Stearlin Reeves learned the importance of letting others take credit for your good ideas as a young Ordnance officer in Vietnam.
The then captain was assigned to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam as an adviser to the South Vietnamese. In Da Nang he was an adviser to a Vietnamese maintenance company; and his broad duties basically covered how to improve its support to its soldiers in maintenance of equipment.
One of the first problems he encountered was the flooding of the maintenance shops and the huts the soldiers lived in with their families. The rainy season led the soldiers to remove their boots and walk around with their pants legs up in the puddles of water.
Reeves suggested to the Vietnamese captain who commanded the company that they simply get a road grader from an engineer unit and use it to cut a ditch for drainage. Reeves drew his plan on a sheet of paper which he gave to the commander. Two weeks later, the commander stood in front of his company formation and described his idea to improve their living conditions by digging a drainage ditch. He was taking credit for Reeves' idea.
"The lesson I learned: Don't as an adviser try to build yourself up," Reeves said. "You give your advice and let the commander act on it. Our reward was seeing it done. I didn't realize it then but this is a key lesson I learned that I could apply as a support contractor while at Redstone."
He arrived in Vietnam in September 1968 and left a year later. He was initially assigned in Da Nang to the 1st Area Logistics Command which was within the 1st Corps, a predominantly Marine unit. "We were at the time trying to field the latest military equipment to the Vietnamese. M16 rifles were coming in box loads. We would basically change out from the old carbines to the new M16s," he said.
Reeves would see combat operations from a distance. After six months in Da Nang, he was reassigned to Quang Ngai Province as an area logistics support adviser. He was responsible for advising a Vietnamese hospital, supply company, sentry dog company and ammunition company. So, he would observe the combat from a hilltop in the ammunition company.
"Mortar rounds (coming in) were not uncommon," he said. "We lived in a building that was basically two officers to a room with fiberglass shingles, if you will, for covering."
One night, during incoming mortar rounds, they heard constant hammering. They discovered the American chaplain was building a four-post bed so he could stack sandbags over himself for protection.
"So we kind of ribbed him for building this bed," Reeves said smiling. "But there were some people that did have some close calls. One (mortar round) landed close to us, just outside my room. But due to the construction of the room, we did not get any shrapnel."
Of course those were the times before cell phones and Skype in today's communications between Soldiers and their families back home. Reeves and his fellow Soldiers could only communicate with their loved ones through tapes, letters and the Military Affiliate Radio System. One Sunday Reeves waited in line four hours to use the MARS station to call his wife. When he finally called, it was 2 a.m. at their home in Birmingham. The mother of their then three sons was not pleased with this early wakeup call.
"I think I was very fortunate," Reeves said of his Vietnam tour. "In fact I know I was. I didn't have the harsh environments like my fellow Soldiers. And I was fortunate to have good South Vietnamese people to take care of me. I had an interpreter, driver and one U.S. sergeant, an NCO. I listened to them because they knew the environment and there were days that they would tell me we could not go because the roads were mined. So I had good counterparts -- Vietnamese captains and majors. They were very concerned about my safety.
"There was just a lot to be learned. You never really know everything you need to know. But it's the good people you know that help you to get through. That's been true throughout my whole career. I can't take the credit."
When he returned home in 1969, he flew on a commercial Boeing 707 in uniform with a 1903 Springfield rifle slung over his shoulder -- a war trophy souvenir from the Vietnamese captain who commanded the maintenance company. No one bothered or questioned him on the flight from San Francisco to Birmingham, with the rifle stored in the overhead luggage compartment. He would only encounter antiwar sentiment in the streets at his next assignment in Springfield, New Jersey, with the Defense Contract Administration Services District from 1972-74.
Reeves, 72, joined the Army in 1960 after graduating from high school in his native Oneonta. He attended Officers Candidate School in 1964 at Fort Benning, Georgia. Reeves retired in 1984 as a lieutenant colonel serving as chief of force modernization at Anniston Army Depot. He received a bachelor's in business from the University of Nebraska in Omaha in 1972 and a master's in logistics and contracting from the University of Southern California in 1977.
He worked at Redstone as a defense contractor from 1984 until becoming an Army employee from 2010-11 when he served as a logistics manager for the air traffic control program within the Program Executive Office for Aviation. His hobbies include restoring old cars, taking care of his grandchildren and starting businesses. "I've tried to retire," he said laughing.
He and his wife of 52 years, Fern, have four sons -- Craig, 51, Dan, 49, Timothy, 46, and Phillip, 38 -- and 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
"First thing is that our Soldiers are now appreciated, and the people show it," Reeves said of this nation's commemoration of the 50th year since the Vietnam War. "You can see instances almost every day of people doing things for Soldiers, and that's fantastic. To me that's key today. We must maintain a strong military and we must thank and give the Soldiers their due for what they've done for the nation."
Editor's note: This is the 12th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.