uninjured all three times and came away unharmed after flying 1,000 hours in a period of one year, a year full of many scary moments.
A native of Corwith, Stroup was born two days after Pearl Harbor and grew up in an environment in which veterans were treated with great respect. “They were heroes in my hometown,” he said.
In high school, Stroup was a star pitcher on a Corwith High School baseball team that won a state championship.
He went to the University of Iowa on a baseball scholarship but injured his knee, eliminating any hope for future baseball glory.
But he was also involved in ROTC and got interested in the flight program. In the fall of 1964, six weeks after graduating from college, he went in the Army and 18 months later was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.
“Our company was attached to the 101st Airborne, flying them into the highlands of central Vietnam,” he said.
“Our toughest missions are what we called LRRP — long-range reconnaissance patrols. We would drop five or six men, black-faced and in camouflage and hopefully undetected, so they could see what was going on.
“Then later we’d have to go get them. One time they came to the helicopter, threw a body in and the rest of them jumped in over it,” he said.
Stroup said a frightening moment came on one flight when the helicopter was supposed to put men down in what turned out to be a burned-out area.
“As the helicopter came down it blew all the ashes up and we couldn’t see what we were doing. When we plunked it onto the ground, a hole was punched in the bottom of the copter. Fortunately, we were still able to fly it,” he said.
Stroup said, as a pilot he was much more afraid of the weather than being shot down by the enemy.
“Bad weather and mountains don’t mix,” he said.
By far his scariest moment, he said, was when he had a general onboard and the helicopter went into a bank of clouds, making it almost impossible to see.
They found an opening in the clouds and flew above them, only to fly into a second bank. “We knew we were over mountains and we knew we didn’t have enough gas to get back over the ocean,” he said.
Finally, they found an opening in the clouds and were able to descend and find a place to land. “That was the scariest moment of my life,” said Stroup, shaking his head.
He said when he returned home, he didn’t experience the resentment that many Vietnam veterans endured. “It might have been because I came home alone and not as part of a unit,” said Stroup. “At any rate, nobody spat in my face.”
“I did my duty and I’d gladly do it again,” he said. “I know some say we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. I don’t look at it that way. I did what I was called to do.
“I’m not a ‘sit-around-and-tell-war-stories’ kind of guy. It’s not glorious — and I have a lot of other things to do.”
They Served with Honor: Dennis Murra, Buffalo Center
BUFFALO CENTER — Already drafted, Dennis Murra of Buffalo Center had every intention of going into the Army when he walked into a Minnesota recruiting office in 1971.
“A class at Southwest Minnesota State required that we interview a business owner, so I went to interview the Army recruiter,” Murra said.
“When I arrived at the recruiting center the Army recruiter was out, but the Air Force recruiter was in. One month later I was in Air Force basic training.”
It would turn into a 21-year career that took Murra to Vietnam as well as several areas around the U.S.
In the 1970s, going into the military didn’t strike Murra as unusual. It was just what people his age did.
“It was so normal for guys at that time to get drafted and go into service I just accepted it as my fate,” he said.
After attending technical school, Murra was sent to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, where he was a jet engine specialist.
“It was quite a shock, yes,” he said of Tucson. “I’d never really been in a large city before so it was different. Of course, the heat there is a lot different than it is here, too.”
Murra wasn’t fazed by the possibility of being sent overseas. As he puts it, “I was 19 and single and didn’t care.
“I grabbed my toolbox and my duffel bag and away we went,” he said.
Murra ended up in Thailand, where the United States launched missions into Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
He worked on planes at Royal Thai Air Force Base Udorn, in northern Thailand, and Khorat, in central Thailand.
Some planes had bullet holes. Others had frames stressed from too much downforce.
In Korat, Murra and his fellow airmen would watch for lights of returning B-52s from the balcony of old Thai Army barracks. After flying missions the bombers returned to Korat via U-Tapao Royal Thai Naval Airfield, a base south of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand.
“Sometimes there wouldn’t be as many as what left,” Murra said.
The relative secrecy was essential during the war so Thailand could avoid invasion by claiming neutrality, Murra said.
“Forty thousand North Vietnamese regulars (were) just north of us,” he said. “As long as Thailand remained neutral they wouldn’t bother us.”
He was deployed twice, first for 179 days and then back for a year.
During his second stint he got a glimpse of semi-secret Air Force activity.
Missions were supposed to be over, but there was clearly continued action in Cambodia and Laos, Murra said.
“We would see airplanes loaded with bombs, but they would be back an hour later with no bombs on them,” he said. “So, we knew something was going on. They weren’t going very far.”
After his service was over, Murra stayed with the Air Force as a recruiter.
“After I’d been in four years I kind of wanted to come home, but my dad and brother were farming. They didn’t need another partner,” he said.
He recruited in St. Paul, Minnesota; San Antonio, Texas; and eventually in Spencer. He and his wife are now back in Buffalo Center.
He retired in 1992 as a master sergeant.
They Served With Honor
They Served with Honor: Jerry Merrick, Osage
As a crew chief in Vietnam, Jerry Merrick recalls washing blood off the floor of his Chinook helicopter, but remembers little about the injured soldiers he transported.
A doctor once told him the mind is an “unbelievable mechanism” that can seal off certain bad memories.
“He said, ‘You probably ought to feel lucky that you don’t remember the wounded,’” said Merrick, an Osage native now living in Dubuque.
Although he doesn’t remember more graphic details of the war, Merrick knew of others who weren’t able to handle the stress of combat.
“When I was over there, a lot of the guys couldn’t take it, and a couple of them shot themselves in the foot to get out of there,” Merrick said. “I considered other guys — infantry, artillery — as having it worse than me, because I didn’t think I had it that bad.”
One thing that remains vivid in his mind is nine comrades who were killed in action.
