May 21, 2007

My military story: John M. Sweet US56566417

Local superintendent, Memorial Day speaker, shares his Vietnam story

By Ryan Gueningsman
Managing Editor

Vietnam veteran and Delano Schools Superintendent Dr. John Sweet has learned to not sweat the small stuff.

The now-Delano resident grew up in South Dakota, and was drafted shortly after graduating from college. At that time, he made up his mind to accept the draft, and take with it what would lie ahead.

As a co-platoon leader, Sweet approached it with a mentality that he would not ask his troops to do anything he would not do. He led by example, which in turn, earned him respect. He continues to do that in his position at Delano Schools.

He said when he was a platoon sergeant, he had gotten used to seeing higher-ranking men and officers who were “very good at telling you what to do, but not show you how to do it, or do it along with you.”

That started his lead-by-example mentality. It’s something he has carried with him after the war while a graduate student at South Dakota State University; at West Central School District, where he served as a guidance counselor for five years, and as principal for the next 11 years; at Douglas School District, near Ellsworth Air Force Base; as state president of the South Dakota Jaycees; and also as superintendent of the Madison Central School District.

At Madison, Sweet said one thing he took on when he accepted the position was getting a new elementary facility built to replace three aging buildings.

Eleven years later, and the same day he was offered the superintendent’s position in Delano, was the day ground was broken for that new elementary school.

Sweet feels he was at Madison for a reason; to see through getting that new building for the district.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Sweet said, adding that he had always been interested in Minnesota, and thought Delano was an opportunity too good to pass up. He has served as Delano’s superintendent since 2005.

Sweet and his wife, Barb, have two children – Kim (Rubenstein), who is a copy editor in Washington, state and married to Jay Rubenstein, who is in the Navy; and Pamela Sweet, who is an instrumental music teacher in Moorhead.

Sweet told his account of the time he spent in the military for a South Dakota Vietnam War Memorial Dedication that took place Sept. 15 and 16, 2006 in Pierre, S.D.

Sweet will be the guest speaker for the Delano American Legion Post 377 Memorial Day ceremony at the city park Monday, May 28.

A personal account of a period overseas

The following is Sweet’s first-person account:

My first encounter with the US Army was after I graduated from high school in 1964, and was called for my first physical.

This routine continued for the next four years. During the first two years at Dakota Wesleyan University, the secretary for the local draft board, Sylvia Krick, told me that as long as I had a 2.0 GPA, my deferment would stay in place. Then, in 1967, the routine changed, and I was told they were giving four years of deferment for college, and that would be it.

It seems there were a whole lot of guys with 2.00000001 GPA’s who were in their fifth, sixth, . . . years of college. I graduated from DWU on Sunday, June 2, 1968. I went home on Monday, and on Tuesday, my dad and I drove over to De Smet to see what Sylvia had to say.

She told me that if I didn’t have my draft notice by a week from Thursday, I wouldn’t go in until August. I received the notice a week from Thursday, and was told to report on 23 July 1968.

I had made up my mind long ago that I was going to take the draft, get in my two years, then get out and on with life. No regular Army for me. This proved to be a dangerous decision. I learned later that I was lacking in wisdom.

Growing up in rural South Dakota with a strong deference for authority and a patriotic spirit that was instilled in Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance each day in school, and by attending the American Legion Memorial Day programs, the thought of going to Canada or even voicing objection to the war was not considered.

If the Commander-in-Chief, Richard Nixon, said that “If Viet Nam falls, there will be a domino effect all across Asia,” who was I to question such wisdom? So, off I went, naive about the possibilities that existed.

So on 24 July 1968, I went to Sioux Falls and joined a bunch of other guys for the plane trip to Ft. Lewis, Wash. and basic combat infantry training.

Morale among this group wasn’t particularly high, to say the least. The one person I knew when I got there was Richard Rasmussen, another home town boy. His stint didn’t last long. I met one guy, Chuck Gorman, who had just graduated from college that spring, and knew some of my friends at South Dakota State University. Our friendship lasted until tragedy struck later.

At the beginning of basic training, we went through a place called Classification and Assignment. Here, they reviewed all your test scores, education, experience, etc. in order to determine you Military Occupation Specialty (MOS), and how your skills and abilities could best serve Uncle Sam.

