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The vets next door

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

It would be hard to find a neighborhood where the residents appreciate Veterans Day more than Heritage Plantation.

Vets make up nearly a quarter of the households in the community off Kings River Road, according to resident Hal Ness, who has organized the 121 former military men and women who live there and communicates with them by e-mail on topics of common interest. All of the U.S. services are represented as well as the Royal Navy, the Canadian Army and the British Army. One of the community’s vets, Glenn Hero, is the commander of American Legion Post 197 in Pawleys Island. Another, Christine Thompson, is vice commander. Ness has organized a ceremony for Veterans Day next Wednesday at noon at the Heritage Golf Club’s restaurant to present six residents who served in the U.S. military Quilts of Valor.

The quilts are made locally by a group of women in Murrells Inlet organized by Jim and Joan Wobbleton to honor American veterans. Many were presented quilts when they went to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Honor Flights.

Heritage will honor these six veterans:

• Tom Bentley, U.S. Army, Korea, 1953.

• Bert Cassels, U.S. Navy, Vietnam, 1966-67.

• Harry Koerber, U.S. Air Force, Vietnam, 1967-68.

• Regis Milan, U.S. Army, Vietnam, 1968-1969.

• David Brown, U.S. Marines, Vietnam, 1969.

• John McDonald, U.S. Army, Vietnam, 1969-70.

To a man, they said they were not heroes; they were just doing their jobs and trying to stay alive.

As veterans of World War II, “the last good war,” are lost, veterans of later conflicts are finally being given the credit they deserve, the men said. Bentley went to a “police action” in Korea that ended in a stalemate. It is Vietnam and the veterans from that war finally being recognized nowadays. “It’s changed a lot. You meet people now, and they thank you,” said McDonald, who received a Purple Heart for his wounds in Vietnam.

“Too many people didn’t get back. That really bothers me,” said Milan, who received the Bronze Star for what he called “good service.” All five Vietnam vets being honored Wednesday were officers and perhaps insulated from the ugly backlash some returning soldiers got from a public that had soured on the war. “We were clueless as to what was going on back in the states,” Cassels said. “While I was there, it wasn’t a big deal.” Nevertheless, they all learned about it. McDonald said he was known as “The Fascist” when he enrolled at the Institute of Political Studies in France after being a platoon leader in Vietnam. “One of the real left wing professors introduced me as “the baby-killing captain from the U.S. Army on my first day of class in 1973,” he said.

McDonald, who retired as a colonel in 1985, said he knew that South Vietnam could never stand on its own. With the exception of a few elite divisions of “tough soldiers,” the South Vietnamese wouldn’t fight, he said. “The rest of the soldiers we met had no energy, no commitment. I think they just wanted to go back and harvest rice. Their concept of nation and governance wasn’t sophisticated like ours. The education system was not there. It was just a different world.”

As for the young graduates of West Point, Vietnam was the place to go for advancement. There were 70 infantry slots for the new second lieutenants, McDonald said. By No. 75, they were gone. As the No. 2 infantryman in his class, McDonald was going to war.

“They had spent four years training us to do this,” he said. “It was time to pay back.” He had four months of training at Fort Riley and three more in Germany before getting to Vietnam as a first lieutenant and platoon leader along the Cambodian border. It was “an ugly place” that grew thick with jungle bamboo that cut soldiers’ arms and faces. They had to take huge doses of penicillin to fight off the infection because the cuts didn’t heal at first. “After five or six weeks, your body got used to it,” McDonald said.

The platoon would spend 30 to 40 days at a time in the jungle and be removed to a fire base for 10 days to get cleaned up and get rid of the infections from the cuts and scrapes. There was limited time for training replacements, but the platoon members took care of business.

“Those were all draftees in those days,” McDonald said. “They did their job and didn’t complain. Out in the woods where we were, you rarely saw any drugs at all. Once in awhile, you get a new guy and would hear a scuffle at night. You would see him with black eyes in the morning. The troops had gotten hold of him and said no drugs out here. You’ll get us killed. You may have your own problems, but out there you are part of a team. We all work together or we all die together.”

