What I Did in Vietnam

May 11, 2015

In anticipation of Armed Services Day on May 16, 2015, the staff at iAt have asked those who have served or who are currently serving in the military to share their stories with our readers. This week we will feature five different people who have all served at different times and in different conflicts. Our hope is that is would bring awareness to our readers, but would also point God out in the midst of serving others in this unique way. Today we feature the story of John Calsbeek, who served in the Vietnam war.

Please give a brief description of what you did in the military. Where did you serve? How long? What do you do?

When I graduated from high school, the Vietnam conflict was in full swing, so I went to two-year business college, thus evading the chance of being drafted. After attending college for a year, a good friend of mine and I decided to join the Army National Guard. This way I felt I was doing my duty in serving our country. I went to basic training in Fort Lewis, Washington and trained in the infantry. After completing six months of basic training and AIT (Advanced Infantry Training), I returned to college and attended meetings with the National Guard one weekend a month and attending one summer camp. Two months after graduating from college and securing a job, the Army National Guard was placed on Active Duty. Guard units from Sheldon, Le Mars, Cherokee and Sioux City were sent to Fort Carson, by Colorado Springs, CO. Before leaving on active duty, my high school sweetheart and I decided to marry. Since I had already spent six months in basic training, which was counted toward the two years of active duty upon being activated, it meant that there were only 1 1/2 years left. After spending time at Fort Carson in training, I received orders to go to Vietnam along with 17 others from Northwest Iowa for eight months. Many others had gone earlier, so we were the last to get orders.

Basic Training in Fort Lewis, Washington (Jan. 22, 1967)

Basic Training in Fort Lewis, Washington (Jan. 22, 1967)

When we arrived in Vietnam we were all split up to different parts of the county, except me and my first cousin (who had a different last name). After a couple of weeks of training and orientation in country, we were attached to the 101st Airborne and sent to a base near the DMZ (Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone), which was at the northern part of Vietnam. As soon as we arrived, we were loaded on a helicopter and sent out in the field to join the company–which was a real eye opener! After a couple days, my cousin and I decided it be best if we tell someone of our relationship and request to be split up and not placed in the same squad. We stayed in the same company, so at least we could check on one another when we were at a base recuperating. We would be in the field a week or two at a time before we’d get a break at a base. While in the field, we patrolled and walked point looking for the enemy. It was hard to differentiate the locals from the enemy. During this time, we would set up ambush waiting for the enemy to come past. We would search villages and burn down grass huts. Walking, walking, looking and looking not knowing when you could be under fire. There were many times a fox hole didn’t feel big or deep enough or hiding behind a bolder felt like hiding behind a little stone. I’d lay as flat as I could on the ground to avoid being hit all while praying.

During this time in the field, our mail was delivered to us, along with a clean uniform and a fresh supply of c-rations and ammo. After a couple of months in the field, I was called into the home base and ordered to see the company commander. I had no idea why I was called in from the field. A lot of thoughts went through my mind. It was the longest ride in the helicopter to the base, not knowing—did something happened to my wife? Did something happen to my parents? Why was I being called in?

Upon introducing myself to the company commander, it soon came clear. While living off base in Colorado Springs along with many other couples from Northwest Iowa, this company commander also lived down the hall from us along with another Lieutenant. I could not have heard any better words coming out of his mouth. He said, “I understand that you lived in the Skylock Apartments and that your wife is back in Iowa pregnant. I want to get you home safely, so I’m sending to you Da Nang to pull guard duty at the I Corp Headquarters for a month”. What a relief! Someone was truly looking over me!

I really don’t remember my reactions at the time, but needless to say I went. It was really different having a hot meal in an air-conditioned mess hall, eating with a fork and spoon, having cold milk and living in a barracks with real beds with mattresses and sheets, ceiling fans, real showers with hot water. For a month, I did guard duty around the 4-star General’s air conditioned ranch style building, which seemed more like a house.

After the month was over, I returned to the home base and stayed there working in the mess hall and pulling latrine duty (this meant pulling out a 55 gallon drum cut in half out from under an outhouse and burning the stuff in it!) and also sitting at a post on the perimeter of the base camp doing guard duty at night. After of month of working on the home base, my time of being in Vietnam was up and I could return home.

I arrived home the day before Thanksgiving at the Sioux Falls airport where my very pregnant wife and brother and sister-in-law were waiting for my return. When I walked into the waiting area, none of them recognized me for when I left the country seven months earlier I weighed 200 pounds and when I returned I weighed 150 pounds and had a very dark tan. Ten days after returning my first daughter was born!

What has given you the greatest joy in serving? What has been the hardest part?
At the time, I hated every minute of the military. When I joined the National Guard, I had requested to be trained in clerical duties but was sent to infantry instead. But really deep down inside, I’m proud that I did serve my time and am home safe and sound. My buddy who had joined the guard with me was killed in Vietnam, so it was very difficult facing his late wife and parents. It took me many years to get over this, and yet today whenever I see his late wife, I think of Arlen.

It was really sad how no one would hardly look at you on the street, or even ask questions or even say they were thankful you were home. I was not made out to be a full-time military, especially being in the infantry. It was really hard being away from my wife. I guess the hardest part was not understanding why we were really in Vietnam and yet today I question why. No one can understand what we went through unless they were there themselves and maybe that is why no one would talk about it.

What is one thing you’d like non-military people to know about serving in the military?
I think every young person should go to basic training where you learn respect, learn how to take orders from superiors and become an adult. A lot of us take our freedom for granted.

How have you experienced God’s presence while serving?
I am very thankful to even be able to write this–being of sound body and somewhat of a sound mind! While in Vietnam and out in the field there were many, many close calls where I know God was watching over me. One evening while we were sleeping out in the field, it was raining “cats and dogs” and five of us were huddled under a make shift roof made out of a poncho. A buddy lying two over from me in the hole was hit in the head with a canister from an illumination round. No one knew he was even hit until it came time for his turn to pull guard by the person going off duty. He could not wake him. Needless to say, we didn’t sleep the remainder of the night. And I really, thinking about it now, the whole time I served I knew God was watching over me as there were many other times like this.

Dig Deeper

Return to iAt tomorrow to read the story of Ted De Hoogh, who served 28 years in the Navy and Navy Reserves. Throughout this week we will share other stories of men and women who have served in the military.

About the Author
  • John Calsbeek is a real estate broker associate at Re-Max Lakes Realty in Okoboji, Iowa. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with his wife, children and grandchildren, woodworking (building furniture and home improvements), yard work, fishing, boating and volunteering in the community.

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  1. Thanks John for helping maintain our freedom! I agree that every young male should serve in the military for at least 6 months.

  2. Thank you, John, for answering the call to serve your country. I supported the war at the time, but now I question it, too. However, you had orders and you obeyed them, and for that we all owe you our thanks!

  3. Your story and reflections are meaningful and insightful..thanks for taking time to share them, thanks for serving. I can’t imagine what it was like to have been in the field serving..thanks again. Nancy