Service Reflections: Army veteran recalls close calls in Vietnam
Service Reflections: Army veteran recalls close calls in Vietnam
RECORD YOUR OWN SERVICE MEMORIES
Service Reflections is an easy-to-complete self-interview, located on your TWS Profile Page, which enables you to remember key people and events from your military service and the impact they made on your life.
Editor’s note: The following Service Reflections is one of many recorded on TogetherWeServed.com, a secure online community with a membership of over 2 million active-duty and veteran members. This story may contain language which may not be suitable for young children.
SP 4 Kehl L. Rothermel
Status: U.S. Army Veteran
Service Years: 1965 - 1967
Please describe who or what influenced your decision to join the Army.
It turned out to be a bad day: I was told that I would not be needed for work at the brewery that summer, I got my draft notice in the mail, and a speeding ticket to finish out the day. A month or so later, I showed up on the morning of the 23rd of June 1965 at the Philadelphia Induction Center to get processed with a large group of other guys. I was given aptitude tests, physically examined, got my shots, was fitted and supplied with the required uniforms, had my picture taken, and was put on the train that evening to Fort Benning, Georgia. I was twenty-two and concerned about how a two-year military service obligation would affect my life.
When I was asked to dress for my picture, I told the photographer that I did not really need or want one. He responded that it was for my parents as they might like to have a picture as a remembrance of when I first entered the service. I took the meaning to be if I did not make it back home since the odds were I would end up in Vietnam. They sent two different pictures of me to my parents, which are the only photos ever taken of me when I was a soldier.
Whether you were in the service for several years or as a career, please describe the direction or path you took. What was your reason for leaving?
During basic training, I thought I might as well make my time in the service more interesting and, instead of the Infantry, sign up for Special Forces. It turned out that my hearing was just below what was acceptable. Mowing lawns and the rifle team in military school had taken their toll. So, I applied for OCS, Officer Candidate School, even though it would extend my enrollment period. I was sent to Advanced Infantry Training while my request was being processed. On my OCS application, I thought, since I took chemistry in college, even though I did not graduate, I might avoid the Infantry in Vietnam if I applied for the Chemical Corps. When I went for my interview before a panel of three Majors, I was told that OCS was for the Infantry, Artillery, and Military Police. I thought that if I had gotten some coaching before applying, I might have been accepted.
During Advanced Infantry Training, I remember the day they took us all to a stadium and told us about the benefits of being Airborne. They played some patriotic music and had a skydiver paraglide into the stadium with an American flag flapping behind him. As those who decided to volunteer filtered down from the stadium, I remember thinking to myself how easy it was to get the younger guys to volunteer by calling up their patriotism. Just before the end of my Advanced Infantry Training, I thought, but why not sign up for Airborne and get the extra pay and three weeks more before a duty assignment? Plus, I was in shape for the training.
The day before the fifth and final jump for Airborne training, I did not feel well. They told me to meet a doctor in some vacant tent after supper. Upon examination, the Army doctor told me I had strep throat with a temperature of 102. I could jump tomorrow, and it would not affect my condition. If I did not make the final jump the next day, I would have to start over again. I jumped the next day in full combat gear. I thought about Ranger training but instead decided to volunteer for Alaska as my duty assignment. Alaska was on the list with three or four other places plus Vietnam, and I thought that there might be a better chance to get assigned to Alaska, since who would prefer to be stationed there? My motivation was to try and get a better duty assignment than an Infantry rifleman in Vietnam. At Jump School graduation, we were all assembled and told that all those under 18 got the duty assignment they requested; the rest were going to the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam as replacements.
If you participated in any military operations, including combat, humanitarian, and peacekeeping operations, please describe those which made a lasting impact on you and, if life-changing, in what way?
My time in Vietnam can be charted by the combat operations my unit participated in at either the platoon or company level. Six of the major ones are listed on my Shadow Box under Combat and Non-Combat Operations and on my Timeline toward the bottom. There is a short Description for each Operation except for Irving, which goes into more detail. Under Memories, I have included experiences and incidents that I still recall when thinking about my time spent in Vietnam. However, I have avoided describing the doom and gloom of combat actions leaving them in the past. My tour of duty in Vietnam has had a lasting impact on my life as something I did not want to do but was called to do and would do again. I am proud to have served along with my brothers-in-arms.
Did you encounter any situation during your military service when you believed there was a possibility you might not survive? If so, please describe what happened and what was the outcome.
