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Vietnam vets still haunted by memories

These Hubbard County neighbors only recently learned they both served in Vietnam. Morgan was just leaving the country in August 1966 when Smith was arriving. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

In the dense jungles of Vietnam, fear was everywhere.

You heard your enemy before you saw him, and it was often too late.

By then you had minor shrapnel wounds if you were lucky, bullet wounds if you weren't. Artillery rounds sounded like a bullwhip cracking over your head.

Who were these invisible soldiers shooting at you from the trees, causing your adrenalin to surge at warp speed? Even the Vietnamese civilians recruited to help the U.S. war effort turned out to be sympathizers of the opposition come nightfall.

One Marine coming

Dewane Morgan was 17, "skinny as a rail," when he left a Colorado high school and enlisted in the Marine Corps. It was December 1963.

His artillery unit, "M Battery," was in South Vietnam by August 14, 1965, when military leaders began a gradual escalation in the number of troops committed.

Morgan said it was too little too late. The war was already like quicksand.

He soon transferred to an infantry rifle company, Alpha Company, 9th Battalion.

"We walked on patrols out on rice paddies and tried to draw fire," he explained. On May 29, 1966, his unit was ambushed by the North Vietnamese Army. Ten of the 14 soldiers were wounded.

"We were outnumbered considerably," Morgan recalled.

Morgan took shrapnel fire in his leg and a gunshot wound in his shoulder that still causes him nerve problems.

"We stayed and fought for another two hours," he said.

"I missed dying by a breath."

He left Vietnam on Aug. 1, 1966. The dates are indelibly etched in his brain.

"I went from a combat zone back to the United States in five days," he recalled. "It was quite an adjustment to make."

Because his stint came relatively early in the war, he was oblivious to mounting objections to the war back home.

Hell of a honeymoon

That same month, Ed Smith, a Park Rapids native, was heading over to Vietnam. At 18 he'd joined the Navy in January 1965.

He'd been married eight days when he stepped on Vietnamese soil in August 1966 as Morgan's unit was leaving. Morgan had actually signed up for another six months but received orders while he was hospitalized that he was heading home instead.

Smith, too would be part of a troop escalation as the war spread throughout South Vietnam and into Cambodia. But this escalation was huge.

His naval unit was part of Operation Game Warden. It was a river patrol unit that was designed to cut off one of the main supply routes for the North Vietnamese Army moving munitions and resources up and down the Mekong River and its tributaries.

But their unit had another mission, similar to Morgan's - to draw fire.

A frustrating war

Both men say the U.S. government didn't foresee the quagmire Vietnam would become.

Both of their units patrolled the same ground repeatedly, recapturing territory they'd previously been in control of, but lost.

"I had more guts than brains," Smith said, showing an old photograph taken after a firefight. "We were getting whomped on," he recalled.

He received a shrapnel wound to his hand after one battle.

"My wounds were more psychological," he said.

In the fall of 1967, Smith, like Morgan, signed up for another six months.

The anti-war efforts were escalating back home, causing Smith to re-enter a confusing world.

His first leave, he met his five-month-old daughter.

In 1967 he stepped off a plane in San Francisco to an anti-war protest. Unlike other military branches, the Navy allowed its enlisted personnel on shore duty to travel in civilian clothes, so Smith didn't get the brunt of the abuse heaped on other soldiers walking off the plane.

Both men found old friends had deserted them back in the States. They'd joined the anti-war movement.

"I didn't realize the full impact of it for years," Smith said. Nightly and graphic coverage of the war on U.S. television sets turned the tide of public opinion against both the was and the soldiers fighting it, Smith said.

Agent Orange

In Vietnam, U.S. forces began spraying millions of gallons of a chemical defoliant to strip the jungle of its cover.

The chemical, called Agent Orange, exposed every U.S. troop on the ground.

"I didn't know I was exposed," Morgan said. "In fact, I denied it. I'm not sure why. I'd look around me (in Vietnam) and all the vegetation was dead."

The Tet offensive

Morgan, stateside, became a troop handler at Camp Pendleton when he got back on U.S. soil. He was an infantry trainer for Marines.

He'd train them for eight weeks "and they'd go straight to Vietnam," Morgan said.

Morgan departed from the Marine manual.

"I made the training realistic," he said. He usually announced to the young Marines, "20 percent of you will be dead in a year."

Why sugarcoat the obvious? He said returning Marines later thanked him for his blunt approach.

Smith's extended stay coincided with the Tet offensive, which began in late January 1968 despite a declared cease-fire to observe the Vietnamese holiday called Tet.

The series of coordinated attacks was designed to end the war by simultaneously striking hundreds of targets. Instead it resulted in thousands of casualties as the United States and South Vietnamese troops fought back.

"They overran two air bases stationed near us and our ammunition depot," Smith said.

'That went off for days and days."

The shocking campaign stunned troops and politicians, who didn't believe the North Vietnamese Army capable of mounting such an attack.

"I had a lot of respect for the North Vietnamese," Morgan said. "They were very well trained, very disciplined soldiers."

Smith, during Tet, feared he wouldn't make it home to see his family. He left Vietnam in March 1968.

Adjusting to civilian life

Morgan, who was a single man in the service, married and started a family, moving to Hubbard County in 1972.

"I moved here opening day of deer season," he said. The sound of rifle fire coming from tree stands triggered terrible memories of war and of being ambushed by an unseen enemy from a tree line.

"I hid in the house for three days," he said. He hunts, but not on opening day.

Then there was the time two young men were hunting from a truck bed while Morgan was on the ground hunting, Live rounds hit the dirt next to him.

"My instinct was to return fire," he said. "Luckily I left my rifle behind when I went to confront them."

"It's ongoing, the psychological adjustment," Smith said. He's been hospitalized for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder more than once.

He still gets flashbacks and nightmares. Some night episodes leave him in a corner of the bedroom floor.

Morgan, too, gets flashbacks.

Both men have learned to compartmentalize their lives, to set aside their Vietnam experiences. Their families can't understand, they said.

"It's normal to block it out," Smith said.

Vietnam vets live life at a frenetic pace, said Park rapids American Legion commander Dave Free, who declines to talk about his own Vietnam experiences.

To slow down brings the bad stuff flooding back into the brain, triggered by something seemingly innocuous.

Morgan regularly participates in honor guard ceremonies on holidays. Smith was still debating whether he would attend the Memorial Day ceremonies in Park Rapids.

"You can't describe the fear and adrenalin," that still sporadically surface, Morgan said.

Combat veterans got the worst of the war. Both men urge the public to remember soldiers fighting in today Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars need to be in the forefront of America's consciousness, Morgan said.

"Looked what happened to our generation," Smith said. By 2000, two-thirds of Vietnam vets had died, still in the prime of their lives.

"Suicide and cancer," Morgan said.

The Veterans Administration, initially slow to respond to service related ailments, has come a long way in helping Vietnam vets recover from the cancers caused by Agent Orange, and the psychological injuries that persist decades after the war ended.

Today the men are neighbors in Hubbard County. Neither knew until recently they both served in Vietnam. Each served a four-year enlistment.

It was nearly 40 years after leaving Vietnam that a nurse practitioner at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester actually thanked Smith for his service.

"Nobody knows except us," Smith said of understanding the Vietnam experience.

"I'm actually quite thankful" for my service to my country, Morgan said.

But that service record is tucked neatly into the deep recesses of his brain, unless he's surrounded by other vets.

It's just too painful to relive.