Vietnam veterans share experiences with North Stanly students

Published 3:12 pm Monday, December 18, 2023

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North Stanly students in the English classes of Dina Story experienced a living history lesson at the Stanly County Senior Center as a panel of six veterans recounted their wartime experiences in Vietnam.

Students in attendance are in the process of reading “The Things They Carried,” a collection of linked short stories by American novelist Tim O’Brien. The book gives the account of a platoon of American soldiers fighting on the ground in the Vietnam War, and is based upon O’Brien’s experiences as a soldier in the 23rd Infantry Division.

“Reading the book is important, but the accounts of those who actually experienced Vietnam need to be heard so that their stories will continue to be told after they are gone,” Story said. “This is a great opportunity for building community between our young people and our veterans, and it’s important that our young people hear these ‘real world’ experiences from those who have lived them.”

The panel consisted of Army veterans Roger Eudy, Duane Rowland, Roger Speight, Bill Peak and Bobby Baldwin, and Air Force veteran Rick Chalue. Each veteran gave recollections of their time in Vietnam, their responsibilities, how they gravitated toward military service and their ages at induction.

Eudy, who was 20 when he entered service, recounted that he was first stationed in Key West, Florida in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis (“That’s a whole ‘nother story,” he told the students), but after a year had passed, he and fellow soldiers stationed there had become bored and volunteered to go to Vietnam, where the conflict was in its early stages at that time.

“It’s not something I like to talk about,” he said in reference to his time there, adding that as a 20-year old teamed with younger soldiers, he was expected to lead, despite feeling unprepared for that role.

“That parallels the plot of the book,” interjected Story.

Rowland entered military service “straight out of high school” and found himself in combat a year later.

“I got a great education real fast,” he recalled.

Rowland noted that many young men of draft age took extreme measures to avoid serving.

“There were people moving out of the country to avoid (the draft),” said Rowland, who served as a driver delivering munitions to various destinations, which he described as “nerve wracking” work.

Speight recalled that prior to his being drafted at age 20, employment was tough to find, as many businesses avoided hiring men eligible for the draft since they could be pulled into duty at any time after being hired.

“So, I volunteered for the draft and ended up at Fort Bragg,” he said, before landing in Vietnam during the Tet offensive in 1968.

“We got shelled six of the first seven nights we were there,” Speight said, adding that he spent his 21st birthday in the Southeast Asian country.

Drafted at age 18, Peak was inducted into the Army on his 19th birthday, and following basic training he was ordered to Germany.

“But I got pneumonia,” he said, “and when I recovered I was reassigned to Vietnam.”

As a member of the 101st Airborne, Peak was issued a radio and assigned to a Pathfinder unit, which established landing zones for air assaults and helicopter operations, determined the most practical landing zones, withdrawal routes and approach lanes in hostile areas.

“I was the person who had to make the call for air support when we needed it,” said Peak. “I’m fortunate to have made it back home.”

Baldwin recalled Vietnam as being a confusing and somewhat asinine situation for American troops.

“Vietnam was not (considered) a war,” he said. “We couldn’t shoot unless we were shot at first, or otherwise had got special permission.”

To make matters worse, the enemy was difficult to identify.

“We couldn’t tell the South Vietnamese from the North Vietnamese,” Baldwin said. “They all looked alike to us.”
Chalue recollected a harrowing experience aboard a C-130 transport plane hit by enemy fire.

“There were 250 soldiers on board, and we all had to strap on parachutes and jump,” he said, and although he landed uninjured in a rice paddy, it was far from a pleasant place to land.

“The rice paddies are fertilized with human and cattle excrement,” Chalue recalled. “I was alive, but I was covered head to toe in that muck.”

Chalue recalled that he heard someone yelling from a tree on higher ground in the middle of the paddy. It turned out to be a brigadier general who had also jumped, and whose parachute had snagged in the tree.

“He was badly injured, with bones sticking out of breaks in his leg and arm. I climbed the tree and managed to cut enough cords to get him down,” he said. “Then we heard machine gun fire in the distance.”

“You know what that is,” the injured general said. “They are killing the survivors who parachuted down.”

After firing a flare, which could have revealed their position (“it was our only choice” said Chalue), the duo were rescued by helicopter, at which point they learned a sobering fact.

“We were the only two survivors,” he learned.

Several common threads could be drawn from the panel members’ individual experiences. These included lingering aftereffects, both mental and physical, as well as their return to a country that for many years held them in contempt.

“I’m still jumpy when I hear a plane come over low and loud,” recalled Peak.

“When I got home, I was a nut case,” said Baldwin. “While we were over there, it was kill or be killed. Then, when we got home, we were expected to just go back to normal.”

Speight showed the students a program from a remembrance ceremony he attended in 2015.

“It was good for our service to finally be recognized,” he said, “but, the sad part is that only one mother and father were in attendance. People forget the sacrifices that the parents of the soldiers made.”

Baldwin has been told by doctors that physical ailments he currently deals with (diabetes, neuropathy) are the result of his exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the conflict.

“And it took 40 years for us to get benefits from the VA,” he said.

All panel members expressed disappointment at the lack of appreciation and occasional outright hostility they encountered upon returning home.

“I flew home in civilian clothes,” Eudy said. “People would have spit on me if I had worn my uniform.”

“We were blasted after coming home,” said Peak. “People referred to us as ‘baby killers.’ ”

Despite the miserable conditions, daily brushes with death and lack of appreciation, none of the panel members expressed regret at having served.

“Vietnam was fought to prevent the spread of communism,” said Eudy, “and I’m proud of what we did.”

“I hope this has been cathartic for (the panel members),” said Story. “They deserve to be honored.”

Story expressed appreciation to NSHS staff member Kathy Tillman, co-teacher Cheri Hopkins and Senior Center staff members Pam Sullivan and Alexa Sells with making the event a success, and her husband Chris and panel member Roger Speight with helping “recruit” other panel members.

Toby Thorpe is a freelance writer for The Stanly News & Press.