Those who were there tell their stories for Vietnam War Veterans Day

As Vietnam War veterans mark the day that's set aside to recognize their sacrifices, their thoughts turn to those who didn't come home.


By BOWEN WEST AND ALISON SMITH | The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho | Published: March 29, 2019

TWIN FALLS, Idaho (Tribune News Service) — The year was 1969.

Two men, who now both reside in Twin Falls, were sent to the Vietnam War.

Dave Rutter, now 75, worked in the mess hall throughout his military career. It was a thankless job, and he never got a day off. Alongside combat, he would have to make sure 300 mouths were fed. Other soldiers teased him, calling him “Greasy Spoon,” but his job was important.

Gordon Bybee, also 75, became captain the day he left for Vietnam. He couldn’t escape the panic that he had no idea what he was doing, and suddenly, he was in charge of around 220 soldiers.

He believes he was smart to listen to his superior officers, who helped him rise through the ranks.

“I asked why. They told me ‘the first sergeant personally recommended you,” Bybee said. “That’s the best compliment I’ve ever gotten.”

Life back home

The men in Bybee’s division often spoke of “The World.” It was a place far away from wherever they were, one that transformed the mundane into the extraordinary. The little things about The World are the most important, Bybee said.

“We would say ‘When I get to The World I am going to...,’” he said. “Mine was always ‘When I get to The World, I am going to take a hot shower with a fluffy white towel.’ It’s my little non-moment.”

But even now, each morning in his hot shower, he thinks of those moments in Vietnam.

In the midst of battle

The day Steve Grupe landed in Vietnam, the airport was under attack.

“I thought, ‘this is going to be a long year,’” he said.

Grupe served in an Army supply unit. “We got attacked every night,” he said.

Grupe had a weak knee from playing football. He had paperwork from a doctor, but was still allowed to be a soldier. He just wouldn’t have to parachute.

Lines between civilians and enemy soldiers were blurred, which made the soldiers distrustful towards children even. They were told that the enemies were men wearing all black, but in reality, it was more likely a 13-year-old girl would be dangerous, Bybee said.

Vietnam Veterans Day

Veterans Day officially is observed March 29, which is the date in 1973 when the last of American combat troops were withdrawn from Vietnam.

On March 29, 2012, President Barack Obama proclaimed the day as Vietnam Veterans Day. The proclamation asked “all Americans to observe this day with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities that commemorate the 50 year anniversary of the Vietnam War.”

Five years later, President Donald Trump signed the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017, which officially recognizes March 29 as National Vietnam War Veterans Day.

“You become cynical — rightfully so,” Rutter said. “There were no front lines. No place where you felt safe.”

He was plagued with recurring dreams of being born in Vietnam, that he would be stuck there for the rest of his life, and ultimately die there.

“I couldn’t understand that guys younger than me were dying,” Rutter said. “I got it in my head that it was home, that this was life. You might call that PTSD. I don’t know what it was.”

The weight of war

Grupe’s former roommate at Utah State was on track to be drafted by the NBA, but was killed in the war.

“I think of him every other day to this day,” he said.

“It was a politician’s war,” Bybee said. “If we go into a war, we need a plan. We went in there to save the world for democracy. We didn’t understand the politics of Vietnam.”

The two men, although they had different experiences, can confide in each other in ways that others may not comprehend. They understand the incredible weight of the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

A rude arrival

Rutter and Bybee accept that some stories from Vietnam are better left unspoken. More than anything, they remember the pain of returning to the United States after the war.

Both of the men were determined to travel home in uniform.

When Rutter landed back on American soil, a woman in downtown Philadelphia spat on him. People cursed Bybee when he arrived in Oakland.

“We did exactly the same thing as the veterans before us,” Rutter said. “People in Washington started this before me.”

Bybee agreed.

“I think in college, war protests were a fad,” Bybee said. “It was the in thing to do. Protesters didn’t know how to tell the difference between the soldier and the war.”

But it wasn’t easy to field the angry outbursts.

“We were cannon fodder,” Rutter said. “We were blamed for the war. We just did what we were told.”

By the time Grupe returned home, he felt many had grown indifferent to the war. “There were no protesters left,” he said.

Grupe tried to transition back to civilian life as soon as possible. Like many veterans, he took off his uniform and barely spoke of his service.

“You just kept it to yourself,” he said.

Still, he looks back on his service with pride.

“I’m glad I did it, and I did my duty,” he said. “I’d do it again.”

Leading the troops

Tim Patterson of Twin Falls was an Army crew chief when he went to Vietnam in 1969.

“We signed a blank check that included our life,” he said.

He was injured, and when he got out of the hospital, his mother knew he’d changed. “You’re not my son anymore,” she said.

“It’s difficult to share what it was like,” he said. “We can tell you the stories, we can tell you the things we did, but it doesn’t register.”

Honoring heroes

Inspired by friends from Lincoln County who didn’t come back from the war, Dan Larson, who grew up in Dietrich and now lives in Twin Falls, decided to build a Vietnam War memorial near the Lincoln County Courthouse.

Larson served two tours in the war. This week, he had a banner made to commemorate Vietnam Veterans Day.

“This is kind of my payback, I guess,” he said.

Building the memorial helped with his post-traumatic stress disorder, Larson said.

“There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and a lot of savings,” he said. “But it’s well worth it.”

Patterson said he’d like to see a day of honor for loved ones who suffered while their family members were at war.

“We need to thank the moms, the sisters, the loved ones,” he said.

Carrying the wisdom forward

During their time in the service — more than precise combat or tactical skills — the soldiers learned that a simple “thank you” can sometimes be the most important message to hear.

“When I was serving, 300 guys and the one kid would say, ‘Thank you.’ It would bring me to my knees,” Rutter said.

Again, Bybee sees it the same.

“What I want people to know is a ‘Thank you,’ goes a long way,” Bybee said.

Larson, along with many other area veterans, expressed happiness about the day set aside to honor Vietnam veterans, but the feeling is bittersweet.

“It’s long overdue,” Larson said.

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