Rod Keckler is straightforward about why he enlisted in the Army.
“I was one of those ‘trouble youths,’” he said. “Judge Shughart set me up with recruiter because I told him I couldn’t stop fighting because I wasn’t going to get whooped. So I signed my name, and on Sept. 6, 1967 I found myself in the Army, on a plane for the first time, on my way to Fort Benning for basic training.
“It was hard to adjust to the Army. I’d been on my own living on the streets since I was 14. That’s kind of hard. I had no idea what I was supposed to do in the Army, I have no phone number to call home, no address to write to, I was on my own. But it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me at the time in my life because I started to understand what it meant to work as part of a team, to trust somebody else and depend on them to have my back. It was the best thing that happened to me because I was headed down the wrong way.
“I took advanced training at Fort Leonard Wood to be a carpenter. When I finished they told me I was going to Vietnam. Again I didn’t know what I was in for. I landed at Cam Rahm Bay. They gave me gear but no weapons, and handed me a piece of paper and told me to find my way from there to Engineer Hill.”
Getting to his post was an adventure in itself.
“I’m jumpy as can be because I’m walking the streets, all these Vietnamese people around, I had no weapon, and I didn’t know if these people were friendly or not. I don’t know what the hell was going on. I get over to Engineer Hill and they give me paperwork to go right back and catch a flight to get to a place called Da Lat in the Central Highlands. It turned out to be a little place with an airstrip. As we flew in I could see a little plane like a Piper Cub sitting in a tree all shot to hell and I thought ‘What am I in for?’ I got to HQ, said I was looking for Charlie Company, 87th Engineers. They sent me down the airstrip, and I found the company right where that airplane was sitting in the tree. And that was my introduction to Vietnam.”
It wasn’t long before Rod would see battle.
“I arrived in time for the Tet Offensive, so about the second or third week I was there, we got hit pretty bad. Our unit was split, we took 45 percent casualties that night we got hit. No officers, no NCO’s, they were dead or hit. For five days they had airdrops coming in, nobody could land. They (the Viet Cong) pounded the hell out of us with mortars. If the VC knew how bad they had us they’d have come on in and took care of us.
“We lost most of our clothes when the Cobra’s and the gunships fired right overhead. The brass from the miniguns came down hot and burned through the tents and burned up our clothes, they were that low. If it hit you, it burned you. I was really impressed with the F-4’s. They’d come in right over you, dropping napalm. And when they hit, the ground would lift up about 15 feet, then drop into a crater, then the fire would shoot out. The heat was tremendous, but we loved it, it was saving our hides.
“We were told ‘Hold no matter what.’ You couldn’t land a plane so we were going nowhere. I spent five days talking to my dead. Cover them up during the daytime, uncover them at night and talk to them. What else are you going to do? We finally got them out. We spent about 30 days in the bunkers because it took that long to get control of the area.
“That was my initiation in Vietnam, and that answered my question: if I could do what I had to do.”
“After that it was hunting season as far as I was concerned, and I got very proficient at what I did.”
“Afterwards we started cleaning up, digging up bombs and rockets that hadn’t gone off. I’d worked at a stone quarry as a demolition assistant, I had one hour of training in the Army, they looked at that and said ‘Well, you’re EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), you’ve got knowledge, nobody else here does.”
Rod learned to clear mines and ordnance in time honored Army tradition: by doing it. “I learned from what I found and I learned from what I saw others do. I got pretty good at it. I liked it, it was like Christmas because I never knew what I was going to find.”
Part of Rod’s job included clearing the roads of mines. He worked with vehicles called “Gun Trucks,” five-ton trucks with armor and heavy weapons designed to provide security for convoys and work parties.
“Gun trucks are strictly volunteer,” he explained. “We built these trucks out of what we could ‘acquire.’ Being an engineer, I had access to special equipment. Special Forces, they like nice bunkers. They don’t like digging. I’d show up with a bulldozer and a few other guys, we’d make the hole and make the bunker, in turn they’d give us weaponry and ammunition. We had guns we weren’t supposed to have. Anything that went bang, we had.”
During the night, the enemy would use the cover of darkness to plant mines and explosives along the roads. “We’d go out in the morning to do minesweeping, to open up the road, the truck went with us. I’d be using a minesweeper, which didn’t pick up squat. Ninety percent of what we found we found with our eyes, looking for a disturbance of the soil, and indentation.”
Rod and his fellow Soldiers hid their loses from the enemy. “Every time they blew up a truck we’d get a new truck, put the same numbers on it, the same name, make it better and go out. The trucks went everywhere we went. We came in the truck would be repaired, cleaned, refueled, anything it needed, before we showered or ate or anything.”
Rod’s job was critical to the safety of the troops, and he understood the price of failure.
“If I didn’t do my job right, somebody died. I had to live with that. And believe me, we didn’t find them all. I did the best I could do. We cleared the road, came back in, and brought the company out to work. We provided cover for them (with the gun trucks) while they put culverts in, build bridges.”
Sometimes he used the enemies own devices against them. “I would find their box mines, full of plastic explosives. I would bring them in and put them in our perimeter as booby traps for them to find.”
When asked what it was like to be in a tight unit, Rod said, “We had no hesitation. The red, white, and blue, yeah. But once you get in a combat zone, the minute you get your first taste, the first shot fired, the first bomb goes off, the red, white, and blue goes out the window. The only thing I care about is you, him, those with me. I care about them, seeing that they get out of there, and I don’t think about anything else. I have no hesitation, I go right in and do what I know works. And I don’t worry about what’s behind me because I know this guy’s got my back, ‘cause I got this guys back here. And that’s just the way it is.”
Rod also talked about the things he brought back with him from the war. “I liked the adrenaline rush. Being that scared, it’s strange to say but the crazier it got, the calmer I got, the more relaxed I was. But you put me in a room with 30 people, I can’t sit there, I get paranoid. But if they were fighting, I’d be comfortable.”
Looking back on his service, Rod expressed no regrets.
“I got some of my medals now, and the only reason I got them is because my wife wanted them. I don’t really care. I don’t care what you put on a uniform, that doesn’t make a soldier. You can respect the uniform for what it stands for, but what’s in it makes the uniform. I got to serve with some truly great men, some really great men. I had the honor to serve with them, I had the honor to call them brother, and I knew them by name. I was just an average soldier, nothing special, never was, never will be. But I get to tell their stories.”