People deal with traumatic experiences differently. For Ken Walker, who served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, healing has come not only because of family, but also through writing down his memories and through the companionship of dogs.
In one instance, the memories of Vietnam overlap with a particular dog.
“What I noticed after I re-read (my memoir) ... the dog was the only thing I got emotional about ... maybe I blocked all of that out, but the dog is where I could release that pent-up emotion,” he said.
That dog was Hushpuppy, a pup that wove her way into Walker’s life and heart by showing up on base during the latter part of his second tour.
“When she came there, she was just a little ball of fur and teeth … and yap!” Walker said. “She took up with me because I always had a water bowl and a food bowl, and she’d always get treats. I’d give her belly rub and a treat or two and breakfast, lunch and dinner. She wasn’t mine to begin with (but) she hooked up with the food chain. She was the highlight of my night when I got back (to the bunk).”
He planned to bring her back to the United States.
“You kind of get used a little critter being so excited to see you. I was trying to see if I could get her through the quarantine and stuff,” Walker said.
The cost would have been about $500.
“I was willing to spend the money – that was OK. Unfortunately, she got sick. She only lasted about a week after she got ill.”
Hushpuppy died in Walker's arms one morning just before dawn from a blood disease — ironically, the same disease some of the shots were meant to prevent.
“Emotionally, that was pretty rough,” he said.
Walker believes Hushpuppy triggered pleasant memories of dogs he grew up with, including one named Tippy, whom he had until about third grade. Raised around Fort Laramie, Walker moved a lot as a child due to his father’s job.
“I went to two schools every year,” he said.
However, for his senior year of high school, his parents allowed him to choose where they lived and would stay for that entire school year.
“I picked Moorcroft because it was close to the mountains around Sundance; I had been more comfortable with the students and teachers at Moorcroft (than other places),” he said.
“That explains a lot of my story in Vietnam,” he continued. “I was a loner – always the new kid on the block and generally the smallest kid in the class, which didn’t help the situation when it came to bullies. I learned early on that running wasn’t an option – you had to stand your ground no matter what because you were going to get your ass kicked one way or the other, so you might as well get some blows in.”
Working on helicopters
Walker joined the Army a few years after graduating high school. Basic training was done in Missouri and helicopter training was done in Virginia. He served his first tour with the 540th at Qui Nhon as a helicopter mechanic, primarily working on Chinooks.
“We’d get the helicopters that got all shot up or were just wore out,” he said. “We’d do all the sheet metal work and repair the engines, transmissions and everything … all the electronics, radios, all the hydraulics and replace all of the six blades.”
Frustration set in early when parts weren’t always available.
“We couldn’t get little pieces and parts, bolts and nuts and things. After a while, I got to know the people on the flight line; that’s when I said, ‘OK, let’s have our own little supply shop for helicopters,’ and we started ordering lots of extra nuts and bolts, just the common ordinary stuff we used every day,” he said. “It wasn’t authorized, but we started putting out some helicopters, getting them repaired … and back in the air. It was nothing other than a logistics supply problem, and we kind of short-circuited that by ordering extra pieces and parts.”
Returning for second tour
Walker wrote in his 30-page memoir that his first tour was “uneventful,” so he signed up for a second tour.
“It just didn’t seem like I had really done the job that I had been trained for, even though I had,” he wrote in his memoir. “Anyway, no matter how screwed-up my motives were, I decided to come back for another year to some place totally different – and a lot more risky.”
He started his second tour as a door gunner and then became a crew chief and later a flight engineer, Specialist 5.
“You were the only one that had control with what went on with the aircraft … you were the owner of it basically,” he said. “We actually had to sign for our CH-47.”
Walker was stationed with the 180th, known as “Big Windy,” he said. He lived with very little sleep.
“It was such a tremendous amount of work; for about every hour they (the helicopters) flew, you’d put in about two hours of maintenance” including paperwork, he said.
“The helicopter always had to be ready to go before you went to bed if at all possible; you might get only two to three hours of sleep a night – that’s why I lived on coffee and cigarettes,” he added.
The helicopters hauled supplies and people — Americans, Vietnamese and Koreans. During his two years of service, Walker received commendations and medals, including the Air Medal. Those recognitions came with a price, however, he said.
“Those two commendation medals … somebody else died in the process,” he said. “That’s always stuck with me. That’s one of the things that’s bothered me all these years. I would like to NOT have the medals if the people would still be alive.
“We were just doing our jobs,” he added. “At the time, it didn’t seem like a big deal, and actually it still isn’t – you do the job you were trained for ... and sometimes go that extra mile.”
Failure to communicate
Walker returned to the United States in February 1970 and four days later, he proposed to his girlfriend, Louise, whom he had met prior to shipping out two years previous. They “courted” by mail and spent time together when he came home on leave. He regrets not corresponding with her, and with his parents, more often.
“That’s the biggest thing I regret: my failure to communicate,” Walker said. “That was my biggest issue and I didn’t realize it at the time. They didn’t want to hear the gory details, just hear from me, that I was alive and well and kicking.”
Ken and Louise married less than two months after becoming engaged. They made Glenrock their home, as she had been teaching at the high school and his parents also lived in town.Walker worked various jobs after going back to school and earning a degree in business administration thanks to the GI Bill. He spent time at the Exxon uranium mine north of Glenrock as well as in the oilfield, and settled into a long-term career with the Glenrock Coal Mine. His work passion and his experience with helicopter mechanics in Vietnam wove together during his employment in Glenrock.
“I liked the heavy equipment,” he said.
Love for dogs, family, Wyoming
Walker is now retired. He and Louise continue to enjoy their community and their shared love for their daughter, granddaughter and for dogs. Several canines have roamed the hallways of their home and etched their lives into the Walkers' hearts. Currently, that role is played by Dora, a 7-year-old black lab rescue, who also serves as a therapy and comfort dog. She and Walker share walks twice a day, “regardless of the weather,” he said, soaking in the sunrises, sunsets, midnight skies (their favorite, according to Walker), and the prairie habitats on the outskirts of town.
“I’ve always been a dog lover – some of the best friends I've ever had,” Walker stated. “That’s (probably) why I gravitated toward Hushpuppy.”
A dog and a Wyoming boy, a dog and a soldier, and a dog and an active, dedicated community member, husband, father, grandpa and company worker, now retired. Walker still enjoys the companionship of a canine, as well as the warmth and love of family and his home state of Wyoming while healing from the trauma of war through those devotions and his memories.