In 1968, sweltering heat brought the Vietnam War to a stop between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Beneath a triple canopy of jungle capable of blotting out the sky for days, soldiers from the 4th Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, dried out their shoes and changed their socks.
After trudging through waist-, and sometimes, chest-deep swamps, these soldiers might roll up their pants and snuff out hitchhiking leeches with lit cigarettes. Or, they might swallow one of the two malaria pills they were issued daily.
But, they didn’t fight, nor did their adversaries, the North Vietnamese Army.
“Have you ever opened an oven right after you bake something at 450 degrees, and it hits you in the face?” asked retired Lt. Col. Barry Gasdek, a former 4th BN/21st INF company commander. “That’s the way it was the whole day sometimes.”
In February 1968, Gasdek arrived in Chu Lai, Vietnam, and spent nearly two years battling the heat, bugs and NVA.
“Every person has a different story,” Gasdek, 72, said.
From beneath a black baseball cap sporting a ranger tab and speckled with medals, Gasdek casually scans the meeting room of the American Legion Post No. 14 in Laramie.
He has a different story.
Born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Gasdek grew up with an older brother and three sisters. His father was a coal miner and steel worker, and his uncles fought in World War II.
During high school, he played football, wrestled, ran track and, like his brother, earned Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America.
Although his father only received a sixth-grade education, Gasdek set his sights on college. At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, he earned a bachelor of science in art education and participated in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps program.
“I graduated May 25,” he said. “And May 26, I was in the military.”
During his more than 20 years in the U.S. Army, he earned the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Soldier’s Medal, five Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, Defense Meritorious Service Medal, five Meritorious Service Medals, 16 Air Medals, 10 Army Commendation Medals, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Vietnam Campaign Medal and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry.
He was also qualified as Airborne, Ranger and Pathfinder.
It all started in 1964 with the 4th Armored Division in Bamburg, Germany.
“That was during the Cold War,” Gasdek said. “So, it was an interesting time to be in Germany.”
In October 1967, he was sent to the 4th BN/21st INF in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.
“Our first formation, we had 15 officers and eight (non-commissioned officers) NCOs,” he said.
Throughout the next five months, his unit was filled to battalion strength, which can tally up to 800 troops. Most came straight from basic training, Gasdek said.
“We had real incentive to train,” he said with a chuckle.
Behind his yellow-tinted aviator glasses and painter’s brush mustache, his oversized smile belies the daunting task of training hundreds of fresh troops to deploy straight into a war zone.
The officers had five months to train and equip the soldiers they would lead through Vietnam’s jungles during the deadliest year of the Vietnam War — failure in the preparation phase could produce large-scale, fatal results.
Gasdek volunteered for every leadership school they offered, he said, because he wanted the best training to help him make the decisions needed to get his men home.
“You do what you can to protect your men,” he said. “You want to give them the best leadership you can.”
By March 1968, the entire battalion put boots on the ground in Chu Lai, a coastal U.S. military base in Vietnam.
Into the fray
Upon deployment, Gasdek was appointed headquarters’ company commander, but after about a month, he was transferred to infantry company commander.
His company’s area of operation lay west of Chu Lai and southwest of Da Nang.
The AO was riddled with “a lot of (enemy) bunkers and a lot of booby traps,” Gasdek said. “The pucker factor was very high.”
Twice, Gasdek’s helicopters were shot out of the sky while flying low over the jungle.
His company engaged enemy troops periodically throughout their deployment, but one operation stood apart from the day-to-day swamp humps.
Following orders from Operational Control, Gasdek’s company reinforced the 1st Calvary Division, patrolling a main infiltration route for the 2nd NVA Division, Gasdek recalled.
Soon after being deployed to the area, one of Gasdek’s platoons made contact with the enemy. He reinforced the embattled group with another platoon, but they were pinned down en route.
“I grabbed my (radio-telephone operators) RTOs and said, ‘Hey, let’s see what the hell’s going on here,’” he said.
On the radio, he contacted the armored personnel carriers attached to his unit and requested support to extract the wounded. However, the extraction point was too narrow for the APCs to access. So, Gasdek and his RTOs approached the pinned down platoon on foot.
“The next thing I know, we’re on the edge of a bunker line,” Gasdek said. “This guy comes up and just sprays us. I still can see the rounds coming at us. They hit both my RTOs, on either side of me, and never touched me.”
Gasdek paused, and for a brief moment his eyes wandered into the distance.
“We returned fire,” Gasdek said pulling himself back from his memories. “I saw where the wounded guys were. No one was going out to get them, so I had to pull two of the guys in myself.”
