Rochester resident Tom Novotne didn't talk about Vietnam for more than 30 years.
"It takes awhile with Vietnam veterans," Novotne said. "It was a war that wasn't won. And when they come home, the parade that they were expecting to happen didn't happen, never happened."
Novotne was 19 when he got his draft card. But rather than serve in the Army, he signed up to join the Marines, as many of his peers were doing.
Within days of arriving in Vietnam, Novotne found himself on a hill near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the corridor used by the North Vietnamese to ferry men and supplies to South Vietnam. Novotne spent months on that hill, but it only took a few days there to convince that him he wouldn't survive.
Novotne is one of several area Vietnam veterans who look back on the war with intense feelings, although it's been 50 years since most of them went to Vietnam.
"When I got on that hill, I never thought I was going to return," he said. "There was so much action going on. After you have been there three or four days, and there's incoming night after night, you think, 'what did I get myself into?'"
On his third day in Vietnam, Novotne was sitting in his foxhole when he heard a ding sound near his head. Looking up, he saw two small bullet holes appear in the metal over his foxhole, right over his head. He "pissed his pants" right there, he recalled. It was the first time the enemy, anybody, had tried to kill him, and he couldn't see who it was. They just popped up.
Novotne hit the ground, trying to bury his head in the dirt. Another Marine opened fire while Novotne punched a couple of claymore mines. Later they found a dead Vietnamese soldier with his arm missing. A day later, the body was gone.
For those who patrolled its jungles and rice paddies, Vietnam was the ultimate land of uncertainty, a place where the very ground a person walked on had to be scanned for booby traps and mines. It was also a land of rats.
The rats would pour down in the foxhole with you, drawn by the water that collected on the tarps and the warmth. Novotne would wake up some nights and find them snuggled on his head, on his feet, chewing on his hair. They would crawl under his poncho liner and wiggle against his body for warmth.
"I couldn't sleep," Novotne said. "You would go three or four days without sleep. Then I started setting traps for the rats. And they are huge, the biggest rats I've ever seen in my life."
Friends made, and lost
The conditions were horrible, but camaraderie helped the men endure. One aspect that Novotne remembers was that everybody knew each other by a nickname. No one was called by their given names — Novotne's was Short Round. And there was Moose, a strapping Montana kid who carried the radio. Carrying the radio could be a hazardous assignment, because the enemy made a point of targeting communications. During one patrol, Moose's radio got shot but he emerged unscathed.
"He kind of joked about it and so did everybody else, but about four or five days later, I was out with him on patrol. I'd just got done walking point, and so I got in the back," he said. "Moose was shot in the back of the head. It was tough. I never heard his real name."
Fighting in Vietnam made Novotne aggressive. He recalled one time shooting the enemy and cutting off his ear. "It was uncommon, but that was really strange for me," he said.
Even a few days off from the front lines offered no respite from death.
One time, Novotne and some friends of his were given a few days away from the battlefield. They were in a tent when a new guy walked in. The guy was drunk and complaining that his girlfriend had sold his car to pay for rent. The man laid down on a cot between Novotne and another guy, turned around and shot himself in the head.
"They were carrying him out," Novotne said. "I went outside to have a cigarette. The guy said you better go in and wash your face. I went into the head to wash my face, but I couldn't believe how much blood I had on me."
Contrast in moods
Novotne served nine months, leaving Vietnam in March 1971. Now 64, he can still remember the contrast in mood between the plane trip going to Vietnam and the one coming back stateside. On the plane ride to Vietnam, people were laughing, playing cards, drinking beverages delivered by stewardesses.
On the way back, there was nothing but quiet on the plane.
"People didn't know what to expect. Nobody said anything," Novotne said. "Just as quiet as can be."
When they landed at Andrews Air Force Base in California, some of the passengers kissed the ground, so joyous were they to be back home.
That's when Novotne was spit on.
He was approaching a fenced-in area to go inside the airport. The fence was 9 feet tall, topped with barbed wire. A large crowd stood outside the fence, and at first, it crossed Novotne's mind that the group was there to welcome home the troops.
"There were protesters all the way through. They would spit on you," said Novotne, who recalled reaching for his .45 at the provocation but doing nothing. "That was the biggest thing. That starts things. All of sudden, you know about Vietnam. You don't let anybody know."
An attempt to bury the experience
He returned home, folded away his uniform and for the next three decades never talked about Vietnam. But the memories and psychological toll would force its way to the surface.
One night his wife returned home from work and found her husband underneath the bed. Novotne didn't know how he got there. Another time, she went into the bathroom and returned to find him sitting up in bed, holding an imaginary rifle, in a kind of trance. It wasn't until she sat down next to him and put her hand on his shoulder that Novotne came to himself.
He still dreams about Vietnam occasionally. One dream haunted his sleep for 40 years. But it was a dream whose vividness derived from a real event.
Novotne and two other Marines were out on a kill-team mission, sitting in a rice paddy swamp. In Vietnam, U.S. forces controlled the day with their superior fire power and air power, but Charlie controlled the night.