Merrick recalls talking with John Powers, a Washington state native, a half hour before his helicopter was blown up in April 1970. On the day Powers died, Merrick was flying in one helicopter, Powers another.
“You hear about survivor’s remorse — I thought maybe I could have saved him,” he said. “You never, never, never get it out of your head. You never do.”
Two years into college, Merrick went to a recruiting station because he was running out of money and knew he would be drafted.
Merrick, then a 20-year-old with extremely curly hair, first stopped in the office for the Marines, where a recruiter crooked his finger at him and said, “Come in, little girl, we’ll make a man out of you.”
He instead settled on the Army, where he learned his education would allow him to fly helicopters.
After flight and mechanic school, Merrick was sent to northern South Vietnam in 1970 with the 101st Airborne Division.
“Vietnam all in all was just an absolutely beautiful country that I loved flying over,” he said. “There was always something different — rice paddies, jungles and a Buddhist temple, often in the middle of nowhere.”
He worked with the Montagnard, indigenous people in the country’s central highlands, and was responsible for dropping off and picking up troops and resupplying, regularly under tense conditions.
“It was pretty frightening, having someone shooting at you and having artillery pieces going off,” he said.
Upon returning to his hometown nine months later, Merrick said he didn’t run in to many problems.
“I think it’s because I’m from the small town of Osage,” he said. “If you cut everyone on the hand, they bleed red, white and blue.”
A decade after Vietnam, Merrick enlisted in the Iowa National Guard. After 21 years of service as an infantry officer, he retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2000.
When he joined the Guard, he planned on flying helicopters again due to the age requirement being dropped. After a spat with a senior officer during career day, Merrick learned the requirement had been reinstated, effectively disqualifying him.
“I never got to fly a helicopter after Vietnam,” he said. “It’s too bad, because flying helicopters was absolutely wonderful.”
Merrick was employed by John Deere for 13 years before working as a logistics manager for several different corporations. He is now retired.
They Served with Honor: John Ross, Orchard
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.’”
They Served with Honor: Bob Mogk, Kensett
MASON CITY — When Bob Mogk of Kensett returned home from Vietnam in 1968, he wasn’t legally old enough to have a beer.
“It was strange because over there, they rationed beer and soda to us twice a month,” said Mogk, 68, an Army draftee who served exactly one year in Vietnam in 1967-1968.
Mogk was a combat engineer, building roads and bridges and detonating explosives as part of the job. So while he was not directly in combat, Mogk said, “We weren’t there looking for trouble but we could deal with it if it came.”
He said often he was put on a helicopter, taken somewhere to blow up a bridge and be left alone for a few days until the job was done. Then he would be picked up and be ready to go somewhere else.
“One day I was on an island doing my job when I saw some F-4 Phantom jets above me. Somehow, they got their coordinates wrong and bombed my island. I crawled under a dump truck and didn’t get hurt,” said Mogk.
“But that wasn’t my most unique experience. That came the day I was working in a quarry ready to set off some explosives. I had everything ready to go. There was about a two-minute leeway before it would blow up.
“I looked up and saw a helicopter headed right for the blast area. There was no way to warn it. I got in my bunker and hoped for the best.”
Mogk said when the blast went off the helicopter was directly above it.
“It seemed like that helicopter rose about 500 feet, but of course I’m just guessing,” he said.
When the huge mountain of dust settled after the explosion, the helicopter landed.
“And guess who got out,” said Mogk. “Gen. Westmoreland.” He was referring to Gen. William Westmoreland, commanding general of the troops in Vietnam.
Mogk recognized Westmoreland and was shocked to see him. He saluted and Westmoreland returned the salute, and said, “What in the hell was that?”
Mogk said he explained he was doing his assigned task and there was no way of warning the helicopter.
Westmoreland said, “Soldier, do you know who else is in this chopper?”
Mogk looked over and watched Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara emerge from the helicopter. “He was white as a sheet,” said Mogk.
Westmoreland concluded his conversation with the young soldier from North Iowa. “You could have changed history,” he said and walked away.
Mogk said the day-to-day experience in Vietnam was hard work in hot conditions.
“We slept in tents just about every night for that year. My father wanted me to keep a log of the weather while I was there, and I can tell you the temperature was 127 degrees on the hottest day,” he said.
Another memorable experience occurred when his tour in Vietnam was over and he was headed home.
“It was about a 20-hour flight with a stop to refuel and I think there were about 268 of us on board,” said Mogk. “Several on board had rifles with them. I don’t remember why.” The plane was to land in Seattle.
He said when their plane flew over Hawaii, the pilot radioed to the soldiers that they were over American soil. “It was a good feeling, but we still had several hours to go,” he said.
Several minutes later, the pilot advised that the plane would have to be diverted because there were 2,000 war protesters gathered at the Seattle airport.
“The captain got on the microphone and told us, ‘We’ve been gone for a year, we’re heading home and we will not be diverted.’ He ordered that the plane land in Seattle as planned.
“He told all the soldiers with rifles to get off the plane first with the rest of us to follow. It wasn’t exactly the kind of ‘welcome home’ we expected,’” said Mogk.
Led by soldiers with rifles in hand, the returnees proceeded through the airport without incident.
They hadn’t expected any trouble, said Mogk, and were thankful there was none.
“All we wanted to do was kiss the ground,” he said.
They Served with Honor: Jay Lee, Mason City
MASON CITY — Jay Lee served 28 years in active and reserve duty in the Navy.
“I have always been super proud to be an American,” said Lee, a 73-year-old Mason City resident. “I am extremely proud to serve 28 years in the military. I would do it all over again, even Vietnam if my government asked me to do it.”
He spent 14 years in reserves and 14 in active duty.
Lee enlisted in 1961 and served with amphibious squadron COMPHIBRON 5 staff from 1962 to 1966. He served a total of four tours in Vietnam ending in 1969.