When I reached the final station the guy told me “with your test scores and education, I don’t know where you will be placed, but it won’t be infantry.”

That was good enough for me, because by then, we had learned that infantry was not the place to be.

At about week seven of basic training, our orders came down. My primary MOS was 11C40 – infantry mortars, and my secondary MOS was 11B40 – rifleman. Every time we marched by the Classification and Assignment Building, I wanted to go in and strangle that guy.

What was really depressing was that there would be 12 more weeks of combat training in an advanced infantry training company right there at Ft. Lewis. I didn’t see how I could take 12 more weeks of this stuff.

At the beginning of AIT, another friend from home had been drafted. Bob Whites was a high school friend that I kept in contact with during college. He was in a basic training company at Ft. Lewis, and I was able to visit him in his barracks on several occasions. I felt bad for anyone who was going through this with a wife at home, as Bob was.

During AIT, I signed up for a non-commissioned officer candidate course at Ft. Benning, Ga. – Anything to delay the inevitable assignment to Viet Nam. This was a new fast track program to get people trained to lead 81” and 4.1” mortar squads. Upon graduation, you earned the rank of E-5 (buck sergeant).

On Dec. 13, 1968, I picked up Chuck Gorman (in a blizzard) in Tyndall, S.D. and we drove to Columbus, Ga. We were placed in a casual company because our cycle wasn’t starting until January. In the casual company, we pulled KP and guard duty.

We could either have off Christmas or the week after. Since I had just been home, I recruited two Basic and AIT buddies, Andy Cappelli and Chris Nelson, from the San Francisco area, and we took off for Miami Beach on Dec. 26. We had a great week in Florida during the Orange Bowl festivities. I visited my cousin, Dave Knight, who was going to graduate school at the Univ. of Miami, along with his parents and sister who were also visiting.

Chuck Gorman’s brother was killed in a car-train accident near Tyndall. Chuck went home for the funeral and that was the last I saw of him.

Upon return to Ft. Benning, we got back into the military groove. The time at Ft. Benning was pretty much uneventful. The highlight was meeting a couple of guys that I have stayed in contact with over the past 30 years. Bill Trow from Schaumburg, Ill. and Dave Whelan, from Great Falls, Va. After graduation, Bill and I were assigned to Ft. Polk, La. as on-the-job training drill sergeants.

Bill, Mark Taylor, and myself drove my car from Ft. Benning to Ft. Polk. Outside of Jackson, Miss., we met a home town guy, Jim Boetel, driving down the road. I recognized him and his car immediately. We spent the day touring Vicksburg, a Civil War battle ground. That turned out to be quite a reunion for Jim and I, while Bill and Mark sat by in disbelief that I was able to recognize Jim and flag him down.

Leading by example

At Ft. Polk, Bill and I were co-platoon leaders for an AIT platoon.We actually had a pretty good time leading the platoon. We took on the leadership style that we wouldn’t ask the troops to do anything we wouldn’t do ourselves.

We led by example and the troops respected us for that. We led the forced marches carrying the same load as the trainees, while the officer types’ load was a canteen on a pistol belt. One of my favorite duties was leading the physical training exercises.

I picked up a lot of hardcore activities from one of the basic training drill sergeants I had at Ft. Lewis. At Ft. Polk, we visited a college friend of mine, Jim Jensen, who was stationed there. He had a place off post that was what appeared to be at one time a slave’s cabin on a large plantation. This was a great retreat for Bill and I, as we would bring food and beverage on occasion and relax from the rigors of infantry training.

On Memorial weekend 1969, Bill and I went to Galveston to hit the beach. We had a great time. Bill sunburned the tops of his feet, couldn’t wear his boots, and spent the first three days back at Ft. Polk in bed with his feet propped up. He may have had a cold pack on his head also, but that wasn’t from too much sun.

Our tour of Ft. Polk ended in June, and it was a couple of weeks leave, then off to Viet Nam. I gave Bill a ride to the Kansas City airport on the way home and also brought Jim Jensen and his bride back to South Dakota.

I departed the Sioux Falls airport for San Francisco and the Viet Nam departure point. Bill was already there when I arrived, and he shipped (flew) out a day or so ahead of me. I caught up with him at Ben Hoa Airbase in Viet Nam. One of the first guys I saw at Ben Hoa was Boyd Hopkins, a recent graduate from DWU. Bill thinks, to this day, that I know everybody in South Dakota.

