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Vietnam Vets: Still Coming Home

"Vietnam Vets: Still Coming Home" tells the stories of 31 Vietnam Veterans who served "in country" between 1961 and 1974.

"Vietnam Vets: Still Coming Home" tells the stories of 31 Vietnam Veterans who served "in country" between 1961 and 1974.

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Copyright

Book Design and Layout: Chad Cable

Recent Photography: Steven H. Feimer

Historical Photographs: Supplied by Veterans and Archival Agencies

Cover Photography: Steven H. Feimer

Copyright© 2017 by Steven H. Feimer and Kristine-Elin Cable

All Rights Reserved

First Edition

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Feimer, Steven H. and Cable, Kristine-Elin

Vietnam Vets: Still Coming Home - Their Stories in Their Words

p.cm.

ISBN 978-0-9963678-0-6

Includes

1. Vietnam War,--Pictorial works. 2. Photography. 3. Personal narratives, American.

4. Soldiers- American--Interviews. I. Title

Library of Congress Number

2016907764

The written material and photographs in this volume are intended for the personal use of the reader. No part of this publication

may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical,

photocopying, recording, or otherwise without the permission of the authors.

Every effort has been made to ensure that all the information in this book is accurate. However, due to factors including the

length of time between the interviewees’ service in Vietnam and the writing of the book, as well as changes in the name and/or

spelling of villages in Vietnam, some accounts may lack precision. The stories contained herein are based upon informed consent

interviews conducted by the authors.

Each interviewee was provided with a written transcript of the interview for the purpose of correcting any errors or omissions.

All information in this book is true and complete to the best of our knowledge. Photo credits are provided whenever possible to

identify the photo source(s). The authors and publisher cannot be responsible for any injuries, losses, and other damages that

may result from the use of the information in this book.


Contents

Dedication 2

Foreword 4

Introduction 6

The Veterans

Kerwin “Pee Wee” Douthit 11

Tim Ross 21

Eldon Nygaard 31

George E. “Bud” Day 47

Doris Day 63

James Meger 71

David Cauley 87

Gary Knecht 101

Neil Kohl 113

Basil Heth/Tony Garcia 127

Mary Swenson 143

Don Dahlin 157

Dennis Daum 171

David Volk 187

Dennis Buseman 203

Duane Kummer 215

JR Raysor 225

Ralph Swain 239

Richard Fox 253

Tom Gilbert 265

Stewart Hines 275

Gene Murphy 289

Lyle Bowes 305

Mark DeSciscio 321

Charles Freeman 333

John Boos 347

Larry Tentinger 359

Doug Van Hull 371

Mike Welsh 387

Fred Winkler 403

Roger Kugler 419

Afterword 430

Acknowledgements/

Photograph Credits 432

About the Authors 433

Glossary Of Terms 434


Dedication

To every Soldier, Sailor, Airman, and Marine

Who shared with us their memories of Vietnam,

We offer special recognition to those who are still missing,

To the brave souls whose tour of duty ended there,

And to the Families

Who endured the absence and who still mourn their loss.

To all, we dedicate this book.

There has been too much forgetting.

We are honored to be a part of the remembering.

2


FOREWORD

On April 30, 1975, at 8:35 a.m., the last U.S. Marines left the American Embassy in

Saigon, Vietnam, marking the end of America’s longest and most controversial war, the

Vietnam War. That is, until the Iraq War. The Vietnam War, like the wars in Iraq and

Afghanistan was not a declared “Great war” like WWI or WWII. Vietnam began as a

conflict that grew into a small war in much the same way the Korean Conflict became

a small war. One might ask; what the difference is between a “great war” and a “small

war” or “conflict?”

Perhaps the distinction lies in the number of dead and wounded. Is it that in small

wars and conflicts the dead and wounded are counted in tens of thousands rather than

millions? But then, how does one count the dead and wounded . . . military killed or

wounded, civilian deaths, enemy killed, missing and presumed dead? Any of these

dark figures are at best only estimates of the number of military and civilian casualties.