“They were all over the place, it was wherever they needed you at the time,” Lee said. “Most guys went to a camp, I did not. I was called in to an area, did my job there.
“I did the same thing on ships. I would show on the maps where the enemy was at, and where the good guys were at.”
Since he was moved around a lot he served all the way from Saigon to within 13 miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ).
He worked out of Saigon when he first arrived in 1961, which he describes as “not too bad,” since the fighting didn’t pick up there until the mid- to late 1960s.
“I was four tours, so I came home four times and every time you come home we had problems,” Lee said.
He said he didn’t have many problems once he was back in Mason City, but he had many negative experiences near the military bases.
“So you come home, you think you’ve done a job that your country wants you to do and you return home to all the hate, and that’s actually what it was, hate toward the serviceman,” Lee said. “You put up with it.”
He said he was beaten up once in Long Beach.
“You know, you’re called all kinds of names, baby killer to murderer, you were spit on,” Lee said. “It’s kind of heartbreaking.”
“I personally lost some of the bitterness when I got home from Desert Storm,” Lee said. “I was recalled to Desert Storm and that lasted three months, then I came home and had a great welcome home.
He said it also helped working on the committee and taking part in Operation LZ in Forest City last summer, adding that it was the first welcome home he received for his service in Vietnam.
Talking to other veterans at Operation LZ and knowing he was not alone helped with healing, he said,
“Vietnam veterans are the ones out there that are making sure that anyone coming back from a conflict is welcomed home properly,” Lee said,
Lee later served as a police officer in San Diego and Decorah, and then spent 25 years with the Mason City Police Department, retiring in 1996.
“We can serve our community and country in several ways, however we choose to do it,” Lee said. “We all need to serve.”
They Served With Honor
They Served with Honor: Bob Rodgers, Mason City
MASON CITY — Bob Rodgers, 66, says he can’t talk about parts of his service in Vietnam. Some memories are still too vivid, too real to revisit.
Bob sits in his living room with his wife his wife, Phyllis, in Mason City. They’ve been together since high school.
Rodgers didn’t receive any major decorations during his time in Vietnam, and that is fine by him.
“He just got to marry his high school sweetheart,” Phyllis laughed.
Bob considers his marriage to be the “best prize of all.”
“We started dating when she was 14,” Bob said. “We graduated in 1968.”
When Bob was 19, he was sent to Vietnam after he volunteered for service. He served in the US Army and earned rank E-5 specialist in his three years in the military.
Bob had his basic training in Fort Lewis, Washington, and was later moved to Fort Rucker in Alabama. He finished at Hunter Army Airfield in Savanah, Georgia. In that time, he went to school to be a helicopter mechanic.
“I went to Vietnam in October of 69,” Bob said. “I started out in the maintenance department working on helicopters — I flew a little bit that way.”
Bob flew test flights and later decided that he wanted to be a crew chief. He never became a crew chief but he found himself volunteering for extra tasks.
“One of the volunteer jobs I went on, our commanding officer at formation in the morning was looking for two volunteers to go help rig a downed helicopter so we could get it out since it had engine failure,” Bob said. “That turned out to be a lot more than just going to pick up a helicopter. I don’t think I can talk about that part. It was quite an experience.”
Bob suffers from severe depression and PTSD because of things he witnessed though his service, he said.
After a while, he received training to be a technical inspector. He would look at the mechanics’ work on the helicopters and either approve it or decline it. He was stationed in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970.
Adjusting back to civilian life “was hard,” Bob said.
He is considered to be 60 percent disabled because of service life disabilities, Bob said.
“It caused a lot of things in our marriage. The evenings were terrible for me,” Bob said. “10 days after I got home from Vietnam we got married.”
Bob and Phyllis were married on Nov. 15, 1970. He was stationed in Savanah for 10 months after he returned from Vietnam.
“A 10-month-long honeymoon,” Phyllis said
The Rodgers attended OperationLZ in August.
“What they did in Forrest City was outstanding,” Bob said. “You could just see it in the vets that you met that they were very appreciative of what was going on. We didn’t get any of that when we got home.”
He sees a difference between people’s reaction to him being a Vietnam veteran now compared to when he first came home.
“I don’t remember any thank-yous when I came home,” Bob said. “Even when I would walk down Main Street in our small town in southwest Iowa, nobody would talk to me.”
Bob didn’t get welcomed home until 1986.
“The first time we had ever seen the Travelling Wall, he was wearing his fatigue shirt and as we were walking, someone said, ‘Welcome Home.’ That was the very first time, 16 years later,” Phyllis said.
He has also visited the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.
Now, Bob and Phyllis are heavily involved in The Erdheim-Chester Disease Global Alliance.
Researchers may classify Erdheim-Chester as a cancer of the blood, which would be a good thing for Bob since he could possibly link it to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Bob thinks that a lot can be learned from Vietnam in the United States.
“I think we need to be really careful about how we deploy our troops,” Bob said. “The welfare of the troops is very important and we need to pay attention to history.”
They Served With Honor: Dean Thome, Stacyville
STACYVILLE — Dean Thome of Stacyville said not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about Vietnam.
When he first arrived there in December 1966 as a member of the Army’s 1st Logistical Command, he worked on the docks unloading Agent Orange from ships near Saigon.
Thome, 68, has not been diagnosed with any of the diseases other Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange have reported, but he has skin breakouts that he believes are the result of unloading it.
Thome volunteered for the Army after graduating from Visitation High School in Stacyville in 1965 so he would have more of a choice of where he went.
He chose Germany and served as the driver for a captain before receiving orders to go to Vietnam.
In Vietnam, he worked for 18 hours a day, except when shifts were switched. He then received 18 hours off before going back on the job for six days straight.
He hurt his back one day after being hit by some lumber while unloading a ship. He got 21 stitches but was back on the job after just one day off.
