By Caitlin Kenney, Fort Sill CannoneerApril 23, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla.-- Hours before paratroopers from Fort Bragg, N.C., jumped from a C-17 for a fires training mission, Donald Stevenson stood on the ground envious.
"I wish I could go jump with them, but I don't think they'll allow old former Soldiers to do that," he said. "I'll just stand on the side and watch the young Soldiers do it."
Stevenson came to Fort Sill April 11 with his wife, Ellen to see the unit he served with in Vietnam, the 1st Battalion, 321st Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, conduct an air drop exercise with M777 howitzers and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems.
Originally from Nashville, Tenn., Stevenson graduated from the ROTC program at what is now the University of Texas at Arlington in 1966, almost two years after the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in Vietnam.
"The day after I graduated I was here at Fort Sill."
Knowing that he would soon deploy to the developing war overseas, Stevenson embraced his mission.
"That's where you were going to go. You didn't have any choice on it. That was our duty, and as a young lieutenant you get the training and go where they sent [you]."
He continued on to jump school at Fort Benning, Ga., to become a paratrooper and then was sent to the 1-321st AFA, which at the time was with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.
Seven months later on July 1, 1967 Stevenson was sent to northern South Vietnam near the demilitarized zone. His unit conducted direct and indirect fire missions with the M102 105mm howitzers that were dropped in via helicopter.
His battery was attached to the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry, and would follow them wherever their mission took them, digging in each time whether they were in the mountains or on the coast.
"The battery would be flown in. We'd dig our para pits and get the gun set up, build a fire direction center and get on with the business [of] supporting the infantry units that were around there," he said.
"The environment could be very hot or very wet. We got flooded out with a monsoon once when we were out on the coast and then when we were back in the mountains we were up on hill tops and you just didn't have much room to move around."
Wounded in Vietnam
Stevenson served in Vietnam for two consecutive years, including a command with C Battery. He was also wounded during his time as a forward observer when a Viet Cong sapper threw explosives by their command post during the night.
"I happened to be too close to it and they medevaced me out," he said.
He stayed at the hospital for two months before deciding that he needed to go back to his men.
"It wasn't quite AWOL, but I went and the paperwork caught up with me later," he said. "I felt if I stayed in the hospital any longer that I was shorting them and … I felt I needed to be there to support the infantry."
Although his friends called him crazy for coming back instead of going home, he knew where he wanted to be.
"I grew to really appreciate the people I was working with. It was an airborne unit so everyone was a volunteer, and they'd gone to jump school and they just were the most STRAC (Strategic, Tough, and Ready Around-the-Clock) people I knew."
After he returned home in 1969, Stevenson was reassigned to Fort Polk, La., where he ran a training company, Company E-2, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Brigade, for seven months. Training Soldiers after just having left the war gave him a better understanding of the necessary skills they would need to succeed.
"I tried to give them some of the practical applications and convince them that if they would follow their training, the odds are they would be safe."
Stevenson resigned his commission as a captain in April 1970 to attend law school at Southern Methodist University. He currently serves as a chief municipal judge in Texas.
During the 1-321st air drop exercise later that afternoon, Stevenson sat next to his wife in the crowded stands as the howitzer was dropped from the plane and the paratroopers followed.
"This is like an early Christmas present to him," said Ellen.
Once the paratroopers landed and set up the howitzer, those viewing the exercise were permitted to go down and see them fired up close. After a few rounds were shot off, Stevenson walked away with a smile on his face.
"It's amazing how great the troops are, and we felt welcomed and honored to be here," he said afterward.