A Year that Changed a Lifetime
Profilers: Tony Hsieh, Eric Hsu, and Alvin Liu
MIDDLE AMERICAN BOY
You know Vietnam was probably the second greatest thing that ever happened to me. The first greatest thing that ever happened to me was surviving the aftermath of Vietnam, and I’m still doing that so I consider that one of my great life achievements: trying to be productive, trying to get past some of the things that happened after something like a Vietnam.
Born in Butler, Pennsylvania, small town. Had one high school. Moved to Youngstown, Ohio when I was in fifth grade: different kind of town, steel town, blue collar, lot of sports, lot of tough guys. So I had a nice time as a kid there, graduated high school in 1965. And bought my first car: 1961 thunderbird, so I was thinking I was pretty cool then at 18. Got a job right away, right out of high school, thought I wanted to start making money and work. Was doing pretty well for the first year, and didn’t know anything about Vietnam – didn’t even know where it was. Didn’t pay attention to it. I was interested in cars and girls and trying to become cooler than I was. That was what I was into. The summer of ’66, I guess the Vietnam War started picking up.
I got the letter in the mail, requesting my presence to be inducted into the Army. And the same type of thing happened to most of the other guys in my class, everybody that wasn’t a full time student or married. Pretty much got a draft notice or some kind of notification to be inducted or sign up or something like that. So I went into basic training August of ’66, and I was, you know, soon as I…you know there’s a lot of talk all the time about doing this, doing that, somebody, people trying to get out of the draft. In 1966, it wasn’t quite as well known that Vietnam was really heating up and protesting was going on and people were trying to decide what to do about their military service. When I got drafted, my dad, my two uncles, many of the parents and fathers in our town went to World War II, Korea, so I didn’t even think twice about going in to the military. I just thought it was my duty, and I was proud to do my duty.
I got a notice to go to advanced infantry training at Fort Polk, Louisiana – “Tiger Land.” There’s actually a movie called Tiger Land; it’s quite good actually. But I went to train at “Tiger Land” and it was sort of known that if you’re gonna go to “Tiger Land” and be training in the infantry you’re gonna go to Vietnam: that’s what they’re training you to do. But still, you know, small town kid from middle America, I still didn’t know much about Vietnam. I still didn’t even after basic training. It didn’t really occur to me it was for real, and I was going there. So I went to Fort Polk, Louisiana, began additional advanced infantry training, lived in the Everglades for 9 weeks. Actually, I remember when I got to Vietnam, we were all talking about how, “Wow Vietnam is a lot better than Fort Polk, Louisiana.” So during the training at Fort Polk, everybody starts telling you, all the instructors are preparing you to, what’s coming: “You gotta pay attention otherwise, we don’t want you dead. So pay attention, we’re gonna try to save your life.” That’s when it started getting a little serious about, “Wow I think we’re actually going to this war.” So as the training went on, I remember, when it was coming to an end, I remember getting a map somewhere and looking on this map to find out where Vietnam was. I didn’t even know where it was. I had never heard of Vietnam before being inducted really. Didn’t know anything about it, and I looked on this map, and I remember thinking, “Wow that’s a very remote place to go.” You know, why anyone would wanna go there.
So training finished, we got to go home for a couple of weeks. Normally when you get out of basic training you go home for a month. You get a month leave. It wasn’t any leaves at that point in time because I think they were accelerating the need for more troops, and they were speeding up everything. So they gave us two weeks after seventeen weeks of training – they gave us two weeks off. It was December of ‘66 for me. I went home to Ohio, saw my folks. Really started getting mentally prepared for going to Vietnam. And I remember one of the images I had most was saying good bye to everybody at the Youngstown, Ohio airport – little tiny airport. The kind where you walk out of the door, and you walk out into the snow, and you walk to the plane. It wasn’t any kind of terminal or secured stairwell that you go through. You just walked out into the snow, and you walked to the plane, and you walked up the steps and got on the plane. And I remember going down the line, and I shook hands with everybody, hugged the women, shook hands with the men, saw my sister, my dad, my mother, and some uncles and all that. And I just sort of said goodbye, and I started walking toward the plane, and I turned around, and I waved one time, and I remember thinking that, you know it just occurred to me, that I might not see these people again. So it helped to be 19 because you still have a little bit of “immortal soul” – nothing’s gonna happen to you. I guess when they…It’s probably a good idea to have troops that are very young men because you’re still pliable and you don’t know much. You don’t know what really could happen to you. So got on the plane and…left. And I always thought about how tough it was for the family to see a young kid in their family go to a warzone. Like, I kind of knew where I was going, but they only would have to imagine what it’s gonna be like. They didn’t know anything. They would have to battle their imaginations every day and every night, when you watch the war on television, and you see, they only show you the nasty parts of the war. They talk about the death counts, they show you you know little firefights and battles here and there, and you think that that’s what goes on every single minute of every day, and it’s really not true. It doesn’t always go on like that. But you think that’s the way it is. So I always thought, you know, being the family members, being at home and knowing that your kid is somewhere in a war. It would be pretty agonizing to think about what he’s doing every day.