However, he was soon sent to a classified area in the delta, serving as a “tunnel rat.” Being in a classified area meant he could not send or receive mail for a long time.
After two months in the delta, a warrant officer told him they looked up his records and learned he was an only son.
“He said, ‘I’m getting you out of here,’” Thome said.
At first Thome’s captain said no because of the shortage of troops, but he finally did get to go home.
When he was in line to board his plane the airport was attacked.
“I couldn’t get on that plane fast enough,” he said. “I never felt safe until the plane got up in the sky.”
Thome said he had post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. He was not diagnosed with PTSD until he was 50, which he said is common for Vietnam veterans.
The medication he is on has helped him a great deal. So did retiring from farming.
However, he still doesn’t like to be touched from the back or surprised in any other way. He also doesn’t like the sound of helicopters or the sight of people with guns.
He has nightmares to this day about the war.
The Stacyville area had a high number of Vietnam casualties, so Thome lost a lot of people he knew growing up.
He has four children, three from a previous marriage and one with Elaine, his current wife.
Thome said one thing he is thankful for is he knows where all his friends from his platoon are now.
“We all called each other brothers,” he said.
They Served with Honor: Bob Lembke, Mason City
Upon returning from Vietnam in 1967, Bob Lembke was anxious to change out of his uniform and blend in with the rest of the world.
“Being a Vietnam veteran was not a badge of honor at that time,” he said. “For decades, you really didn’t feel any pride in being a veteran.”
Lembke, who grew up in Rockwell but now lives in Mason City, felt his true homecoming didn’t occur until nearly 50 years after his service.
“I finally came home this August with Operation LZ,” Lembke said. “That’s when I finally felt Vietnam veterans were welcome.”
At 22, Lembke was drafted into the Army’s Ninth Infantry Division. He served in the Mekong Delta, where temperatures reached 113 degrees.
Having previously worked in a bank before the draft, he worked as a senior finance specialist but was also responsible for other duties.
“One of the first things I found out, that if you’re in the infantry division, you’re infantry first, no matter what your military assignment is,” he said.
He spent close to two months on perimeter guard duty, something he said would “give you a real thrill” at times, especially when animals would hit trip wires, resulting in flares being sent up.
One night an oversized rat rustled through grass near Lembke’s camp, seeking a drink of water from a puddle.
“I thought for sure we were under attack,” he said, noting his camp experienced mortar and human wave attacks. “You always had to be under alert.”
Another part of Lembke’s assignment involved paying wounded troops, a job he said was an eye-opening experience.
“I would thank my lucky stars when I left the hospitals,” he said. “I was very, very blessed, because a lot of them were wounded very badly.”
After returning home, Lembke returned to banking, which ended up being a 49-career for him. He is now retired.
The thought of those left behind still weighs on him. While speaking with Mason City High School students this fall about the war, he began to choke up when speaking about casualties, which includes the loss of a younger friend he once attended church with in Rockwell.
He said the attitude change about the war in recent years has helped him and others feel comfortable talking about their experiences.
After retiring, Lembke taught lifelong learning classes at North Iowa Area Community College about Vietnam.
“I still get emotional, but it’s been a big turning point for me,” he said. “People are finally starting to realize there was some value to it (the war), which did make a difference in the world.”
He has no regrets about his military service.
“I did what I was supposed to do as a U.S. citizen,” he said. “I would do it again if I was 20 years old.”
They Served With Honor: Bob Havner, Ionia
IONIA | Bob Havner said his experiences as an operating room technician during the Vietnam War are always with him.
"I wake up with it in the morning and I go to bed with it at night," said the former Charles City resident who recently moved to Ionia.
Havner, 69, has visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., eight times. He also visited the Traveling Memorial Vietnam Wall during Operation LZ this summer in Forest City, an event for Vietnam veterans that he helped organize.
He said it is difficult for him to visit the memorial wall with all the names of those who died during the war.
"There are so many names on there because I couldn't save them. But that's war," he said.
Havner, a 1965 graduate of Charles City High School, went to Mason City Junior College for a year before enlisting in the Navy in October 1966.
After boot camp he want to hospital corps school in San Diego, and then Naval Hospital Oakland near San Francisco. He got his orders to go to Vietnam in 1969.
As an operating room technician in the First Medical Battalion, "the front was wherever you were," Havner said.
They were attacked with rockets and one night a member of the Viet Cong managed to get inside the wire.
"It just wasn't too much fun," Havner said.
His duties included triage. One night when casualties were heavy, he was given a black pen and a red pen. The red pen was to mark which of the wounded would be sent to surgery and the black pen was for those who would not be treated.
He returned to the United States after a year in Vietnam, initially settling in California.
Vietnam veterans were not well received when they returned, according to Havner.
"I had coffee tossed on me," he said.
Another veteran he knows had mustard and ketchup thrown on him, according to Havner.
"For some reason they thought we were baby killers," he said.
Havner continued to work in the medical field after returning to civilian life. He became a registered nurse, working with premature babies.
He returned to Charles City in 2000 and commuted to Rochester, Minnesota, to work at the Mayo Clinic. He retired in July 2010.
For many years very few people in his life even knew he was a Vietnam vet, and he never talked about his experiences.
That began to change after he became involved with Honor Flight Winnebago, which allowed North Iowa World War II veterans to fly to Washington, D.C., free of charge on a one-day trip to visit war memorials and other landmarks.
Havner, who visited veterans who had health issues to make sure they were healthy enough to go on Honor Flights, said they asked him about his own service, so he told them.
Havner, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, said his experiences during the war have negatively affected his relationships with others. He has been through two marriages that ended.
"I'm not the easiest person to get along with," he said.
But ever since Operation LZ, "I'm a nicer person to be around," he said.
