Robert B. Elliott

Looking for a change of scenery

Profilers: Brian Casebolt, Hung Lac

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A Young Man in Vietnam

What was your life like before the war, and why did you volunteer?

I enlisted in the army when I was eighteen because I was bored.  I had worked as a carpet layer and I worked in the grocery store and I had a night job working in a restaurant and I didn’t really like anything I was doing so I enlisted in the army in November 1967. I wanted a total change. It wasn’t that I didn’t like living at home or didn’t want to live in Denver but I was bored with what I was doing. I knew it wasn’t for me. I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to Buy naprosyn do with my life. I just decided that I was going make a total break with everything, join the military, and see where I went.

What were your initial impressions of Vietnam?

When I first stepped off the airplane at the beginning of my first tour in Vietnam it smelled like shit. That was the first thing that struck me and that’s really what it smelled like over there.

I served with a lot of draftees and their attitude was not sterling like my own. Actually, they were really good people. They were forced to go to Vietnam and they didn’t like being there. The difference was that I had volunteered and I tried to enjoy myself and they tried to enjoy themselves while being miserable.

What did you want to do in Vietnam?

I wanted to drive a tank. I heard my Uncle Chuck’s stories when I was growing up from my dad and from him. I thought that was the most glorious thing that I’d ever heard, being a tanker in World War II. But I was too tall. You can’t be over five foot, ten inches to fit in a tank.

They told me when I was taking the exams that becoming a clerk would allow the greatest amount of flexibility because when they go into the unit they can ask for any type of training that they wanted. It turned out to be really true.

A Man of Many Talents

What did you end up doing for the military in Vietnam?

I didn’t have any common days. I did a bunch of different things when I was over there. I went over as a clerk typist; that was my MOS. I was in an office full of army intelligence officers and I was charged with keeping the top secret files. They drove me so crazy that I was getting an ulcer. I didn’t like that job so I got out of it. That was when I went to briefing Creighton Abrams at the army operation center at Long Binh in Vietnam.

One morning I made a joke with Abrams about these reports that we were making up about the enemies killed. My reports, at first, were terrible because they weren’t killing enough guys around the country, VC, you know. Then the sergeant that I worked under told me that this is what you had to do, that no wonder Abrams is sore, we’re not getting the body count, so you got to fix it, you got to pad them a little bit. So then when I padded them, I thought it was great fun and I told Abrams one morning that they are not real anyway. He got all pissed off. He said, ‘you mean my people are lying to me and screwing with me?’ I couldn’t work there after that because all these guys that had told me to do it were in serious shit, so I went to a different unit.

They got me a job with the Army Concepts Team In Vietnam (ACTIV) in January 1969. I really liked my job with ACTIV and they really liked me. I got an award and I was the first enlisted man ever given this award by that unit. We evaluated new weapon systems in country. Now of course it is old hat but the first time they introduced the M-16 with the grenade launcher underneath it, I was in the team that evaluated that and went out to train people how to use it. I had a really good friend, a sergeant, he was the instructor. He wouldn’t let me go with him on one of those training trips when he was going into the central highlands to train an ARVN unit. I was supposed to go with him but he wouldn’t let me. He told me he didn’t want me and I would be of more use at the base so they told me ‘no, you are not going’. Turned out it was probably a good thing. They got overrun and he was killed.

I was a door gunner for ACTIV as well, first for the UH-1B and then the C and finally the D. We nearly always came back with bullet holes in the airplane or in the helicopter. We didn’t always know we were getting shot at. A couple of times like on a medivac, you just keep the machine gun going. In particular I was firing into the jungle, and you would see some flashes occasionally but you have no doubt they were shooting at you. In particular, if you look down at the southern end of Vietnam, there’s a place we called the Parrot’s Beak becuase of its shape. It looks like a beak coming out of Cambodia right in the Mekong River. So when we flew in there in particular we would come out with bullet holes nearly every day. I was shot down twice when I was in Vietnam. It was kind of harmless actually.

I was a pretty marginal soldier, honestly. I did my job well, as far as when I was a door gunner. I think I was probably pretty good. I kept the gun going faster and it was bad ammunition that interrupted you. You would have to crank a lot of rounds out and that was really dangerous because they could explode when they were coming out in your face. You can do those kinds of things if you were determined. I melted the fingers on my left hand when I tried to change the damn barrel one time.

About every other day we flew, and in between I typed occasionally but most of the time I was the colonel’s driver. I saved his bacon on the road one morning and he liked that. He thought I had quick reflexes and so from then on, whenever we went someplace, I was his driver and we had great fun together. He was an old guy. I think he must have been 60 years old. Colonel Geary was his name. Hell of a neat guy, and a pilot too. Most of the guys that I served with were pilots that I really liked and was friends with.

Back In The States

When you returned home, did you feel unappreciated by the American public?

When I took my leave from Vietnam in October 1969 I came home and went hunting with my dad (I killed a nice big buck on the hunting trip) and then flew to Minnesota. It was fall of course and the leaves had just turned so it was a beautiful time of the year. I had a fairly good reception from most family, a lot of friends, and a lot of common strangers.

I had one cab driver that dropped me at home on leave. He was a real asshole. He told me that he wanted a bigger tip than what I was giving. He told me, ‘you baby killers are all the same, you cheap bastard.’ I think I might have told him to get out of the car or something. I don’t remember how I responded, but I wasn’t too impressed. I grabbed the five dollars back from him and threw his money in the snow so he had to come out and around to get it.

A Second Tour

What did you do when you returned to Vietnam?

When I extended my tour to a second year, they gave me my choice of jobs and I picked the Rest and Recuperation center at Vung Tau in South Vietnam. I can tell you the reason I wanted to go to the R&R center was because I didn’t want to be sitting next to that JP-4 fuel in that door gunner spot and burn because if that fuel started spilling out and another round came in or there were a spark from the engine or anything else, then you went down in flames.

They didn’t have room in the R&R center, so they made me a courier. I had a top secret security clearance and they had an Otter (airplane) company called Big Daddy. Otters are short landing and takeoff airplanes that can take off in about 300 yards and have a good glide ratio. If the engine gave out, they could always find a place to land so we would never ever have to land in enemy territory. Often though, I had to take whatever transport was available. I got on C-130s that were stacked along the sides with guys in body bags. I always said I was going to live for those guys.

After the War

What did you do after the war?

When I was in Vietnam still, I had decided that I wanted to go to college. When I came home, I enrolled at Metropolitan State College in Denver. I graduated in 1974, I continued going to school for a while and I had a Bachelor degree in psychology and sociology, it was a combo kind of degree. Then I had a minor in biology, a minor counseling, and a minor in political science. Those were my interests, as I wanted to find out why in the hell people were doing the kinds of things to each other that I saw in Vietnam.

I was working for Albertsons through college for about 13000 dollars per year in 1975. The job that I had really wanted the whole time was probation officer for Jefferson County. I was offered the job in 1975 and I turned it down. They paid 12,500 dollars and they were offering to give me the third step salary. I would have been working 60 hours per week, required to wear a suit, on call 24 hours per day. I figured that making 13,000 dollars working 40 hours a week at a job that I can just go home and forget about was a better way to go. I am very proud of my work in the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. I became a union representative in 1980, union organizer, and later on, editor of the union newspaper.

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