Dennis Sheppard wondered about the timing of his draft notice.
“I lived in Lancaster and had a good job with ALCOA I wanted to make sure I could keep, so I called up and asked the Selective Service board where I was in the draft. They said don’t worry about it. Two months later I got the draft notice,” he laughs. “Maybe I shouldn’t have made the phone call.
“I went to New Cumberland for in-processing. A sailor came in and said ‘We need volunteers.’ A bunch of people raise their hands and got picked for the Navy. Air Force came in, same thing. A Marine came in, stocky guy, and in a grunty voice says, ‘I need three Marines.’ Nobody raised their hand. I was up front line and he said ‘You three.’ I stepped forward and he says, ‘Not you, you skinny runt, the guy next to you.’ So that’s how I ended up in the Army.”
Sheppard left for Vietnam on Christmas 1969, landing at Tan Son Nhat airbase in Vietnam. He recalls being warm in his winter uniform and smelling something like sewage. He also took note of the first men he saw.
“... There was the walkway where short brick wall separated us from the people going home. I looked at those guys and smiled and nodded and said ‘How you doing?’ But they didn’t even recognize me. They didn’t smile, didn’t nod, weren’t talking among each other. They just stared like zombies. These kids were 18, 19, but they looked 40, 50 and 60 to me. I didn’t understand that until later.
“After in-processing, they gave us paper and an envelope and said ‘Write a letter as if you were dead, and put the name of the person you want it sent to on this envelope.’ You write the letter and you’re supposed to keep it with you, so if something happens they’ll send it. I’d been married for a couple of weeks. What do you say? ‘Dear loved one, if you get this letter I’m dead it was nice knowing you’? Years later my wife threw it away, she didn’t want to open it.
“I spent two weeks in Long Binh picking up cigarette butts, K.P., etc. And they had us help fill body bags. I walked into the warehouse and saw 200, 300, 400 bodies lying there on the ground. That was eye opening. You realized that now you’re in a war. And they wanted that impact to make you realize that this isn’t a game, this isn’t training.”
Sheppard worked as a pay clerk for six units, taking care of Special Forces teams, aviation units and transportation units. He spent time mostly in the office unless he was on guard duty, on a convoy or into the field to handle pay issues from Special Forces who couldn’t come back to base.
“Out there if the enemy is planning to attack, they aren’t going to say ‘The finance clerk is coming out today, so we might as well stay home,’” he said. “If you’re out there you’re going to face the music like everyone else. Same with convoys. A cook riding shotgun for some transportation unit when they get ambushed is facing combat. He’s a cook. He’s not going to get recognized for that little bit of sacrifice he made because no one cares except him. Those are some of the things I experienced.
“I’m not an Infantryman, I don’t talk about battles. That’s in the history books. I talk about what happens when they come back. In the base camp they don’t have to worry about ambushes anymore, they don’t have to worry about firefights. We’d still get mortared and attacked sometimes, but it wasn’t the same as being out there.”
What do soldiers do in the rear? Some drink. Some used drugs. Some visited prostitutes. Others played games and gambled. The down time causes problems. Sheppard said it was dangerous with 20-year-olds who carried weapons and got into fights. Handling them was different than a fistfight back home.
“I had trouble once on guard duty. There’d be four people on guard: two stay awake, two sleep in shifts. I got stuck with three guys that used drugs, and they fell asleep. I couldn’t wake them up. I had to stay up or all four of us would end up court martialed.
“Three a.m. and I’m fighting to stay awake, staring at a dark jungle, seeing things and trying to decipher what’s real and what’s a hallucination. Suddenly I saw two eyes staring at me. I thought was I was dead. I started spraying the area with my M16, then everyone opened up. The three guys on drugs woke up and started shooting, but they were behind me and almost shot me.
“It was a cobra. It came up in front of me and opened its hood, and I thought the black dots were eyes, so I opened up. I got the snake, but everyone likes to embellish, so they wrote home that we were attacked by NVA.”
“I saw a lot of racial tension. Imagine an African-American from Chicago sent to Vietnam. He’s in a unit with guys from the South, and they’re flying the Confederate flag. How do you handle that? You’re 20 years old; you’re going to be on edge. You’re going to hear the ‘N’ Word, no doubt about it. And you’re going to see stuff that’s anti-you. So how are you going to handle that? You’ve got a grenade, you’ve got a gun, you’ve got a knife. Are you going to lose it and cause serious trouble? Are you going to try to learn to be diplomatic when you’re twenty?
“Not everyone handled it that well, some people couldn’t handle it and they would frag someone or shoot them. You had 20-year-old guys drinking and they had loaded weapons, so life wasn’t easy on the base. That doesn’t get in the history books.
“That’s why I think some of the guys looked 40 years old when they were heading home, because of the stress. It was 24/7. It wasn’t just when you were in the field. You worry about the enemy; you also worry about the people on the base.”
Though what he saw on and off base and experienced in ambushes is difficult to live with now, Sheppard said he would do it again.
“I’m proud of my military service and I would do it again if I had to. I had to fight for my benefits and for recognition for some of the things I did, but I would do it again because I was born with that ‘Apple Pie, Chevrolet, U.S.A. all the way’ thing. I read books about war heroes, Audie Murphy, so that was in my blood. And it did change me. When I went over, I was a soft-hearted guy. I would try to avoid fights. When I got back, I would go to the roughest section of town because I missed that adrenaline rush. I would look for fights. I still had a kind heart, but I put myself out there when I shouldn’t have to get that rush.
“I do have physical problems from Agent Orange exposure and PTSD. I have nightmares. I see the face of the guy that killed himself in front of me and the bodies that lay around after a mortar attack. You pay a price as a soldier. You lose something of yourself and you can never get it back.”