Looking back on his service in Vietnam, "If they called me up today and wanted me to go, I would go again," Havner said. "My nation needed me."
They Served With Honor: David Steinberg, Buffalo Center
At 6 feet, 6 inches tall, David Steinberg was used to standing head and shoulders above everyone else during his high school years in Buffalo Center.
His height almost deterred him from being accepted by the Army in 1968. The average height for men at that time was about 5 feet, 8 inches.
“I had to have a second physical because they assumed I was too tall for the draft,” he said. “After that, they said they’d take me.”
Then 20, Steinberg spent a year in southern Vietnam, stationed with the First Signal Brigade at the Long Binh military base.
As a clerk typist and someone who drove jeeps, he didn’t experience a lot of combat.
“While there were incoming rounds, we were in more of a safer area,” Steinberg said.
Although his winter holidays were spent 8,300 miles from his hometown, Steinberg was able to reconnect with two other men from Buffalo Center.
“It was weird, but it was the neatest thing,” he said.
While in the military, Steinberg was able to spend his weeklong R&R in Australia, visiting Sydney and the Blue Mountains. He says being among people taller than 5 feet was a highlight of the trip.
After returning home, Steinberg worked at Winnebago and attended college before working as a postmaster for 30 years.
While he had little difficulty adjusting to life back home, Steinberg says he sometimes wonders why he survived and an acquaintance — Bobby Davis, who had a wife and son in Forest City — was killed in action.
“I guess there’s a time and reason for things,” he said.
Now retired four years and living in Leon, he divides his time between his herd of 130 Angora goats and working as a substitute paraprofessional.
They Served With Honor: Herb Waugh, Clear Lake
For a long time, Herb Waugh wasn't quite sure if he should call himself a Vietnam veteran.
Waugh, 68, of Clear Lake, worked more than three years as an aircraft mechanic at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, California, from June 1967 to Dec. 1970. He and his crews inspected and repaired C-141 cargo planes going to and from Saigon.
"I look back now and I think, well, I didn't do much," Waugh said recently. "But then I think about it and yeah, I did. You know what I mean? I did do a lot. Just, on my part. What I did was important."
The inner conflict? Waugh fixed the planes. He didn't ride one of them to the front lines and fight.
"I still wish I would've went to Vietnam," he said. "I still wish that. Now, maybe I wouldn't be here today, either. Maybe I wouldn't have a leg. I don't know."
Waugh, of Ohio, volunteered for the Air Force on the advice of his brother. Expecting to be drafted, he wasn't surprised when a draft letter arrived a few days after he signed up with the Air Force.
He followed his brother's advice a second time and volunteered to do basic training in Amarillo, Texas, rather than a larger base. He remained at the Texas panhandle air force base for technical training, and then was sent to Norton Air Force Base in California.
At Norton, he and his crew performed 45-day and 90-day inspections of the cargo planes. Waugh worked the night shift.
It was a detailed process.
The night shift would remove all the access panels to the plane, readying it for inspection.
When the inspection was completed, the crews would begin repairs.
“We would get the aircraft, tow it out on the flight line and then start to work on it and fix all this stuff that they had found during the inspection,” he said.
One of Waugh’s jobs was to go through a log book and assign work from the various shops. When the repairs were completed, he cleared the work with the plane’s crew chief before turning the cargo plane back over to its crew.
“He’d say, ‘Well, Sarge, she’s in good shape. I’ll take it,’ and they would take charge of the aircraft,” Waugh said. “So, I’d pull my guys off and we would go work on another one.”
He loved it.
"I felt like I was doing something," he said.
During the work, he sometimes got a glimpse of what was in the planes. The flights brought servicemen and supplies to the battlefield, but they also brought things back from the front lines.
Once, Waugh saw body bags. They were stacked on racks in the hold of the plane, headed for the government morgue.
He couldn’t help but think of the young marines he’d seen come through Norton on their way to Saigon.
“You see that plane with all the body bags and maybe two or three weeks before that we’d be out there on the flight line and there would be marines sitting over on the flight line getting ready to board a plane to go,” he said. “They had backpacks on, their guns, helmets. Sitting on the flight line — just sitting there a couple hours.
It was an unsettling feeling, wondering if any of those young Marines that came through Norton were on that plane. And he'd lost friends in the war.
“They’re baby-faced kids just like me,” he remembered thinking. “They’re going over there and fighting and a month later you see a plane come in and you wonder.”
Moments like that made him feel like he should have been fighting in Vietnam, not fixing the planes.
Fifty years later, it still lingers. He thought a bit, trying to explain why he feels that way.
In the end, he settles on it being a matter of "honor to the country."
"That's the way I feel about it. Like if there was a conflict now and they needed people, I would volunteer to go do what I could do. Even at 68, I would still go do that," he says. "They wouldn't take me probably, but you know what I mean? But, I would still do what I could at home."
They Served With Honor: Kenny Coe, Ventura
When recalling memories of serving as a fixed wing mechanic in Vietnam, a Ventura man prefers to speak about friends he made, lost and has since reconnected with.
“In the 10-month period of time I was there, it was just amazing the bond you get,” said Kenny Coe. “Every day they’re in your mind for some reason or another, but I’ll never, ever, ever forget them.”
Coe served in the Army’s First Cavalry Division in An Khe, an area in the central highlands region of South Vietnam. He says being chosen as a plane mechanic — something he had little experience in — was just “good luck.”
His job mainly consisted of keeping OV-1 Mohawk aircraft in tip-top shape. Regular repairs invovled replacing tires that blew during take-off or landing, patching bullet holes and repairing or replacing hydraulic pumps.
While in the service, Coe befriended James Makin, an English-born sports car mechanic who worked in aviation maintenance in Vietnam.
Makin died on March 16, 1968, his 28th birthday. Coe said his friend had gotten off guard duty at midnight and stopped by the sergeant's office, where shrapnel was used for paperweight. Similar shrapnel killed him during a rocket and mortar attack after he had crawled into his bunk for the night.
