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.”
The Globe Gazette will publish 50 stories — starting on Veterans Day — about North Iowa’s Vietnam Veterans. The stories will appear on Sundays…
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.