'God delivered us that night. Nobody will deny that.'
By TOM DAVIDSON | Beaver County Times, Pa. | Published: December 26, 2017
CHIPPEWA TWP. Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Incoming!
That was the greeting the Rev. Willard Keith Staneart received moments after his arrival in Dak To during the Vietnam War.
"I remember going to my hooch, which was like the tent I was staying in. I sat down on the step to catch my breath, and then all of a sudden I hear somebody yell, 'Incoming!'" Staneart, now 77, of Chippewa Township, said. "What do you mean incoming? Everybody's running in every direction. Well, we were getting hit."
Staneart took off running, too. During such attacks, he'd been trained to go to the medical tent, so that's what he did. On his way there, he tripped on concertina wire and cut his hand, "because I was scared to death and tripped," Staneart said.
Vietnam wasn't the place for the weak-hearted, especially at Dak To, in the central highlands of South Vietnam, near its borders with Cambodia and Laos just five miles from the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Before he arrived there in May 1969, Dak To had been relatively calm for three or four months, Staneart had been told, and he was initially relieved to get the assignment because of this.
"But there was a rainy season and a dry season," he said.
Dak To hadn't been attacked during the rainy season, but the rain ended as Staneart arrived.
The rocket attack during his first moments there was the first of 50 consecutive days of attacks on the base, where Staneart was attached to the U.S. Army's 299th Engineer Battalion.
"We got hit several times most days," Staneart said of the daily 122 mm rocket attacks. "It just came out of nowhere."
For Staneart, it was the opportunity to carry out what he felt God called him to do: to minister to the men who were serving in Vietnam.
Staneart grew up in New Brighton, and his family later moved to Beaver Falls. He went on to Geneva College and then Asbury Theological Seminary to become a United Methodist pastor.
He'd been a minister for three years when at 29 he felt the call to volunteer to become a chaplain.
"I wanted to help the young men (who) were being drafted. So many of them did not want to go to war, but they had to," Staneart said. "That was the motivation. I wanted to go there and help (them)."
His mother was against the move, Staneart said.
"She told me if I ever went into the military, she'd never look at me again," he said, but she eventually relented and supported him.
Training to be a chaplain was similar to training to be a soldier, he said.
"The training was tough," he said.
He remembered being a part of a group of 25 or 30 chaplains-in-training who had to make it through an obstacle course without being "captured."
He was one of three who made it through the course.
After training, he was first assigned to Fort Rucker, Ala., where the Army's helicopter pilots trained and were based. Because of that, the families of the pilots lived there during their spouses' deployments to Vietnam.
"We had constant deaths," Staneart said.
Part of his job was to notify the next of kin when one of them was killed and to officiate at their funerals.
"That was a really tough thing to do," Staneart said.
One particularly tragic case involved a couple who had married shortly before the pilot's deployment to Vietnam and he was shot down and killed on his first day "in country," Staneart said.
"I had to go and notify (the pilot's wife). I remember when she opened the door," he said.
The families knew they weren't bearing good news when they arrived at these moments, he said.
"She just went blank," Staneart said.
So did he.
"I literally could not speak. I was caught up with so much emotion for her at that time that I could not get a word out," he said.
Being there for people during these tough times is the reason he became a chaplain, he said.
"To comfort the bereaved and the ones that were really hurting," he said. "It was obviously a position ... I was there for."
He left for Vietnam on April 29, 1969.
The following day doesn't exist in Staneart's life. He crossed the International Date Line at midnight, so he skipped April 30th.
On May 1, he arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.
"I remember the first night I was there, they put me in a little building and I was by myself and all I kept hearing was gunfire," Staneart said.
It was then that he learned he'd been assigned to Dak To and that it had been quiet there.
Until he arrived.
The rocket attacks were routine at Dak To, but there were lighter moments amid them, he said.
Once, Staneart was getting ready for a chapel service. He had a portable sound system and a hymn was starting to play when "incoming" rang out, signaling a rocket.
He jumped into a foxhole, and the company commander was next to him. The hymn played on: "Nearer My God to Thee."
"The company commander looked at me and he says 'Chaplain, do you think you could have picked a better song to play right now?'" Staneart said.