Every combat soldier had to face the fact that he may not survive his tour of duty. In many situations, there was no time to think about survival. Two of my experiences below demonstrated to me what it means to say, “When your number is up, it’s up.” Mine was not, and I survived to make it back home.
My unit was guarding an artillery position on a flat hill jutting out from the edge of the jungle into a rice field. The hill was surrounded on three sides and was about 15 feet or so above the rice paddies. There was no vegetation except for low growth and grasses on a basically bare hill. To protect the artillery, infantry was stationed completely around its outside perimeter. I was positioned with two others toward the rice field not far from the edge of the jungle. This gave us a clear field of fire to cover the edge of the jungle with my M60 machine gun. It was afternoon, and we needed shelter from the hot sun, so we decided to snap two ponchos together like a tent over the deep fox hole someone else had dug.
One of us was anchoring the back-left corner while holding the front corner and top edge with my back toward the rice paddy. The other guy was on the right side, keeping it steady. There was the sudden sound of two consecutive three or four-round bursts of automatic weapon fire. We all hit the ground. Some patient VC had been waited along the jungle’s edge to get a good shot. Me standing still with my back facing him must have looked like a good target. It turned out that the guy anchoring the back corner to my left got hit in the lower leg, which was a “million-dollar wound” that got him sent back to the States. There were two bullet holes in the middle of the poncho, a little more than a foot apart to my right. The "expletive" VC missed me.
A couple of months after I was assigned to the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion, I was back at base camp. I decided to walk over and see how my old platoon was doing, especially the guy who took over the machine gun I carried. I knew that the company would probably be in the field, but maybe someone might know what was going on. The company area looked deserted, with nobody in sight. I walked around the Battalion and finally found someone who filled me in. I was told a sniper shot and killed the guy who replaced me to carry the machine gun. I could not believe it and tried to verify that we talked about the same guy but left unsure. In any case, a machine gunner from my old company, who very well could have been me when I volunteered to carry the M60, never got much of a chance to finish his tour.
Of all your duty stations or assignments, which one do you have fondest memories of and why? Which was your least favorite?
After a little less than six months of Infantry training, I was sent to Vietnam. I spent my first year in the 3rd Platoon of A Company, 1/8 Cavalry, 1st Brigade (Airborne) of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). I like spelling it all out but have always tried to keep my pride low-key. After a year in a combat unit, I did not want to go back to the states and spend six months keeping fit and doing training exercises. I was already lean and mean. At just under six feet, I weighed around 172 pounds when I was inducted and was down to 163 pounds when I made it back home. I remember how shocked I was when I had a good look at myself for the first time in the mirror back home and saw how thin my face was.
So, back then, I decided to extend my Vietnam tour to mid-June 1967 for my last six months of my active duty. The best part of my first year of duty was flying in a UH-1D helicopter on-air assault missions over the central highlands. Vietnam was a beautiful country with some great and imposing views. I reasoned that what could be better duty than flying on air assault missions and not jumping off the "chopper" at the LZ (Landing Zone) but staying on and flying off. The last six months of my Vietnam tour were spent at the wide-open door of a chopper as a door-gunner with the same model M60 machine gun I carried on the ground. I always felt a little sorry that I did not stay on the Infantry ground with its challenges, but there is such a thing as pushing your luck.
The documentary "I Am A Soldier," made in 1965, was produced by ABC-TV for the American Broadcasting Company and McGraw-Hill Films distribution. The McGraw-Hill two-page Film Guide provides a synopsis of the 51-minute color film. I have added a copy of the Film Guide to my Uploaded Documents. Quoting from the Purpose of the Film: “To show what it means to be a soldier in the United States Army fighting in South Vietnam and to illustrate the equipment and tactics needed in this different kind of war.” It goes on to say under Content of the Film: “The film records the story of a rifle company in the First Cavalry Division of the U.S. Army in South Vietnam. It begins with the arrival of a group of replacements for one of the rifle companies of that division.” It so happens that the rifle company they followed for the documentary was A Company, 1/8 Cavalry of the 1st Brigade, the one in which I served. I was one of the replacements mentioned and appeared at the start of the film with closeups of me during the captain’s talk. The film may start there, but most of it was filmed before my arrival. I also think that the captain’s talk and a few other parts of the film were staged just for the documentary. However, the film does give the viewer a basic understanding of how the war progressed at the company level when there was no enemy contact.
From your entire military service, describe any memories you still reflect on to this day.
