BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Looking out on the Anthony Wayne High School juniors and seniors in Brandon Scribner’s Vietnam Era class – including his grandson Brendan – Terrence Kronberg recalled what it was like as an Army sergeant in Vietnam.
“Imagine being told that in two weeks you’ll be in a foreign country, and you might be killed or injured,” Kronberg told the students. “You had no contact with your family except by letter. It was extremely difficult.”
Kronberg was one of eight Vietnam War veterans who shared their personal experiences and answered questions from the 80 students taking Scribner’s elective course.
James Ballinger, Patrick Boyd, Robert Clark, Fred Doriot, Lenord Favor, Kronberg, Gene Souva and Robert Weatherhold either enlisted or were drafted while they were teenagers or in their 20s.
“The Vietnam War changed the United States more than any other war we’ve been in,” said Clark, a Grand Rapids resident who was a sergeant in the Army for four years, serving in Vietnam in 1971 and 1972.
The Vietnamese – many of whom were farmers living in villages and making $50.00 a year – wanted the same freedoms as Americans, but the communists were fighting to take over. Back home, people were protesting the draft and greeting returning soldiers with eggs, insults and spit.
“Everybody had to go. We were told by the government that this was something we didn’t have a choice in,” said Kronberg. “For protesters to cause problems because you’re doing your job – it was mind-boggling.”
During the Vietnam War era, between 1964 and 1973, the military drafted 2.2 million American men. Others enlisted, hoping to get a better choice on which division of the military to serve in. The average fighting age was 19.
Kronberg recalled the saying, “If you’ve got the dough, you don’t go,” which meant that the sons of well-connected, wealthier families managed to get easier assignments stateside or not serve at all, while blue-collar families were heavily impacted.
Boyd, a Swanton resident who was an Army sergeant serving in Vietnam in 1969-70, recalls getting a draft notice that gave him 12 days to report.
“Now I wish I’d kept that paper, but I was too upset,” he said.
Clark was a mechanic but was hoping to fly helicopters when he enlisted with the Army. He failed a hearing test, so he was instead placed into military intelligence, collecting information.
Favor was declared medically unfit at first, as he’d broken his knee in high school, but after his third operation he was qualified to enlist in the Air Force, where he was a sergeant in special operations, working with Laotians.
Weatherhold and his friend both decided to enlist after breaking up with their girlfriends. He was an Air Force staff sergeant.
“We were at war. I figured it was my patriotic duty to do my bit,” Weatherhold said.
Ballinger was 17 and living on the streets and sleeping in junkyards.
“The service seemed like a good idea,” he said. “The local police were asking about my whereabouts.”
Ballinger’s mom signed papers to let him get into the Marines early, and while he wanted to train to become an electrician, he was placed as a “grunt” – an infantryman.
“They got us ready to do something a 17- and 18-year-old doesn’t know how to do: to kill,” he said, describing basic training in which the Marines yelled “Kill!” with every pushup. “They did this so we wouldn’t have a moral problem with doing that.”
Those in the Army reported to Fort Polk, La., described as the closest thing to Vietnam in America.
“It had everything you don’t want – scorpions, lizards, snakes,” said Souva, an Army sergeant.
Basic training involved breaking down the newcomers and preparing them to work as a team, Weatherhold said.
“You need to think alike and do your part, or no one makes it,” added Clark.
Doriot, an Army sergeant, was a member of a five-man patrol team that would head out into the jungle five days at a time. He recalls on one excursion the rear scout silently signaling that they were being followed. The team stopped several times to watch for the enemy but eventually saw two very large eyes: It was a huge tiger stalking them.
“We told the rear scout, ‘If you shoot, don’t miss or we’re all dinner,’” Doriot recalled.
While the men saw tigers, deer, snakes, monkeys and a lot of mosquitoes, their main concern was the enemy, which blended into society and into the jungle.
“This was the first war where the enemy didn’t wear a uniform,” Weather-hold said. “You couldn’t tell who you were fighting.”
“Booby traps were the worst,” Souva added. The men knew to chop their way through the jungle instead of taking an established trail, to avoid picking up any type of package on the ground and to look out for bamboo that had been cut and aimed.
While out on patrols, the men took C-rations, which were cans of meat or other foods, or “indigenous rations,” which was a powdered mix with rice to be mixed with water. Sometimes it could be warmed up by making a fire with a match and some C-4 explosive in a hole in the ground, Doriot said, but mostly it was cold.
Clark’s three-man team, however, didn’t take C-rations because the cans made too much noise.
“We would carry rucksacks that were 85 to 90 pounds, along with weapons, ammunition and smoke bombs to set off to tell the helicopter where to find you,” Clark said.
Sometimes the men would get better food, such as when holding a memorial for a fellow soldier. It was understood that the survivors would take whatever money was left in the killed man’s locker and purchase beer and steak to celebrate, Ballinger said.
Weatherhold recalls a man from Idaho, an Air Force two-striper, taking him to the officers’ club for a meal and to talk politics and what was going on in his unit. He later realized that “Idaho” used his comments to launch an investigation into a New York man in his unit.
“He had a drug habit. Heroin was cheap,” he said. “People would extend their stay in Vietnam because of drugs.”
Movies like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon are realistic portrayals of the Vietnam War, but most movies glorify war, Kronberg said.
“I hope if you take something away, it’s how horrible war is,” Kronberg said. “Think about it. We lost 59,000 people in Vietnam. How many scientists and doctors could we have had here to change the world – and they’re gone. And when we pulled out of Vietnam, we left it just the way it was before.”
During the Tet Offensive in 1968, the North Vietnamese were almost defeated, Clark said. The U.S. pulled back and during that time the North Vietnamese regrouped and came back stronger. Again in 1973, it looked like America was winning, but in 1975, the politicians voted to end funding for the war.
“Politically, we lost that war,” Kronberg said.
When the servicemen came home, in addition to facing protesters who blamed them for what they saw on the news, the men carried the psychological impacts.
“When you kill someone up close, it will stay with you your whole life,” Favor said.
Wearing a “Vietnam Veteran” hat opens up conversation among fellow vets and prompts conversations among strangers. Getting an opportunity to share their experiences with high school students is valuable, Ballinger said.
As he’s gotten older, Ballinger said he’s found that the way history was taught in the past didn’t reflect what really happened. He discovered, for example, that George Custar, an Army officer and cavalry commander in the Civil War and American Indian Wars, wasn’t the hero he’d learned about.
“He was not a nice guy. He raped and killed. This wasn’t taught when I was growing up,” Ballinger said to the juniors and seniors last week. “This is a way for you to get the straight scoop and not the cleaned-up version.”
He also urged the students to be worthy of being fought for and to recognize that being an American includes those who are of all different races and nationalities.
“They’re citizens, born and raised here. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. You’re American, and that’s what I fought for,” Ballinger said.
The Vietnam war Era class has been offered for years, but when Scribner took over a few years ago, he began inviting veterans to speak to his students. Interest in the class has grown from a few dozen to more than 80 students. Taking the class has helped some of his students better connect with grandparents who served in the war, Scribner said.
“I was interested in learning more about the war. It’s a different perspective and something that’s not talked about any more,” said Brendan Kronberg.
“It’s good to spread the word and meet other veterans,” the elder Kronberg said. “We all share a bond.”