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Breaking the silence about Vietnam experiences

GRAYSON, Ky. — For years, David Bond says he didn’t talk about his experiences in Vietnam because he was certain it wasn’t the kind of thing you could comprehend unless you had been there to see and smell it yourself.  He also didn’t want to “re-live” a single second of his time in southeast Asia.

When his teenage twin grandsons recently began asking questions about his days as a soldier, however, Bond said he understood it was something important to discuss.

“Out of the clear blue they started showing an interest in what Poppy did in the Army,” Bond said, explaining his unit often had reporters and photographers with movie cameras attached to it, and much of their recorded work is now easy to find on the Internet. Bond said he showed the teens the historical footage and documents about the 11th Cavalry, and then tried to relate his experiences in terms they could understand.

“It’s really hard to tell people how you lived if they didn’t experience it,” he said. “When I came back, I felt there was no use in talking about it because people didn’t have a clue. I didn’t want them to think I was proud or thought I deserved any different treatment.

“I just recently came out of my shell, more or less,” Bond said, noting he had very little trouble readjusting to civilian life.

He cites two instances, one during a fireworks display and another when a car backfired, that his Vietnam experiences showed themselves, but otherwise counts himself as extremely fortunate compared to many others who served there.

“I asked the Lord to give me the ability to live day to day without any nightmares or the horror stories of nervous breakdowns.”

Before telling his story, Bond said he also doesn’t want anyone to think he was some kind of war hero.

“I didn’t do any more than I had to. I didn’t volunteer for nothing,” he said.

“I pretty well knew I would get drafted,” said Bond, 64, who now lives at the edge of the city of Grayson with his wife, Diana.

Bond said he weighed his options and considered enlisting, but concluded he would should wait for the draft to call him up because he wasn’t too sure about a four-year commitment to the military.

Even though the local steel mill wouldn’t hire young men of his age because they also knew most would likely be drafted. Bond said he “aggravated a man to death,” however, and soon was hired as a general laborer at Armco. “I worked a year and a half and got drafted.”

After training at Ft. Knox, Bond said he “got lucky” and was assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry for his service in Vietnam.

“That meant I had a vehicle and didn’t have to go tromping through the jungle and water. It rained six months a year there, so it made a whole lot of difference, riding instead of walking,” he said, noting his job was to man one of the 60-mm guns on either side of an M114 armored fighting vehicle. The armored vehicle was home to Bond and his crew while they spent weeks at a time in the field, using ammo boxes as beds in the cramped quarters inside the machine. The light vehicles worked better than larger tanks in the regiment, he explained, because the heavier tanks had trouble with Vietnam’s mud and terrain.

The Army prepared him for “a general idea of things,” he said, although the reality of Vietnam hit him right in the nose as soon as he landed at Bien Hoa.

“I’d never been anywhere in my life that had such an odor,” he said, later explaining he believed the smell was the result of diesel fuel being used to burn human sewage and waste. He spent his first night there “scared to death” in a tent with mortar shells raining down through the darkness. The next day he was flown into the field aboard a Chinook helicopter that took incoming fire as he and others were delivered to their stations.

“It had bullet holes all over it,” he recalled.

Even with four soldiers sharing living space in a vehicle they also used to fight the enemy with, Bond said conditions weren’t always that bad, with hot food, ice and water delivered on a regular basis.

He recalled using the last of the daily water supply, a five-gallon can, to shower atop the vehicle once the water had warmed up in the heat of the day. Despite his efforts to maintain hygiene, Bond said his flack jacket caused his back to blister.

Bond said he was part of “a very versatile outfit,” that provided security for artillery units at night, and went on long perimeter patrols during the day. After guarding one particular artillery unit, Bond said he later found out his cousin, Lester Bond, had been part of the group they were protecting. His unit also guarded contractors whose job was to use bulldozers to widen existing paths, allowing easier detection of enemy troop movements.

“You name it, we could just about cover anything,” he said, noting the M114 could travel at up to 35 mph and that his crew could be on the road “from a dead sleep” within 10 minutes if called upon to assist a nearby unit under fire. “We stayed ready to go.”

Bond chuckled as he shared one piece of his Vietnam history.

“They called me Turtle because I was so slow.”

With a laugh, his wife said he still lives up to the old nickname.

Bond was presented with an Army Commendation Medal (first oak leaf cluster) when he “distinguished himself with heroism” when called upon to help a troop that had run up on a larger force.

“There were only three vehicles left when we got there. From probably 5 a.m. until dark — 9 or 9:30 we were in combat ... I mean, heavy combat,” he said, remembering he served alongside a West Virginia soldier named Blankenship.

“When it was over and we got back and were waiting for food ... I’ve never felt exhausted like that. I?saw Blankenship shaking, and then he started rocking and laughing. I recognized that because I’d seen it before when others just lost it,” he said. “I did remarkably well. That day, we had no food. No time to think. You were either shooting or getting shot at ... trying to get ammo to tracks that had run out. If I would’ve had time to think, I probably would have run. But, there was no place to run to.”

Ironically, one of Bond’s most frightening moments of the Vietnam War happened while he was back in the United States watching television in his daughter’s hospital room. He explained the Red Cross had sent a telegram advising his four-month-old daughter, Angela, was in critical condition. Bond explained he grabbed a single shirt before seeking out the highest-ranking officer he could find to ask permission to go home.

His M114 had just been practically destroyed by an anti-tank mine, he said, and the other members of his crew were all injured in the explosion, but he was unscathed and desperate to get home before his little girl’s condition got worse. On the Huey helicopter ride back to base, he said the aircraft took fire and diverted away from his goal, describing the incoming and outgoing tracer fire that threatened to claim everyone aboard. Eventually, however, they landed at headquarters and he was able to get a meeting with the man in charge.

“I told him I wanted to go home and he said, ‘Don’t we all?’ He asked me why and I showed him the telegram and said I’d never seen her and there was a chance she would die before I could (see her),” he said, adding the ranking officer thought it over and gave him a green light for the next flight out.

“I know I stunk,” he said, adding he boarded a troop carrier for San Francisco, where he was allowed a shower and given a set of “dress greens” to wear while traveling. His daughter was still sick, but doing better, when he arrived at King’s Daughters Hospital.

“I was at the hospital with the baby, watching the evening news with Dan Rather (who was the war reporter at the time). We always had news people with us while I was over there, but I never personally got interviewed. I had heard talk about Cambodia before I left, and we worked right there on the boundary. So, the news came on and, lo and behold, there was my troop,” he said, explaining he recognized his vehicle by the light-blue paint they had used to mark the sides of the M114. “I recognized it by the color. There was no doubt about it.”

The Cambodia-bound armored vehicle was hit on that mission, he said, and the driver was killed.

“If I hadn’t come home, I would have been driving,” he said, later adding he made a point of finding the driver’s name, Michael Dadisman, on the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall when it recently came to Grayson.

Often speaking with tears swelling up in his eyes and rolling down his cheeks, Bond said the decision to talk about his time in Vietnam hasn’t been especially easy.

“It’s been emotional, and it never was before,” he said. “I was afraid that if I talked about it, I would have to re-live it. Now, I’ve forgotten a lot of the names and dates. I might not have forgotten all that if I had talked about it before.”

tpreston@dailyindependent.com

 

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