There are two memories from Vietnam that come to mind, that at the time, I wish I had some way of recording each incident. I wanted to have more than just a memory. A smart cell phone would have been great, providing the ability to photograph and record many things. However, back in the mid-1960s, the only option one had was a small film camera. I do not think a small voice recorder was even on the market yet. In any case, even a small camera that took 24 pictures or so would have been a problem to carry around in combat for a couple of months without getting broken or lost. Plus, not having a place to send the film to get it developed or the ability to buy a new film made a camera impractical. So, my memories will have to do.
Most of the time, there was no enemy contact on the search and destroy missions in Vietnam. In the jungle over the varied terrain, you could be within 400 meters, about a quarter-mile, from the enemy, and never know he was there. Living outside 24/7 for months at a time and sleeping on the ground at night, you get to be familiar with the environment. By necessity, you become more observant and detect environmental disturbances and notice unrelated movements. You also are bound to come across something from time to time that creates a lasting memory. So, a few of the memories I still recall have nothing to do with combat actions, which I prefer not to dwell on. Besides wishing I could have recorded these two weird experiences, I do not know why they have stuck with me over the years.
One day we were on patrol and given the sign to hold up. It was usually a single file keeping 3 to 4 meters between troops to prevent being an easy target when we moved. For some reason, the hold was more than the normal half minute or so, so I sat down next to an almost perpendicular bank covered with light vegetation. As I glanced at the vegetation, I thought my eye caught some movement. Looking at the area, I saw nothing, but then something did move. It looked like a leaf about 3 inches long was slowly slipping. I looked closer and could hardly believe that it was a live insect that looked exactly like the leaves around it. It was the same color, size, shape, and texture. Amazingly its body was the same thickness as a leaf. Its tiny head was the end of the stem, and its thin legs were folded along the side of its leaf-like body and were not visible until they moved. I asked myself, where are the internal organs; there must be some type of stomach, lungs, and heart somewhere. It also must live its entire life on this plant to maintain its camouflage. It occurred to me that I was probably looking at something biologists had never seen before. Unless they were told of its existence, they surely would never discover such a thing just casually looking around. Without pictures of the leaf-like insect, I never found out if it was a known species or not.
In the late afternoon around New Year’s Eve in 1966, I flew with a sortie to a plateau in Pleiku overlooking a lake. I do not remember being told why we were there, but walking up to the top of the rise, I saw what looked like a base and/or village where I assumed you could get a beer and some entertainment. This was the only occasion of my entire tour that I had free time like this except those few times I had a pass. I decided to walk around by myself and explore. Down across the plateau, there were rows and rows of small tents; there had to be over a hundred of them. I remember thinking who did all this work and for what. It was getting dusk, and as I walked along the tent rows looking into them, I found them all empty except for bedding thrown on the ground. I was mystified as to why all these tents with no one in any of them. I wondered, was I supposed to be somewhere else, was I the only one walking around, or was I missing out on something?
It was toward evening, and as I was looking around, a white horse appeared about forty meters up the rise. It stopped for a couple of seconds and pranced around as if looking for a way out and then ran off. That was the only horse I ever saw in Vietnam, an all-white one at that, and I thought that maybe it was some kind of sign or omen. Shortly afterward, the sound of music started coming from across the valley down from the plateau. As I listened, it was from instruments that I could not identify and was the most enchanting music I had ever heard before or since. It must have been from the Montagnard, the indigenous people of the central highlands, celebrating the New Year.
As I listened, I kept wishing that I could have recorded it somehow. It was getting dark, and I began to feel quite cold. I did not think I was sick, but something was wrong. I remember it as one of the two times in my life that I was the coldest ever. It got to the point that I had to stop shivering and get warm, so I confiscated a blanket I found in one of the tents, moved to another, and lay down using the bedding. With music, I fell asleep. New Year’s Eve in 1966 is one that will never be forgotten. Early the next morning, I went to the chopper and waited for the rest of the crew to show up and returned to duty.
What professional achievements are you most proud of from your military career?
I take pride in the qualification badges I have been awarded. Collectively they show my professional achievement as a well-trained and experienced Infantry soldier - both the Army Expert Weapons, Auto. Rifle Qualification Badge and the Parachutist Badge or “Jump Wings” were earned during my training. The Combat Infantryman Badge (CIB) and Army Aviation (Aircraft Crewman) Badge were earned based on my Vietnam service.
The first unofficial Air Assault, divisional unit badge (at the bottom of the picture) was issued by the 11th Air Assault Division (Test). It was used by the 1st Cavalry when the 11th AAD was integrated into the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) on 1 July 1965. The official Army Air Assault Badge was not issued until 1978, 11 years after my Vietnam tour of duty.
