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also known as... Sandy Strait

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What Was It Like In Vietnam?
Honest Answers From Those Who Were There
By Linda Calvin and Sandy Strait
ISBN # 0-88092-049-1 $9.99 155pp.
Copyright 1995, Royal Fireworks Press, NY


TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction

Historical Background

A Prologue to War

A Chronology of the Vietnam Conflict

Part One - Vietnam Through Their Eyes

Chapter One: Introducing the Veterans

Chapter Two: Their Personal Stories

Michael Anthony, demolition specialist U.S. Army (1965-66)
Tom Yanecek, dog handler U.S. Air Force (1966-67)
Mike Kagikis, boatswain mate U.S. Navy (1965, 66-67)
Larry Allen, helicopter door gunner U.S. Army (1966-67)
Leslie Gorsuch, quartermaster U.S. Army (1966-67,68-69,70-72)
Mike Dotson, civic action advisor U.S. Marines (1966-67)
Paul Penkala, combat infantryman U.S. Army (1967-68)
Kerry Wiggins, combat infantryman U.S. Army (1968)
Sen. Charles S. Robb, company commander U.S. Marines (1968-69)
John Doe*, scout sniper U.S. Marines (1968-69)
Ozzie Briada*, medivac crew chief U.S. Marines (1968-71)
Ellen Lally, field hospital nurse U.S. Army (1969-70)
Ed Urias, truck driver U.S. Marines (1969-70)
Jerry Strait, combat infantryman U.S. Army (1969-70)
James Smith*, military security U.S. Marines (1969-70)
Chuck Randazzo, patrol boat gunner U.S. Navy (1969-71)
Julio Gonzales, combat infantryman U.S. Army (1970)
Britt Small, military police U.S. Army (1970)
Louise Lear, evacuation hospital nurse U.S. Army (1970-71)
Al Fischer, combat helicopter pilot U.S. Army (1970-71)
Jim Hasskamp, munitions specialist U.S. Air Force (1970-71)
Bernie Kephart, heavy equipment mechanic U.S. Army (1970-71)
Gary Williams, infantry platoon leader U.S. Army (1970-71)
Ben House, drug counselor U.S. Army (1971-72)
Robert Anderson*, intelligence liason U.S. Army (1971-72) and
Defense Attache Agency (1973-75)

* Pseudonym given upon veterans' request

Part Two - The Veterans Address Important Issues
Chapter One: Support From Home
Chapter Two: Homecoming
Chapter Three: Agent Orange
Chapter Four: Outlook on Life
Chapter Five: Prisoners of War/Missing in Action (P.O.W./M.I.A.)
Chapter Six: Looking Back for Lessons Learned

Part Three - Epilogue: Where the Veterans are Today

The Debate Goes On: Unresolved Questions

Appendix: Students' Questions


INTRODUCTION

"Nobody really cares. They may ask about it, but they really don't care." That's what we often hear Vietnam veterans say about their experiences in Vietnam. So they don't talk about it.

But one group of people who do care, we have discovered is high school students. Given the opportunity to understand the Vietnam experience from an historical viewpoint and to learn about the experiences of people who, like themselves, were young and impressionable, they really want to know what it was like to have fought in Vietnam. They want to know what it feels like to be a veteran of a war that created divisiveness, political cynicism and a new awareness that even though there may be individual acts of heroism, war doesn't always create popular heroes or elicit gratitude from people at home.

Over an eleven year period American History teacher Linda Calvin has invited Vietnam veterans to her classroom at Urbandale High in Urbandale, Iowa, to answer the hundreds of questions formulated by students. Linda's deep concern for Vietnam veterans comes from her own experience as a college student graduating at the time the war was drawing to a close and her concern that her students understand, not only the historical background of the war, but the excitement and trauma of those years. As a result of this commitment, her students spend many hours on this topic, including preparing questions for veterans. The panel presentation, then serves as a culminating activity. These young people have learned enough about the Vietnam Era to care and to want to know about the personal side of the war.

As a member of the panel, Sandy Strait proposed the writing of a book based on the many questions she and the others have answered over the years. Sandy's presence on the panel came about because she is the wife of a Vietnam veteran. In addition, she is the mother of a child who suffers from a birth defect as a result of her father's contact with Agent Orange during his tour of duty.