“He was a hell of a kid, a good kid,” Coe said.
He recalled a mission his captain, Cliff McKeithan, narrowly escaped.
McKeithan and another pilot were on a visual mission, flying much lower than they should have been. After spotting the enemy they turned the plane around to take a closer look when the upper windshield took a hit.
“They couldn’t see anything out the front, so they had to look out the sides,” Coe recalled. “They threw the autopilot on, knowing they would have to eject when they got over the base.”
Another pilot quickly launched and flew beside the plane, talking them through a blind landing.
After landing, a .50-caliber bullet was discovered, lodged in the console between their heads.
“That was really scary,” Coe said.
He and McKeithan were able to reunite this summer at Operation LZ in Forest City.
Jellybeans at the ready — McKeithan’s favorite candy — the two reunited much like they had parted ways 48 years prior.
While in Vietnam, Coe and his wife, Sharon, then his girlfriend, kept in touch through 213 letters, which Sharon says she’s saved all these years.
Faced with the possibility that he might not come home from Vietnam alive and leave her a widow, Coe was hesitant to marry Sharon before leaving.
“At least I would have had your last name,” Sharon said softly, as she placed her hand on her husband’s shoulder.
They Served With Honor
They Served With Honor: Dave Haugen, Hanlontown
Dave Haugen spent 10 months and three days on the Mekong Delta during Vietnam.
He only remembers about two weeks.
"That’s probably a good thing," he said.
Haugen, of Hanlontown, was a radio telephone operator in the 9th Infantry Division, 6-31st Infantry.
They were in the jungles and rice paddies, dodging booby traps while searching for enemy soldiers. Haugen was responsible for maintaining communication between the squads in his platoon and the commander of Charlie Company.
"Many times we’d get ambushed out on the rice paddy and the bullets would hit the water and it would splash in your face and didn’t make any difference," Haugen explained. "It didn’t bother me until I thought about it later. And I’ve thought about it for years since."
Even now, he often wakes up at night wondering about a frightened young soldier who was wounded by a booby trap. Or, he'll think about seeing a man walking behind him killed by a bullet to the head as they crossed a river.
"He was like one or two guys behind me and a sniper shot him in the head. And I think about that daily," Haugen said. "I was talking to him one minute and the next he’s laying there and he’s covered up with a poncho, just his boots showing. And I can’t ever forget that."
He credits his wife, Marilyn, for helping him through the years after the war. The first 10 years were particularly rough, he said.
“The good thing that came out of it is I met a wonderful woman, got married and been married almost 44 years," he said. "And, she's been a saint. She deserves a medal of honor. She's a trooper."
The post-war years were made worse by the hostile reception Haugen experienced when he got back to United States.
In California, he was spit on and called a baby killer. Things were better in the Midwest — Haugen remembers reactions being more indifferent, as opposed to outright hostile.
It's much different now. Haugen participated in Operation LZ, a massive welcome home held this summer in Forest City for Vietnam veterans.
He volunteered at the event's museum, telling school kids about the war. He and other volunteers left out the graphic details, of course, but the younger children were still fascinated, Haugen said.
Even before Operation LZ, the tide of public perception had turned.
“I wear a Vietnam veteran's hat and I've been thanked hundreds of times and met tons of nice people, but back in the day when I just got home you didn't do that," Haugen said.
Looking back, Haugen thinks about how hard the war was on his family, especially his parents.
"It was a trying time and I think what I feel bad about is I think it had to be harder on my folks back home than it was on me," he said. "Because, I didn’t get scared of what happened in Vietnam until 10 years later when I thought about it."
They Served With Honor: Glen Pannkuk, Forest City
In 1966, Glen Pannkuk was drafted to fight a war while still a teenager.
In Vietnam, he spent two years as a sniper while he grew increasingly disillusioned with the war.
But a decade after he left the service, he felt compelled to return to make the military a part of his life for decades, re-enlisting to serve with the National Guard through the first Gulf War.
In part, it was to make use of the skills he learned in war to make sure other soldiers were better trained to face combat.
"I saw soldiers in Vietnam die because they weren't prepared," said the Forest City resident, now 69. "With me, that was not going to happen.
"I've always been a realist," he said. "That's why the military has been easy for me to adapt to."
As a sniper he went on multiple combat missions in a solitary job that he said he embraced..
The job was "as close as you'll get to reality," he said. "If you see an enemy, you'll shoot him."
By the time Pannkuk shipped home in 1968 he was questioning the war's purpose.
Even so, upon landing in Oakland, California, he said he and other soldiers were met with protesters who threw beer bottles. Military police ushered the returning soldiers into bathrooms to change out of uniform.
For years, he said, he didn't realize he was struggling with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
He also battled anger issues. Rather than using drugs or alcohol, he preferred picking bar fights to deal with his emotions.
After 10 years in civilian life, in 1978, he made the decision to re-enlist in the National Guard. He was called up for the First Gulf War in 1991, working in water purification.
Even 23 years after his last trip to a combat zone, he was confident of his abilities to return to war.
"I knew if couldn't be any worse than Vietnam," he said.
Its end and how soldiers were greeted coming home was a completely different experience.
"The culture (had) changed a lot," he said.
Pannkuk retired from the National Guard as a master sergeant about a decade later.
In the end, he felt he "did the best I could to take care of my people."
They Served With Honor
They Served With Honor: Denny Hull, Charles City
Denny Hull of Charles City was a member of the "Sea Tigers" — the Army's 458th Transportation Company (Patrol Boat, River) — during the Vietnam War.
The duties of Hull and other members of his unit included escorts, ammo barges, security, night patrols, ambushes and recovery of dead bodies.
The worst part was "picking up bodies out of the river," said Hull, 65.
