Vietnam | Those who served

More military personnel played support roles than combat ones. Here are a few of their stories

Understanding the Vietnam War is an almost insurmountable task, but let’s look at one key fact that many people do not know: The majority of military personnel played support roles.

“The conventional wisdom was that everybody carried a rifle, patrolled the jungle and faced death daily, but that’s false,” said William Shkurti, who served as an artillery officer in a remote area about 300 yards from the Cambodian border in fall 1970.

Only about one out of seven were combat troops, said historian Chris Appy, history professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“Six out of seven served on bases. They worked in intelligence. They were clerk typists, cooks, drivers. They were the rear echelon. The guys with the gear in the rear. The guys with the beer with hot food and hot showers,” Appy said.

They proudly served their country, but were derided by combat troops as “REMFs” or “rear echelon mother (insert expletive here),” Appy said.

Additionally, not all Vietnam-era veterans served in-country. They were also stationed in Germany, Japan, Thailand, Philippines, Korea, Guam and the continental United States. Some people feel the term “Vietnam veteran” should refer only to those who served in Vietnam, but the U.S. government defines them all as “Vietnam-era veterans” according to the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 — any veteran who served on active duty during the official time frame of the Vietnam War (1961-1975).

Anyone who served in the military during the war faced the possibility of being sent to Vietnam, though.

“Maybe they didn’t risk their lives but they risked risking their lives,” said Meredith Lair, a Vietnam War historian at George Mason University and author of “Armed with Abundance: Consumerism and Soldiering in the Vietnam War,” which examines the non-combat experiences of American soldiers in Vietnam.

Back at home over the decades, veterans themselves may have helped camouflage the roles they played during the war.

“In Vietnam everyone knew everyone and what job they had. When they got home they were all the same (veterans), but they did not all have an equal experience. Their silence carried a message” and concealed the fact that many veterans served in the rear echelon and not in combat capacity, Lair said.

Combat veterans offered “a truly unique and special contribution” to the war, but that “doesn’t mean it wasn’t a sacrifice” for people who served as support, Lair said.

“They gave up their lives back home. They left their families to fight in a war that wasn’t popular. Life at
home goes on without them, and it must have been difficult to navigate when they returned,” she said.

No matter where veterans served in Vietnam, they were a close witness to danger. They lived in an apprehensive state.

“Being a noncombatant doesn’t mean they didn’t feel scared, that there wasn’t a looming sense of danger even on the biggest bases that were considered safer areas,” Lair said.

To make it even more complicated, just what is a combat veteran?

“Is it just the guy with the gun? Is it if you might be in danger of a mortar attack versus projecting violence and delivering it to the enemy? There are different degrees of experience. At any moment all hell could break loose,” Lair said.


Easy to tell who was who

During the war, in-country combat and support troops could be identified on sight, said author Timothy Lomperis, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam in the Army and Defense Intelligence Agency.

“When we got home, everybody was the same,” said Lomperis, a “Saigon warrior who served in a support capacity at MACV (U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam), also known as ‘mafia HQ’ or ‘Pentagon East.’”

“We wore different uniforms. They wore fatigues and carried M16s. The fatigues were faded and had rips. They wore dirty boots and dog tags hanging around their necks. I worked in an air-conditioned office and wore khakis, starched shirts, spit-shined shoes and a belt with a shiny brass buckle. I didn’t carry a gun,” Lomperis said.

When support servicemen crossed paths with combat troops, “We felt guilty. It was painful to even be around them. Their lot was really rugged,” Lomperis said.

The experience that most people likely associate with Vietnam is the horror and deprivation of war, so it’s ironic that that wasn’t the real experience of most Vietnam veterans, Lair said.

“It’s important for people to know they exist. So many popular movies feature the combat side of war — ground combat or maybe the air war. So many servicemen came home and saw how the story (of the Vietnam War) was being told. Their story got eliminated. The entire emphasis is on the narrow combat experience,” Lair said.

