An Old Soldier’s Perspective: My Dad and Vietnam

Headquarters where my father was stationed after the 1968 TET Offensive

Battered headquarters after the 1968 TET Offensive – where my father was stationed

We’re all familiar with the Vietnam War in some sense, whether it’s the impact it had on US culture – bringing in the age of young activism – or its legacy for what not to do in military decisions.

A long, costly “conflict” that saw the communist regime of North Vietnam and its allies from the south – the Viet Cong – pitted against South Vietnam and the US, the Vietnam War resulted in the deaths of 3 million people, including 58,000 Americans.

One of the soldiers who fought in the line of fire and did not die is my father Ron Ellis. Growing up as a tomboy, I used to love hearing my dad’s stories about his time in the Army. Coupled with the stories of my grandfathers, Leroy Ellis and Charles Connor, who fought in WWII, and my great-grandfather, Harden Harrison Tabor, who fought in WWI, I always thought I would become a soldier when I grew up. (This was after I moved from wanting to be an astronaut and a dolphin, of course.)

But as I grew up and formed my own opinions on war, I abandoned my military aspirations, not completely sure why my country was entering the “conflicts” it was at the time.

Meanwhile, to me, my dad was just my dad: a lawyer with the Army Corps of Engineers who moonlighted as a professional musician on the weekends. And someone who I looked up to and considered one of my best friends – until I hit those awkward teenage years, of course, when he became my enemy, grounding me for who knows what.

But Father’s Day is upon us, and I wanted to take the opportunity this year to understand how my father reflects on his time involved in this controversial conflict in US history, what it means to him, and how we can learn from our past as we look to the future.

Becoming a soldier

After receiving several interview questions from his journalist daughter, my father answered each one, but not before giving me the caveat that, due to the top secret nature of his assignments while he was stationed in Vietnam, he can only give me certain details. Yes, my dad was a badass.

My dad, at this point a lieutenant, with "Sergeant Major Hiss," a pet snake at Pleiku in Vietnam

My dad, at this point a lieutenant, with “Sergeant Major Hiss,” a pet snake at Pleiku in Vietnam

In total, he served three back-to-back tours in the Republic of South Vietnam, from 1967-1969, as part of the Army Military Intelligence Branch (Army Security Agency). Though he joined the Army with the initial rank of Private, he eventually attained the rank of Captain. Additionally, he ultimately received 10 awards of the Air Medal and one Meritorious Service Medal.

Though many men during that time were drafted into the Army without choice, my father was not one of these. “By January 1966,” he explains, “I had become bored with college [at University California-Riverside] and decided I needed some real adventure. Then I became really stupid, gave up my college student draft deferment, and enlisted in the US Army.”

He undertook Basic Training at Fort Ord, CA, and then went on to advanced Military Occupational Specialty Training at the US Army Security Agency Training Center & School in Fort Devens, MA.

There, he was selected to attend Infantry Officers Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Benning, GA, but during this time, he received a branch transfer from the Infantry into the Military Intelligence Branch (Army Security Agency). 

For those of you who are not familiar with the Army, for me, this transfer could have impacted on my very existence. Had he not been transferred from Infantry to Military Intelligence, he could have been one of the 58,000 American soldiers who never came back from Vietnam.

Just before the end of his training with the Army Security Agency, my father received his orders sending him to Vietnam.

Saigon: ‘Paris East’

In early 1967, he was stationed in Saigon, which is now known as Ho Chi Minh City. Though he started as a Supply Officer for a communications security company, he explains that he quickly rose to become the Current Operations Officer at the headquarters of the communications intelligence entity that served all of Vietnam.

He describes Saigon as “Paris East,” adding:

“It was a large bustling city that, except for some parts, was really quite safe. There were occasional terrorist incidents that kept me on my toes, but generally, as a young officer, I traveled freely within the city and particularly enjoyed the variety of restaurants and nightlife that can only be described as remarkable.”

Though the city was generally safe, he does remember it becoming quite dangerous during the TET offensive in February 1968, when both the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army coordinated an attack on Saigon and other locales in South Vietnam.

Though he had initial trepidations when he was first stationed in Saigon, after living there for more than a week, he explains that his “initial trepidation turned to excitement and awe as I realized that I had reached a wonderful point and place in my life.”

In addition to becoming a true world traveler, he says he was experiencing fantastic new adventures.

“This sense of euphoria remained throughout the entire period I was stationed in Vietnam,” he says. “I fell in love with the Vietnamese people and socialized with them continually. I felt sorry for their plight, but they appeared to have become used to being at war over the centuries, and I sensed in them a peace and understanding that far surpassed what I had known in the US.”

Surfing and drinking in the culture

After Saigon, my dad was assigned to two other stations. One was in Cam Ranh Bay, which he explains as “a beautiful peninsular enclave,” and the other was Nha Trangh, “a beautiful coastal town.”

Cam Ranh Bay, February 1969. My father is playing the accordion, while he, some Army buddies, and some "Red Cross Girls" party on the beach.

Cam Ranh Bay, February 1969. My father is playing the accordion while he, some Army buddies and some “Red Cross Girls” party on the beach.

During his time in these picturesque locales, he immersed himself in the local culture like a good world traveler. Enjoying dinner with local villagers, sipping homemade brandy and trading history lessons with monks from the local monastery were all in the cards for him during this time.

He had attained a level of fluency in French by this time in his life, and he says coupled with another friend’s fluency in Vietnamese, they were able to communicate with the locals on several levels.

