On Dece. 27, 1967, Sheldon “Buzz” Christison arrived in Da Nang, Vietnam. As the troops departed the aircraft, they were under fire, and minutes into his tour, there were wounded. Buzz would spend the next 19 months in the Vietnam War.
Buzz grew up on a farm near Plainview, graduating from high school in 1964. Chores had to be done daily, and his were pitching silage every morning and feeding the steers. His mom and dad, products of the Great Depression, modeled helping others and community involvement. Every Sunday, the family was in the church pews.
Buzz said that when he arrived in Vietnam, he was a 90-day wonder, which is a commissioned officer after an unusually short training period. Some who joined the military who displayed leadership qualities were offered officer candidate school. Buzz accepted the offer, although he knew he would have the weight of responsibility in war. Upon arrival, he had to learn quickly to adapt in order to survive.
Although Buzz joined the Navy, he was assigned to the Marine Corps. Growing up, he was taught to treat people well. Buzz ate, played poker, drank and went to battle with his men even as an officer.
This leadership style resulted in his men telling him that they would follow him through the gates of hell.They all did take that trip together in Vietnam on Hill 861 and during the Tet Offensive.
Buzz told me he lost 27 men and has always carried survivor’s guilt. He is proud that 100 men under his command came home. Although he does not attend reunions, he is kept in the loop regarding all the men he served with.
Like many combat veterans, Buzz struggled after his return from the war. He was not welcomed back, not even by other veterans. Buzz said San Francisco was not a good location to return to the United States. Upon his arrival, Buzz was verbally abused. His military duffel bag with all his belongings was stolen from the baggage claim. Any soldier who returned from Vietnam needed to get into civilian clothes as soon as possible.
Immediately upon his return home, Agent Orange exposure had an impact on his life. He had a severe Chloracne rash, which is related to a contaminant in Agent Orange. His exposure throughout the years resulted in other health issues, including four heart attacks, a coronary artery dissection, and miscarriages by his first wife, who passed away in 1993.
Buzz told me that he and his wife had one daughter and adopted two children from South America. One day, Buzz’s daughter, Amy, came home from high school and asked questions about his Vietnam service. He soon discovered that she had volunteered him to speak to her class.
At that time, he wasn’t sure if he could do it, but you can’t say no to your daughter. Buzz would continue talking to high school classes about Vietnam for the next 20 years.
He told me that of those 100 who returned from the war, 68 have died, primarily due to Agent Orange exposure. Sixteen of them lost their lives to suicide. These numbers suffered by fellow Vietnam veterans bestowed upon Buzz an anger toward government bureaucracy.
Buzz fondly remembered a young African American from Georgia who was his radio telephone operator. Louie had an eighth-grade education and saved Buzz’s life on a couple of occasions. They became like brothers.
Louie asked Buzz for advice, and he told Louie he needed to get an education using the GI Bill. He said Louie got a Master’s degree in mechanical engineering and had a successful career in Macon, Ga. It was a sorrowful day, Buzz said, when Louie died in 2011 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma caused by Agent Orange exposure.
The stories of our Vietnam veterans, on the battlefield and back home, need to be remembered.
Buzz had a difficult path and when he realized other veterans were struggling, he began working to positively impact veterans' lives. That work continues. The evening we spoke, Buzz was at a Vietnam veterans support group.
Buzz continues to make a difference for those who served, but he will never forget. Buzz’s epitaph will read, “He survived TET 68 IN KHE SAHN.
Loren Else lives in Rochester and also writes the Post Bulletin’s “Day in History” column. Send comments and column ideas to Loren at email@example.com.