It’s that busy time of the year again. Friends and families gather to celebrate the Christmas Holidays, the Jewish Holidays, Native American Holidays and others; along with the winter solstice, the New Year Holiday on Jan.1, 2017 and the Lunar New Year celebrated by Asian Communities throughout the world, known this year as the Year of the Rooster around January 28th, 2017. Yes, we have lots to celebrate!
I too have lots to celebrate this year! This post may ramble a bit from my normal hiking adventures, but please bear with me, as it is my intention to describe a few of the many important things I am happy to be celebrating with family and friends this special season. Undoubtedly, much of my interest in hiking, camping and backpacking relates back to my early scouting and military experiences.
Fifty years ago this month, I deployed to Vietnam -Dec. 1966. I was 19 years old, and enlisted with a high school friend after a couple of quarters of community college. I went through US Army Basic Training at Ft. Leonard Wood, MO and then joined the US Army Corps of Engineers for advanced training at Ft. Belvoir, VA. Post Belvoir, we regrouped at Ft. Benning, GA and prepared for Vietnam.
I sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge on a large troop carrier with a few thousand others, most being members of the 1st US Air Cavalry Division, in early Dec. 1966. We were all dropped off along the coast of S. Viet Nam from near Saigon on the south, then north to the Central Highlands. My unit was dropped in Qui Nhon Harbor, and we went ashore in amphibious-landing craft.
We then moved 20 mi up Hwy. 1 along the coast and set up camp at the base of a mountain. Tents on wooden platforms, well-trenched to keep the water away. It was Christmas, 1966. We lived in tents for six months while we built roads, ditches and other infrastructure to support a maintenance battalion, just south of the Central Highlands. We cleared a trail to the top of the mountain, built bunkers and observation points, established perimeter security, yada yada. Monsoon rains, heat, humidity, clothes that were never dry– they simply rotted. Guard duty every few days, three hours on and six hours off routine –that was the game for the initial few months anyway.
I was with a light equipment maintenance unit, supporting mostly gasoline/diesel power generation, some vehicles and some early night-vision. It wasn’t long until I was assigned a 3/4 ton pick-up truck with a canvas topper, and I hit the local roads doing equipment pickup/delivery and on-site repair for US forces, S. Vietnamese Regulars, the Aussies, and S. Koreans. No convoys, I was on my own out on the road, and I liked it. Sometimes I traveled by helicopter when time was critical.
Eventually the drive distances got longer during the later months of 1967. The enemy seemed to be getting stronger, inflicting more damage, and I was a maintenance guy. I started traveling north on Hwy 1 (the main N-S land-travel route in S. Viet Nam), and off on side-roads up in the Central Highlands — places around towns like Ahn Khe and Pleiku. It was a land of red mud, or dust – depending on the season, and hot lead! We used convoys more often now, but not always. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was up near the Cambodian border, which explained some of the rough and tumble changes we were experiencing.
In November of 1967, I extended my tour of duty. What’s that old saying – when the going gets tough, the tough get going! 😉 Anyway, as part of the extension deal, I’d get an ‘early-out’ to go back to school. Thus, my overall enlistment would end a few months early. My first year went pretty well, it seemed like a good idea. But then, what does a twenty-year-old really know about such things? You just might be surprised! In mid-December 1967, I boarded a plane and flew home on a 30 day leave. I was home for Christmas!
My leave ended and I returned to my unit in late January, 1968. On my first tour we all went over as a unit. Then when the tour ended, everyone pretty much rotated back to the states. When I returned on my 2nd tour, the old guys were mostly gone and everyone was new, which seemed a bit strange.
On about my second day back, I was lying on my bunk after lunch, resting before going back to work. Suddenly there were some explosions and everyone started running around. In the past, every week some dud- artillery rounds were detonated right down the road over noon-hour, a regular occurrence. So I just laid there watching everyone scrambling around, kinda laughing to myself. Then I heard automatic weapons fire -I grabbed my rifle as I exited the barracks… last one out the door! Turns out it was the start of the Tet Offensive. It was either the 30th or 31st of January, 1968! Happy New Year!
So it’s my second day back, middle of the day. I’m in a drainage ditch in my secure compound, watching tracers flying over my head and slamming into the buildings and vehicles behind me. I quickly found better cover from down-range fire, as we were probably 50’ above the perimeter wire, so I had that quick advantage. It wasn’t long until the engagement was over. But there were others, mostly at night for a few more weeks. I was glad my 2nd tour would be shorter than the first!
I tended to drive in convoys much more during my 2nd tour, which often meant some heavier guns and often air-cover. My truck accumulated some bullet holes during that last tour, and I was glad when it ended.
Shortly after I’d returned to the fight, I found out my good friend and cousin Denny Brown, a Warrant Officer (WO), chopper pilot, with the 5th Cavalry, 9th Infantry Division had been killed while flying a rescue mission down south. Other long-time friends from elementary and high school also died in Viet Nam.
I had a few months remaining to serve state-side before being discharged, and I spent it back at Ft. Belvoir, just outside Washington, D.C. I spent most weekends in D.C. visiting the historic landmarks, happy to be back home in America… happy that I’d made it!
Over 58,000 Americans died in S. VietNam.
And yes, I still celebrate making it back alive fairly often! Too many of us didn’t!
I continue to celebrate so much in my life! Post-military, I met the love of my life Judy, and we’ve raised a beautiful family together over the past 45+ yrs. We have two beautiful daughters; three grandsons, one grandaughter and two fantastic son-in-laws with whom to share our lives. Life can definitely be rewarding. Then there is the larger, extended family that we’ve all become a part of. It’s all simply amazing! Never take it for granted!
Yet, I remain in the midst of the biggest celebration of my life. Yes, that’s a fair statement!
Last week, after feeling a growing tightness in my chest over recent weeks, I walked into the ER at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, MN to announce that ‘I have chest pains, and a tingling in both arms… down to my elbows.’ In a matter of minutes I was on a table, and wired up to monitors. Thus began one of the most challenging weeks of my life.
Long story, short – I underwent a Triple Coronary Artery Bypass (CAB)procedure to create new paths for blood and oxygen to flow to my heart. The several hour procedure was performed by my surgeon, Dr. Peter Dyrud, MD and his Team at Methodist Hospital. My sincere thanks to Dr. Dyrud, his Team, the Registered Nurses and Nursing Aides who have made my recovery possible. This was a Team effort and we prevailed! Hallelujah! Thank God and thank each of you for your help along the way! Peter, you’re a scholar and a gentleman and one fine doctor – thank you sir!
I look forward to seeing many of you on the trail later this spring/summer, and talking with you over the air by radio as well. And Ken, get well soon over there in Chicago… see ya soon bro! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all! 73, de Mike, KEØGZT