We were standing beside each other when he got assigned to the 101st Airborne and I was sent to the 4th Infantry Division. We were both sent to units in the Central Highlands, as was Dave Whelan. Dave was assigned to the 4th Division also. While the three of us were all in separate units, our trails did cross while in Viet Nam.

The 4th Division was headquartered in Pleiku. The first night at base camp, I was put on perimeter guard duty. Three of us were assigned a bunker. Two had to be up at all times during the night, while the third one could sleep. The other two volunteered to take the whole night and told me I could stay in back and sleep.

Sleep doesn’t come easy your first night on duty. It soon became apparent that these two guys were dopers and spent the whole night shooting up on meth. I was glad to see the sun rise.

The next morning, I was helicoptered to LZ Warrior, where Co. E, 1st Battalion of the 4th Infantry Division’s 12 Infantry’s heavy mortar platoon was operating.

I was assigned as squad leader to a 4.2” mortar gun squad. The happiest guy that day was the guy I replaced, John Sinkular from Dallas, S.D. I never saw John again, but I did see his dad years later when he was commander of the South Dakota American Legion.

One of the first things I did when I knew my assigned unit was to write a letter to my high school friend, Bob Whites, who had been in Viet Nam awhile by now. He got bored with his assignment as a clerk typist and volunteered as a door gunner on a Huey. My letter came back a few weeks later informing me that Bob had been killed in action.

My first assignment was as a squad leader of a 4.2” mortar gun squad. We had a team of five or six guys. Our first priority was to keep the gun in firing condition and take care of the ammunition.

We usually dug some kind of bunker for the ammo to keep it dry and safe. Most of our firing missions were at night against suspected enemy locations (SELS). During the day, the battalion commander would fly around the area in a Light Observation Helicopter (LOCH) and look at what he thought were suspected enemy locations.

He would plot these locations on a map. Oftentimes, these locations were fields or gardens that were thought to provide the Viet Cong with food. Other times, there may have been evidence of enemy movement in these locations or enemy ammo caches. Then, we would shoot at these map locations at night.

The next day, the battalion commander would usually report that we hit the spots, but you never really knew if you hit anything significant.

Lt. Cottum, our platoon leader, complained to the battalion commander that these fire missions were like pissing in the ocean. There was a time when we would get dozens of map locations to drop a single round on.

You would have to get almost a direct hit on whatever it was that was there, to do anything. It was a whole lot of work to compute the data and aim and fire the guns at these locations and you never really knew for sure if you hit anything.

Once in awhile, we would have a live fire mission, which meant we were supporting troops who were in direct contact with the enemy.

The 4.2” mortar was a very effective weapon in the Central Highlands as it was a high angle fire weapon that could fire over mountains. Whereas artillery had a lower projectory and if the target was on the other side of the mountain, artillery couldn’t hit it.

We were usually located on a firebase with an artillery battery. It got pretty noisy at times when we were all blasting away. The 4.2” mortar also had a very effective illumination round. We could really light things up at night, and often did, so that troops farther out from our location could see the enemy at night.

After a few months on the gun squad, I was transferred to the Fire Direction Center (FDC). The FDC received the map locations of the suspected enemy locations or direct observations from forward observers.

We plotted these locations on a chart, and then determined what direction and angle the mortars needed to be set at.

We also calculated how much charge had to be put on each round in order to propel it to the target. We then communicated to each gun squad the data. This was usually done by a phone system that we had rigged up between the FDC and the gun squads. For entertainment in the FDC, jam sessions were led by Robert (Inky) Inkenbrandt of Ft. Meyers, Fla.

Somehow, he brought along an always-out-of-tune guitar to Viet Nam. Many nights were spent listening to him sing Glen Campbell songs – “Wichita Lineman” and his all-time favorite “Ann.” Audio tapes were made of these sessions and sent home. I still have the one I sent home, and recently sent Inky a copy.

FDC duty was some better than being on a gun squad. We were usually in a protected bunker that we constructed with sandbags. We were better protected from the weather, especially during the rainy season, as well as from any stray bullets that might be flying around.