Gasdek was wounded by grenade fragments during the engagement. As company commander, he had to decide whether to pull out and have his wounds treated or continue on with his men.
“My decision was to stay with the unit,” he said. “They were relying on me. Unless I was completely immobilized, there was no way I’d have ever gone out of there.”
The next day, Gasdek’s company was directed to investigate another suspected buildup of enemy troops.
“This time, I had two tanks and four APCs,” he said.
As infantrymen, part of his company’s responsibility was to advance ahead of the mechanized units and clear the way.
“All of the sudden, all hell breaks loose,” he recalled. “Every APC got hit by rocket-propelled grenades. I was standing by one, and the shrapnel hit me and blew me up in the air. I remember the red-hot shrapnel and trying to pull it out of my web gear and my shirt.”
Shrapnel pierced his gear and uniform, wounding him in the back and the leg.
“I got back up,” he said. “And, we assaulted the bunker line.”
Gasdek explained the procedure was to lay down suppressing fire and drop grenades into each bunker. His company methodically moved forward and assaulted each bunker as the tanks provided support.
A call came in from his superiors; they wanted prisoners.
Gasdek lowered his gaze to the table, smiled and almost imperceptibly shook his head.
“I spotted where one bunker was,” he said. “It was still active, so I had one of the tanks move on top of the bunker.”
The tank buried the bunker, and Gasdek’s soldiers dug out the enemy troops trapped beneath the rubble. They retrieved two NVA from the debris and sent them to the rear for interrogation.
During the operation, he lost six soldiers and 15 were wounded, including himself, he said.
Like the black clouds of mosquitos, the bone-drenching swamps stocked full of leeches and the sun-blotting jungle canopy, death permeated Vietnam’s atmosphere.
While investigating a village on patrol, Gasdek’s unit was assaulted by enemy sniper fire. He broke off to flank the sniper, and while circling around the buildings, one of his “best” lieutenants was shot through the heart, he said.
“I was sort of down in the dumps for about a week or two after that,” he said. “I figured I better snap out of it.”
In combat, there were no grief counselors to help soldiers pull it together, he explained.
“You got to deal with it,” he said. “Life goes on, or death goes on, however you want to put it.”
“You never really make good friends after that,” he added. “You realize everyone’s expendable, to include yourself.”
Some soldiers staved off the gloom by writing letters, but Gasdek said he didn’t write often and rarely called home. Instead, he focused on leading his men and keeping himself too busy to be bothered by the blues, he said.
“Even though I didn’t keep a short-timers calendar,” he said, “you knew you were one day less.”
Knowing that each day passed brought him closer to going home didn’t dry out his boots, but it made each soggy step a little more bearable.
A lifetime of service to others
“After a few bullet holes in my T-shirt, I figured it couldn’t get much harder than this,” Gasdek said.
His original intention was to fulfill his commission and return to the U.S. to teach, but after Vietnam, Gasdek found a home in the military.
Each year, he took a two-week-long leave of absence to hunt “big game” with his father in Wyoming and Colorado, Gasdek said. So, when a visiting general mentioned an available military science professor position in 1989 at the University of Wyoming, Gasdek jumped at the opportunity.
Three years later, he retired, but instead of returning to Pennsylvania, he decided to stay in Wyoming and work with veterans. Among his many roles as a civilian representative for veterans, he worked as a service officer with the Wyoming Veterans Commission and was elected post commander of the American Legion Post No. 14 from 1996-1997.
His service to others has been recognized with several civilian awards such as the U.S. President’s Volunteer Service Award, Wyoming Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Volunteer Award and the Lions Clubs International Leadership Award.
Nearly 20 years ago, while working as a counselor for Boys State with the American Legion, he met U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, Gasdek said.
He introduced the senator during Boys State seminars, and, later, Gasdek worked with Barrasso and his staff on Wyoming veterans’ benefits.
Barrasso said, “His actions spoke more than his words.”
When they met, Barrasso said Gasdek “was very likeable,” but he was unaware of Gasdek’s military commendations.
“He’s very understated,” he said about Gasdek’s military service. “You almost have to drag it out of him.”
In a 2012 tribute to Gasdek published in the Congressional Record, Barrasso wrote, “He embodies the cowboy ethics and what it means to be a citizen of Wyoming.”
The tribute, addressed to President Barack Obama, saluted Gasdek’s lifelong service to his country and Wyoming. In it, Barrasso honored Gasdek for his role as a fighter, mentor and teacher.
“Speak less, say more,” Barrasso said naming one of the cowboy ethics. “Live each day with courage. To me, that’s (Gasdek).”