What truths have we learned from all of these wars? The first truth was that in 1918

when Woodrow Wilson declared that World War I was “the war to end all wars” he was

wrong on at least two counts. One, the U.S. subsequently engaged in a second World

War and two, the U.S. has continued to engage in a number of regional military conflicts

ever since. Indeed, Wilson’s remarks in retrospect are darkly ironic.

In fact, the assertion that nations would no longer wage wars was not only wrong

but, perhaps, naïve in that the opposite seems to have occurred. The hope that nations

would find alternative, non-violent ways to resolve political conflicts has merely manifested

as alternative linguistic and policy frameworks that have reenergized war as an

optimal policy choice. In fact, we appear to be no closer to ending the practice of war

than we were during Wilson’s time. Rather, we may have witnessed an escalation in

military conflicts designed to maim and kill each other more efficiently in quieter and

smaller ’police actions.’

And what poignant truths did we learn specifically from the Vietnam War? Perhaps

one of the more enduring truths is captured in a quote by Jose Narosky, “In war, there

are no unwounded soldiers.” Norosky’s assessment regarding the effects of war neatly

encapsulates an important and enduring truth about military conflict. Not surprisingly

then, understanding more about the impact of war on its military participants is a significant

driving force behind our face-to-face interview work with Vietnam Veterans.

I came upon the idea to write this book by a chance encounter. In the summer

of 2008, I was photographing an event honoring Veterans at our local Veterans

Resource Center. As I was packing up my camera equipment, a gentleman sat

4

down next to me and asked, “Can you take 35mm slides and turn them into photographs?”

“Yes,” I responded and then asked, “What kind of slides do you have?”

He replied in a very soft but direct voice, “They are pictures I took when I was in

Vietnam. I was a door gunner in a helicopter gunship.” And so it began.

The next day Gary arrived at my office carrying two old five-pound plastic

tobacco bags, the kind of bags that “roll-your-own” smokers buy. Both bags were

filled with slides, campaign ribbons, medals, patches, letters, an old 1A Draft card,

and a variety of memorabilia from his time in Vietnam.

As I examined the slides and read his letters, I realized that this man’s life before,

during, and after Vietnam bore a special significance not simply because of

its individual uniqueness, but because his personal story revealed the commonality

of experiences and feelings that most military personnel who go to war – any

war – share. What Veteran can forget arriving at boot camp, C- rations, letters

from home, the sounds of the battlefield at night, the cry, Medic!!, the boredom,

the chaos, being shot at, being hit, the adrenaline highs, mud, the stench of battle,

emptied bunks, and coming home?

As the academic year began in the fall of 2008, I contacted two of my colleagues,

professors Robert Swan and Steven Bucklin, both Veterans and asked if

they would be interested in collaborating on a book centered on the lives of Veterans

before, during, and after Vietnam. After receiving funding from the Chiesman

Center of Democracy and technical support from Jathan Chicoine, Executive

Director of the Vermillion Veterans Resource Center, we began identifying

Vietnam Veterans to interview.

At first, we planned to interview six or perhaps eight Veterans. As it turned

out almost every soldier we interviewed gave us the name of another Veteran who

needed to be contacted. All had compelling stories of their experiences. Soon we

found ourselves overwhelmed with Vets who wanted to share their stories. We

knew there were practical limits to the number of interviews we could do, but it

was hard to say no, despite the fact there were simply too many stories that Veterans

wanted to share with us. In the end, we settled for a platoon size group of

Vets, knowing that there were many other stories we would miss.

For the most part, the men we contacted were eager to tell their experiences

and appreciated the fact that nearly forty years after the Vietnam War, people

were still interested in their stories and their lives. There were times, however,

when Veterans would ask us to turn off the recorder, not because of some “blood

and guts” issue or because they were recalling becoming hooked on “Black


Beauties” or other drugs, but because our questions dredged up memories and

emotions that were still too vivid and painful to revisit. In other cases certain

Veterans declined to be interviewed and when we inquired why, they simply

said “I can’t talk about Vietnam.” Their response always reminded me of the

“What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” commercial. Perhaps, “What Happened

in ‘Nam, [should] Stay in ‘Nam” and I suspect that it will.

