Being a veteran is not just a title one wears to symbolize time in the military. It’s not a title one earns by simply pronouncing their dedication to something grand. For many veterans it’s a scar that signifies a part of their lives, which will forever be imbedded into their heads and hearts.
Donald Dean Tapley was only 20-years-old when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed in Ankhe, Vietnam.
“We flew out of Fort Lewis, WA. There’s just something’s you don’t forget, that flight was one of them.” described Dean. “The first six-months over there was a really rough time, as it was just a bad part of the country. There were no trees; it was just a bare land.”
Dean said they flew out in a wide-bodied commercial plane. What he remembered most about that flight was an unbearable silence.
“I remember walking onto the plane, sitting in my chair and looking around. Everybody was sitting in their seats with a look of the unknown draped across their faces. All of them were slouched with their heads down towards their knees,” explained Dean. “No one knew if that would be the last time they were seen. Honestly, you feel helpless sitting in that kind of silence.”
First thing Dean said he noticed when they finally arrived in Ankhe was the smell. He described it as humid and stagnant.
“Before I could even come to grips with all that was going on, I looked over and saw a couple old dilapidated Air Force buses,” he said. “They were waiting to take us to Cameron Bay, where we would be processed.”
After Dean and all the other new recruits were loaded and stuffed onto the buses, they had only traveled a few miles when he said he heard an unfamiliar sound.
“Through the silence I heard this strange whistling sound, followed by a loud boom, then another and another,” said Dean. “We were under attack. I can still remember the look on everyone’s face. You could have raked everybody’s eyes with a stick. Here we are, 20-year-old men, going into war with no idea what would happen.”
Dean went on to explain how it was a different time in his day. According to him, if a man was in good health and of age, they were drafted.
“It was such a different time. We were a Draft army back then,” explained Dean. “Now, it’s an all-volunteer army and nothing like what it was for us. If you didn’t go to college or have a disability you were going to go into service.”
Although he was in foreign territory, fighting in a war nobody could understand, he said the hardest thing was being away from his wife Rita.
“I had only been married for nine months before being sent off,” said Dean. “Most of us that went in, knew we were going to get sent to Vietnam.”
According to him, communication was a mission all in itself while he was away. He and his wife would have to number each letter, so they knew which one to read first when the mail finally arrived.
“My dad served in World War II and according to my mother, when he would write home, his letters would be littered with censor markings, because they didn’t want people at home to know what was really going on,” said Rita. “So I was deeply surprised when I got Dean’s letters and how descriptive they were. And what blew my mind even more was the fact that what he was telling me wasn’t what the media was saying, at all.”
She went on to explain how Dean had no clue what the atmosphere was like back home. In Fact, when they finally did get to come home many people treated them like they were more a disease than war heroes.
“These men were practically spit on by the American people,” she said. “There was no applause. There were no thank you’s. People almost seemed to hate them for being forced to serve in Vietnam.”
Dean said it was very much a thankless job, but while serving he actually hit a bit of luck with his MOS (Military Occupational Skill).
“I trained as a Heavy Equipment Operator, but when you first get over to Vietnam, your MOS means nothing,” said Dean. “They put you where they want you and tell you what they want you to do.”
As mentioned earlier, the first six months in Vietnam were rough for Dean.
”It was 1970 and I had been there about six months already” he said. “The division I was in, which was the Fourth Infantry Division, was being ordered to come back home. Or so I thought.”
Right at the time Dean was getting excited by the news, a new policy came down the line indicating a solider had to be stationed for nine months, rather than six months.
“Since I had fell just a few months shy, I had to wait for my orders to come in and when they did I was shipped to the 17th Combat Aviation Group,” said Dean.
According to him, the 17th Combat Aviation Group was comparable to an Army form of the Air Force.
“All I could think to myself was, ‘what am I getting into now,’” Dean said with a smile on his face and a chuckle in his voice. “Seeing as I was only one of the few men that knew how to type, I was assigned a descent job, working under a commanding officer.”
In the late 1960s’ – early 1970s’, it was unheard of to find a man who could type. However, Dean said he has to thank Elsberry High School for that trait.
“When I attended High School here in Elsberry, I was the only boy out of a class of thirty that took typing. So I did typing and drafting,” said Dean.
However, Dean’s memories are far from rainbows and resort atmospheres. One story he shared was one he has had to live with for a lifetime.
“When you’re over there and you’re shooting at the enemy trying to kill them or them trying to kill you, that’s just war. But there’s one thing that happened while I was there that still haunts me to this day,” said Dean. “One evening, behind my barracks, I was sitting around with a few friends of mine, actually my best friend at the time, Joe, my other buddy and several other individuals.”
Dean’s best friend at the time was a man named Joe, who was set to go home in just seven days. Joe had a wife and child at home and according to Dean, he was more than excited to see them again.
“We were having a little celebration behind his barracks, when the person that was guarding the arms room, decided to take an M-16, slotted with two 20 round clips, just began firing randomly,” said Dean. “We were only about 20-30 yards away. My best friend got shot in the back of the head, my other buddy died later that evening from his wounds and several others.”
His outlook on life had been forever changed. According to him, it had been turned over and had become so different that he had to start over.
“It just changed my whole self-being entirely. But I will say, it made me appreciate the things we have in this country and in life a lot more,” said Dean. “When you go somewhere like that and go without like that and seeing the things we saw and doing the things we had to do, things get put into a new perspective.”
According to Rita, she had to meet her husband all over again. “He just wasn’t the same kid I watched board that plane a year ago.”
The last ten or 15-years has seen a huge change in attitude towards Vietnam Veterans, but Dean said he will never be able to forget the first 15-years.
“I remember getting off at Lambert Field and walking through the airport. People almost treated us like we were a disease, they wouldn’t come anywhere near us because we were wearing a uniform,” said Dean.
When he left for the Army, Dean said he was not a man, rather a scared boy. However, when he returned he was a man. He understood honor, morals and fears. He said he learned adversity and compassion. He felt loss and empathy.
“It was like having to learn everything all over again, how to talk to people, how to talk to my wife and how to sleep,” said Dean. “I’ve always said that all men should have to do some kind of military service when they get out of high school. I believe it would do them good.”
Dean served in the U.S. Army from 1969 until he finally came home in 1971. He is a long standing member and officer of the Elsberry VFW Post 9064 and a United States Veteran. Although, every veteran has a story to tell, memories they’d rather forget and wounds that go beyond physical scars, they are the reason Americans are free today and did their duties with honor.