More than 3 million men and women served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.
Eight of them shared their experiences Saturday during a Veterans’ Day event held at the Neosho Civic.
Speaking at the Civic were Tom Higdon, a 2nd Lt. with the Army’s 25th Infantry, Military Intelligence Detachment, who served a tour of duty in 1969; the Rev. Dr. Bill Doubek, a staff sergeant with the Army’s 56th Special Operations, who served two tours of duty, one in 1970-71, the other in 1975; George Gore, Captain, United States Marine Corps’ Battery E, Second Battalion, 11th Marines; Steve Henton, U.S. Army E-5, Company C, 75th Rangers, 1968-69; Gary Markesen, United States Marine Corps, Marine Air Group 12, three tours in Vietnam, 1967-69; Bill Lentz, U.S. Army, 299th Engineer Battalion, 1967-68, 1st Cavalry Division (1970-71); Jim Jackson, United States Navy, took part in Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of Saigon in 1975; and Gary Gray, United States Navy, radioman third class, 1971-74.
Higdon feared he was going to be drafted into the Army and decided to enlist instead, so he could enter Officer Candidate School. Out of his OCS class of 125, all but two went to Vietnam. Higdon spent his time in country with the intelligence unit, which provided aerial surveillance, photography and passed along reports of enemy troop movements to soldiers in combat zones.
“I enjoyed my job: it was seven days a week, there were no days off,” he said. “My job was 12 hours on and 12 hours off.”
Higdon said while he was not in combat during the war, he had the utmost admiration and respect for those who were.
“Any veteran is a hero, but the biggest heroes are the ones who didn’t come home, or the ones who came home in a coffin, or mentally or physically handicapped.”
And he remembers how happy he was to come home and just to be walking into the airport in Tulsa, Okla.
“I didn’t need a parade, or a welcome home,” Higdon said. “I was very fortunate to be coming home uninjured.”
Doubek recalled his first homecoming as well. He came home to Iowa a 20-year-old sergeant on the same plane as his brother-in-law, also returning from a tour of duty. While he was old enough to serve his country in combat, Doubek still wasn’t old enough to vote or to legally buy a drink.
“We got to Travis Air Force Base,” he remembered. “And there was a bar there. The bouncer carded me and wouldn’t let me in because I was a minor. And he was a Vietnamese exchange student.”
Doubek said he made many friendships during his two tours of duty, and still keeps up with many of his former military buddies through Facebook.
“My kids they wonder, what is an old man like you doing on Facebook?” he said, then added with a chuckle, “I have more friends than they’ve got!”
Gore, a 24-year Marine Corps veteran, recalled how at the age of 26 and with a wife and two children, he was the oldest one in his unit. He had a staff sergeant in his early 20s, and the rest of the men were age 18 or 19.
He recalled one night when a grenade blast near a tent further injured a wounded man inside, shredding his upper thighs, and how he and a Navy corpsman were the first on the scene. While the corpsman worked to stabilize the man’s condition, Gore cradled the man’s head in his arms and tried to provide comfort.
“I kept telling him ‘You’re OK, you’re going to go home! You’re going to go home.”
But as they loaded the man onto a helicopter, he died.
Gore remembered how each night, he prayed for one thing.
“I prayed for daylight to come,” he said. “Just one more day. I asked for just one more day and to make it through the night.”
Henton recalled how he and four others defended a hillside completely surrounded by the Viet Cong. He still chokes up when he thinks how close he came to having his name carved onto Panel 34W of the Vietnam Memorial. A religious man, Henton remembers a conversation he had with God about the incident while he was jogging in Colorado.
“I asked ‘God, why did I survive that hillside in Vietnam?’ God spoke to me and said ‘Steve, you didn’t see the angels all around you.’ If not for Christ, I wouldn’t be here.”
Markesen recalled his job as a firefighter at an airfield and the close calls he experienced.
He recalled how a fully loaded bomber had to return to the airfield instead of dropping off his ordnance.
“The arresting cable — he missed it,” Markesen said. “So he had nothing to stop him but airbrakes. He was going down, and we could see the first tire blow and we are rolling. The next brake, he blows the other one. At the end of the runway, he buries that A4E in the sand.”
Markesen had hose duty, and therefore, the unenviable job of hosing the bombs off so they wouldn’t explode while the bomb squad defused them.
“But don’t get the water on the fuse,” he said.
The action earned Markesen a Bronze Star.
Lentz said while he was patriotic, he soon realized maybe America’s involvement wasn’t a wise decision.
“We went there and I was proud to be there for my country, but it didn’t take long to figure out maybe we shouldn’t be there,” he said.
Gray described his service on the USS Long Beach, the first nuclear powered submarine, while Jackson related his service aboard the USS Blue Ridge.