The lucky 'one'
November 10, 2011
FORT RILEY, Kan. -- Standing behind the serving line during a recent USO event on Fort Riley, 1st Infantry Division veteran Jim Lund prepared to dish up dinner to hundreds of Big Red One Soldiers and Family members.
Although the main course featured on the menu that night was stew, Lund had already decided he was going to serve up a whole lot more than just bowls full of broth, potatoes and beef. That night, the Vietnam veteran who walked the jungles of Lai Khe and the streets of Saigon as a military policeman offered his BRO Family not just nourishment for their bodies but for their hearts and minds as well.
During the course of the two hour meal, Lund gave the division's Soldiers, spouses and children a kind smile, an easy laugh, a listening ear and insights gathered during the 18 months he spent in combat and the 38 years he spent trying to forget those days.
"I have become a very good listener," Lund said recently. "This is a different war, a different generation, but war is war."
Lund joined the Army in 1967 because, he said, he was going nowhere fast at Wichita State University and he didn't want to wait to get drafted. Joining the Army in 1967 meant that Lund was able to pick his military occupational specialty, MP, and his first duty assignment, Germany.
Shortly after arriving in Germany, however, Lund and a friend decided that the place they really needed to be was Vietnam.
"We decided that if we were going to be in the military, we wanted to be where we could do the most for our country," he said. "For us, that meant Vietnam."
Lund asked his company commander to go to Vietnam, a request that was promptly denied. Undeterred, Lund then sent a letter to the Pentagon requesting orders to Vietnam. Once again, his request was denied. Lund would not take no for an answer though and wrote to U.S. Senator Bob Dole. Three weeks later, orders for Vietnam were in his hand.
"Our first sergeant told us 'you guys have no idea what you are getting into,' and we really didn't," Lund said.
Lund arrived in Vietnam in early 1968 on the heels of the Tet Offensive and at the beginning of the deadliest year of the war for the U.S. forces.
"We had to come in 'hot' because the base was under fire," he said. "Reality really started setting in."
In Vietnam, Lund and his fellow MPs ran convoys and checkpoints and manned all the entries into the base camps. Within just a few days of being "in country," Lund had learned that as long as he was able to survive the first minute of an enemy ambush, he would survive the whole attack.
"They would hit and run," he said.
Lund said his team in Vietnam also dealt with a lot of the same stuff today's Soldiers are dealing with in Afghanistan and Iraq. Improvised Explosive Devices, which Lund just called bombs back then, were very common and did a lot of damage.
"The (Viet Cong) were great at disguising the bombs and putting all kinds of shrapnel in them so they would do the most damage," he said. "They would put the bombs in the trees or on the side of the roads so that if you pursued them after an ambush, you would walk right into them."
Lund lost many friends and fellow unit members during his time as 1st Inf. Div. MP and later as an undercover agent for the Criminal Investigation Division. One death that still haunts him, however, is when a fellow MP who was on guard duty was killed just 20 minutes after being introduced to Lund.
"That's when you start thinking that it could have been you," he said. "If anybody ever tells you they weren't scared when they were there, they are lying. You were scared pretty much every minute you were there."
Lund did a 12 month tour of Vietnam, returned to the states for 30 days and went back to Vietnam for six months. At the end of the six months, he flew home to Kansas and to the life he had left almost three years before.
Though accounting for only a small percentage of time in the grand scheme of things, Lund said the years he spent in Vietnam were the most profound time in his life.
"I became a man and I found myself," he said. "I didn't realize it at the time but I grew up and started looking at the world different and started appreciating the little things that I had always taken for granted."
The years that followed Lund's return from Vietnam were full of many things. The young man from Kansas City went back to college and traveled the nation running restaurants around the country. Distinctly absent from the years, however, was any and all talk of Vietnam.
"Anytime someone brought Vietnam up, I would change the subject," he said. "There are a lot of things you have to mentally get a grip on which was tough."
Talk of his years at war came flooding back into Lund's life about five years ago when he started volunteering with the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 317 in Kansas City. Then, about three years after that, Lund officially retired and started volunteering all his time with the Veterans of Foreign War (VFW), the American Legion, the Veteran's Affairs Hospitals in Kansas City and Leavenworth, and, finally, with the USO on Fort Riley.
"I feel like I was one of the lucky ones who made it home so I need to represent the guys who didn't," Lund said.
April Blackmon, the director of USO Fort Riley, said having veterans like Lund serve as part of the USO family in the Flint Hills is a true honor.
"People like (Lund) show us that we have awesome veterans who continue to serve their country by taking care of this generation's troops and Families," she said. "They know and genuinely appreciate what our troops are going through today and we cannot thank them enough for their past service and for their continued support of our nation's military."
Lund said volunteering with veteran's service organizations is his new "career" and he plans to continue doing so until everyone understands what Soldiers and their Families go through and how it is the job of every citizen to care for America's fighting men and women, their spouses and children.
"I get more out of volunteering than do the people who I help," he said. "My focus is our warriors and their Families. If there is anything to be done that will make their lives even just a little easier, that's what I'm going to do. Never again will we leave a generation behind."