Vietnam: You just survived

By Bonnie HeaterNovember 30, 2010

FORT GORDON, Ga.--The Vietnam War was a troublesome conflict for most Americans. The actual fighting was brought into our living rooms every evening during the nightly televised news programs. The draft forced many young men into military service at a time when the nation was in upheaval.

One out of every 10 Americans who served in Vietnam was a casualty, according to statistics from the Combat Area Casualty File as of November 1993. Fifty-eight thousand one sixty-nine American service members were killed and 304,000 wounded out of 2.59 million who served.

While it seemed an unpopular war about 91 percent of Vietnam veterans say they were glad they served, according to One of those veterans who felt that way is Col. Craig Wiley, installation chaplain. He volunteered to serve in the war at the age of 19 in his hometown of Detroit, Mich.

"After I enlisted I learned I had a high lottery [military service] number and probably would never have been drafted," said Wiley. "I joined the Army for patriotic reasons. I believed the Army would shape me into a better person."

Almost 41 years later he still believes he made the right decision. Wiley completed Advanced Individual Training at Fort Gordon in the military police career field. After completion he was assigned to the 104th Military Police Company here.

He selected the MP Corps because he thought at the time he would go into law enforcement after he completed his military service. His father was a police officer and his mother worked as a legal secretary.

Seven months later the young Wiley received orders to Vietnam. "We did things differently then," said Wiley. "We shipped out alone to fill a vacancy; we never deployed as a unit like they do today."

In August 1970 he found himself at Long Binh, Vietnam, 33 kilometers from Saigon [now called Ho Chi Minh City]. He would spend the next 19 months at the Long Binh Jail or what he refers to as 'Camp LBJ'. It was his job to take care of U.S. Army prisoners. They either served their terms at the Long Binh Jail or were sent to the U.S. Army Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Most of the cases dealt with drug use or trafficking, black-marketing, attempted murders and murders.

Wiley worked at the maximum security part of the prison then later transferred to the main processing section. He worked 12 hours days seven days a week. "I was in jail too - one of the good guys confined," he said.

During his days off he would catch a bus, go to Saigon and return to Long Binh. "Today servicemembers can't move so freely around in Iraq or Afghanistan as I did during the war," explained Wiley. While serving in Vietnam he developed two hobbies: photography and investing in stereo equipment which he ordered or purchased from the Army Air Force Exchange Service catalog and the post exchange store.

Before his tour was up Wiley read a book that changed his career. The book, "A Man Called Peter," written by Peter Marshall, a Presbyterian minister who later became the U.S. Senate's minister, changed his life. "I read that book, bowed my head and wept," said Wiley. "It was the seeds to my conversion [into Christianity]."

Two months after his discharge from active duty, he was converted to Christianity through the ministry of friends in his home state of Michigan. In September 1973 he enlisted in the Michigan Army National Guard as a chaplain assistant. Wiley become a chaplain candidate second lieutenant and returned to active duty as an Army Chaplain.

He soon will be retiring. "I started my career at Fort Gordon and now I have returned to end it here," Wiley said. "I am grateful to be in the position I am in today," he said. "I owe it all to God. I never worked to get promoted. I served my God, my commander, the Soldiers and their families."

While Wiley elected to serve in Vietnam, Col. David Baty, U.S. Army Dental Activity Headquarters commander here, was drafted in 1970. "I had no choice," said Baty. "I won the [military service] lottery."

During the war he served as a platoon sergeant with infantry units. At the age of 20, Baty served his first two months with the 101st Airborne Division [1/105th Infantry] and the second half of his 4-month mandatory tour in Vietnam with the 1st Calvary Division.

Seven days after entering the country [Vietnam] he was in the jungle.

"I remember it being buggy, miserable and hot," he said. We were cutting trails in the ubiquitous elephant grass with machetes. [These thick, tall grasses made it difficult to get through the jungles and its height made it easy to conceal an entire military unit within yards of its opponent].

"We would spend 10 -14 days at a time in the field and 2 to 4 days back at the fire base," said Baty. Helicopters resupplied us with cigarettes, food, clean uniforms, water, and ammo.

"In the field we lived in what we could carry," said Baty. His bed was his poncho liner. Ponchos were tied together to form small tents for two to sleep in.

The first two months Baty was in Vietnam it was the dry season. In the second half of his tour he spent the rainy [monsoon] season in III Corps with 1st of the 12th Calvary [1/12th Calvary].

"People came and went and you just survived," said Baty. "My personal goal at the time was to just get home."

After serving his two year hitch Baty left the Army and attended college on the GI Bill. The Army later helped him finance dental school. In 1992, he completed the U.S. Army Advanced Education program-Orthodontics at Fort Knox, Ky., and received a master's degree in oral biology from the University of Louisville. The 32-year veteran plans to retire in two years with his wife Marlene to their farm in Missouri. There he plans to spend more time with his five grandchildren, ride his Harley Davidson Road King motorcycle, and do some bass fishing.

The orthodontist said he stayed as long as he did in the Army because in enjoyed taking care of Soldiers and their families. "I've been treating Soldiers for years," said Baty.

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Randall Hirsch didn't serve as a grunt as Wiley and Baty did in the Vietnam War. He was a Marine.

"I knew I wanted to be a Marine since the 6th grade," said Hirsch. "I believe in our nation and in the great things it has done for the world."

Hirsch recalls receiving a phone call on the morning of Christmas Eve 1969. He was at his parents' home in Kansas on Christmas leave from Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Base, Havelock, N.C., when Sgt. John Ellis called with his orders to WESTPAC [Vietnam].

This put a damper on the Christmas holiday with his family because they didn't think he would be coming back.

The aircraft that took him to DaNang, Republic of Vietnam [South Vietnam], was a civilian airliner. "I remember the pilot getting on the intercom and saying we had just entered Vietnamese airspace and were about to descend for landing," said Hirsch. "It was April 4, 1970. My heart sank to the pit of my stomach. No one had given us a briefing to tell us what to expect. But once we disembarked from the aircraft I noticed the heat and humidity."

The Marines spent the first night up on Freedom Hill in Vietnam until they received their assignments. "That night showed us what a typical night would be like," said Hirsch. "Air raid sirens would go off when the bad guys [enemy] hit the area with their 122 mm rockets and mortar fire."

The next morning Hirsch received his assignment to Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron 17, Marine Wing Support Group 17 as a maintenance administration clerk. It would be his responsibility to take care of all correspondence that dealt with moving CH-46 Sea Knights and UH-1s from the operational squadrons to Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron 17 and onto maintenance facilities in Japan or back to the United States.

On his fourth day in country, while at DaNang Air Base, it was hit by rockets. "There was an airman on his first night shift killed by a rocket," said Hirsch. "His trailer where he was working was no more than 60 yards from the hooch I was sleeping that night. He had been country one day longer than I had been."

Hirsch finished his tour in Vietnam, left the Marines and went to college on the GI Bill. He joined the Wyoming Army National Guard in September 1973 to help pay for living expenses while he attended college.

In his current position he fills the reserve component Signal Warrant Officer ranks with qualified Soldiers. As he prepares for his upcoming retirement he still feels the fight we are now involved in is important. "Winning the current war is every bit as critical to the future of this country as winning was in World War II against the Axis powers," said Hirsch. "We must win for the future generations to come."

The insight of these three veterans has enabled them to pass on valuable lessons learned in the careers to improve training and the quality of life for our servicemembers and their families.