The Army Basic Air Assault Core Program of Instruction provides the training to develop such proficiencies and qualifications for the award. The badge was awarded retroactively upon application to Vietnam veterans who regularly participated in air assault training and missions.
The Army Air Medal I was awarded, along with a Silver Oak Leaf signifying over 150 air assault missions as both a combat soldier and an assault helicopter crew member, plus the CIB with a night air assault and a combat rappel during my Vietnam tour substantiate my right to wear the Air Assault Badge.
Of all the medals, awards, formal presentations, and qualification badges you received, or other memorabilia, which one is the most meaningful to you and why?
The Combat Infantryman Badge or CIB is worn at the top of all the other medals and ribbons on the service uniform from World War II. Therefore, it is probably the most meaningful to a large percentage of those who earned it. The CIB signifies that you were one of every three or four soldiers who confronted the enemy as an Infantry soldier. Although without the Field Artillery, Aviation, Armor, and essential support groups, no army could ever expert to be victorious. One group could not prevail without the others, and together they make up the U.S. Army. That said, combat demands the best from men. You either give your best physical and mental effort, or the odds that you will make it to the end of your tour are severely diminished. To know that you measured up and made it through is a sobering but elating experience.
The Expert Infantryman Badge (EIB) is awarded to the top percentage of Infantry, Ranger, or Special Forces personnel who complete the required rigorous Army training course. The CIB with an oak-leaf wreath behind it is only awarded to those who have served in a unit while engaged in ground combat. The Army established the Combat Action Badge (CAB) in 2001, sixty years after the CIB, to acknowledge non-infantry troops' service that provides hazardous duty support in a combat zone.
Which individual(s) from your time in the military stand out as having the most positive impact on you and why?
A Sergeant in my platoon was an E5; rank insignias were not always added to new fatigues when replacing worn ones. I seem to remember that he was part American Indian. When I served with him, there were about three or four times that I thought to myself, why didn’t I think of that, or why didn’t I do that? He just always had the current situation foremost on his mind. Describing all of them would be just too much to cover. However, I include the following one as an example.
We were assigned to secure an area that had seen heavy action the day or night before. I don’t know what the area was used for or for how long, but there were fox holes dug around an elevated position above the rice patties. As a side note, I never dug one fox hole in Vietnam. I tried twice, but the entrenching tool was not cutting it with the hard ground and rocks. I would have needed a pick. Every time I saw a fox hole, which was not that often, I thought how somebody put in a lot of effort to secure a position. Thankfully, on the search and destroy missions or ambushes, we never used fox holes. We were mostly jungle fighters, and I preferred to be positioned behind natural cover anyway, from which you could relocate.
That evening we were all in position, and it had gotten dark. I heard someone call out, “Halt,” I looked over to my right and saw the form of someone walking toward the perimeter from behind us, which was the secure area. He kept moving forward, was challenged some more, but did not stop or say anything, walked between two positions, and fell over the embankment. After a quick discussion, a hand grenade was thrown in the place he went down, followed by another one. The next morning, I heard some commotion behind me inside the perimeter and saw the sergeant moving another VC from out of a clump of dense cover. When I got the chance, I asked him what the deal was with the prisoner he captured. He told me he just wanted to see where that guy came from last night and if he left anything behind. Apparently, two VCs got trapped with no way out from their cover, and the previous night one decided to take a chance on escaping. Who would have thought to check it out; just the sergeant who never let anything get by him.
List the names of old friends you served with, at which locations, and recount what you remember most about them. Indicate those you are already in touch with and those you would like to make contact with.
I have always had a problem remembering names and probably could only name a few of the guys I served with a year after returning home. However, if you showed me their pictures from back then, I could probably tell you something about those I recognized. I really did not have any buddies or close friends in Vietnam. You needed to get along and fit in with everyone in your platoon. I found that showing respect for the guys you served with was essential for getting along.
Can you recount a particular incident from your service, which may or may not have been funny at the time, but still makes you laugh?
In Vietnam, on patrol near a Montagnard village, we walked across a field planted with small, low-growing plants. Two or three of the guys told me I should try some of the stuff growing on them, saying that it was good. I asked what it was, and they responded they were not sure what they call it, but they grew it back home. Not being someone to shy away from new things, I decided to try one and picked one off a plant.