So went to Oakland, Travis Air Force Base, got all my gear, got orientation – I guess is what they were doing. Four or five days later, got on the plane, and we left, took off for Vietnam. And the plane ride over is one of the funny things about Vietnam: you don’t really go over a lot of guys didn’t go over with a unit. You go over as an individual, you don’t know anybody, you don’t go over with a unit you trained with. Some units do, but in my case, that was not the case. I was just a replacement, so I went by myself. I didn’t know anybody, and all of a sudden you’re in a plane with guys you’ve never seen before, and they’re all going to Vietnam with you. So there’s a certain instant camaraderie about all of that, you know, you get close to people really quickly when you’re in a similar situation like that. January ’67, I’m on my way to Vietnam.
So basically we get to Vietnam, and it’s our first day. And you’re kind of looking around your side, you’re trying to size everything up, you’re smelling the thing, you’re feeling the temperature, you’re feeling the humidity…The sounds. But there’s a particular smell in Vietnam. I think a lot of guys would say so. There was a particular smell, I think, a lot of people…And a lot the actual people who lived in Vietnam cooked outside a lot. They had a specialized kind of diet, I’m sure, because the smell was in the air all the time. And it was always a tropical kind of a climate, so people did a lot of things outside. I really was…I wasn’t really scared. I was sort of like, I was feeling OK because I was instantaneously…You feel like you’re with a bunch of other guys that are in the exactly same situation you’re in. You haven’t seen or heard any bad news yet really.
So we get to the 90th replacement, and the very first day, the sergeant goes down the line and goes, “You, you, you, you, come with me.” Put us on guard duty. So we’re gonna stay outside on the perimeter at night. So my very first day in Vietnam, I’m on perimeter guard at night, and I’m going like “yeaaaah.” And you start imagining all these things ’cause you hear about you’re on guard duty, and they’re gonna sneak in, and slit your throat, and they’re gonna throw grenades, and they’re gonna kill everybody, and that’s what you start thinking. So when you’re out there on guard duty at night, the first night, you really do start imagining lipitor and seeing. You see things moving out there. There’s a lot of air traffic in Vietnam all the time. There’s 20, 30, 40 helicopters in the air all the time, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They were like the taxi cabs in Vietnam, and anybody that’s going anywhere you take the helicopter. There’s always the sound, and there’s always the feeling that some things are going on ‘cause you can hear explosions going on in the distance, and it’d be a couple miles away. Lot of explosions. You hear gun fire once in a while. And when you’re on guard that first night, your eyes are like as big as saucers, and you can’t even imagine how sometimes you hear about guys falling asleep on guard duty. You go, “How could it be possible to fall asleep on guard duty.” You can’t even imagine not paying complete attention every second. But…so the end of that first night, all of the things that we saw moving out there, we…the dawn finally showed up, and you look out there and it’d happened to be some kind of a little mound of dirt, there was a stump over there, there’s a tree that somebody tried to cut down over there and you thought that these were moving objects at night because your imagination does that.
So the first day, you were already fighting an enemy that’s in your head.
Yeah, the first day is, you…it sort of all comes together about what they were telling you that you gotta pay attention every minute: you can’t ever relax in Vietnam, you gotta. You’re about to be dead if you make a mistake. You’re gonna step on something, somebody’s gonna shoot you, you know, and you’re never gonna see it coming. That’s the thing about it. So, you sort of have that in your head at first.