During the war, “these men felt like they were part of the military endeavor, but it’s not what the public celebrates. The question became: When will someone tell what my war was like?” Lair said.

Many veterans struggled with feeling that their experience didn’t measure up.

“I talked to many men who felt sheepish that they didn’t have those (combat) stories to share,” Lair said.


Germany, Vietnam, United States

After graduating from Ohio State University in 1968, William Shkurti said, “I knew I was going to be drafted so I enlisted. I was thinking I would have a better chance of determining where I would be sent.”

That’s not how the military works, though.

After completing Field Artillery Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Shkurti was sent to Germany — not Vietnam. He was with the 3rd Infantry Division in Schweinfurt.

“Boy, I thought I had it made,” Shkurti said with a small laugh. “I thought it would be easy, but it was actually tough,” said Shkurti, who served as a fire direction officer and supervised a six-person team.

His unit in Germany lacked the leadership and necessities to get their job done, he said.

“There weren’t enough NCOs (non-commissioned officers), not enough support or spare parts. Morale was bad, and there were racial problems,” Shkurti said. Drug abuse, overdoses, crime and traffic accidents led to several deaths within his unit.

Eventually Shkurti was sent to Vietnam and served as an artillery officer with B Battery 2 / 35th Artillery at Fire Support Base Lanyard on the Cambodian border in 1970-71.

Situated in a remote area with the enemy about 300 yards away over the border, Shkurti’s unit was constantly in harm’s way.

“I expected it would be worse in Vietnam, but it was a more satisfying experience,” Shkurti said. His unit lost more men to overdose and traffic accidents in Germany than to combat in Vietnam.

Another difference was the sense of solidarity he felt.

“Knowing that the threat is so close by is an incentive for people to work together. You pull together under a common enemy,” Shkurti said.

In Germany the U.S. military was protecting West Germany against the threat of Russian invasion, “but it wasn’t imminent,” Shkurti said. While older Germans were friendly, younger ones were hostile and aloof, Shkurti said. “It’s ironic because we were there to protect them. You would think (serving in Germany) would be a great duty, but it wasn’t.”

At the end of his service, Shkurti was an executive officer with the 6th Armored Cavalry at Fort Meade, Maryland. Most of his time was spent protecting government buildings from Vietnam War protesters.

After completing his enlistment, Shkurti returned to Ohio State University to earn a master’s degree in public administration. He served as budget director for the state of Ohio from 1985 to 1987. He now is an adjunct professor in the John Glenn College of Public Service. In retirement he wrote “Soldiering On in a Dying War” focusing on the Vietnam drawdown and “The Ohio State University in the Sixties.”

Reflecting back, “I’m more skeptical whether a war of choice can help defend a country in the long run. I’m also more respectful of what servicepeople endure. They deserve our respect. Ask me or any other serviceperson and they will tell you they are proud of their service,” Shkurti said.


‘Whup, whup, whup’

For military intelligence officer Timothy Lomperis, the constant “whup, whup, whup” of helicopters flying overhead is one of many things that stand out in his mind about the time he spent helping make critical war decisions in Saigon serving under Gen. Creighton Abrams, commander of U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, from 1968 to 1972.

“The sky swarmed with helicopters. One would fly overhead about every 60 seconds,” remembers the professor emeritus of political science at Saint Louis University. Lomperis served two tours of duty in Vietnam in the Army and Defense Intelligence Agency. He was awarded the U.S. Bronze Star and the Vietnamese Army Staff Medal First Class and is the author of four books about Vietnam including “The War Everyone Lost — and Won.”

Huge streams of paperwork came through military intelligence offices that allowed Lomperis a “bird’s eye view of the war and how it functioned. The challenge was figuring out what the enemy would do. It’s kind of like playing goalie for a soccer team. You’re in the hot seat. If you call it wrong, thousands of people could end up being killed,” he said.

People don’t understand how consequential the decisions were that were being made at headquarters, he said.