When they were on the river, "We were just sitting ducks," he said.
The boats had a fiberglass hull so "bullets would pass right through it," he said.
Once while Hull and the rest of his crew were "goofing off" and doing some water skiing, the front of their boat was blown off, he said.
He wasn't injured then, but he was wounded in hand-to-hand combat while capturing a Viet Cong prisoner.
"He wanted to take my arm off," Hull said.
Another time he captured 13 Viet Cong prisoners, earning a Bronze Star.
"The Viet Cong actually had a bounty on me," he said.
Hull, a 1969 graduate of Charles City High School, enlisted in the Army in March 1970 at age 19. He said he enlisted in the Army because of the lack of jobs in Charles City.
He started his Army training on tug boats and then volunteered for river patrol, knowing he would be sent straight to Vietnam.
Hull said he was inspired by President John F. Kennedy, who saved the surviving crew of the PT boat he commanded when it sank in the Pacific Ocean during World War II.
Hull landed in Vietnam on Veteran's Day 1970.
River patrol was done in small groups, "so we got pretty close," he said.
His unit left Vietnam in September 1971 but he stayed behind for a while to help train the members of the Vietnamese Navy who were taking over the river patrol boats.
When Hull first came back from Vietnam, "I was very traumatized," he said.
However, looking back, "I would still do it again," he said.
Hull got a job at the White Farm tractor plant in Charles City when he came home. After the plant closed he started working at Curries in Mason City.
Seven years after he left the Army, he joined the Iowa Army National Guard. He was a member of the 1133rd Transportation Company based in Mason City and went with them to serve in the Gulf War.
They arrived in the Persian Gulf on Veterans Day 1990 — exactly 20 years after Hull landed in Vietnam.
He said the Gulf War was a different experience than Vietnam.
"I was more cautious," he said.
Then 40, Hull was one of the oldest members of the unit and was able to act as a mentor to the others.
He is now retired from both Curries and the National Guard.
Hull and his wife, Linda, have three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
He recently returned from a reunion of his Vietnam unit in Virginia Beach. Some of the boats they used, which had been restored and were operable again, were there.
"I'm proud of my service," Hull said. "I know it was the right thing."
They Served With Honor: Jim Farghum, Mason City
A Mason City man who served in a heavy equipment maintenance company in Vietnam considers himself a proud veteran.
“When my country called me, I didn’t run and hide like some did,” said Jim Farghum. “I showed up and served.”
Farghum was stationed outside Da Nang for 11 months, where he says he worked more in supply than he did as a mechanic.
Before being drafted, he "did a little bit of everything" while working at a local Chevy dealership, which led to his position in the military.
"I wasn't really a mechanic, but that's what they put me down as," he said.
The company’s first compound was next to the Marble Mountain, a cluster of five marble and limestone hills. Across the road was a prisoner of war camp run by south Vietnamese, which supposedly held north Vietnamese soldiers.
Farghum was told someone broke into the camp to help the prisoners escape, but they didn't want to leave.
“They were better off in prison, I guess,” he said. "The conditions there were better than living underneath a tree."
Since their compound was located near a Marine chopper base, the men on guard duty would often watch Marine patrols sneak away in the cover of darkness and return about dawn.
Although the company didn’t experience combat, Farghum said they would be shot at occasionally or would see rockets passing overhead, aimed at the Marine base.
“Once in a while, one would land short,” he said. “We were in the line of fire, so that would cause some excitement.”
The company’s second compound overlooked a river valley, with rice paddies everywhere. A constant week of rain flooded the entire valley, but Farghum said his group was high enough the water didn’t reach them.
During his last few months in the country, Farghum served as the Army representative at the Philco-Ford tire recapping plant, where he says the boss was American, the supervisors Korean and the workers Vietnamese.
“It was an interesting combination to observe in action, but it worked,” he said.
They Served With Honor
They Served With Honor: Jim Zacharias, Hampton
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.
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."
They Served With Honor: Stuart Simonson, Whittemore
Recalling comrades left behind during a 14-month tour as a combat soldier in Vietnam still brings tears to a Whittemore native’s eyes.
“Survivor’s guilt is a tremendous emotion to live with and come to terms with,” said Stuart Simonson. “There’s really no answer or explaining to it; it’s just something you have to learn from and accept.”
Simonson was drafted into the Army in 1969 at age 18. At the time, he had been studying accounting at the Spencer School of Business in northwest Iowa.
He was first assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, serving in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, an area Simonson said was “absolutely miserable” due to swamps, mud and mosquitoes.
There Simonson was part of a line company, which conducted ambushes, sweeps and experienced a fair amount of combat.
He was in that division four months before it was pulled out, due to Vietnamization, or turning over the war to southern Vietnam while reducing the number of U.S. troops. Simonson then moved north to join the 25th Infantry Division.
He worked as an RTO, or radio/telephone operator, someone who is responsible for the unit’s radio.
Instead of the Viet Cong’s booby traps hidden across the Delta, the division faced the North Vietnamese Army’s regularly-trained soldiers.
The day he first saw fellow soldiers killed — late September 1969 — sticks in his memory. Two fell victim to traps, one of whom was the company’s commander.
“It was awful,” he said. "I'm getting a little emotional talking about it."
During other combat, two friends fell to shells that left him untouched, while a third was shot in the head during an ambush. Simonson also witnessed a fellow RTO being pierced by shrapnel after his radio was hit by a shell and exploded.
“When those bullets were landing feet away from you, throwing up dirt and hitting guys around you, you wonder why they didn’t hit you,” Simonson said. “It’s just dumb luck that they missed you.”
Although wounded in combat and often thinking he wouldn’t return alive, Simonson came home relatively unscathed.
Today, he finds himself having more difficulty coping with the after-effects of war.
