The call of duty
A group of Vietnam veterans gathered in a semicircle in front of the fireplace at the Warming House in Cloquet Tuesday morning. The six friends have a few things in common.
They were all Vietnam veterans who served their country in their late teens and early 20s.
They all suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
All are involved in support groups for veterans.
The veterans believe they think differently because of their experiences. They also learned survival techniques while in Vietnam that came home with them.
For example, they keep their backs to a wall when they are in public places, such as restaurants. The veterans also look for the exits in a room while in public. Some veterans push a cart to keep a barrier between themselves and other customers to prevent being bumped into while in stores.
Bob Gaskill and Dapper Danielson are both 68 years old and served in the Marines.
John Blanchard, 70, served in the Army, as did Jim Frey, 70, and Dave Burgett, 70.
Larry Sell, 73, served in the Air Force and stayed in the military the longest.
Blanchard served three years in the military with the 1st Cavalry Division.
He was stationed in Pleiku, Danang, from 1967 to 1968. He was a door gunner, meaning he manned a mounted machine gun on a helicopter to help protect soldiers as they were flown from one location to another.
"We made friends. We lost friends," Blanchard said. "There were scary moments, but it was a good experience because of the friends we made. We all carry emotional scars; you just learn to cope. I'm just glad I made it home."
The men nodded in agreement at times as they listened to each other's stories. Other times, they laughed or poked fun at each other.
A gruesome job
Gaskill spent 10 months in Vietnam and was wounded twice. He was a machine gunner with the infantry.
He arrived on April 1, 1968, to fight with the 7th Marine Regiment. The marines used helicopters, amphibious tanks and landing craft to access hot spots.
They fought their way into the area, then turned around and fought their way out. They would repeat the routine every three or four days. It was ambush or be ambushed.
On Sept. 19, 1968, Gaskill was injured when a rocket exploded behind him. During that battle, 14 Marines were killed and 45 more were wounded.
"We filled a whole wing of the hospital," Gaskill said.
He was brought to the hospital, cut out of his dirty clothes, bandaged and put in a bed, where he had his first good night's sleep in a while.
"I hadn't had a bath in six weeks and was covered in mud," Gaskill explained.
The next day, he was told he needed to identify Marines who had not made it. The military had bodies identified twice to make sure they had the correct identification.
"I had to I.D. the dead, so they put me in a wheelchair and brought me to the morgue," Gaskill said. He explained that in a wheelchair, he was at face level with the bodies, as opposed to standing over them with more distance between.
A few men in the group asked him sarcastically, but with empathy, about the experience "not leaving him with any long-lasting issues."
"About a month and a half later, I was back in the bush," Gaskill said. He was soon wounded again.
Gaskill was transferred out of the combat zone to Okinawa for a few months, then the Philippines, before he left the military. As was common at the time, he was discharged a few months early.
Wearing their identity
Blanchard explained the military gave each person two dog tags. One would be left with the body so when the dead were collected they knew who he was and the other was taken by whoever found the body.
The World War II and Korean War tags had a small notch from being jammed into the man's teeth so the tag wouldn't get lost, Sell said.
If he still had a head, Blanchard added dryly.
Burgett noted he has his grandfather's tags with a notch.
For safety reasons, soldiers didn't want their tags to rattle against each other, so some men put one in their boot.
Some of them might not have their boots left when they found the body, noted one veteran. Now, there is a rubber edge around the tags to prevent jingling.
'I was just doing my job'
At the time they joined, the men thought they were doing the right thing for their country.
"When you're just 18, you're a 'yes' person," Sell said.
"You think you're invincible," Danielson added. He noted that more Native Americans served in Vietnam than any other ethnic group.
"We thought it was our turn," Burgett said.
Danielson spent two years in the military, serving in northern Vietnam from 1970 to 1971 as Field Radio Operator 2531.
"The night before we graduated boot camp, we were given our MOS (military occupational specialty code)," Danielson said. "The drill instructor said, 'Here, you're the first one they shoot at.' That made me feel pretty good."
He carried a 20-pound AN/PRC77 (Army/Navy portable radio communications) radio. He was assigned to a supply company, H and S.
The men went on 30-day operations with different companies. They rotated to new companies at the end of the 30 days. Danielson's job was to set up command posts and coordinate air strikes, medevacs, gun ships or whatever support was needed at the time.
Danielson said when he first arrived in Vietnam he had been stationed at Hai Van Pass (Vietnam village north of Danang), Gaskill nodded and said they couldn't drive that road without getting shot at when he was there.
"I was in a mobile Jeep with a convoy of six or seven supply trucks when we were ambushed," Danielson said. "Mortar landed in front of the Jeep I was driving and blew out the radiator and the windshield. We bailed out and returned fire. It was my first experience as a close call. We were lucky the mortar hit in front of the Jeep and not on it."
At 21 years old, Danielson was the oldest person in his radio platoon.
"They called me 'Grandpa' at 21 years old," Danielson said with a laugh.
Danielson left the military after his tour was over in December 1971.
"We were just cannon fodder," Danielson said somberly.
"I was in two years, three months and 16 days," Frey said. He was a field postal operator at Camp Holloway east of Pleiku.
"I made sure our boys in the field got their 'Dear John' letters," Frey said. A few of the veterans chuckled. One added that Frey had also delivered one to himself.
Frey admitted he got a letter. It was the reason he decided to sign up to extend his tour to three times.
Frey's base was overrun during the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. Next, he was assigned to a reactionary squad of 12 men.
"We set up ambushes at night, made sweeps and waited for Charles to show up," Frey said.