More than 100 of the actual questions asked by students were sent to Vietnam veterans across the country. Their responses are set forth in this book. We began with the original panel members who have presented at Urbandale High School and included many others as well. The reader must bear in mind that although we have tried to present as many points of view as possible, it would not be possible for us to include responses from more than a fraction of the two and one half million veterans who fought in America's longest war. Therefore, we offer these responses as only a sample and recognize that not every possible question is answered nor every possible point of view is presented. We have presented this material as we received it and have added no viewpoints of our own. The only changes we have made are in terms of grammar or spelling and have in no way changed the meaning or the emotions expressed in the original responses. The opinions expressed are those of the respondents and are not necessarily those held by the authors. Names of veterans marked with an asterisk are pseudonyms. This was done at the request of the veteran.

Our book begins with historical background information in the sections entitled "A Prologue to War" and "A Chronology of the Vietnam Conflict". The text is then divided into two main parts. Part One showcases individual veterans. Each veteran's actual Vietnam experiences is described by the use of questions students asked and the answers given. Part Two is written in narrative form taken directly from the answers given by veterans about important issues which affect them all. The reader is also given personal background and information on what the veteran is doing now. The book ends with a section of resolutions for debate on unresolved questions presented by the war.

Our hope is that the reader will be able to understand to some degree what young audiences who have listened to veterans over the years have experienced, and that some of the questions they might have asked themselves will be answered here. Perhaps this book will serve as a kind of inspiration to other teachers who also desire to achieve both understanding on the part of their students and an appreciation for a generation of soldiers that history would like us to forget. It is our further hope that the many veterans who responded to these questions will know that yes, indeed, we, and many, many others, do care.


AL FISCHER

Like many veterans, Al Fischer felt frustration over the government's policy toward the war in Vietnam. Over and over, as we read the answers to the questions, the same message comes through. The veterans believe that if the government would have backed the fighting men 100% ... given them a clear an obvious goal ... those men who fought in Vietnam could have returned home with a very different feeling about their country, their government, and themselves. As it is, Al, and many others like him, describe a situation which does not correspond to the idealistic picture of men fighting for the defense of right, honesty and human dignity by gaining victory over the forces of evil. Veterans like Al make it very plain that they would fight for freedom and that they are willing to die to protect those they care about, but one can sense a doubt that that is what Vietnam was really all about.

WHY DO YOU THINK THIS WAR AFFECTED VETERANS MORE THAN OTHER WARS?

We didn't have a real goal to work toward. We fought with both hands behind our back. Then we came back to a society with many other problems such as racial tension, anti-establishment attitudes - a changing culture. The biggest problem of all that affected the returning Vietnam vet was there wasn't a de-programming or de- pressuring period. You can't take someone from combat and in less than one week put him back into society as a civilian. Especially a society that took its frustrations out on the Vietnam vet. This I feel has caused the greatest harm of all.

IN WHAT ASPECT OF THE AMERICAN EFFORT WERE YOU MOST PROUD?

How well we actually did perform under the most strained circumstances.

WHAT WAS YOUR WORST OR MOST FRIGHTENING EXPERIENCE IN VIETNAM?....WHAT WAS THE CLOSEST YOU GOT TO BEING KILLED AND HOW DID IT HAPPEN?

I was shot down from 5,000 ft. by 37 mm radar controlled anti-aircraft fire in Laos 20 March, '71. It blew out the nose of the bird and my engine quit. It knocked my co-pilot, crew chief and me out temporarily. My aircraft was shot up very badly from small arms and I was trying to make it back to Vietnam from Laos. I was an MIA for several hours. We were surrounded and under fire the whole time.

WHAT WAS THE HARDEST THING FOR YOU TO DO IN VIETNAM?

Believing I was going to make it, and to put American troops in knowing some would be killed. Then pulling everyone out and leaving the enemy have it all back.

WHAT WAS THE HARDEST THING TO DEAL WITH PERSONALLY IN VIETNAM?

Not understanding why we were dying. There wasn't any direction given to us by our government.

WHAT DO YOU HATE MOST ABOUT THE WAR?

How brutal it is to the human beings that are the pawns for those few calling the shots.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE FIGHTING?

Sheer terror - knowing the next second you could die or worse be paralyzed for life.

DID YOU EVER WANT TO BE KILLED BECAUSE YOU DIDN'T WANT TO LIVE IN THOSE CONDITIONS?