McDonald spent a couple months in a hospital after being wounded in an ambush. He came back as air operations officer for the battalion, running combat assaults.

Brown, who was sent to the Naval Justice School in Newport, R.I., after completing the Marines’ six-month Basic School, said he only saw a little piece of the war in Vietnam. “It was nice to get out of there,” he said. “The other side was pretty motivated. With Chinese and Russian support, they were gung-ho.”

Brown said there were signs that U.S. intelligence seemed to ignore. He watched a private German hospital ship, The Helgoland, that was in Vietnam to treat civilians injured in the war. He went aboard once and still remembers the dismembered children. “Any time we heard The Helgoland was leaving Da Nang Harbor, we knew something was going to happen: rockets, bombs.”

Cassels was the first of the Heritage veterans to get to Vietnam, in July 1966. A graduate of Annapolis, he was an adviser to the South Vietnamese Navy, first on a 90-foot gunboat, then on a 150-foot former minesweeper turned into a patrol boat and finally a former U.S. Navy LSM converted to a medical ship. He did six patrols along the coast as well as a couple in the Mekong Delta.

“I never considered myself a hero,” he said, “either while I was there or even now. You get orders, and you obey your orders. My orders were to go to Vietnam for a year. I served with the hope that every step in my career would enhance my opportunity for promotion from ensign to captain, division to department head, to executive officer of a ship to commanding officer of a ship. And I did all of those. That’s all I wanted to do: a normal Navy tour, though Vietnam was not normal.”

Koerber, an Air Force pilot, flew electronic reconnaissance at 5,000 feet — just above enemy fire — over South Vietnam in a EC-47 for the 360th Electronic Warfare Squadron out of Tan Sun Nhut Air Force Base in Saigon. His crew eavesdropped on enemy chatter and targeted them for attack by air or from the ground.

The five-hour missions were seven days a week, and strangely enough Koreber’s only close call came on the ground in January 1968. The Tet offensive caused U.S. troops to be moved from a hotel in Saigon to quarters near a church until permanent barracks were built. “One night I was knocked out of bed when a rocket hit the church. It scared the living crap out of all of us,” he said.

Koreber said he was a bachelor when he was in Vietnam, carefree and never too worried. “I sure was glad to get out of there. I consider myself lucky. I lost a lot of friends.”

He came back Charleston, a military town where protests were few and far between. He flew missions all over the globe out of Charleston. “A lovely career,” he said. Koerber saw bodies on the streets in New Delhi and supplied embassies in exotic and beautiful places, but nothing compares to Vietnam.

Milan said he remembers the constant explosions in the distance. It sounded like thunder. “It was constant, all night long. You never really slept, never felt safe,” he said. When his plane arrived in Oakland, Calif., after his tour of duty ended, Milan kissed the ground.

“Looking back at it,” he said, “you have to ask why did we do that. It didn’t seem to accomplish anything. Too many people are missing husbands and fathers and so forth. Now we trade with them, just like Japan and Germany. It makes you wonder what’s it all about.”

With the passing of time, the wars are remembered best as memorials on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Bentley said the Korean memorial is just right: soldiers in a rice paddy. Drafted in 1953, he spent 21 months in the Army and left as a sergeant. He said he was on the line for just a short period of time before the U.S. Marines took over as the war was winding down. He was issued two new pairs of fatigues for the parade in Seoul and advanced quickly from squad leader, to platoon leader to first sergeant. He turned down an opportunity to join a division going to Hawaii and become a master sergeant. “Don’t ask me why,” he said. “For some reason I said I didn’t want to go.”

He switched to another division for a few weeks and got an early release. “It worked out better,” Bentley said. “I came back in one piece. That’s the thing that counts.”

The stalemate of the Korean War was not as hard for Americans to handle as the defeat in Vietnam. Even the Vietnam Memorial was criticized because it didn’t reflect the U.S. and victory. “I thought it was appropriate and fitting,” McDonald said. “It’s so subtle and powerful. I have 20 classmates’ names on that wall, good friends, some guys from my platoon. It’s just a very powerful symbol, more than anyone expected.”

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