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Op-Ed: ‘We Got Out of Vietnam…Vietnam Never Got Out of Us’

Forty years after the fall of Saigon, a New Jersey veteran of the Vietnam War recounts his time in service

john leGates
John LeGates, an Army veteran who lives in High Bridge, did a tour of duty in Vietnam.

This Memorial Day falls shortly after the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War -- the fall of Saigon in April 1975 marked the official end of the conflict, coming about a week after President Gerald Ford announced an end to U.S. involvement in the Southeast Asian country. So it is fitting to remember the often-underappreciated veterans -- more than 3 million Americans -- who served our country during that war.

Everyone who served has his own story. This is mine.

There is a saying among Vietnam veterans: “We got out of Vietnam, Vietnam never got out of us.” I left Vietnam in November 1969 having spent 12 months there, and that statement is certainly true for me.

I received my draft notice at the end of 1967 and was inducted into the Army on February 1, 1968. At that time in my life I was not thinking about Vietnam; it was just something on the evening news. When you are an 18- or 19-year-old high school graduate, you are basically just trying to find employment. But because of a 1-A draft status potential, employers would not hire you. Your draft status was the first question that was asked -- political correctness was not the norm back then.

Vietnam first hit home for me in May of 1967. A year out of high school, this day in May, I picked up a copy of the Newark Evening News. On the front page was a picture of one of my high school classmates. He had joined the Marines in June 1966 and was killed in action in Vietnam. His name and the front page of the newspaper are embedded in my mind. To this day I cannot visit “The Wall” in D.C. or the New Jersey Vietnam Memorial in Holmdel without seeking out his name. I must stop, touch the engraving, and pay my respects.

After finishing basic and advance training at Fort Dix in 1968, I was sent to Fort Lee, VA. I was stationed there until I received orders for Vietnam in October 1968. I came home for several weeks and then reported to the Oakland Army Terminal in Oakland, CA. From there it was a very long plane ride to Vietnam. The first thing that stood out was the heat and humidity that smacked you in face while exiting the plane. During the bus ride to the Processing Center (Repo/Depo) you got your first look at this strange land. It was nothing like I had ever seen in my life. It is hard to explain.

Because of training that I had undergone at Fort Lee, I fared better than most and was assigned to an engineering company. I did not end up in the infantry. I reported to my new unit, 111th Engineers (Water Supply), U.S. Army Construction Agency, Vietnam. This was a small company of 140 personnel that built and maintained water points located in many places throughout northern South Vietnam.

Basically everyone in the 111th did many different tasks, in addition to their main assignments. My main assignment was procuring spare parts to keep the water purification equipment operating. The commanding officer did not care how you obtained the parts; the mission was to keep the unit equipment up and running. Like everyone else in the company,

I also filled in as a truck driver running resupply convoys to distant water points from our base camp in Phu Bai. The company was also tasked with defending the base perimeter against ground attacks. Ground attacks on the company’s section of the perimeter were very few and small compared to other places.

The 111th Engineers were located next to an artillery company; we shared a mess hall with them. The artillery company was equipped with 155-mm cannons. They would conduct fire missions in support of distant infantry operations.

Everyone’s big fear was rocket attacks. The North Vietnamese used Russian-made 122-mm rockets. They would often fire the rockets at the artillery emplacements. However, a lot of time, their aim was not too good, so the rockets landed in our company area. One night in March of 1969, the 111th Company area was struck by a 10- to 15-minute rocket barrage. This attack destroyed more than a third of our buildings and equipment. (I was reminded of this attack by the commanding officer several years ago at a unit reunion. For some reason I do not remember this particular incident. I know I was there because it took place when I was five months into my year tour.)

I finished my year's tour, returned to the States, and was discharged from the Army. There was no readjustment period. You were discharged and told to get on with your life. I was discharged at the Oakland Army Terminal, given my back pay, travel pay, and told to get out of my uniform as quick as possible. As I stepped out the gate of the Army Terminal, in uniform, with a group of other discharged men, we were booed, cursed, and yelled at. We were not prepared for this. We had served our country; we did not do anything wrong, yet our own countrymen blamed us for the war. We just did our duty.

I returned to civilian life. I met the girl I had been writing to while I was in Vietnam. I then became a police officer in my hometown. The girl and I got married, and are still together.

I developed many friendships with the men with whom I served. About 20 years ago I started seeking out members of the 111th. We started having yearly reunions. Over the years, some members have passed on due to Agent Orange-related health issues, others simply from getting older.

As the quote in the beginning of this article states, Vietnam has never left me. It is always in the background, but often it is in the foreground, too. Whenever I sit in a restaurant or diner, I must face the door. Large crowds make me nervous, hence I like to avoid those. I can watch a fireworks display, but from a far distance. If I am too close, the generated noise of the launch reminds me of incoming rocket and artillery fire. There are other reminders of Vietnam that come and go as I make my journey through life.

It has been 45 years since I left Vietnam. Looking back in retrospect, many lessons were learned from this war. The most important one is to not let politicians conduct a war, but let the military do what they are trained to do. We must also always remember not to blame the soldiers for any war.

Some three million men and women are veterans of Vietnam, one of the longest wars this country has ever engaged in. About 58,000 men and women made the ultimate sacrifice in that far-off land. These men and women must never be forgotten, and those who survived must be given the help they need from the Veterans Administration.

Forget the politics and controversy. I am proud of my service and proud to be called a “Vietnam veteran.”

John LeGates, of High Bridge, is the first vice president and former president of the NJ State Council, Vietnam Veterans of America.

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