At one time in Laos I was ready to die rather than become a prisoner and be tortured.

WAS IT FRUSTRATING FIGHTING A HIDDEN ENEMY?

Extremely. We wished we could face him.

WHAT WAS CHRISTMAS LIKE THERE?

I re-supplied troops in the field with hot food. I watched one of my friends haul body baggies on his bird. They were hit with friendly artillery on Christmas Eve. They gave the wrong coordinates.

WERE THERE ANY DISCIPLINE PROBLEMS DURING COMBAT?

No, we always finished the missions. However, back at base we at times took a stand not to fly with certain people.

DID YOU EVER GO AGAINST YOUR COMMANDING OFFICERS INSTRUCTIONS WHEN YOU FELT THEY WERE NOT RIGHT?

Only once. I refused to fly a mission with him because I thought it was suicide. Had he been going after Americans I would have gone - he was going after Vietnamese soldiers who weren't defending themselves. That's why I was shot down to start with. He took me to our battalion commander. They told me I would be court martialed the next day. Major Jack Barker and the whole crew of four people died less than one hour later. The next day I flew 16 hours. Nothing was said about a court martial.

DID YOU EVER PARTICIPATE IN ANY FRAGGING OR KNOW OF A FRAGGING INCIDENT?

I never fragged - our C.O. was threatened. The company first sergeant was fragged, but wasn't hurt. I did hear of other people being killed, but you didn't know if they were rumors or reality.

DID NORMAL HAPPENINGS LIKE SLEEPING OR EATING COME HARD TO YOU WHILE IN VIETNAM?

Eventually I drank more to sleep. I lost 30 pounds by the time I came back. It happened gradually.

DESCRIBE SOME PEOPLE THAT YOU BEST REMEMBER.

Young, full of life. Could only see the good things in life. They were caring and brave. They would have given their lives to save another American in trouble.


JERRY STRAIT

The words, "I know just how you feel" are probably the six most misused words in the English language. How does it feel to be in the jungle? The only people who really know are those who have been there and their experiences are not identical. There is no way to know how they feel about their Vietnam experience, and yet, that is the question students most often ask. Jerry Strait spent a year as a "boonie rat"... one of many soldiers who spent most of their time in the jungle ready for combat at any time. How do you survive such an experience, physically or mentally? You do so by doing your duty, numbing your emotions, and staying alive until your time is up and you can go home. As in most wars, kids don't actively think of cause and country when they are in combat: they think of their comrades and how to survive. But like most of the other veterans who answered the questions students asked, Jerry felt proud to fight for his country and would again if necessary. However, Jerry 's experience in Vietnam left his family with a burden for a lifetime. Jerry and his wife Sandy have a daughter, Lori, born with significant birth defects as a result of Jerry's contact with "Agent Orange" during his tour of duty. This part of Jerry's story will be told in another chapter. Here are Jerry's answers to the questions specifically about combat.

WHAT WERE YOUR FEELINGS WHEN YOU FOUND OUT YOU HAD TO GO INTO THE WAR?

I was proud to serve and ready to go.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO BE IN VIETNAM?

If you can imagine a year long back-packing trip through mountains and jungles with people and the environment trying to kill you, you would have a vague idea of what it was like.

WHAT DID YOU FEEL LIKE BEFORE YOU WOULD FIGHT?

At first I was nervous, uncertain of what was going to happen. Later on, I was mainly calm and made sure I was ready and my men were ready. I guess deep down we were all terrified, but in a way that couldn't be seen or even explained.

WHAT DID YOU DO WHILE WAITING?

When we were not moving from one location to another, we ran patrols from around the area we were set up in. If not paroling we would clean weapons, write letters, talk, or eat meals, also sleep if possible. No matter what you were doing, you were always on guard.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO HAVE SOMEONE DIE IN FRONT OF YOU?

In the beginning shock, anger, sadness. After a while, nothing. You hoped you wouldn't be the next and did what you could to keep it from happening to anyone. You also didn't make many friends so you didn't have to feel a loss.

WHAT WAS YOUR BIRTHDAY LIKE THERE AND HOW OLD WERE YOU?

My long awaited twenty-first birthday was spent on patrol in mostly waist-deep water. Before dark we found a hut an built a fire to dry off. As I remember, no one but me knew it was my birthday.