Sometimes, we made the FDC bunker big enough for several to sleep in because we were always on duty ready to receive a call for fire.

It was about this time that I suffered my greatest wound of the war, an impacted wisdom tooth. I was sent to the rear in the first available helicopter and had the tooth extracted. I was supposed to stay in the rear for a week or so, but after about a day, I couldn’t stand the sitting around and requested to return to the field and the FDC. I was gung ho.

The highlight of most days for the infantryman was mail call and chow. We were supposed to get one hot meal a day. On some firebases, a field kitchen was set up and food was prepared right there. In other cases, we had meals shipped out to us in insulated containers. (I later used the same concept in shipping food from a central kitchen to other school buildings.)

When we didn’t have hot food, we ate c-rations. Sometimes, they were a welcome reprieve from the hot food that wasn’t that great.

Whether we got hot food or mail depended on what fighting was going on. We were always supplied by helicopter as we were in the field, where there was no access to roads, except one time. The first priority for the helicopters was to take care of the fighting. The next priority was hot food, mail, and clothes. We were supposed to get several changes of clothes each week, but again, that depended on the priority of things. You tried to hold on to an extra shirt, pants, underwear, and socks.

The one time we did have supply access by road we were securing an engineering unit that was building a road. We got all kinds of things when we had this duty. They would ship out huge pieces of ice that were about 8’ x 2’ x 2.’

We would chip off enough to fill an ammo can or sand bag and cool pop and beer with it. This was the only time we ever had anything cold. One night, things were getting a little dull so Sgt. Tom Wood decided he would start up one of the caterpillars and reminisce about his days back in the world working road construction after having some of that ice cold beer. There was no law against drinking and driving in Viet Nam.

After about six months in country, it was time for R & R. I went to Sidney, Australia for a week of rest, relaxation, and high living. I spent time at the beach, zoo, and in the pubs. Spending time in the pubs was really interesting. This was where the men went to do their drinking – no women allowed. Sidney is a great melting pot of people. In the pubs, I met men from many different European countries who had emigrated to Australia.

They were very interested in asking about America and the war in Viet Nam. It was interesting to hear about their reasons for leaving England, France, Yugoslavia, etc.

One of the best things about R & R was eating some good food and being able to keep clean for a week. After Sidney, it was back to the platoon and the downside of my year in Viet Nam. Most guys counted the days they had left. I didn’t do that. Today, students (and some teachers) count the days left till school is out. I don’t do that either.

It was now 1970 and the public attitude about the war at home began to drift to the troops in Viet Nam. Morale was never great, but it was now declining fast. The 4th Infantry Division was gradually pulling back to the coast of Viet Nam and was supposedly scheduled to leave the country at some point in the near future. Troop morale in my unit was declining as many of us were on the downside of our tour.

Most of us didn’t see much point in what we were trying to accomplish. Objectives were unclear, and we just wanted to get by with doing as little as possible and CYA. Higher ranking NCO’s and Officers were constantly on us about not digging in properly and taking care of our own security. This would have been a good time for the Viet Cong to hit us because our state of readiness was suspect.

When March came around, I had some leave time left and there was a vacant R & R slot to Bangkok so I took it.

The week in Bangkok was interesting. This was a whole different culture and probably similar to Viet Nam. Even though I spent a year in Nam, I can’t say that I really experienced the culture because I was out in the boonies all the time. I saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Bangkok, where they served beer by the quart in the theatres.

I had an interesting river cruise and spent time in the shops, which loved to see American GI’s with money. I had some sport jackets custom-tailored for me and sent home from Bangkok.

The day I left for Bangkok, my unit got orders to go to Cambodia. We were really sweating going to Cambodia as this was the action that Tricky Dick said would hasten the end of the war, and we were expecting a lot of action.

When I got back from Bangkok, my unit had already returned from Cambodia. The whole campaign was really a farce.

The Cambodian Campaign brought out the troop protestors. I witnessed one guy sitting in the road facing off with an armored personnel carrier. He was physically removed and probably dealt with under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. I don’t know what the penalty would be for a soldier to protest a war. From here on out, morale was in further decline.

On 27 June 1970, I received orders to return to the world and prepare for ETS (estimated time of separation).