“At one point I had even considered leaving the Army and remaining in Vietnam,” he says, “but it became evident that the country would soon become an uninhabitable place for an American.”

My father has often spoken fondly of his time growing up as a surfer/musician in 1960s California, and this tradition followed him to Vietnam. While stationed at Cam Ranh Bay, he used to surf “alongside hammerhead sharks, venomous sea snakes, and with the ever-present danger of an occasional long-range sniper in the distant hills.”

I am, of course, always reminded of the surfing scene from Apocalypse Now whenever I hear my father’s surfing stories of Vietnam:

He enjoyed other beaches, mentioning an island off the coast near Saigon called Vung Tau, in addition to Nha Trangh and Cam Ranh Bay.

But he also looks back on his missions and operations as an enjoyable time:

“I put many long hours, blood, sweat and some tears into my job, but I never considered this time to be stressful. Perhaps I was nuts! The only reason I didn’t extend for a fourth tour is that flying was becoming extremely dangerous, and I had never harbored a death wish.”

War: ‘follow the money’

But of course, fighting in a conflict is not all fun and games. According to the Veterans Administration, around 500,000 of the 3 million troops who served in Vietnam suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and rates of divorce, suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction are higher among Vietnam vets.

U-8s in the sun over Nha Trangh circa 1969

U-8s in the sun over Nha Trangh circa 1969

Luckily for me, I never observed any such ill effects in my father. Those who know him would describe him as one of the most happy-go-lucky men they’ve every known. He always has a genuine smile on his face, and he’s always loving life and singing songs, wherever he is. This is one of my favorite qualities about my father, one that I’ve been lucky to largely inherit.

I can remember him explaining to me one day that, after he landed back in the US and knew he would never be shot at again, he would never again be overly stressed or unhappy.

This is a conscious choice he made, but one which largely defines his character. He chooses happiness, time and time again, and this is what makes my father a truly beautiful human being.

Still, I had to ask him whether any of his friends died, and this is his response:

“In the sense that I consider all fighting men to be my friends, over 58,000 of us died during the Vietnam Conflict. And yes, during the course of my 3-year combat service, a few of my close personal friends, both American and Vietnamese, laid down their lives for their respective countries. This is such an emotional issue that I feel I will never be able to talk about the circumstances of their deaths.”

Though my father says this period in his life saw him transition from boy to man, an experience for which he is grateful, he says that even as a young solder, he was “never under the delusion that we were fighting for God, apple pie and country.”

Cam Ranh Bay - by this point in time, my father had attained the rank of captain.

Cam Ranh Bay – by this point in time, my father had attained the rank of captain.

“Even then,” he says, “I sensed that this war was promulgated and continued in furtherance of certain pecuniary interests, that is to say, follow the money.”

History has now established that the Vietnam Conflict was a giant mistake, he adds, one that caused needless suffering for everyone involved. And having been in combat, my father says it’s an unpleasant situation for soldiers and civilians alike.

When asked what he felt about war in general, given that he was a soldier, he says:

“Most wars (i.e. the ones in which the US is now involved) are totally unnecessary and again create needless suffering for most people, with exception to those puppet masters that benefit pecuniarily.”

“Of course,” he adds, “there are some people that just have to be killed, and here I am referring to those folks where the point of a gun is the only law they will ever understand, and for this I am grateful for the American military and the strength it represents.”

After contemplating a bit further, he adds: “I can only pray that this strength will be used when appropriate and never to line the pockets of defense contractors and their ilk.”

What sort of life do you choose?

My father concluded his email to me in his usual fashion, with an outpouring of love that shows he never built a wall in his mind, like so many who have faced the atrocities of war:

“Love – Dad OXOXOX”

I’ve had one of the best relationships with my father that a daughter can have. I look up to him, I’m proud of what a genuinely lovely person he is, I’m in awe of his musical and poetical talents, and I love him for not only the childhood he – along with my mother – gave me, but also for the way he makes everyone around him feel.

It is a rare gift, I believe, to have such a jubilant effect on friends, relatives and even strangers. I’ve often thought about how you can measure a person, and with the recent passing of Maya Angelou, I think this quote of hers is particularly apt, especially as it relates to my father:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Despite the hardships my father faced, and despite his mixed feelings about the Vietnam Conflict, he chose happiness. And by doing so, he produced a daughter who is able to face adversity and come out smiling. 

Besides a Father’s Day blog that serves to thank my dad for everything he’s done, I hope this serves to inspire you, dear reader, to remember that you have a choice; we can choose to make this world better, even when facing the bleakest of outcomes. 

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there.

My dad and me, happily dancing

My dad and me, happily dancing

Comments
3 Responses to “An Old Soldier’s Perspective: My Dad and Vietnam”
  1. Ron Ellis says:

    I am in total awe of finding a portion of my life in print, and one can only imagine how my little daughter, Marie, has made me feel on this day. Your journalistic talent has certainly captured my era in Vietnam. I am blessed to have two of the most lovely daughters in the world. Love, Dad OXOXOX

  2. Meg Connor says:

    I love this story and can attest that Marie and Ron are truly joyous human beings, as is my sister, Carol (Ron’s wife/ Marie’s mom) as well as Marie’s sister, Jean.
    They are talented, loving, fun people to be around. It’s nice to appreciate the humans behind the headlines!

  3. These are actually enormous ideas in on the topic of blogging.
    You have touched some good things here. Any
    way keep up wrinting.

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