In the midst of war, military men and women find comfort, camaraderie and courage in times of uncertainty and in the midst of combat.
“You had to watch your buddy’s back all the time,” said Jim Swan.
For Swan and those in his company, Company A, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, that hit especially hard June 5-6, 1969. The group were in four-man foxholes, dug deep due to the rainy season. However, mortars hit close to their foxholes as the enemy tried to overrun the men’s position. In fact, a mortar landed right on a foxhole next to Swan and his comrades, killing one soldier nearby and wounding the other three in that hole.
”That night was my worse experience in the war,” he said. “We lost four guys and had many wounded — that was a bad night.”
Although the enemy retreated the next day, it took time to evacuate the Americans. Only one helicopter could land near the battle site.
“We had a very small landing zone,” Swan said.
The 75 men who weren’t wounded or killed received a three-day break.
“We flew back to camp and had a Filipino band and drank beer for three days,” he recalled.
But then it was back on patrol and work as usual.
That wasn’t the only experience Swan had encountering the enemy. Upon building a fire base in early May, about a month after arriving in Vietnam, a “probing attack” by the North Vietnamese took place a few weeks later, Swan said.
“They didn’t get into the fire base … but a couple of our guys got wounded,” he recalled. “It was scary.”
Time in Vietnam
Swan was stationed in Vietnam for nearly a year: “11 months and 25 days,” he said, from April 7, 1969 to April 1, 1970. He spent six or seven months at LZ Ike Fire Base. He and his company would go into the jungle and patrol for 15 days “looking for the bad guys” and then come back and defend the LZ for five days, he said.
“But there were more than just guys shooting at us — walking through the jungle, we were trying to not get bit by snakes and fire ants!” he said.
The fire base, an artillery support base, served as headquarters for the battalion. Swan’s company was comprised of about 120 men.
“Guys were coming and going, going on R&R, patrol, wounded, sick, things like that,” he said.
He started his Vietnam service at LZ Jess and then Ike was built. Later, that year, Swan went to Quan Loi, “a big base, there was an airstrip there as well,” he said.
He was also stationed at St. Barbara Base, “a big artillery base, too,” where the self-propelled Howitzers were located.
“They were great big things, and they were noisy,” he recalled.
A graduate of Douglas High School, Swan was drafted at age 20 and went in a month early. He trained in Fort Lewis, Washington.
He remembers spending his 21st birthday “at the bottom of a foxhole with a bottle of whiskey.”
Serving in the infantry
While in Vietnam, he served as a rifleman and walked point and also carried a grenade launcher, among other duties. He also worked as a radio and telephone operator.
“I did nearly every infantry job there was,” he said.
Before the end of his tour, Swan became the field supply sergeant.
“That got me out of the frontline into the line right behind it — I was still in the same night defensive position, just inside the perimeter,” he said.
Aftermath of Vietnam
Although he spent just one tour of less than a year in Vietnam, the experience had an impact on his life, both of great challenge and great help.
“With time, it’s getting easier (to handle the challenges),” he said.
“(Being in the military service) helped me with commitment — if you take on something, you should follow through and do it,” Swan added.
“I learned leadership in the Army,” he continued. “I was a team leader, squad leader. I was responsible for those guys I had under me, and I like to think I carried that with me
Wyoming National Guard
After he returned from serving in Vietnam, Swan spent about six months at Fort Carson in Colorado as a gunner on tanks. He later worked for about 12 years at the Casper Airport as a fixed base operator. After the business he worked for folded, Swan joined the Wyoming National Guard.
“I missed the camaraderie, guys being guys,” he said. “I had a great time in the Guard for a lot of years — I met some great guys.”
He retired from the Guard in May 2007 but not before returning to active service in Iraq.
“They called us to go to Iraq (in 2004),” he said. “I spent about the same amount time (in Iraq as in Vietnam), about 11 months.”
As a personnel sergeant, Swan didn’t see direct action in that war, but he believes he helped several of the young soldiers who did.
“I think I was a calming presence for those guys … I hope I was anyway,” he said.
A family legacy
Sharing his experience and helping to calm and reassure the soldiers as well as encourage them are qualities Swan saw in men before him. His father served in the Air Force, and his uncle was a sailor; both served during World War II.
“I learned from Dad you should do your duty. I learned service and duty from those guys,” he said.
Another uncle was a captive in a Japanese prison camp for three years. There is a lot of pride and honor in the family regarding the service of the various relatives, said Swan.
Walking into the home owned by Swan and his wife, Lila, one finds a room filled with photos of family members in service. Medals also adorn the walls. Lila’s uncle grew up in the house, and he also served in the Navy during World War II. One of Swan’s brothers served in the Army during Vietnam as a combat engineer.
But, it’s not just family members who are family to those in the military. Even those who may not have served at the same time become like family, he said. His company holds a reunion every two years, and in 2016, one will be held in Denver.
“We like those trips to see the guys,” Swan said. “You develop a real closeness. I’ve met guys who served from 1965 to 1971 or ’72.”
One captain with whom he served for six months saw him in Las Vegas, and Swan said when he walked in the room, the captain yelled out, ‘Swanee!”
“I hadn’t seen him in 40 years, but he recognized me — he knew me from across the room!” he said.
That closeness and friendliness is found when one serves, according to Swan, and service is important, whether in the military or volunteering in one’s community, he said.
“People should lean more toward serving (others), maybe not in the Army or the Navy, but serve the community somehow … if they can,” he said.
“I wouldn’t want to do it (go to war) again,” he added, “but I wouldn’t trade the memories for anything, especially some of the people I met.”