On about 8 July 1970, I left Viet Nam and returned to Ft. Lewis, Wash. and was relieved from active duty “not by reason of physical disability” (This phrase on my discharge papers guaranteed Uncle Sam would have no service-connected disability to pay. Sam wasn’t going to recognize my impacted wisdom tooth either.)

On 10 July 1970 – one year, eleven months, and seventeen days from the time I stepped on the very ground for basic training, and within sight of that Classification and Assignment Building.

Upon separation, I was awarded the following: the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in connection with military operations against an armed hostile force, the Air Medal for meritorious achievement, while participating in sustained aerial flight in support of combat ground forces in the Republic of Viet Nam from 2 August 1969 to 25 May 1970, the Combat Infantryman Badge for participation in armed ground conflict while a member of “The Famous Fighting Fourth Infantry Division” in the Central Highlands of the Republic of Viet Nam, a Certificate of Appreciation from General W.C. Westmoreland and another from the Commander in Chief, Richard Nixon, a plaque from the “Officers and Men” of the 4th Division (this always made me wonder if officers were not men). And in 1999, I received a Certificate of Recognition (which I applied for over the Internet) “for service during the period of the Cold War (2 September 1945 - 26 December 1991) in promoting peace and stability for this Nation, the people of this Nation are forever grateful” from William S. Cohen, Secretary of Defense. So as far as wars go, I am one for one - won one and lost one.

I left the SEA-TAC Airport on 10 July 1970 on the first flight for Denver. There, I spent a day or so visiting friends, Meredith and Jan Wilson. I returned to South Dakota on a Saturday afternoon, and my parents met me at Joe Foss Field in Sioux Falls.

During my time in Viet Nam, our unit suffered no serious injuries or casualties (other than the impacted wisdom tooth).

To say we were fortunate would be the understatement of the 20th Century. That wisdom tooth really wasn’t any good. It provided no wisdom whatsoever when I chose the draft over whatever the other alternatives were. Be that as it may, and the way everything turned out, I am proud to have served and say I am a Viet Nam Vet.

The military experience made me a stronger and better person. I feel a special relationship with others who have served. Everything is small stuff compared to war.

The friends I lost in Viet Nam were not friends I served with in the Army, but friends I had grown up with, Bob Whites and two other members of my American Legion baseball team, Bill Biever and Ted Voight.

Ted Voight was the catcher in a game at Lake Preston in 1962 when I was brought in to pitch in the bottom of the seventh inning. The score was tied with no outs with the bases loaded. Ted had never caught me before and I wasn’t sure if he could handle my curve ball. I struck out the first two batters with fast balls. I shook off several calls for curve balls, but when I was up 0-2 on the third batter, and Ted called for a curve, I threw it for a called third strike.

Ted couldn’t handle it and the winning run scored from third on the passed ball. I was a little upset in 1962. By 1970, I learned not to sweat the small stuff. Bill Biever played second base that game. These three and the others from the Iroquois area that served during the Viet Nam era deserve a monument for answering the call of their country.

They didn’t protest and they didn’t take other measures to avoid serving. I have a quote from a company that makes monuments and I am going to start talking it up with others. If I don’t do it, it doesn’t look like an ungrateful society will.

In 1972, I was recalled to active duty and assigned to an infantry national guard unit out of Seattle, Wash. and told to report to Ft. Lewis, Wash. for two weeks of summer training.

I couldn’t believe this was happening. It was deja vu all over again – my worst nightmare was going back into the Army. I went through the same procurement building to secure the same equipment I had been issued in basic training.

And that Classification and Assignment Building was in site again. We were bussed to Yakama Firing Range, where the National Guard held their summer training. We were recalled because National Guard Infantry units didn’t seem to attract much attention from people wanting to join the Guard to avoid Viet Nam, so they called us up to get up-to-strength for summer training.

After the first formation, one guy from South Dakota went in to Yakama and checked into a hotel. He never showed his face again until the final formation two weeks later and was never missed. When we went to the field, another Viet Nam Vet and myself fought over who would get to sleep in the cab of the truck all day. The loser would lay in the shade underneath.

My re-adjustment to civilian life occurred at South Dakota State University where, I earned a master’s degree in education and Uncle Sam helped pay for it through the GI Bill. It was here that I met my bride of 33 years, Barb.

And from then on, I lived happily ever after . . .

- John M Sweet, Delano, MN

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