Though he considers himself deeply patriotic, the love of his country is not what initially motivated Nick Kricken to join the military in 1963.
“I was going to college and a buddy of mine wanted to join the Air Force, and I thought, ‘Well, why not, I haven’t done that yet,’” said Kricken.
Kricken headed first to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and then Keesler AFB in Biloxi, Mississippi. By the time he arrived at F.E. Warren AFB in Cheyenne in the fall of 1964, he was a ground communications equipment repairman.
“When you enter the Air Force you take the battery of tests to see what you are good at; I was good at everything so they said, ‘Where do you want to go?’” said Kricken. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about electronics,’ so I decided to give it a try and just did it. It was one thing I didn’t know anything about.”
In October 1966, he changed locations yet again – this time to Vietnam.
“I wasn’t that concerned about going to a war zone,” he said. “You have a job to do so let’s go do it.”
In the field
Kricken arrived in Saigon and was sent first to Can Tho and then to Rach Gia in support of the 8th Special Forces Group of the Army. Just a month later he was reassigned to support the 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division in Pleiku. Although he was enlisted in the Air Force as part of the 21st Technical Air Support Squadron Tactical Air Control Personnel team, he was assigned to the Army for his entire tour of duty. He was also given a new job upon his arrival in Vietnam.
“When they sent me to Vietnam, they said, ‘Well, if you can fix radios you can operate them, so now you are a radio operator,’” he said. “Of course, I didn’t know any of the lingo or anything, so I had a complete learning curve there becoming a ground forward air controller. But I always seemed to get the job done. I learn fast.”
Kricken, serving as a ground forward air controller along with one other air controller and an Air Force weatherman, called in air strikes to support ground troops.
“We had an air liaison officer representing us at the brigade meetings,” explained Kricken. “He went to all the staff battle meetings and would come back and relay the information to us. He would say, ‘We have these coordinates you need to work on.’ Or we would get a call from a patrol in the field. They would give coordinates and say, ‘Give us some air’. We would call the air strike in and then call the troops and tell them to pop smoke so the strikes wouldn’t hit them.”
Because Kricken lived and worked with the Army forces, he spent his yearlong tour living in a tent.
“Where we were, there were no bases,” said Kricken. “They would go in on the choppers and lay down a runway, and C-123s would bring in supplies and troops and we would build a base from there.”
The remote locations and basic defenses of the mobile bases often left them vulnerable to attack. With the regular movement, rudimentary camps were set up quickly, and with an antenna erected above the tent, the communications center was an easy target.
“It was sporadic,” said Kricken. “There was no rhyme or reason to it. They would send a sniper out to shoot at a few people and then vanish. Guerrilla warfare tactics is what they were using. It was never really planned.”
However, a more significant and well-organized attack took place New Year’s Day, 1967.
“Around three o’clock in the afternoon we started taking mortars, rockets and grenades,” he said. “A long valley ran to the north and west, and at the end of the valley was an outcrop of rocks. They had burrowed under that so they could use rockets and mortars from there and we couldn’t get to them. That went all the night and all the next day. So finally, I got a set of F-100s to come in, much like the rest of the aircraft I had used, and they all want to know the situation.
“The F-100s came in to do the strafing run and the commander said, ‘Two and three break and hold, I am going to deliver just like it was a big one.’
“He went up and came down on top of the trees on the crest of the valley. When he got to the bottom of the valley, he flipped the 100, and as he flipped he let the bombs go. They went right into where the enemy was and of course the mountain blew up. That was good airmanship. He got a Distinguished Flying Cross and I got a Bronze Star out of it.
“One time during that incident I had 26 sets of aircraft stacked up,” Kricken continued. “They were waiting to follow whoever was going in with whatever they had for ordnance. That’s how much air power we had. Actually, on holidays such as Christmas through New Year’s, there isn’t supposed to be any fighting. Well, the enemy decided on New Year’s Day to let loose. That is when things got exciting. Of course, there was nothing else going on but us, so I had all the aircraft I wanted.”
Kricken continued to move to various locations throughout the rest of his tour, including a stint in Cambodia and Quang Ngai near the Gulf of Tonkin.
Kricken left Vietnam in August 1967. He had arrived as an E-4 and made staff sergeant E-5 after just three years in the military, an unusual feat in such a short amount of time.
He returned to Wyoming where his future wife was, married and began a family. Though he left the Air Force in 1967, he joined the Wyoming Air National Guard in 1970 and remained on full-time duty until he reached mandatory retirement at age 60 in 2002. At the time of his retirement, he was a command chief master sergeant E-9 with the 153rd Airlift Wing in Cheyenne.
“With the Air National Guard, I’ve been everywhere,” said Kricken. “I’ve been in all 50 states and 20 foreign countries.”
Though he initially remained as a radio mechanic/operator with the Guard, he soon switched to ground safety, a field he remains involved in as a part-time consultant for private companies.
“I liked it,” he said, about his decision to remain with the military until retirement. “There is a sense of satisfaction maybe and a little bit of adventure. And I got to travel. I was not a stay-at-home type. I liked going and being places I’ve never been. That is what life is about.”
His long career in the military has also allowed him to see a positive change in public attitude and support for veterans.
“When we came home from the war, we were very unpopular and were met by a barrage of dissidents throwing eggs at us when we deplaned in Seattle,” he said. “We were part of a war a lot of people didn’t believe in. It was a tough go for a lot of years. There was no homecoming. There really wasn’t.
“We took the situation to heart. You understand a lot more about life than when you went over there. Or I did. Let’s put it that way,” he added. “You learn a lot about yourself and life.”