So that’s basically what happened, training and getting to Vietnam. I was 19 years old, just like most of the other guys. I think the average guy was 19. I just remember thinking that in my head I was counting the days. One of the nice things was, once you leave Oakland, I think those days become part of your twelve month time there. So, if it took you a week to get there, that’s a week that you got for free. You didn’t have to be in Vietnam for the week, and that actually happened to us because we had some plane trouble on the way over, and it took us actually a week to get there. So I got a free week where it went against my time, but I wasn’t actually there. I went to the 199th infantry brigade. Light weapons infantries in it, recon, search and destroy missions, that sort of thing. I was an infantryman. They took us up to our base camp. Everybody lived in large tents. And the unit had gotten there about two months before I got there, so they were still sort of setting up things, they were, you know, people were living in tents as I said. And when you get to the base camp, you know, they give you a day or two to get settled. You get your, you know, you figure out what you’re supposed to be doing, and you eventually figure out what unit you’re gonna be assigned to. And you meet…you’re in a situation again where you’re the new guy. Someday you’ll find out what an FNG is; that’s what I was. Everybody’s an FNG at the beginning. But when you first get there, your real instinctive human action is to probably become familiar with somebody. You wanna feel at least like you know somebody, or you wanna maybe talk to somebody that’s from your hometown or your state, or maybe you trained in the same place. Something a little familiar gives you a little help with regard to not feeling like you’re on the other side of the world, and you don’t know a single soul. It’s very funny about Vietnam…you become the new guy, you don’t know anybody, and you don’t even know that a guy over there might take a bullet for you, and you don’t even know his name, or where he’s from. That’s a very odd thing at first. So, I think natural instinct is to, you know, become a little familiar as soon as you possibly can with other people ’cause you’re all in the same boat a little bit and it helps to make you feel some sense of security if you’re you know a couple of days in you meet…
The secret about Vietnam is that, I think a large percentage of guys that went to Vietnam did not actually do any real fighting in combat because there’s so much needed support in so many categories: transportation, communications, road building, ammunition, medical. I mean there’s dozens and dozens of fields and these positions need to be manned by people that aren’t necessary combat soldiers. So I would say, I don’t know the exact numbers, fifty, sixty, seventy percent of guys in Vietnam did actual jobs, you know. They worked on base camps, they worked on the air strips, whatever. It wasn’t everyone that was a combat soldier but you’d think if you went to Vietnam, people’s images in their heads is that you were in combat all the time and it was nasty and you probably went crazy.
What was the perception of the combat soldier? Did the comm guy want to be out there too? Medics?
I don’t think anybody in their right mind would want to be out there really. There were probably some guys that really probably liked… you know they were good at the training, they volunteered. There were some guys that volunteered to be in combat. That’s what they wanted to do, and they got to do it. In my particular case I ended up in the infantry because maybe I was a good shooter, physically very capable in basic training . I don’t know. I don’t know who makes the decision on that but I was an 11B10 – that was your military occupational code. I will tell you that the first week we were in base camp, about 2 am one night, I was there about a week, about 2 am, all of a sudden all of these explosions started happening. We’re getting a mortar attack, bombs are going off, explosions, everybody’s diving for the sand bags, and we’re still kind of new. I’m new, most of the other guys are still kind of new. They’ve been for a couple of weeks or a month or whatever. And we’re grabbing our weapons, grabbing our steel helmets, our flak jackets, and we’re diving for the sandbags and trying to figure out what exactly is happening ‘cause, you can’t hear a thing except explosions one after another after another after another, and we think, “This is my last night, I’m gonna be blown up tonight.” I remember when I was laying there on the first fifteen or twenty minutes, it was very clear to me to this day I remember laying there. I felt very sad for my family because I thought if I get blown up all they’re gonna be able to do is pile my bones and my teeth and my skin and chunks in a coffin and close the lid. And they’ll never get to see me they won’t even know it was really me. Or even worse, what if they just never find my body? So I was thinking that the first fifteen minutes of this whole thing. And I felt really sorry for my family because they would have to see their kid end up that way. But thirty, forty, fifty minutes into it I remember thinking, “Jesus Christ, I’m still alive, and I’m still not blown up yet.” And long story short, the explosions lasted about twenty two hours without stopping. And we found out later that our tents were positioned very close to an ammo dump, and the ammo dump had been sabotaged. And I think they lost twenty or twenty five million dollars’ worth of ordinance that night. And the explosions just never stopped until the last one – it took that long to go. So we were all thinking first couple of hours, plus its dark, you don’t know what’s happening, you think, “This is it, first week.” And you’re also thinking, “Boy, if this is what it’s like the first week, I’ve got 350 days left to go yet!” And you think, “Oh my gosh, I’m just never going to get through this, this is too tough man.” But you know what happens is, after you’ve been there for a couple of week or a month, once you get a month in, you feel a little bit, you have a little bit of confidence. You can strut your stuff a little bit, and there are guys that are coming in that are newer than you. And they’re the new FNGs and not you.