“For me, as I got older, then it seems it weighs on me,” Simonson said. “I look at my life, which is very nice.
“I survived that whole ordeal and got to experience everything they missed.”
Spending time with like-minded individuals — whether through Veterans Affairs or his local American Legion — has helped reduce the burden. Simonson, vice president of Farmers State Bank in Whittemore, is also active in his small town.
“If it had been me versus them, I’d want them to live a good life,” he said, referencing fallen comrades. “I’m trying my best to do that.”
Simonson plans to retire at the end of this year, but as a CPA will still prepare taxes in the winter. He says he’ll be active in his local Legion and will do community service work.
They Served With Honor
They Served With Honor: Dan Bilharz, Nashua
After Dan Bilharz graduated from Charles City High School in 1970 he enlisted in the Army, hoping for a better job opportunity.
"I got the heaviest equipment that the Army could produce — a rock crusher," said the 64-year-old Vietnam veteran, who now lives in Nashua.
When he arrived in Vietnam, "They put me on an asphalt plant in the middle of nowhere."
His job was to haul asphalt from the plant to build paved roads.
"You never knew if you were going to make it back or not," he said.
When going past the rice paddies with people working in them, "You never knew if they were going to turn around and start shooting at you."
Fortunately, Bilharz was never shot at. However, he now has post-traumatic stress disorder and is easily startled.
If someone makes a loud noise near him or taps him on the shoulder, "I react really badly," he said.
Bilharz also forgets a lot of things and has ringing in his ears. He thinks the ringing is because of being around the asphalt plant. He said they didn't use ear protection then like they do now.
Bilharz is one of seven brothers who served in the military. He also has two sisters.
After Bilharz returned home from Vietnam, he worked at White Farm Equipment for eight years. He then worked for a hog farming operation. After that, he worked at Five Star Cooperative for 22 years.
He is now retired.
Bilharz and his wife, Patty, have two sons who both served in the U.S. Marine Corps. The couple also have six grandchildren.
Bilharz said he never talked about his experience in Vietnam until six or seven years ago, when he attended Rendezvous Days in Fort Atkinson. Others who were there who served in Vietnam saw he had his Vietnam cap on and they started talking to him.
He said the other veterans told him the best thing to do is talk about his experiences and to "stay away from the booze."
Bilharz, who has been arrested twice for operating while under the influence, doesn't drink anymore. He also quit smoking and chewing tobacco.
He even took up running, competing in lots of 5K events. However, running is difficult for him now because he has arthritis and a spur in his heel.
Bilharz attended Operation LZ, a homecoming event for Vietnam veterans that took place in August in Forest City.
"It was great," he said.
He knelt by the Fallen Soldier cross, said a prayer and put a small American flag beside it.
Bilharz said he never got his medals from Vietnam. He said he still hopes to get them, but it would mean dealing with a lot of paperwork.
He always wears his Vietnam cap in public and people come up to him and thank him for his service.
"I wouldn't trade it for anything," he said.
They Served With Honor: Larry Paul, Mason City
With a swift push from a comrade’s boots, a Mason City man’s introduction to ground combat in the Mekong Delta in 1968 began more abruptly than he anticipated.
Fellow soldiers told Larry Paul he’d receive training on transitioning from helicopter to battleground, but he only received brief instruction — jump off the chopper as quickly as possible.
The then-26-year-old wasn’t prepared for the commotion he would encounter.
“As the doors opened, shells were flying and the noise was like hell,” Paul recalled. “I froze because I thought I was dead.”
After being pushed off the aircraft, Paul tumbled into the reeds and water as he heard screaming all around him.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I have to do this for a year?’” he said. “I didn’t think I’d make it.”
Six months later, Paul survived a massive attack on his base camp that killed or severely wounded three-fourths of the Ninth Infantry’s Division Bravo Company and the majority of its cooks. The mess halls and officers’ club were annihilated.
As the mortars began to hit, Paul grabbed his clothes and ran barefoot to the perimeter, severely cutting his feet on a steel walkway in the process.
After slogging through water fertilized with buffalo manure, the cuts on Paul’s feet became infected, swelling to the point where his boots had to be cut off.
While on medical hold, he was assigned to an office job, where he wrote articles for the Alpha Company, detailing what was happening for the higher-ups.
The writing led him to work as a legal clerk, practical experience he was later able to transfer to a 33-year career with Iowa Workforce Development.
Upon arrival back in the U.S., Paul was part of a parade in downtown Seattle that was supposed to be a welcome home.
Parade-goers were divided, Paul said, with one side cussing and name-calling while the other side cheered and threw flowers.
Paul said Gen. William Westmoreland, who had led the parade with Seattle’s mayor, was livid. Westmoreland, who led U.S. forces during Vietnam, instructed soldiers to pack their uniforms away as they headed home.
“We didn’t realize how much hatred there was,” Paul said. “The country was divided almost like the Civil War — it was horrible.
“It didn’t take you long to learn that you didn’t mention anything about being a Vietnam vet.”
Paul, who had studied history and political science at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, planned to teach. The Army led him in a different direction — all over the world.
After seven years away from the military, he joined the Iowa National Guard’s 1133rd Transportation Company. Paul spent a total of 27 years in the National Guard, five months of which were spent during deployment in Desert Storm.
The climate there was much different than what he had witnessed in Vietnam — women asking him to hold their babies and villagers bringing them food.
“It was a huge, unbelievable celebration,” he said. “It really made everything worthwhile.”
And that has helped heal some of the brokenness between him and his sons, he said.
Steenlage said he'd recommend the trip to Vietnam for other veterans, like him, struggling to cope with PTSD.
“They will find out firsthand that the soldiers we fought against are just like Americans. They were forced into (it),” Steenlage said.
Steenlage will speak to the Britt Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, at the Veterans Building, located across from the Britt Municipal Building on Main Avenue South. The event is open to the public.