ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - Vietnam veteran Dave Yensan is fond of letting people know that the town where he grew up, Cheektowaga, New York -- is Iroquois for 'land of the flowering crab apple tree."
Yensan was born and raised in a "heavily Polish" section of Buffalo, New York.
He said his father's family to the U.S. in the early 1800s and that his is the first generation that didn't sharecrop.
Yensan's thoroughly American upbringing compelled him to enlist in the Army before he was out of high school in 1961. He said that although he enlisted for the Army Language School he was told after testing at Fort Knox, Kentucky that he was "incapable" of learning a second language.
"That's funny because years later I taught conversational German and also served as a court martial interpreter," Yensan chuckled.
At Knox, where he took basic and advanced individual training, Yensan trained to be a radio mechanic. From there he went straight to Germany where the famed 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment patrolled the Czechoslovakian border. Yensan served in Germany from 1962 until 1966 and was E-5 promotable when he returned to the states to attend Officers Candidate School.
"There was a huge push for signal officers then," he said. "I went to school at Fort Gordon, Georgia and I was commissioned the day before my twenty-third birthday."
As 2nd Lt. Yensan, his first assignment was as the company commander of an AIT unit for Morse code operators at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
"We basically had to un-mothball a unit that had been closed. They were ramping things up because those skills were needed for Vietnam."
Yensan then attended flight school and aviator training school at Fort Wolters, Texas and Fort Rucker, Alabama before reporting to Vietnam himself.
"I never planned anything; everything in my life has just happened," Yensan said. "I enlisted because I didn't want to go to college but ended up becoming an officer and going to flight school no less."
Yensan served from 1967 to 1968 with the 1st Air Cavalry Division and 11th Group as a Huey pilot and operations officer. He also flew frequently, mostly on "textbook combat assault missions."
The year 1968 brought on the long and bloody Tet Offensive that consisted of multiple surprise attacks in a coordinated push by the North Vietnamese against South Vietnamese and allied forces.
He described the year as "hours of boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror."
"I read that somewhere," he said. "I wish I'd made that up but I didn't.
"I spent quite a bit of time flying then. I never had any problems but I saw a lot of things I wish I hadn't seen and I lost several friends."
The Tet Offensive reached his unit in the middle of the night. Woken by the charge-of-quarters and told that they were being overrun, he charged into the bathroom for his clothes just as a rocket soared through his bedroom. If he had been in the bed he would have been killed.
"That was my 'come to Jesus moment,'" he said.
Scared and running on adrenaline, Yensan his fellow Soldiers defended their position the rest of the night eventually succeeding.
Yensan returned to the states as a captain and was sent to teach the Signal Officer Basic Course in 1968. He redeployed to 'Nam in June 1970, this time to the Saigon region with the 1st Signal Brigade.
"It was the first time my flags and wings ever came together," he said, in reference to the signal corps and aviation emblems. He also served with the 52nd Signal Battalion.
In 1971, Yensan was diagnosed with a liver ailment and was medevaced back to the states.
He eventually obtained a degree in political science and went on to serve in Germany's V Corps before returning to the states.
In 1977, he was assigned to the U.S. Army Human Engineering Laboratory at APG.
"At the time I had no idea what or where Aberdeen Proving Ground was," he said, adding that he was just happy to be on the East Coast.
At APG he served as the deputy director and then commander, responsible for 23 enlisted and 175 civilian personnel. He retired as a major in 1981.
Settled in Aberdeen, he became politically active and eventually served on the Chamber of Commerce and the City Council.
He looks back on his Vietnam experience as his "development time."
"I went in as a young kid, a cowboy, and came out a lot more mature, a man," he said.
Actively engaged in his church and church activities, Yensan said his Vietnam years left him a pacifist.
"I have no regrets. I just did a Soldier's job and it made me who I am today," he said. "In its own way it brought me closer to my church and God.
"I went into the Army because I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up and I was about 50 when I decided: Just don't grow up, so I've kind of left it in the hands of the Almighty."
Proud of his service, Yensan attends local Memorial and Veterans Day services, "more to honor those who went before us," he said.
A member of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, Yensan recalls a fellow member who wears a hat that reads: "I was a Vietnam Veteran before it was popular."
"It was not very popular when we came back," he said. "San Francisco airport was a very unpleasant place."
He said service members arriving back in the country at Travis Air Force Base were told to change into civilian attire before leaving the installation.
"It's a different world today and I hope it stays that way," he said.
Yensan lives quietly in Aberdeen with his wife Rosi. He has two grown children.
"Today, I'm not just satisfied, I'm happy," he said.