This book is a testimony to the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines lives

before, during, and after Vietnam. Many of the photographs were taken by U.S.

Veterans while in Vietnam and show the muted colors of the old Kodacolor film

(C-41) processing. Other photographs reflect modern digital photographic techniques

and unique processing. In considering the book design we wanted to produce

a book that was both rich in narrative and photography. What began as an

effort to convert 35mm slides ended with the interviews of a platoon size group

of Vietnam War Veterans and over 2,500 photographs. We hope our presentation

of these lives stirs within the readers the same shifting perspectives and sense of

humanity that moved us to create this record.

Photographs remind us of where we have been, mirrors remind us of

where we are.

Steve Feimer, Photographer

5


INTRODUCTION

Vietnam Vets: Still Coming Home” introduces thirty Veterans who served in

Vietnam between 1962 and 1973. They represent the Army, Marines, Air Force,

and Navy, and experienced their service with different jobs, in different parts of

Vietnam and with different degrees of impact on their post-Vietnam lives. None

came away unscathed; none have forgotten – nor ever will forget - those years.

Still Coming Home” is a glimpse of those thirty lives before, during, and after

Vietnam.

that each of these thirty Veterans have stored in their hearts makes them who they

are today. With courage they have shared Their Stories, In Their Words.

It is said that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and if that is accurate, the

word count in this book is infinite. The Veterans have provided personal photos

from their experiences which tell these stories with a range of feelings from horror

to humor, and which capture the time and the culture of a by-gone era. The

creative talent of co-author Steve Feimer has contributed an artistic element to the

book with the photographs of the Veterans today. The memorabilia which they

saved and shared - from draft cards to weapons to uniforms to enemy artifacts -

documents their time in Vietnam. Some rarely dig out these treasures because of

the emotional memories they represent. Some share them regularly with family

and friends and display them in their homes. All have appreciated the careful

and respectful arrangements Steve has designed to poignantly tell their stories in

photographs.

Telling the Vets’ stories in words was a different challenge. Each interview was

taped, and a transcript was made for the writer to combine and then tell each

story. In order to convey the emotion, the individual’s speech patterns, the “atmosphere”

of the surroundings, pauses in the interview, body language and other

non-verbal elements, it was necessary to use unusual or non-standard punctuation

and spacing and to insert editorial comments using italicized paragraphs. It

is hoped that the stories “read” as they were spoken, and, that if read aloud, each

Vet would come alive as the individual they are. No apologies are made for grammar,

repetitive sayings, swearing, anger, or “voices full of tears.” Long pauses . . .

hopefully convey the depth of feeling that makes each Vet’s account of his Vietnam

experiences truly unique. Maintaining the integrity of the interview was essential

for “Still Coming Home” to achieve one of the goals of the book’s original

concept.

The whole story of Vietnam will never be told. It would be impossible. Each

Veteran left as a young man or woman with expectations and personal history.

Most Veterans came home much older and changed in many ways both physically

and mentally. Some have had greater success than others in “moving on”

and building a future without the shadows of Vietnam darkening their lives. But

throughout the forty-plus years that have gone by since Vietnam, the memories

6


The Veterans and Their Stories

7


Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust. Thus we

may know that there are five essentials for victory:

• He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.

• He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces.

• He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.

• He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared.

• He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.


Kerwin “Pee Wee” Douthit


Kerwin “Pee Wee” Douthit

The Army E7 was already dead; the Viet Cong had staked him to the ground

with bamboo poles through his shoulders. I somehow got the VC, and then carried

out the wounded Colonel. We could be next if they caught up with us. I ran

with him on my back for four and a half hours. We both survived but I never saw

him again, and I never want to.

Memories of the sights, secrets, and scars of a twenty-two year military career

began “in the middle of nowhere” in one country and took Kerwin “PeeWee”

Douthit to the “middle of nowhere” around the world and back. Much of his

story will never be told; here is a part of what he can share.