WHAT WAS YOUR CHRISTMAS LIKE THERE?

Christmas, 1969, started out with seven wounded and one dead on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, my rifle and jacket were riddled with bullets, as an N.V. soldier fired 30 rounds at me from an AK-47. Somehow, it only left a blister on my arm and a few fragments in my face. After making an assault on a hill, we spent the afternoon digging up graves looking for hidden equipment. After that we moved back to our position and ate dinner of cold turkey and gravy that had been dropped in by helicopter. On the 24th and 25th I should have been killed.

WHAT KEPT YOU GOING WHEN YOU WERE FIGHTING SO FAR AWAY FROM HOME?

Since dying was the most real alternative, that was the biggest incentive. To go home was the goal. Survival instincts kept you going.

DID YOU EVER SEE ANY BOOBY TRAPS?

We found many booby traps of various types, sometimes they were only found after someone set them off. For our part, booby traps were set mainly for ambushes and not left permanently. However, in the mountains, we would sometimes set traps in our resupply garbage.

WAS IT HARD BEING AWAY FROM HOME A LONG TIME?

Yes, after a while it seemed like it (home) hadn't existed, and the war and jungle were the only things that did.

DID YOU EVER WANT TO BE KILLED BECAUSE YOU DIDN'T WANT TO LIVE IN THOSE CONDITIONS?

Not actually, however, toward the end of my tour I reached a point where I didn't care anymore, and took chances that I shouldn't have. It seemed that living and dying were the same and nothing else existed. My company commander recognized this and sent me on a leave and then put me on a fire support base for my last 30 days.

ARE THE WAR MOVIES AND SHOWS LIKE M*A*S*H ANYTHING LIKE IT WAS IN VIETNAM? WHAT DID YOU THINK OF THE MOVIES Platoon AND Hamburger Hill?

I think the movie Platoon took all the bad things that anyone heard of and put them into one movie to make people think that that's the way it was. Hamburger Hill was more realistic, however filled with movie dramatics.

WHAT WAS THE HARDEST THING TO DEAL WITH PERSONALLY IN VIETNAM?

Day to day living. We lived in the mountains and jungle areas just the same as the enemy, continuously moving and carrying everything we owned on our backs. You lived in the heat, rain, and mud, right along with the animals.

WHAT WAS THE HARDEST THING FOR YOU TO DO IN VIETNAM

Live

WHAT DO YOU HATE MOST ABOUT THE WAR?

Losing so many lives and having nothing to show for it.

WERE YOU PROUD TO FIGHT FOR VIETNAM?

Yes, then and now.

WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER THE MOST ABOUT THE WAR?

The pain of surviving it.


ELLEN LALLY

War evokes images of death, violence, brutality and ugliness. Its hard sometimes to even think of war in any other way. We can conceive of heroism, but even then, we think of that heroism in terms of fighting; with weapons, with violence; to save the life of another fighting man. Caring, concern, love, those aren't words we often associate with war. Yet, the Vietnam War has that side to it too. To listen to the words of Ellen Lally, after all these years, you hear, loud and clear, the compassion she had for those who were in her charge. Her nursing experience in Vietnam has had a deep and lasting impression on her. Contained within her words you can almost feel the hurt, the love, and most of all, the lasting concern she feels for the people she knew in Vietnam. It is very apparent that the year in Vietnam Ellen spent those many years ago is an ever present memory that continues to affect her life today.

Reading her answers to the questions asked, one is impressed by her dedication to people and her concern for their suffering. Equally, one is impressed by how this experience is so much a part of her now.

WHAT WAS YOUR REASON FOR GOING TO VIETNAM?

My mission was to care for the wounded and dying men. I feel very fortunate to have had the experience. I didn't have to kill anyone. As nurses we had a dedicated, compassionate, caring reason for serving our country.

HOW DID YOU REACT WHEN YOU FOUND OUT YOU WERE GOING TO VIETNAM?

I was afraid that I wasn't prepared as a nurse to handle the job of caring for severely wounded men. I was just out of nurses' training and had very little experience. I was worried about my parents and their reaction. I was scared to be so far away from people who loved me.

WHAT DID YOU RELY ON THE MOST TO KEEP SANE DURING THE WAR?

