A panel of local Vietnam War veterans spoke about their experiences in southeast Asia, their thoughts on current military issues, especially veterans’ health care and other benefits, and a host of other topics.
The panel discussion was a part of the now-concluded Iola Reads session based on the book “The Things They Carried,” a collection of short stories penned by Tim O’Brien about a platoon of American soldiers in Vietnam.
Iolans Paul Zirjacks, Don Burns, John Sheehan, Duane McGraw and Larry Walsh all spoke about their tours of duty in Vietnam, while Dee Singer spoke about working as a nurse in a Corpus Christi, Texas, hospital where she helped care for scores of personnel who had been injured in southeast Asia.
Moderating the discussion was Iolan Bob Hawk, who was in the Air Force.
“I never set foot in Vietnam,” he said. “The closest I ever came was 14,000 feet” aboard then-classified air missions while in the Air Force.
EACH PANELIST shared a brief biography and synopsis of their experience:
Zirjacks was in Vietnam for a year, from April 1967 to April 1968 and specialized in military intelligence for the Army. He was in Vietnam for the infamous Tet Offensive, where “the battle was won, but the war was lost in that period of time,” he said.
“There are a lot of memories about Vietnam,” Zirjacks said. “The smell of the country is kind of unique.”
Burns, meanwhile, was aboard a Navy gunboat, but “not like those you’d see on ‘Apocalypse Now,’” he recalled. “These were 53-foot gunboats. We were pretty heavily armed.”
They had to be.
Burns was among those who would set up ambushes at night along rivers, canals and other waterways in various parts of the country.
“Don is being too modest,” Sheehan interjected. “What this man and his friends did, they went out in little boats along the river, waiting for people to shoot at them.”
SHEEHAN did four tours in Vietnam as a Green Beret — the special forces.
“It was a wonderful experience,” he said. “It changed my life.”
Sheehan also carries the distinction of serving in Iraq with the 891st Engineer Battalion out of Iola in 2004 and 2005 — at the age of 59.
“My wife kept telling me, ‘You’re too old, and you’re too fat to go to Iraq. You’re not going,’” Sheehan joked. “She said it again as we were getting on the bus to go to Fort Sill. She said the same thing as we were going to the airport.”
“People ask me what the difference was between Vietnam and Iraq,” he said. “One was wet, and one was dry. If it’s 130 degrees in a lot of humidity, you soak a lot. If it’s 130 degrees in no humidity, you still soak a lot.”