There are lots of places in South Dakota that people would describe as the

“middle of nowhere,” and I grew up in one of them. My folks ran a cattle ranch

three miles east of Vetal, South Dakota – population 7 - in Bennett County, on

the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation about twenty miles east of Martin, South

Dakota. It’s hard to imagine these days, but the house I was born in was made

out of logs with a dirt floor and a sod roof. Amazing that it’s still there. I was

raised after the Depression and we did not have a whole lot to eat; you ate what

came off the ranch. I remember sugar being rationed and so was gasoline during

WW II. Whenever we had to go someplace, we went with horses.

There were five boys and one girl in the family – two older brothers, me, a younger

sister, and a younger brother. My mother died giving birth to twins. One twin

died shortly after birth and the other twin was adopted by my aunt. After Mom

died, Dad sold the ranch and moved to town. I went to work on another ranch and

stayed with my grandmother during the school year to attend grade school and

junior high in Lincoln, Nebraska. Then I attended high school at the University of

Nebraska, School of Agriculture in Curtis, Nebraska. Our family was pretty well

split up during the school year, but we got back together during the summers.

11

Not the Army Kind

After I graduated from high school in 1957, I really wasn’t thinking much

about being in the military. My uncles – most of them – had been in the service,

but Dad wasn’t allowed to serve in WWII. The country needed the cattle they

were raising on the ranch.

None of us young kids then paid any attention to the war in Vietnam or

Southeast Asia. Girls was mostly what we thought about. But that all changed

in February of 1960. One day I was playing cribbage in a place where they

served sodas, when the secretary of the local draft board came in and told me

I was “number one” for the draft. I said, “No, I’m not,” and walked across the

street to the Air Force recruiter and signed up. I’m not the Army kind of guy, so

I joined the Air Force thinking I could stay back and make sure their girlfriends

were happy.

But it didn’t end up that way. I left that night for my 12 weeks of basic training

in San Antonio, Texas. Twelve weeks of boot camp was actually eight for us.

We was in our eighth week when the drill instructors got new people coming in,

so we just had to sit around and act like we was smart! I waited four weeks, and

then my transfer was to Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, for training.

Electronics was among a lot of other training we had. This was the beginning of

what ended up as being a twenty-two year career in the U.S. Air Force.

In the very early days of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, prior to the largescale

ground war initiative, enlistees were trained for jobs that were urgently

needed for gaining knowledge of the area and the enemy. Sometimes small

groups were trained in a number of techniques for specialized communications

and intelligence gathering. Especially for those who continued with the service


as a career, many built upon these first skills and their personal field experiences

to move on and train others.

The Air Force has AFSCS’s which is a specialty code for assigning job classifications.

I was an Air Force IG inspector, a quality control inspector, and at one

time, I was an enlisted commander which in other branches of the service you

don’t normally have. Later, after Vietnam, I was a survival instructor in Arctic,

jungle, and dessert.

After training, I didn’t go directly to Vietnam; my first overseas duty assignment

and permanent change of station (PCS) was Clark Air Force Base in the

Philippines. I was only in the Philippines for about three days before I was sent

up into South Korea to work with the Republic of Korea Army (ROK). The communist

North Korean soldiers were coming across the DMZ – Demilitarized

Zone – so I spent about six weeks chasing the North Koreans. It was a miserable

duty. We were out in the bush the entire time with no way to take a bath or

anything. I was really dirty and skuzzy. I smelled like a dead horse. Six weeks

in Korea was plenty for me, so when my time was up I was ordered to fly back to

Clark AFB from Korea.

“The U.S. Does Not Know You”

So, here I was in the shower cleaning up when the security police came in and

got me. I had no sense I was going to Vietnam until I went over to the Thirteenth

Air Force Headquarters, which was really a vault within a vault. It was there that

I learned that I was going to Vietnam on temporary duty orders (TDY) with a

special assignment.

I was stripped of everything I had on me that said United States of America.

I wasn’t the only one receiving this “special treatment” – there was fifteen of us.

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