As I recall, it looked like a plump green bean between one and two inches long with sort of a grey-green color. Not knowing what to expect, I took a bite off the end. It took only four seconds or so before my mouth started to burn. I complained with expletives and spat it out. They then volunteered that it might be a pepper. As you may know, there is not much you can do to stop the burning. Water does not help. I maintained my cool and did not let them know they got me, and I just thanked them for the experience. It took about five minutes before I started to forget about my mouth.
What profession did you follow after your military service, and what are you doing now? If you are currently serving, what is your present occupational specialty?
I worked for 36 years in the computer industry and witnessed the ever-changing and advancing technology. When I started, large mainframe computers would fill a room of over 1,500 square feet with a raised floor to allow for the cables and dedicated air conditioning. A large company would order one for their business costing between two and five million dollars and then spend half that amount on developing, installing, and running the software programs required for their business applications. By the start of the 21st century, you could get eight times the computing power and memory with a couple of servers for less than a million dollars. I retired in 2006 and gradually settled down to a lifestyle of doing the things I wanted to do and spending more time with friends and family.
What military associations are you a member of, if any? What specific benefits do you derive from your memberships?
At the end of my tour, they passed out literature on the 1st Cavalry Division Association, and I became a Life Member. I have been to a few of the reunions for my unit, the 1/8 Cavalry Jumping Mustangs, but none of the Division level reunions. The reunions my wife and I went to were well planned and like a mini-vacation, and we were glad we attended.
I am a long-time contributor to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled Veterans of America, and the American Legion. Still, I am not active and do not attend any post activities. The benefit they provide me is a way to continue to support those veterans who could use some help.
In what ways has serving in the military influenced the way you have approached your life and your career? What do you miss most about your time in the service?
Army training helped developed my ability to cope with life’s challenges. It started with Basic Training to improve physical performance and to accept circumstances you would rather not. From Advanced Infantry Training, I remember the pre-dawn runs with challenge chants: “I want to be an airborne ranger, living on blood, guts, and danger . . . here we go.” After Airborne training, I went with my entire class to Vietnam and the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) attached to the 1st Brigade (Airborne) to deal with the war firsthand.
There were several times during my combat tour that I was apprehensive, but I soldiered-up and met the challenges. For me, the Jumping Mustang’s motto of Honor and Courage became the proper attitude. It may sound funny, but the total lack of responsibility, obligation, or commitment to anything but the task at hand made each day doable. The basic necessities of food, clothing, and shelter were at their lowest level with no concern about how they would be obtained. There was no requirement or effort needed to acquire them or anything else. MCIs (Meal, Combat, Individual), which we called C Rations, were provided each night for the next day along with anything else needed for continued combat. All you needed to do was have a positive mental attitude, sustain your physical effort, and take one day at a time. These simple circumstances and their requirements without political or social correctness are missed as something that is not obtainable in the “real world.”
Based on your own experiences, what advice would you give to those who have recently joined the Army?
As with any vocation in life, you should strive to work well with others and put forth an effort to surpass the objective of the tasks assigned to you. This requires that you care about what you do and, hopefully, like your assignment. If not, you might investigate qualifying for another Military Occupational Specialty, keeping in mind that no duty assignment is perfect.
Way back when I thought about what it takes to be a good combat soldier. Putting skills aside, one could say it requires not having any fears or at least suppressing them. There is no doubt that fear takes away one’s ability to function and perform any task, but the fear of what? I think it all comes down to not being afraid to die. The cause of the fear can be a lack of faith, not accepting uncertainty, losing loved ones forever, or leaving something undone, just not being ready to die. A good combat soldier needs to be resigned to his plight, knowing and accepting the risks and the mental and physical challenges. He must embrace the hardship and dismiss any wants or needs without complaint. Mastering these attitudes enables him to focus on the current situation or ongoing task and be ready to face whatever is encountered. A soldier's attitude also determines the respect received from those on his team.
In what ways has TogetherWeServed.com helped you remember your military service and the friends you served with.
The TWS website has allowed me to do something I have always wanted to do, put together a Shadow Box. The Plaques are an additional benefit with options on how you may use and display them. Together We Served through their website, and emails have encouraged me to include my profile memories and reflections on my experiences while serving in the Army.
This resulted in me providing a lasting commentary on my military service for my extended family and descendants. TWS.com is a great website that is rich in functions and options, and I would encourage anyone who is or ever has been in the service to make the TWS website one of their favorites.
Subscribe to our Stripes Europe newsletter and receive amazing travel stories, great event info, helpful PCS tips, interesting lifestyle articles and more directly in your inbox!
Follow us on social media!