Washington Evening Journal
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Washington, IA 52353
There was an explosion and AK-47 bullets ripped through the tent. John rolled out of his cot. Before he hit the ground a bullet nicked him in his left buttock — like Forest Gump, he would jokingly tell people years later. There were three GI's in the tent. John's buddy had made the mistake of zipping up his sleeping bag.
While fumbling with the zipper, he took a couple of bullets in the leg. John, not wounded that badly, went for a medic, and being a radio man, had the distinction of calling in his own wound. Command thought that was ironic. John's buttock turned black and blue. His buddies took pictures of it.
After discharge, John had some recurring dreams of rolling out of his cot, being shot, and hitting the ground. As a civilian, he rolled out of bed several times, once hitting his head pretty hard, possibly giving himself a concussion.
He's 75 now and hasn't had one of those dreams in maybe 15 years. He co-leads a senior exercise group three days a week and belongs to a hiking club. He just returned from a trip to Ireland and Scotland with his church group. His wife died one year ago. He posts marvelous travelogues with great pictures on social media. Next year he plans a trip to Italy.
John Duncan grew up in Monroe, Iowa, and now lives outside of Nashville where he is retired from a very successful career as a regional underwriting manager for a major insurance company. After the Army and his tour of Vietnam, he married a college friend, Diane, and completed his BA Degree in sociology and psychology at UNI.
He doesn't read books or go to movies about Vietnam. They bother him too much. He does read about World War II, Korea and the recent war in the Middle East. He's a little jumpy around sudden noises and always sits with his back to the wall. If people notice a nervous twitch, his pat reply is, “That twitch saved my life.” That shuts them up real quick.
Was Vietnam worth it? John doesn't mince words, “We just went and did what we felt we were obligated to do. I don't know that we really accomplished a darn thing in Vietnam other than we killed 55,000 of our own people. And they're still dying of Agent Orange. I don't know how in the world I managed to avoid it.” He sidesteps the issue of veteran suicide.
John talks about the indigenous people of the Central Highlands: Montagnards (French for mountain dwellers). The GI's slang term for Montagnards was “Mountain Yards” or, “Yards.” John describes their living conditions: “The huts of the Mountain Yards were built on stilts. They had thatch roofs. The hut itself was made of vegetative material. You could tell if they were home or not. They had a log ladder that had steps cut into it. If the steps were facing out, they were home. If the steps were turned in, they weren't. We often went on medical missions in the villages. There were always people standing alongside the road, waving. We'd throw candy to the kids. We had these Hershey Tropical Chocolate Bars that were basically inedible. We called them, 'Yard Bars.' We'd throw them to the kids. Sometimes we thought they were going to throw them back. The Mamasans would kneel alongside the road. Their teeth were stained black from chewing betel nut, a mild narcotic.”
There was a lot of marijuana use. John helped one of his medic friends come down from a morphine addiction. Medics had a tough job patching up people, therefore they were rotated out of the field every six months.
After a mad minute, John had to go out and take Polaroid pictures of dead Viet Cong three days after the battle. As you can imagine, that was a very unpleasant task. A mad minute is when the whole platoon opened up with their fully automatic weapons and completely saturated an enemy position.
Having camaraderie and something to laugh at are things that kept combat soldiers going. John went out to use the latrine. Unbeknownst to him, a tank had come in to bore sight and zero its main gun. There was a big boom. John's two buddies, George and “Tool Bag” yelled, “Incoming!” and rolled with laughter as they watched John run for cover trying to pull up his pants.
Their C-Rations were composed of 12 meals, 1 of which was edible. (The eggs were terrible!) The only thing John could eat toward the end of his tour was the meatballs out of the meatballs-and-spaghetti, sprinkled with cheddar cheese. The soldiers took a pea size pinch of C-4, set it on fire, and used that to heat their food.
They shot a peacock once, cooked and ate it. It tasted like tough chicken.
Fast forward to today — John has hope. Vietnam is out of his system, not completely, just back there somewhere. He has other, more pressing concerns, like the loss of his wife of 50 years, his three children and four grandchildren.
Upon returning from his trip to Ireland and Scotland, he wrote on social media: “As I drive west toward my home I feel a lightness of heart, joyfulness and gratitude. I am changed. I've overcome my grief demons by exercising free will. Not sure when I crossed the threshold from grief and sadness to joy and gratitude. Doubt it matters where or when. What matters is that I feel it and it is real. I feel ready now to move on. That does not mean I forget, but a transition has taken place from sadness due to loss to gratitude for what we had. I look forward to the next chapter.”
Vietnam does not define John Duncan. Life defines him, and he has a choice how to live it. Veterans Day is November 11.
Have a good story? Call or text Curt Swarm in Mt. Pleasant at 319-217-0526, find him on Facebook, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.