Later, he volunteered for Operation Oregon; he was awarded an Army commendation medal inscribed with a "V" for valor.
"I was just doing my job," Frey said.
He told how the post office at Pleiku was a little shack with a bunk bed in the back. It took a direct hit and both guys inside were killed.
He said the time overseas was scary, yet rewarding. He was able to talk a few of his buddies into extending one tour before they left.
"They said I was 'dien-cai-dao,'" Frey said with a dry laugh. He explained that means "crazy" in Vietnamese.
"I had goosebumps the size of quarters because I was scared because everything moved," Frey said about his job on a listening post.
He talked about the monsoon season, when he was up to his knees in mud while he was stationed in the central highlands.
The days were hot with high humidity; the nights chilly. Everything was constantly wet.
"I got out of there and self-medicated for 17 years," Frey said.
"He means drinking," one of the men chimed in.
Living with PTSD
Frey credits joining a veterans support group about 15 years ago for helping him cope with his PTSD.
The veterans explained a few "symptoms" of PTSD.
"One of the traits of PTSD is when we go into a restaurant or doctor's office, we start counting the ceiling tiles," Frey said.
"Half of the people I know can hardly make it through Thanksgiving or Christmas because of the roomful of people," Gaskill said.
Another symptom is locking the door, then going back to check it several times.
"For about 40 years, I never went into the movie theater. With that crowd behind me, it gave me the creeps," Gaskill said.
Most of the veterans need an aisle seat, whether at a theater or church.
'Finding himself' in Vietnam
Burgett had a typical 12-month tour in Vietnam beginning in May 1966. He was 20 years old. He had spent a year in college, but didn't know what to do with his life, so he joined the Army.
He was assigned to the Signal Corps and worked in secure communication. He jumped out of airplanes with his radio strapped on so he could drop in ahead of troops and radio information back.
"The enemy must have thought we were somebody special because they shot at us quite a bit," Burgett said with a laugh. He said he was nicked a few times, but nothing serious.
He turned 21 years old while in Vietnam and voted by absentee ballot.
One of his first memories was when he was assigned to a replacement company in the Saigon area and put on guard duty. One end of the building the young soldier was guarding was at the edge of the jungle.
"I got a rifle, but no bullets," Burgett said as his fellow veterans chuckled. "The reason was I was a rookie and they were afraid I would shoot a civilian. I was out there from midnight until eight in the morning. I wasn't as afraid of the Vietnamese as a tiger or snake coming out to get me."
Burgett was back home in June 1969. He went back to college and received his teaching degree. He became a teacher at Cloquet High School for 30 years. He is almost blind because of contact with Agent Orange in Vietnam.
He recommends the PBS show "Vietnam War with Ken Burns" to anyone interested in learning more.
"We hope it's not being repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan right now," said Burgett.
The impacts of Agent Orange
Sell joined the Air Force on March 13, 1964, when he was 18. He was stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, then went to Nha Trang Air Base in July 1966.
He grew up building roads and working for his father's trucking company at home, so it was fitting he drove a supply convoy truck in Vietnam. He also flew as a crew member on planes and performed "drag shoots," dropping supplies when trucks couldn't get in.
He remembers being stopped by military police (MPs), which he credits with saving his young life.
"We were driving along the road in this truck, smokin' and jokin'," Sell said. "The MPs walked up to the truck and said, 'You're speeding.' My partner opened his door and said, "Oh shit, there's gas running out of the door."
The strap holding the gas tank had come loose. The men threw their cigarettes and waited for a wrecker truck to pick them up.
"Agent Orange has affected me a lot," Sell said. "I look healthy, but inside, I'm pretty broken."
He said the men would eat lunch in the fields that were hit by Agent Orange, not realizing the danger. He suffers from heart disease, diabetes and neuropathy.
The soldiers handled leaking 55-gallon drums of Agent Orange. Sell quickly added that he only moved the barrels with a forklift.
Sell left Vietnam in 1967. He came home where he eventually became a state trooper for 31 years — 25 of those in Carlton County.
"When I got out, I was in road construction," Sell said. "If I would have stayed in road construction, I probably would have been an alcoholic."
He was headed out for a night of drinking when he stopped and applied for a job with the state patrol. He retired in 1999.
He had joined the Army Reserve, then transferred to the Army National Guard in Cloquet, then to the 148th Fighter Wing in Duluth, finally retiring in 1994 after 30 years.
When Sell saw a local doctor to treat his health conditions from Agent Orange, he lost his temper. The doctor recommended he see a psychologist, so he did.
Sell is now a service officer in Mesa, Ariz. He helps veterans in need as much as he can.
He will celebrate 50 years of marriage next August, and he's quite proud of that.
The weight of guilt
The veterans shared stories of survivor's guilt for coming home while some buddies didn't.
"It's like Russian roulette," Sell said.
The Duluth Veterans Center helped teach the veterans it's not their fault that they survived war and others didn't.
The veterans share stories during their meetings and discovered many of them suffer from survivor's guilt.
"I was going up a hill one day so I was higher up than the marine behind me. The enemy's shot went between my legs and shot the marine behind me in the head," Gaskill said. "In another battle, my gun team was wiped out. There were four of us on the team and the other three were killed.
"So I've wondered for years, why me? I'm a big galut at 6-foot-3 and a big target," he said.
About 10 years ago, Gaskill decided to stop asking why. There is no answer.
Where to call for veteran information
• Carlton County Veterans Service — 218-499-6838
• Carlton County Disabled American Veterans (DAV) — 320-216-5213
• Duluth Veteran Center — 218-722-8654
• Twin Ports VA Clinic — 715-398-2400