I think there’s a natural thing that takes place with anything, sports teams, or military, or fraternities, or who knows what. New guys tend to get no respect until you’ve earned your stripes a little bit, and guys get to know you, and know you’re maybe dependable or a stand-up guy. And once you’ve been around a little bit, and you learned a couple of things, and you’ve paid a little bit of dues, you start feeling like you can relax a little bit, you can settle in a little bit. You’re not thinking that the world’s coming to an end every day now. It’s like, “Oh, I’ve lived a month, and I only have eleven to go.”
A WAR NOT FORGOTTEN
The situation that happened for me, I actually had some difficulty with, maybe never been able to explain why this happened to me but it did, lucky for me. There was a few operations went on, and, you know, recons that sort of thing. But very soon, one of our guys was leaving the unit, and they needed a replacement for this guy. He had a very specialized job. And they were looking for someone that was a good writer and could type. So one day, I was on guard duty, and I was having a cigarette and sitting there with my M16 and my helmet off and just having a smoke. And I started talking to this guy, and he was telling me that his friend was leaving the following week, and they needed someone to replace for his job. They needed someone that could do these things. And I said, “I can type.” I actually took typing in Youngstown, Ohio at Chaney High School. I thought I was going to be a writer, so I took typing. And I actually could type, and I told the guy I could type. And he said, “Really,” and I said, “Yeah.” He went over, he went back to the base camp and talked to this captain, and he came back, and he says, “You go see this captain tomorrow morning.” So the following morning, I went to see him, and he says, “Can you type?” and I says, “Yes, sir.” And he said, “Let me see ya,” and so I did a little typing on a typewriter sitting on an ammo box and typing a little bit. “All right, listen this guy is leaving next week, and he’s gonna teach you the job, and when he leaves, you’re the guy. You’re going to do this job.” The job was you picked up the casualties and you did the reports on the killed, wounded, missing.
We took the information on all the circumstances, and I wrote the letters home to the parents about their sons being killed, all the circumstances and what happened. And that was my job. So I basically was reassigned from the infantry to the casualty unit, and I ran the casualty unit. For the remaining eight months of my tour, I wrote over a hundred letters. We had about a forty percent casualty rate in my unit between killed and wounded, which is a pretty high number. We had about five thousand guys in my unit, and about fifteen hundred of them were wounded or killed. I think we lost 448 men in my unit you know, killed. That particular job and the way I got it, and why I got it, when I was younger I didn’t realize how lucky I was that day. ‘Cause about a minute later or a minute before, I wouldn’t have had a smoke with that guy. And he wouldn’t have heard me say I could type, or I wouldn’t have heard them say they were looking for somebody. And I would have just went on my assignment as an infantryman and very easily could have been a casualty. Turned out for me that wasn’t going to be the case. So when I was younger, and I got out of the service I didn’t necessarily think philosophically about that, but as you get older, you start thinking about these things. You start thinking about why, and the tough part for me was that I knew somebody that took my place, and that somebody could have been someone I wrote a letter home to.
I ran into some problems later in the late ‘70s. I went to see a couple of films. I actually found some photo negatives in my belongings in the late ‘70s, and I didn’t know what they were so I took them to one of those one hour photo places. I was out in California by that time. I had them developed, picked them up. And I’m sitting in the car in the heat that summer, and took the pictures out and started looking at them. And they were pictures from Vietnam, and I had never remembered seeing these pictures. I don’t know what happened to the pictures, I just have the negatives. When I saw these pictures it was for the first time. And I remember sitting in my car, having this massive anxiety attack about… it was almost like the ten years between ‘78 and ‘68 had been completely erased, and I was sitting there in this car in Vietnam and I was just, thought my head was going to come off. I just couldn’t catch my breath, my heart was pounding out of my chest, I was nauseated. I actually had to get out of my car. Unfortunately, it was like a hundred degrees that day so the heat didn’t help. But that was sort of the beginning of having I guess what they call PTSD, like ten years later some of the stuff showed up. And it was nasty. It was not funny. And I really had a hard time with it for quite a while. I had a real job at that time; I had a hard time going to work. I wasn’t really…I wasn’t living a haphazard life. I wasn’t a drug user per say. I was a drinker. But some of the circumstances of Vietnam just hit me that day. And from that moment on for quite a long time, years, I really never got free of anxiety or just flashing back on a few things. It actually changed my life. So it took me eight or ten years to get myself to be reasonably functional and even to this day, I still manage some of my aftermath.