“We would take orders from Washington and from the five information streams (personnel, intelligence, operations, logistics and political implications) and use all that information to create an order of the day,” Lomperis said. He remembers his commanding officer Abrams as “a political genius who turned the war around.”

Saigon was considered relatively safe, but life wasn’t easy and violence erupted.

“The big problem was that Saigon was Sodom and Gomorrah. There were more prostitutes than bureaucrats, and every kind of club and bar from high-class to low-class. Country western music blared all over Saigon,” Lomperis said.

As opposed to the “goldbug society,” or service personnel who were not interested in meeting locals and learning about Vietnam, Lomperis sought out opportunities to get off the base and interact with the Vietnamese.

“The rule was to always go out in groups of two or three, but I often went by myself unarmed. There were Viet Cong all over the place, but if you were street-smart you stayed safe,” Lomperis said. He never carried a gun because if he was shot, the enemy soldier could have claimed it was self-defense, he said.

In addition to meeting locals, walks off-base could provide valuable intelligence. He was friendly with “street urchins” who would badger him for chocolate and other small treats. They would tell him not to go down certain streets because it wasn’t safe, “so you would know something was brewing there,” Lomperis said. He could take that information back to the base.

“It was a game of cat and mouse” that almost turned deadly when he was “nearly killed by some drunk Vietnamese soldiers,” Lomperis said.

Today, he cautions people not to draw quick lessons from the war.

“Vietnam has come to symbolize certain things that aren’t necessarily true. If you dig into it, it becomes a very grey war,” he said.


Homefront experience

One of the biggest lessons Dr. Buddy C. Thornton learned from his military service was “Always live for the day. Tomorrow is too unpredictable, especially during deployment,” he said.

In 1972 Thornton enlisted in the U.S. Navy at 17 and trained to be a hospital corpsman. Since his older two brothers were already serving in Vietnam he was not allowed to go.

“I served at the naval hospital in Chelsea, Massachusetts, for 18 months. During that time, I was assigned to the sick officers quarters, sadly watching many men pass away. I was in Boston when the Chelsea fire occurred in October 1973, received a meritorious unit citation for fighting the fire that consumed a large portion of Chelsea — 18 blocks one way, 16 blocks another. It was a huge fire. I had surgery shortly after the fire, then spent convalescent leave in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That was where I met my wife. She was a USO (United Service Organizations) volunteer who entertained servicemen. She served me milk and cookies, and we have been together now for 44 years,” Thornton said.

One of the toughest parts of service was “seeing people whose lives were ruined or lost because of the war,” he said.

After Boston, Thornton served at Marines Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

“Men facing shipping out exhibited many types of behavior. I assisted a medical officer suture up a Marine after a bar fight who was so drunk he didn’t need an anesthetic. One strong memory I have is how tough it was for the families,” Thornton said.

The stress of military life was constant.

“Even as the war drew down in 1975 and early 1976, the pressure was intense as huge numbers of men came home with addictions and injuries too horrible to really describe,” Thornton said.

Opposition to the war made military personnel band together.

“The mood around the country was not good for the military, not like today with cheers and applause for returning members. We had each other, and we understood it takes so much honor to serve during the tough times. I think I never knew, or know even today, of any Vietnam-era vets I would not embrace as brothers. Especially from the minority groups, our black comrades, because they bore the brunt of the draft, were very unappreciated, and made the ultimate sacrifice above and beyond other groups, and for what?” Thornton said.

On leave, Thornton would head home to see family and friends, but the war changed things.

“Home was tough because my parents did not agree with my volunteering. With two sons already in the war, they felt I should not go. I would have been called a coward by others from the small town I grew up in, so I never considered not volunteering. I know that was very dependent upon where you called home, but that was my reality,” Thornton said.

After discharge in 1976, Thornton took his 4-year-old daughter and pregnant wife home to her family and used the GI Bill to earn an a degree in allied health sciences from University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where they have been for the past 40 years.