It's experiences like those, along with living through the horrors of war, that forge a bond that ties veterans together for life.
"There's a reason why veterans identify with each other," he said. "Those kinds of things you experience together and veterans that have been in combat in a war zone, they understand that."
Some do not want to talk about their experiences.
Now retired, Staneart receives treatment at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Pittsburgh. He also makes regular visits there to minister to the people there, he said.
"I always talk to the guys, because so many of them are hurting. People don't understand what it's like, what you've gone through," Staneart said.
It's the reason he's willing to lend an ear to them.
Some say, "I don't want to talk about it," because doing so would cause too much pain.
Others find solace in the sharing.
A few years ago during a reunion of the 299th Engineers Battalion that Staneart was a part of at Dak To, a soldier approached him and told him about a sapper attack both lived through. Sappers were North Vietnamese commandos who would raid the base from time to time.
Staneart's chapel was on the edge of the base, and during a sapper attack, he had to run out of his chapel seeking cover.
At the reunion, the soldier told Staneart he'd come close to pulling the trigger and killing him.
"For 40 years, it's bothered me that I almost killed you," the man told Staneart. It's so good to be able to tell you in person and get this off my chest."
Staneart doesn't remember the date of the day that stands out among the rest of his service time. It was toward the end of May 1969.
"Our battalion commander called all the officers together," Staneart said. "Very somberly, he looked at us all and he says, 'We are all going to die tonight. Go. Do whatever you can to prepare your men.'"
There were about 500 men at Dak To then and Army intelligence confirmed they were surrounded by about 5,000 Viet Cong.
"And they intend to wipe us out tonight," the commander told the officers. "We're all going to be dead tonight."
As a human, Staneart said his first thought was to try to find a way to leave Dak To. As a chaplain, he could get any transportation he wanted and he could have found a way to leave, and he considered doing so.
"But fortunately, God spoke differently to me," Staneart said.
He went off by himself into a field.
Staneart prayed: "I said, 'God, I am petrified. I am not ready to die. Somehow you're going to have to help me here."
"And I have never had an experience like that in my life. I just had a sudden enveloping of total peace. ... I was just totally at peace. Fear totally left me. I could have walked straight into a machine gun nest at that point," he said.
He went back to the battalion commander and asked what he could do.
The commander was crying himself.
"He said, 'Chaplain, every one of these young men are like my own sons. Their parents and their spouses are dependent on my getting them home safely,'" Staneart said. "He says, 'I've failed. They're all going to die tonight.'"
The commander asked Staneart to go around, pray with and counsel the men.
"I took a Bible, went around," he said.
He was welcomed with open arms.
He heard confession from some of the Catholics and prayed with the others.
They went to bed that night and tried to sleep.
"Guess what? We weren't attacked," Staneart said.
There's no logistical reason the men were spared.
At a reunion 40 years later, the same battalion commander told Staneart: "Well, we know there were 5,000 (Viet Cong). We know they were intending to wipe us out. (But) the next morning, the Army could not find a trace of one single Viet Cong. They were totally gone."
"Sir, why do you think they didn't attack us that night?" Staneart said. "He got a big smile on his face and he says, 'Chaplain, I think you know the answer. The answer is simple. God delivered us that night, and nobody will deny that.' That was real, I'm not making that up at all, it's very real. From that point on, I don't fear death."
Living through that has given Staneart the faith to get through cancer brought on by exposure to Agent Orange, other health problems, and the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
It inspired him to write a book about his experiences, "We Will All Die Tonight," that is set to be published next year, and it's also committed him to helping other people, both veterans and non-veterans.
"We talk to people," he said. "I don't care where they're from. Start a conversation. You would not believe what that leads to. I like to cover to the veterans hospitals and just talk to the guys who have been through a lot."
He knows that just talking means a lot to veterans, he said.
"You don't know how much that means to us as veterans. To ... be appreciated. Because most of those guys that went to Vietnam didn't go because they decided they wanted to go to war and have fun fighting a war. They were drafted. They were sons and daughters of people that were peaceful, nice people. Lives have been changed forever."
It's the reason he offers this simple advice: "Appreciate your veterans and what they've done."
"War is not fun. But it is tough. And people need to understand what veterans have gone through," Staneart said.
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