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MASON CITY, Iowa (Tribune News Service) — After Vietnam, veteran Larry Behrends arrived at several conclusions: Military service and combat made him a self-reliant and capable man — and he would never be able to "draw a line" completely through his past.

"You can't wipe it out of your mind. It's always there. But you learn to live with it. That's what you've got to do," he said.

Behrends grew up on a farm in rural Ackley with his siblings. Mornings started at 4:30 a.m. milking cows, a skill acquired early in life.

"I can remember my dad coming in the barn and he had a milk stool. 'Larry you're 7 years old. It's time to start milking.'"

Behrends attended a country school until seventh grade, then shifted to Aplington.

In the winter, his father, Ben, left a tractor at the end of their gravel road for neighbors to plow through drifts. In summer, Behrends and his brothers hired out baling hay.

Ahead of the Fourth of July, his father collected donations to put on a show.

"We use to shoot fireworks out in our cow pasture," Behrends said.

"We'd have 40, 50 people out there with the neighbors, of course. No offense, but them German women could cook, I guess. We'd have table after table after table of food. We'd have a party out in the cow pasture," he said.

Now 73, Behrends continues to appreciate the family's shared life.

"It was good clean living. We didn't have to depend on anybody," he says.

Like many young men of his era in Iowa, Behrends' idyllic early years were interrupted. He got a letter and was called to join the military.

"I guess it never really dawned on me that eventually, or some day, I was going to get drafted and would have to go to the service," he says.

"I panicked a little bit."

Behrends went into the Army and served from March 1964 through February 1966, passing through Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Fort Sill in Oklahoma and Fort Lewis in Washington state. He was an artillery gunner and learned how to fire howitzers, towed and self-propelled.

One vivid memory includes his introduction to the 105 mm by an instructor with a sense of humor, who ordered the recruits to say good morning.

"So we all said, 'Good morning, howitzer. Well, he says, 'Howitzer, say good morning,' and about that time he pulled the lanyard," Behrends says.

"We all came about a foot out of our bleachers when that thing went off . Everbody was sitting there, of course, about half asleep. We found out real quick what it was going to be like in the artillery."

Orders to deploy arrived, and Behrends and his comrades suspected their destination.

"What are you going to do when they start giving you jungle training? They said they weren't going to tell us where we were going ... We had an idea where we were going."

His crew developed proficiency, setting up their gun and getting a round in the air in less than a minute.

"We always said, 'The infantry's waiting for this.'"

And in fact, Behrends heard from others in combat who said they liked the sound of incoming American shells.

He recalls his own first test under fire, an experience Behrends shared with a fellow from California. When a mortar fell, the man asked to borrow Behrends' knife.

"'I want to cut the buttons on my shirt so I can get closer to the ground,'" Behrends remembers his comrade saying.

He learned details saved lives, such as taping identifying dog tags together to silence clinks and avoiding smoking at night. A cigarette's faint glow showed clearly in the darkness, a potentially fatal giveaway.

"You don't relax. You sleep with one eye open," Behrends says, literally eating, bedding down and going to the bathroom with an M14 rifle.

"There's no relaxing. Like I say, you slept with your rifle. You try to steal enough to eat. Everything that you had had to be prepared because maybe at 2 o'clock in the morning, they'd say, 'Fire order' or 'Fire mission.' You had to be ready to jump out of bed and get on the gun and away you'd go," Behrends said.

He recalled a Marine unit hit hard and helicopters flying in to evacuate those wounded and killed.

"You just don't start to see them wrap up bodies in ponchos, and you just wonder, 'Why am I here?'"

Behrends only knew approximately when he was scheduled to leave Vietnam. The important announcement developed without ceremony when a guy showed up in a truck.

"He said, 'C'mon guys. You're going home.'"

Behrends dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder and admits being "nervous as a sheep" when he first got back to the United States. On one occasion, he pushed his young wife, Gail, out of bed in a panic because he couldn't find his M14.

Military officials warned not to wear uniforms in the states, and Behrends said quickly learned why. Protesters at the airport threw apples and hurled obscenities at soldiers.

Later in life, Behrends accepted an offer to talk about his experiences and his host asked a simple question.

"'What was the worst thing about Vietnam?' I said, 'Coming home.'"

His proud mother took Behrends to their church in Austinville. At her request, he was in uniform.

They sat behind a woman with two children, but the family got up and moved, according to Behrends.

"Mom had tears in her eyes. That was the toughest part of coming home. You put your life on the line for 10 months and they treat you like this."

"You weren't treated like a serviceman. You were treated like a guy that was out doing something that was wrong," Behrends adds.

Even so, he doesn't begrudge his time in the Army. If called to serve, Behrends would.

"Yes, this is my country ... We're still No. 1. I wouldn't ever say anything bad about the United States," he says.

"I was in the Army for two years. I did my time, and like I say, if I had to do it over, I'd probably do it again."

©2015 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa) Visit Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Waterloo, Iowa) at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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