Vietnam veteran reflects on the experience of loss

By Terrance BellMay 26, 2023

Vietnam veteran reflects on his experience of loss
John G. Woyansky, a resident of Central Virginia, reflects on his experiences in Vietnam between 1971-1972. He served with the 196th Light Infantry in Da Nang and other locations (photo by T. Anthony Bell) (Photo Credit: Terrance Bell) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT GREGG-ADAMS, Va. – Many of John G. Woyansky’s memories in Vietnam were forgettable.

Many are not.

Then there are those falling somewhere in the middle -- they conjure such sweetness you never want to forget but are sometimes linked to the bitterness of tragedy.

Woyansky, a 75-year-old retired infantry officer, was a platoon leader mostly with the 2nd Battalion, 196th Light Infantry for one year between 1971-1972. He said his most treasured memories of Vietnam were the friendships, camaraderie and closeness forged with fellow comrades under conditions of war.

“At the rifle platoon and squad level, that’s almost closer than real family,” he said, noting troops were around each other continuously, especially on patrol in which they fill sandbags and constructed fire positions under hot, cold, rainy and dusty conditions.

“Patrols lasted 28 days and when you’re there … in that kind of dirt all the time,” he continued, “you get a sense of how much you can trust the other people around you because they’re doing the same thing and they’re trusting you. It’s a bond that exceeds any kind of family love aspect.”

Woyansky, a native of Cleveland, said he has come to love his troops – even some who caused problems -- because they kept each other safe, surviving the most arduous experiences.

“You get bonding in any kind of military unit,” he said, “but the more horrific your circumstances, the tighter that bond gets.”

Woyansky, whose father served, developed a childhood interest in the military through a board game. His interest strengthened when hearing war stories from old-timers. By the time he reached his teen years, his destiny was already decided.

“I felt the country needed it’s people, me, to support its aims,” he said.

Full of ambition to do his part while the nation was at war, Woyansky joined Ohio University’s ROTC program and Pershing Rifles military fraternity.

“I got to the point where I wanted to be a professional Soldier,” he said, “and if you’re going to be a professional Soldier, you have to go war. You may not agree with it or its tenets, but it was a duty thing – either you do it or resign.”

In Vietnam, Woyansky’s unit was assigned to Da Nang and Chu Lai Air Base. Much of his tour was spent patrolling those areas with his troops. Over the course of his tour, two of his Soldiers were injured by boobytraps, and one was killed by his own Claymore mine. No one can adequately prepare for the loss of life, Woyansky said, adding: “When it happens, you can’t get the smell of blood out of your head.”

In the years following the war, Woyansky said his sense of loss became disruptive because he saw it as the opposite of competence.

“It’s used to consume me because I lost a trooper over there … . The whole point of my job was to minimize their exposure – get the job done but minimize their exposure to loss.”

Woyansky eventually sought help.

“I went through the PTSD program at the VA, and you understand how to deal with it and to mitigate it but it’s still difficult,” he recalled. “It’s weird because it’s not the big things that get you whacked, it’s the little things. It’s almost impossible to predict when you might have an episode.”

Although he has learned to deal with his experiences, Woyansky said they the whole of Vietnam will always be a part of him to some agree.

“There’s always some kind of survivor’s guilt or feelings,” he said. “You think about it and finally realize that, well, you really couldn’t do much. It’s regrettable, but you just keep the trooper in your head so you don’t forget the loss.”

The war claimed two other Woyansky friends. They have been the subjects of his reflection at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial located in the nation’s capital.

Woyansky is a member of American Legion Post 284 in Colonial Heights. He retired from the Army in 1992 and later became a civil servant at the U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command.

He stays in contact with fellow unit members.