John Roderick was born and raised in Harrisburg, and graduated from Bishop McDevitt High School in 1967, but upon facing another year at college or the draft, he decided to enlist in the Army.
Eventually he was asked to consider the Army Security Agency (ASA) in crytographic communications, for which he would be trained. He would not arrive at Vietnam until late 1968 after a 24-hour plane ride.
“I stepped on the tarmac midday in khakis like everyone else, and the temperature and the heat and humidity, when it hit me it was so forceful it almost made me sick to my stomach. You went right from the air conditioned plane to literally within minutes sweating all over your body. It was a rude awakening, a real transition to heat and humidity I’d never experienced coming from central PA.”
John’s experience upon arrival was typical in many ways. “I didn’t know anybody. I can’t remember the timeframe, how long it took me to get to where I was stationed in Bien Hoa. I remember the drive; I remember the smells in Nam that never go away.”
Not long after arriving, John met and formed a connection with another soldier.
“I met a guy named Jim Stokley from Missouri the first month, and we realized we were born exactly nine days apart, and here we are in the Army doing the same thing. We thought it was fate. And to this day he’s still my best friend. We’ve been friends for 48 years now. He actually served two tours, and had been there for almost a year when I got there. He was really helpful, and helped me realize what was going on and how to deal with it.”
In Vietnam it was common for all Soldiers to take a turn on guard duty, whether they were trained for a combat specialty or not.
“I was scared. Because I was in communications, my training had very little to do with combat, but the situation we were in, the places we were, we got combat pay, everyone did. My experience was, you’re on guard, you started to get a little less anxious as it went on longer, but there was always a degree of anxiety the whole time I was there.
“I had guard duty every three weeks or so. It was very dark, very hot. You had to wear your flak jacket, you had to wear your helmet, it was hot. You drank a lot of water. The shift was long; you went from dusk until dawn. We usually manned an M-60 .30 caliber machine gun, two guys in a bunker. You didn’t fall asleep, if the sergeant came around and you were sleeping you be in trouble.
“We had some times when they’d come and try to get through the fences, times when we’d have incoming, but most of time it was boring. And you were tired, you had to go to work the next day, and you were expected to operate to a high degree.
“One experience, it happened to Jim and it happened to me at different times: when you’d be on guard duty at night inside the bunker it was very, very hot, even at night. Sometimes we’d go out in the open air and just sit to try and get some fresh air. And both of us at different times, several months apart, were sitting, and something told us ‘You better go back inside.’ And within a matter of 30 seconds where we were sitting was hit by a mortar.”
But John’s day-to-day experience had a few perks. “The communications center where I worked a lot, that was probably the best place to work because the equipment was sensitive it always had to be air conditioned.”
John worries that some people may not understand the depth of the sacrifices his fellow soldiers made in Vietnam.
“Every night before I go to bed I say my prayers, one of the first things I pray for are the 58,000 that died. Each and every one of them is the real hero. They were all heroes. In World War II the average age of the soldiers that died was 26. In Vietnam the average age that served was 21, the average age of the ones that died was 19 or below. Think about that. How many people that have never served, when they are walking down the street and see a 17- or 18-year-old kid thinks that he, or she these days, could serve in combat and give their life for their country? Young people fought that war and I pray for them every day. 58,000 didn’t come back. I was fortunate to come back and be able to have a great life. I’ve always felt very very proud to have the opportunity, as a teenager, to serve my country. It’s something I have never regretted.”
After getting out of the Army, John had an encounter most Vets never had. “When I got out I went to HACC, and Jane Fonda came and spoke there. In fact the tree she spoke under is still there right outside the student center. And I just walked right up to her after and started talking to her. We literally stood under that tree and talked for 45 minutes. She asked me for my experience, and I talked to her about what I thought about her involvement. It was a real adult conversation. I was surprised at how open she was to my experiences, and non-judgmental, though of course she stuck to her convictions, but I don’t begrudge anyone their convictions. It was an interesting conversation. Why I did it? She was standing by herself, and I just walked up and said ‘Hi, I’m John.’”
Asked how he got through his experience, John said, “We did a heck of a lot of praying. Some of us didn’t want to admit it. I prayed a lot. Whether it had anything to do with everything that’s happened in my life I’ll never know. It made you feel good and gave you someone to talk to. Prayer helped me out a lot.”
John didn’t hesitate to answer when asked about whether he feels the country has learned the lessons from Vietnam.
“No, not at all. To some degree the awareness by the country in general is even less than it was in Vietnam, primarily because back then there was the draft, so more people knew the burden of war than they do now. With the volunteer Army, there’s such a small percentage of the people who have direct experience with the outcome of war. The country just goes about the day. They get up, go to work, spend time with the kids, watch TV, and very seldom are they thinking that there’s some 18 or 19 year old that’s probably going to die today because of a decision that we, that our leaders, felt was necessary.
“I think we as a country would possibly make different decisions, or the people we elect would make different decisions if the draft were still in place. Not necessarily that everyone should go in the military, because some people can’t for various reasons, but even to have a year or two of service for every kid. It builds character, it teaches all kinds of things that you use later in life: the ability to get along with other people, the ability to think on your own, the ability to make tough decisions. It’s never going to happen, the draft, but there are a lot of decisions made by extensibly good people without that personal experience to draw on. Kennedy served and I think the decisions he would have made had he lived would have necessitated probably thousands less people dying in Vietnam.
“George Bush Sr. was the last president who served in combat. He chose not to go to Baghdad, which I think saved a lot of lives. We may never see that again because there’s no reason for most politicians, who usually come from the legal class or the business class, to go spend three or four years in the military. They have other things to do, other things they want to accomplish.”
Ultimately, however, John has no complaints about his service.
“I feel very honored to have been able to serve my country when I was a teenager. The fact that I was able to come home, that I was able to develop a life-long friendship ... the Army had a great deal to do with making me the person I am today, for good and for bad. It was a great experience. For me at the time it was the best thing I could have done.”