“We have four children, plenty of grandchildren, both biological and through marriages, and five great-grandchildren. None would be here if Vietnam never happened, so it creates bittersweet feelings but no regrets,” Thornton said. “Well, one. My middle brother died five years ago from extended PTSD and the ravages of the drug addiction he endured while trying to cope with his memories from Vietnam. The war changed and dealt cruelty to many families, not just mine, but I have seen the sadness in my father’s eyes, and we both know what is there, and what is missing.”

Thornton returned to school later in life and is now finishing his doctorate in business administration in the field of cross-cultural competency and conflict management.

“I am focused on peace and conflict reduction on a global and local scale,” he said. In November Thornton journeyed to Da-Nang, Vietnam, with his wife as a keynote presenter at the Asia Pacific Mediation Forum.

“I was going for many reasons, but the most important was to close a chapter of history I felt needed closing,” Thornton said.

“If I am sad about anything Vietnam-war, it is how other global players view that period of history when compared to the American perspective. Regardless of how we each served, part of our soul was left in that place with those who never came back alive, and with those who suffered and died after, and we should be honored for our collective loss if for no other reason. We served honorably. Even today, many see otherwise, but only at home.”


Worlds collide

One place the guys in the rear and combat soldiers would cross paths was at rearward bases, which ranged from isolated fire bases less than a city block in size to major bases like Long Binh Post that resembled an American city, said Chris Appy, author of three books about the American war in Vietnam: “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity,” “Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides” and “Working- Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam.”

To prop up sinking morale and keep soldiers safe on base rather than heading into Vietnamese towns, the U.S. military strove to make bases as home-like as possible, Appy said. Long Binh was not a standard base, but it was home to the Army’s Vietnam headquarters and showed the abundance and consumerism that was possible to create. 

“There were swimming pools, bars, cheap booze, entertainment, dancers and strippers, American TV. You could watch ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’” Appy said. For recreation there were basketball, volleyball, tennis and multipurpose courts, football fields, miniature golf courses, a driving range, an archery range and a skeet-shooting range. In their spare time, servicepeople could go to the library, join a service club or take a spin on the go-kart track.

Like suburban sprawl, the largest American bases just kept getting bigger, Lair said.

“Built over time for more than $130 million, Long Binh eventually had 3,500 buildings and 180 miles of road covering an area bigger than Cleveland. One colonel joked, ‘If we ever really got attacked, the V.C. would have to use the scheduled bus service to get around the base,’” Lair wrote in “Armed with Abundance.”

Then, there was the shopping. The post exchanges, or PXs, “rivaled today’s big box outlets” for variety and selection, Lair said. From sundries like razors and cigarettes, apple juice and chocolate milk to diamond jewelry and Rolex watches, stereos and kitchen appliances, servicepeople could buy just about anything — even cars for their wives or girlfriends back home, said Lomperis.

“You made a deal in Saigon, and the car arrived in Lawrence, Kansas,” said Lomperis, who bought himself a $30 radio cassette player during the war, brought it home and kept it until about 2000.

Soldiers bought goods with their ration cards, which were punched when purchases were made, Lair said. To preserve morale, the ration program ensured that all personnel were able to buy highend goods, but it was limited due to the possibility they might resell goods on the black market, Lair said. Still, a ration card would allow personnel to buy $2,000 to $3,000 worth of goods, she said.

Napoleon said, “An army marches on its stomach,” and the U.S. military followed his advice. The men and women at the main bases such as Saigon, Cam Ranh, Da Nang, Bien Hoa and Long Binh had a fairly sedentary life and plenty of downtime compared to combat soldiers, Lair said. They also ate pretty well.

“Good food makes people feel at home,” Lair said. The goal of keeping soldiers well-fed was that they would be happy, stay out of trouble and avoid vices like drugs or prostitution, she said.

The chow halls tried to replicate mom’s home cooking with menus of grilled hamburgers, roast beef with gravy, French-fried potatoes, mashed potatoes, buttered corn and asparagus, ice cream, vanilla pudding and cherry pie, Lair said.