Spooky. That’s how John Valdez remembers his first impression of Vietnam.
“When I first arrived in Long Bien, we were mustering in and awaiting orders to go to our units … it wasn’t real heavy, but we would receive a lot of sniper fire,” said Valdez. “It just seemed like we always had a bunch of incoming rounds. That was a lot of Vietnam when you were around places like that. They wouldn’t really attack you, but they would sit out in the distance and just throw small arms fire at you. What went through my mind was just that, well, I guess this is the real thing, so you better get ready for it.”
Valdez arrived in Vietnam in January, 1968, at the age of 21. He had been drafted into the Army in 1967 and attended basic training and advanced individual training at Fort Bliss, Texas, before going to Fort Benning, Ga., to spend several months as a drill sergeant.
“I more or less had volunteered for Vietnam, because when you are training troops like that, it is like you yourself going through basic training every eight weeks,” he said. “They had said no, they were going to refuse me, and then they found out that the Dusters in my unit in Vietnam did need some help.”
The Tet Offensive
Valdez flew to Long Bien, Vietnam, and was given orders to join A Battery, 4th Battalion, 60th Artillery, Air Defense, at the small village of Chu Lai on the South China Sea. Just days later, the Tet Offensive began.
“I was in Vietnam about two weeks, and then that hit,” he said. “We got the alerts and everything, and all of a sudden we started getting incoming rounds … Most of them were rocket fire. We were told just to go to the bunkers and get ready to return fire with machine guns, and we had our personal M16 rifles with us. We were told to stay put and don’t get out of that bunker unless we had to.”
When the attack ended, Valdez and his unit exited the bunker and surveyed the damage.
“When it was over with the next day, everything we had was completely leveled,” he said. “Where we were, everything was tents, even our bunks were in big tents. Our mess hall was about the only thing that was really a structure, and it was all gone when we were able to go look at things.”
Valdez and four other men soon took up regular patrols on a modified tank called a Duster. The Duster was a light air-defense gun – smaller and lighter than a full tank and armed with two 40 mm pom-pom guns, a .50-caliber machine gun on one side and a .60-caliber machine gun on the other.
The Duster carried at least five men, with two driving and the others on top in an open turret. From the turret, they could load and fire the weapons, with the pom-pom guns providing particularly devastating firepower.
“They were automatic,” said Valdez. “They were capable of shooting up to 120 rounds per minute.”
His crew’s first job was to provide protection for minesweeping activities on highways. They later provided support for ground missions, such as escort services for convoys or perimeter support for camps and bases.
“Right after the Tet Offensive we started moving, and we didn’t know where we might be,” he said. “We might go anywhere in Vietnam where they decided they needed to support with the units we had. I don’t even remember some of the places we were; some were just out in the middle of nowhere. Most of it was if they were moving from one place to another and needed protection or some sort of firepower to go with them.”
During their travels and various assignments, Valdez and his crew encountered quite a few skirmishes, though they generally were short-lived.
“We actually had a bunch of ground troops attack us,” Valdez remembered of one incident. “They were coming at us, and we had that firepower. And before you knew it, they just backed off and left the area once they realized what they were up against.”
On Sept. 13, 1968, on his 22nd birthday, Valdez was promoted to sergeant and became head of his Duster’s crew.
“You get to a point where you can’t let fear take over, because if you do, you are in trouble,” he said. “So what we did, we talked a lot with each other, did our job and tried to just ignore the fact that we could be attacked. My thinking was just ‘be ready.’ That is what I tried to instill in my crew. The best thing we can do to protect ourselves is be ready so we can return fire or do what we need to do.”
Though the regular skirmishes Valdez encountered usually ended quickly and without casualties, his luck changed when a rocket attack resulted in injuries that required his evacuation by helicopter.
He and his crew were providing support to the 101st Airborne as they were setting up a camp. Valdez was standing in the turret, exposed from the chest up, when they began to receive small arms fire. This was soon followed by a rocket that exploded, creating flying debris.
“It was like it had hit something and just exploded and sent little pieces of shrapnel everywhere, and I just happened to catch a few of them,” he said.
He and a member of the 101st who had been riding on the Duster were transported to a field hospital. After an evaluation, doctors told Valdez that the pieces of embedded shrapnel were too close to his heart for surgery. They said the pieces would work themselves out of his body in later years, which they did, and after a few days of recuperation, he returned to his unit.
“My papers never did get sent to battalion headquarters, so I never did receive a Purple Heart for it,” he noted. “I questioned it one time after I got home. I even went to the Veteran’s Commission and had a letter from my doctor. They said if I could find some witnesses they would send me one. I don’t know how the hell I am going to find any witnesses from that day, so I just dropped it.”
A year was enough
Valdez ended his one-year tour of duty and returned home in late January, 1969.
“They wanted me to reenlist me for two more years and said they would promote me to second lieutenant,” said Valdez. “I looked at them, and I started laughing. I said one year of Vietnam was enough for me. I refused to reenlist. I just came home.”
But getting home had challenges. While leaving Fort Lewis, Valdez felt the wrath of assembled protestors, and the buses carrying soldiers were egged.
“When we were headed for the airport, we had to go through all the protestors,” he remembered. “The protestors were blaming us for being in Vietnam. It wasn’t my idea to go over there. They sent me there. How could I refuse? That is part of being in the military.”
Valdez married his wife, Margie, in 1970 and worked various jobs, including an 18-year stint with Amoco and 17 years as the health and safety director of the Solid Waste Division with the City of Casper. He quit working two years ago, but noted, “If you have five children and 15 grandchildren and say you are retired, that is a lie!”
He participated in the recent Wyoming Welcome Home Veterans celebrations in March and is heartened to see the change in attitude towards veterans returning from war.
“It was really a nice thing,” he said of the event. “It just makes me realize now that people in general are really starting to realize the mistake they made in the way we were treated when we came home. It is changing slowly, but it is getting better for all these other veterans – like Afghanistan and Iraq and I am pretty sure soon to be wherever ISIS is. It is just refreshing to know that when they get home, they’re going to be treated well. That makes me feel good.”