'What if I fired?'
Novotne had been given night-vision glasses to peer into the blackness. As he settled into his watch, he detected a shape slipping through the darkness about 30 yards away. Yet, against all of his instincts, Novotne held his fire. First one enemy solider, then another and another, began to appear until he counted 40 in all. Each was connected to a rope tied around their waists so they could travel by night.
For Novotne, the dream awakens a perplexing question within him: Why hadn't he fired? If he had, he would be dead right now. His three-man team would have quickly been overwhelmed and wiped out. But why hadn't he? He had been on such kill-team missions in the past. Training and experience in Vietnam had honed his aggression, his killer instincts.
"I've had that dream over and over. What if I had opened up? I keep going, 'what if.'" When I wake up, I can't believe I didn't fire," he said.
Novotne didn't talk about his Vietnam experiences for three decades,trying to keep the memories bottled up and contained. But it was never a healthy option. Then one day, he went to see a psychiatrist in the Twin Cities who helped him open up about his memories and experiences. Novotne said he now talks about Vietnam, because it does bring a "little bit of therapy." And he hopes his example helps others.
"I think the people from Vietnam who went over there, they still need some kind of comfort," he said. "It really helps talk to other people who have been through it. It helps a person.
"It's hard to talk about still," he continued. "I'm a little bit more open with it. Some days are harder than others, but it doesn't disappear. PTSD stays with you no matter what. Doesn't matter the pills they give. It gets worse the older you get."
Four Rochester graduates
Richard Daly, a 1966 Lourdes High School graduate, was going to Rochester Community College (today, Rochester Community and Technical College) in the fall of 1968 when he got his draft notice. He went home for lunch and there it was. He went back to school and found some 30 guys had also received their draft notices.
Daly said he and another Lourdes graduate went down to the local draft board and were told that they could be called up anytime from a couple of months to a year.
"We said, 'well, what do we do with our lives for a year?' They said, 'that's your problem, but you can enlist if you want,'" Daly said.
When told he could sign up for a two-year enlistment, Daly signed up then and there.
Before going into the service, Daly and three other Lourdes graduates who were also going into the service made a pact together. They cut up a dollar bill into four pieces and promised to reunite the pieces after their service if they survived.
Daly went to basic training at Fort Campbell, Ky., and advanced training at Fort Polk, La. He knew the odds were high that he would end up in Vietnam, but always in the back of his mind was the hope that the war might end before he would have to go.
'Not the way I hoped'
Yet, the signs always seemed to point to Vietnam. As he and other soldiers pulled into Fort Polk, La., one morning, Daly passed underneath a large sign that all but foretold the future. It said, "Home of the Combat Infantrymen for Vietnam."
"That was the first time, I went 'uh oh, this is not going the way I had hoped,'" he said.
Wherever he went, his superiors saw leadership potential in Daly. They tried to convince him to go to noncommissioned officer school. He wasn't interested. He wanted to do his time and get out. One day, Daly's captain called him in and gave him a choice he couldn't refuse.
"He said, 'Here's a set of orders for Vietnam and here's a set of orders for Fort Benning (and NCO school). You pick.' I said, 'I guess I'm going to noncommissioned officer school,'" Daly said.
Daly still went to Vietnam. He was assigned to the Army's 5th Infantry Mechanized Division. He and his unit marched all over the demilitarized zone, through thick jungle and swamps, eating C-rations, sleeping in the rain. One time they were away from their camp for 92 days, never sleeping in a bed or taking a shower.
"I always tell people, 'I didn't see a lot of combat. I kind of had an ugly camping trip,'" Daly said.
That is, until the end of his tour.
Late one morning, Daly was awakened by one of his soldiers claiming he had heard movement in the grass outside their perimeter. Daly's men were dug in on a hill, partly surrounded by burnt grass that crackled when a person stepped on it. Daly decided to fire off an M79 grenade launcher "just to see."
When Daly's soldier put a round in the launcher and cocked it, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers surrounding Daley's hill heard the sound and knew they had been discovered and attacked. An enemy rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) round exploded at the feet of Daly and three other soldiers. Soon NVA soldiers were running through the perimeter.
Daly was hit, but not seriously wounded, he subsequently learned. An RPG round in those days was an anti-tank weapon that gathered killing power as it moved through something. The round that landed among Daly and other soldiers spewed shrapnel, but not in as lethal a fashion as a regular grenade would have.
When the fighting ended, a wounded Daly was flown to a hospital, and by November 1970, he was back home in Rochester, returned to civilian life.
On New Year's Day 1971, Daly and his three Lourdes classmates gathered together. A Post-Bulletin photographer captured the moment in a photograph that would appear in newspapers across the country. Each held up a section of a dollar bill to signify a pledge fulfilled. They had served their country and, thankfully, they had survived.
"The bottom line: We were asked and we served," Daly said, speaking of all Vietnam veterans. "I think some aren't so proud of their experiences, but I think, to a person, they're proud of that."