ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. - Robert L. Richardson described himself as a 19-year-old kid when he first set foot in Vietnam in 1969. Just one year later, he left there a man.
Born and raised in McIntosh, Georgia, Richardson attended Liberty County High School, graduating in 1967 with plans to work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Because he held a draft classification status of 1-A -- available for unrestricted military service -- however, he was told to wait until after his service, which was likely imminent, to seek a position.
By March 1969, Richardson had his boots on the ground in Vietnam. He arrived there by way of Fort Benning Georgia, where he attended basic training and Fort Polk, Louisiana where he trained for combat Infantry in an environment that he said "closely mirrored" the hot, humid and rainy climate where he was headed.
Richardson said when he arrived at Cam Rahn Bay, his first impression of Vietnam was the heat.
"It kind of snatches your breath away," he said.
After additional training and acclimation at Bien Hoa Air Base, where he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the storied 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment (Iron Rakkasans) -- the most highly decorated airborne battalion of the Vietnam War --he eventually joined his unit at fire support base Blaze.
Richardson said being young, healthy and in good shape was a necessity in the rugged country with equally rugged physical requirements.
"When I left Camp Evans I had five days-worth of C-rations on my back, my basic load of ammunition, and a bunch of hand and smoke grenades," he said.
"When I got assigned to my platoon, they added a machine gun and ammo and I picked up two 2-quart canteens, two 1-quart canteens, some C-4 and TNT for demolitions and a LAW [M72 Light Anti-Tank Weapon].
"Ruck sacks averaged 75 pounds. That didn't make walking easy."
He said one of his strongest memories of 'Nam was his very first night on Blaze when every Soldier on every gun system in every foxhole on the perimeter opened fire for one minute.
He said they called it a "mad minute" and the practice was useful in scaring off or exposing any lurking Vietcong in the area.
"The thing is, no one told me about it," Richardson said. "So one minute I was sitting by the foxhole and the next thing you know I was in it. But I don't know if that was something you could have prepared for anyway."
Richardson was in-country just two months when he participated in the Battle of Hamburger Hill and was a part of the brigades' four-battalion attack on May 20, 1969.
He said his company, Delta, was the last to go up the famous Ap Bia Mountain in the bloody 10-day battle between American and South Vietnam forces against North Vietnamese forces in the main battle of Operation Apache Snow.
"I got broken-in real quick," he said. "Even with other units supporting our flanks we took a lot of fire. My machine gunner went down which made me the one to have to help get us up the hill. Then I saw my commander go down. Even our medic got shot up but was still trying to treat people. We just kept pushing. Our mindset was to keep moving toward the objective and lay down machine gun fire when needed."
He said the bonds formed during that and subsequent battles were "unbreakable."
"Your squad members were your closest buddies," he said. "The reality was you didn't get to see a lot of other people when you were out on missions."
He said the tension and unrest that marked the ongoing civil rights struggle in the U.S. didn't mean a lot to those fighting in the jungles of 'Nam.
"In Vietnam, people were people. You couldn't afford to let any of what was going on back there get in your way. It was a real tight brotherhood."
"That year was really something," he added. "I can't say I'm glad I experienced it, but after being shot at, you kind of get used to it."
He said two World War II veteran uncles served as his inspirations, as well as his father whom he always refers to as "my hero."
"Not just Vietnam, but the Army made me grow up," he said. "But I have to give my parents credit too. My dad and my mom wanted to make sure their kids went to school and got an education.
"I'm really blessed because of my faith. That foundation can help you survive under any conditions. My belief in God kept me calm under the worst conditions in Vietnam.
"Since then, I've always gone by the philosophy that the object of war is to make the other guy die for his country," he added with a chuckle.
He said he was grateful not to suffer the ill effects of combat he's heard so much about.
"I thought I did a pretty good job of making the adjustment back into society, though at first I was a little nervous or jumpy at sudden loud noises," he said.
He added that while he doesn't care for any of the Vietnam movies he's seen, he does like the World War II film, "Saving Private Ryan."
"That movie tells it like it is," he said. "It's realistic."
Richardson left the Army in 1970 and obtained a position with the FBI as a fingerprint classification specialist working out of the Hoover Building in Washington, D.C.
Concerns about upward mobility caused him to rethink his career options, however, and he re-joined the Army in 1975, this time for the long haul. He retired at the rank of sergeant major in 2003.
He then took a civilian position with the Installation Management Command's northeast region when it was located at Fort Monroe, Virginia and remained with it when the North and South merged into the Atlantic Region at Fort Eustis, Virginia. When the organization relocated to San Antonio, Texas, he decided to remain in this region.
He arrived at APG in 2013. Richardson is the operations specialist for the Directorate of Emergency Services.
He said when he remembers 'Nam he thinks of his first squad leader who showed him "what it takes to be a leader."
"I reentered the Army a private first class but I worked my way up through good leadership and good guidance," he said. "I had several mentors who told me the things I needed to do to get promoted and at the end of 30 years I obtained my goal."