There were several things I relied on to keep me sane. One of the most important was the bond between the other nurses, doctors, medics and patients. We were all there for each other -friendship and love for each other. I relied on my letters from home that kept me in touch with the world and reality. My family was very supportive. Last, but not least, was a sense of humor that was vital in order to keep sane in an insane place.

WHAT WAS YOUR CHRISTMAS LIKE THERE?

Christmas was very lonely. I came from a large family - seven children - and we always were all together at Christmas. My family sent me Christmas presents and I opened them all alone and tearfully. I just wanted it to pass quickly. We did manage to try to decorate our ward for the patients to brighten their holiday, but I didn't feel much like celebrating - I wanted to be home.

WHAT WAS YOUR BIRTHDAY LIKE AND HOW OLD WERE YOU?

I turned 21 years old in 'Nam. The medics baked me a cake and that really touch me. We had a little party and they gave me humorous gifts that they had made. I was truly touched.

WHAT WAS YOUR WORST OR MOST FRIGHTENING EXPERIENCE IN VIETNAM?

For me the brutality of thee war was the worst. Seeing all the men blown apart, their wounds and the dying. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to handle the work load and stress. I wanted desperately to take care of each of them with love and compassion. I gave a lot but I got much more in return.

WAS IT HARD BEING AWAY FROM HOME A LONG TIME?

Yes, it was very difficult. I had never been far away from home. I missed my family each and every day. But I didn't complain because we were all in the same boat; lonely and far away from our friends and family. The year passed very slowly at times.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO HAVE SOMEONE DIE IN FRONT OF YOU?

I saw many patients die and it was a very emotional time for me. I was 20 years old and it made me grow up fast. I felt the loss deeply and it broke my heart over and over. But I was glad I was there for many to ease their pain and comfort them so they wouldn't feel so alone.

WERE YOU SCARED?

I wasn't scared I would die. I was afraid I couldn't be enough to my patients.

DID NORMAL HAPPENINGS LIKE SLEEPING OR EATING COME HARD TO YOU WHILE IN VIETNAM?

I never remember sleeping very well. We worked twelve hour shifts. I couldn't sleep during the day or night because of the heat and because I could hear the medivac choppers coming in and I would anticipate what kind of day or night I would have. Instead of counting sheep, I counted helicopters.

WHAT WAS THE HARDEST THING FOR YOU TO DO IN VIETNAM?

Taking care of the wounded and dying.

WHAT DO YOU HATE MOST ABOUT THE WAR?

The destruction, brutality and killing of so many people. I hate for the men and women who were injured who served to have to live with so many physical and emotional disabilities.

WHAT IS THE BEST THING YOU REMEMBER WHILE BEING STATIONED IN VIETNAM?

The closeness I felt to all the people I cared for and worked with. I felt so needed as a nurse and I gave of myself as a nurse that I could never give again. I have been a nurse for twenty years and my 'Nam experience has touched me deeply. I am proud to have taken care of the bravest men I know: the Vietnam Veteran.

WHAT WAS YOUR OPINION ON THE WAR AT THE TIME YOU WERE THERE?

It was difficult to feel it was right when so many young men, women, and children were dying. I hated that part of the war.

WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER THE MOST ABOUT THE WAR?

I remember most my patients and the people I worked with. I miss that special feeling we had for each other. I wish I could see some of them again.

HOW WAS YOUR HOME LIFE AFTER THE WAR? WAS YOUR FAMILY ANY DIFFERENT AROUND YOU?

My family was not prepared for how I had changed. I was more grown up. They didn't really and can never understand my feelings about my experiences. They wanted and still want me to forget it. Having been through that experience - you can never forget it. It is a part of who you are.

HAVE YOU KEEP IN TOUCH WITH ANY OF THE PEOPLE YOU WERE STATIONED WITH?

No, and I miss them. I wish I could see them and talk about the war and how they are doing.

ARE THE WAR MOVIES AND SHOWS LIKE "M*A*S*H" ANYTHING LIKE IT WAS IN VIETNAM?

Many things in the war movies and shows like "M*A*S*H" were similar to Vietnam: The closeness we all felt for each other, the sense of humor, the feelings of not being able to stop the awful war, and the wounding of young men.

DO YOU LOOK BACK AT THE WAR AND REMEMBER ONE INCIDENT THAT YOU WISH YOU COULD HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY?

I wish I could have given more of myself to my patients. We were so busy meeting physical needs and at times were not there for them emotionally. I regret that.


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