“It took a while to get used to the environment,” said Jerry Egge.
He was deployed to Vietnam from Oct. 1971 to Aug. 1972 to serve as a language instructor.
“The war was winding down in '71 and '72,” he said. “I went with a mixture of feelings. When I went there, I was really shocked — I had never really thought about going to Vietnam ... but I had an obligation to serve.”
Before arriving at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, Egge received a “three-week crash course” in Vietnamese. His job was to teach Vietnamese military personnel the English language.
“We would give them a background in English,” he said. “Some (students) were very young, some middle-age, some older — we had a variety of students.”
Egge worked for an Armed Forces Language School, operated by the Defense Language Institute, a group based in Monterrey, California.
“It was a tri-service operation,” he said. “It was called the audio-lingual approach … low and behold the process worked.”
All branches of the U.S. military provided teachers. Through language, Egge and the other instructors were discovering a common bond and bridging the gap between cultures.
“The students had a lot of motivation,” he said. “They were fun to work with.
“I don't have an aptitude for learning language — I'm more of a math and science person — so I had an empathy for them,” he added.
Some of the students were pilots and others were mechanics, he added. In addition to learning the English language, these students would learn more about their trade from U.S. servicemen, gaining greater skill to continue in their own military service for their country.
Egge and the other instructors had a secondary role: serving as security for the base.
“We conducted perimeter defense,” he said. “We shared the security for the base.”
Becoming a language instructor
Prior to Vietnam, Egge had a two-year tour with the Navy. Raised in Minnesota, he went to Chicago for basic training. He also spent time in Brooklyn, New York, and on Treasure Island near San Francisco.
“I learned they had pre-selected me as a language instructor,” he said. “Probably because I was a college graduate.”
He said he found the Vietnamese language “difficult.” However, there were aspects that were somewhat familiar, he said.
“They have the same alphabet we have,” he stated. “We had to learn the different sounds they had and didn't have and the letter associations. They had the same alphabet but they would see certain letters and make different sounds with those letters.”
His classroom was made up of 10 students. About 50 instructors were located at the school. All were college graduates and most were enlisted personnel, he said.
More than 50 years later, Egge still remembers some of the Vietnamese language.
“I remember some of the basic words,” he said. “If I was a tourist there I could communicate a little bit...”
Joining the Naval Reserves
After his service in Vietnam, Egge returned to Minnesota. He grew up in Duluth, attended the university there and chose to join the Naval Reserves at the end of his junior year of college, June 1970.
“We had a (Naval) Reserve Center in our community,” he said.
Upon graduating from the university, Egge began his tour with the Navy and received his orders to go to Vietnam.
Finding his calling
He returned to teaching after service, becoming a math instructor in his home state. While in college, he had planned to become a teacher, so perhaps his plan to go into education also led to being assigned as a language instructor in Vietnam, Egge said.
After living in Minnesota for a few years, Egge decided to weave his educational career with travel and the military. He served as an educator on several military bases overseas, including Japan, Midway Island and the Philippines. Egge returned to the U.S. in 1979. He left the education field and opened a small business in Fort Collins. He joined the Army Reserve in Colorado in 1982, and in 1984, he joined the Air National Guard in Wyoming. He sold his business in 1985, and in 1987, he began working fulltime for the Wyoming Air National Guard. For three years, he commuted to Cheyenne from Fort Collins; he moved to Cheyenne in 1990.
Traveling the world
“I like to travel,” Egge said, “and I was really happy with all the travel and training opportunities the Air Guard presented.”
He spent time in Germany, Italy and the Philippines as well as in Hawaii and other states. He served as a certified load planner for C-130s and later became supervisor for the auditing department.
Vietnam was not his only in-country military service. In 1999, Egge went to Kuwait. He also served as security support at the Cheyenne Airport after 9/11, a duty he performed for about five months.
“My experience in Vietnam having to do with perimeter defense and how to confront people, the rules of engagement ... I was able to apply those when I worked at Cheyenne Airport, almost 30 years later — those skills I learned, I was able to apply,” Egge said.
He utilized skills and knowledge gained in Vietnam during his U.S. teaching career, too, and found those also proved valuable later in life: Egge set up training programs for the Wyoming Air Guard.
“I was a good fit (for the job),” he said.
Egge retired in 2009 as a Chief Master Sargent with 34 years of military service.
“I was blessed with some good mentoring,” he stated.
He and his wife of 43 years elected to stay in Wyoming.
“We enjoy the freedom Wyoming offers and all the outdoor opportunities, like hunting, hiking and backpacking. There's lots of things we like about Wyoming,” he said.
Staying in touch
He maintains contact with several people from his Vietnam tour.
“There were six people from Minnesota who served at the language school – I've kept a long-term friendship with them,” he stated.
They reconnected about six years ago, once again finding a common bond and bridging the gap, this time between themselves as men of military service during a time of great division.
“It was a coming together after a very long time,” Egge said.
“The camaraderie has really come around during the past seven or so years — we have a bond from the war,” he stated. “It took us almost 30 years to get back together. ... I think the mood of the country has finally changed (about Vietnam veterans and the war) — society has finally mended that wound.”