Thurman P. Woodfork

WHY I WENT TO VIETNAM

Graphic from Photo of Trang Sup Base, Vietnam by Gary Honey: ©Copyright 2001
Graphic from Photo of Trang Sup Base, Vietnam
©Copyright 2001 by Gary Honey
Why did I volunteer to go to Vietnam? Thinking back, I can’t come up with a single, cut-and-dried reason for my decision to go over and actively take part in the Vietnam War. Idealism, coupled with boredom and a desire for adventure, in addition to the realization that I had worn a military uniform nearly every day of my life for ten years, were all factors. Besides, military people are supposed to fight in wars, aren’t they? After all, aggressively waging war is what the military is ultimately all about, the misnomer ‘Department of Defense’ notwithstanding.

Without doing a lot of analyzing about it, I had chosen the military for a career, and I was on active duty when Vietnam heated up. My country was involved in a war; where else should I have been? There really wasn’t any overwhelming sense of patriotism behind the decision. It was another part of the job I had chosen to do. I didn’t leave home on a mission with banners flying and trumpets blaring.

Without any braggadocio, I chose not to be an interested observer from a safe distance. I considered it part of my duty to help. My older brother felt the same way; a ‘Lifer’ like me, he also volunteered to go to Vietnam. We never discussed it and he had already volunteered by the time I made up my own mind to go. It’s possible, though, that his decision had some unconscious influence on me.

I don’t remember talking about patriotism or about fending off the communist peril while I was, in the parlance of the times, “doin’ my thang” in ‘Nam. There wasn’t much altruistic concern for the plight of the downtrodden Vietnamese peasantry on my part either, at least, not initially. I had never so much as given them a passing thought before arriving in their country. A measure of empathy came later, after I got to personally know some of the people. I did feel sympathy for the cruel toll the war was taking on those locals that I knew. After helping load a few of their bleeding bodies onto Medevac helicopters, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. With any luck, in a finite amount of time, I would be returning home to relative safety. This was their home.

As far as I remember, nobody serving with me ever asked what the hell I was doing on Trang-Sup. Most of the Americans I knew, both Air Force and Army, were there because they wanted to be there – for whatever reasons, we had volunteered to come. The Army Special Forces people, in particular, had voluntarily undergone long, arduous, specialized training in order to perform their assigned mission. This is what they did, where they wanted to be, and they were admirably well trained and dedicated people.

As for me, except when we were under attack and I manned a machine gun on camp defense, my job as a radar repairman was pretty much the same as it would have been had I decided to remain at that radar site up in the Judith Mountains of Montana. Unlike the Army people on Trang-Sup and elsewhere, my job didn’t require that I go out into a hostile environment searching for a cunning and elusive enemy. It was bad enough that Charlie came looking for me.

Of course, off-base life would have been a lot more humdrum in Montana. Nobody would have been lurking around outside the perimeter walls trying to sneak in and murder us as we slept. Nobody would have mounted repeated armed assaults on our compound with malicious, lethal intent. Hopefully, nobody would have occasionally aimed ‘Friendly Fire’ in our direction. Although at Lewistown, from time to time some apparently myopic hunter back in the woods would fire on the blue Air Force bus as it carried crew changes up and down the mountain between the cantonment area and the radar. Perhaps they mistook it for some wild kin of Paul Bunyan’s ox. Also on the plus side, the sanitary conditions in Montana were vastly superior.

In any case, there I was at Detachment 7 of the 619th Tactical Control Squadron, located on Trai Trang-Sup, Tay Ninh Province, South Vietnam, in the area designated as War Zone C. After a few months, I inevitably began looking forward to getting my tour of duty over with and going back home in one piece with all my parts still attached and in reasonable working order. A few of my compatriots, bless their dedicated souls, did decide to extend their tours. I respected that decision. I also declined to join them.

Life in Vietnam was dangerous, noisy, nerve-wracking, and, for the most part, it smelled pretty bad, to boot. People got wounded and maimed, and they got killed, violently and a lot more messily than in those war movies I’d seen. Life in Vietnam was also, at times, just boring. No other way to describe it. Those were the times when absolutely nothing was going on and there was no place to go, especially during monsoon season. And, I had never in my life imagined I’d ever consider 75°F to be cold: certainly not when I was still in northern Montana. The boring part was more like life was for me on that mountaintop.

During the early part of my military career, I served with veterans of both WW-II and Korea, and I had heard words like ‘shell shock’ associated with World War II and the ‘Korean Conflict’. Despite having once been stationed with a survivor of the Bataan Death March and Japanese POW camps, I really wasn’t fully cognizant of the grievous and enduring mental wounds war can inflict on many of its participants. I’m much more aware of that aspect of war now. Like many physical scars, the evidence isn’t always readily apparent.

That’s it; more than a little simplistic, I know, but there’s no mystery, no hidden reasons, no search for glory. I wanted to see what war was like. I also believed that I had some real obligation to be involved in it, so off I went to both do my duty and see war at first hand for myself. It was both more and less than I had expected.

In the end, I found out what real war is like. I definitely have decidedly mixed feelings about John Wayne now.

This article prompted the response, “Why I Went to Vietnam (A Response)” – ©Copyright April 27, 2007 by James H. Smith and “Why I Went Over Yonder” – ©Copyright April 27, 2007 by Fred Alvis