Some came during war, others came after
Being a soldier on an army base in South Vietnam during the Vietnamese War meant having a gun handy at all times, Ron Hajek of Lost Springs recalled.
He wasn’t a combat soldier but worked as a mechanic maintaining army trucks. Even so, he never felt safe.
“I lived every day thinking I might die,” he said.
The base at Duc Pho was protected by large piles of sandbags, but the Viet Cong could fire artillery or throw hand grenades into the camp. It was guarded 24 hours a day.
Hajek said civilians worked at the base, and sometimes they acted as spies for the Viet Cong.
“You couldn’t trust anybody,” he said, “not even children. Your gun was never far away. You had it everywhere you went. It was loaded and ready to go.”
One of the riskiest jobs he had was as a driver of a convoy of trucks that traveled to other cities to get supplies. They often came under sniper fire.
“If you got a tire shot out, you kept going,” he said.
After his year of duty was up, he volunteered to stay another three months, which would allow him to get out of the Army sooner.
Another soldier replaced him in the motor pool, and he was sent on a mission to guard a hill that held machine guns used to protect soldiers in the field and was under attack.
The troops went in by helicopter and erected bunkers all around the top of the hill using sandbags. A mission that was supposed to last two or three days ended up being two weeks.
Hajek returned home in October 1969. He flew into Wichita and took a bus to Herington, where he had two unsettling experiences. First, the bus driver didn’t want to give him his duffle bag. He said he got so angry that the driver finally gave it to him. He surmised the driver was hoping to steal some war souvenirs from the bag.
When Hajek got to a nearby gas station to call home, he found out the whole telephone system had changed from party lines to private lines while he was gone. He didn’t have his parents’ number, so he couldn’t call. Fortunately, the station operator felt sympathy for him and took him home.
Hajek said he learned more about the war after he returned home than when he was involved in it. He learned that, before he was deployed, his unit was involved in the My Lai Massacre, in which an entire Vietnamese village was wiped out by American troops. As a result, American soldiers were called “baby killers” and sometimes were spit upon when they returned.
He said he became a recluse for a while, not wanting to talk to anyone. He didn’t even go to sports events.
Eventually, he grew tired of the inaction and became a firefighter. He still is a member of the Lost Springs Fire Department.
He said Emergency Medical Services use of LZ as a short for “landing zone” bothered him. In Vietnam, LZ meant you would be facing enemy fire as you got off the helicopter.
Other incidental things upset him. For instance, he heard walnuts being poured into a bin at a grocery store. It sounded like gunfire, and he dropped to the floor.
He said he had many narrow escapes while in the service.
“I may have nine lives, but I’m probably on my last one, so I have to be careful,” he said.
He is still upset over the fact that those who fled to Canada to avoid the draft were never punished for it.
“That was like a slap in the face,” he said.
He has regrets for how the war turned out.
“I wish it would have accomplished something,” he said. “It accomplished nothing.”