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Veteran still carries Vietnam war wounds

  • Lenny Zellner today
    Lenny Zellner today
Published November 11. 2009 05:00PM

Vietnam veteran Lenny Zellner's Message to America: "If we have to fight a war, I hope we do it right. If you're going to go to war, do it right win."

Lenny Zellner, 61, enlisted in the U.S. Army in January 1968, two years after graduating from high school, the third generation of his family to serve. He carried a simple desire to do the right thing into the service, and now, 41 years later, carries shrapnel in his leg and scars from a barrage of phosphorus in the skin on his back from his tour of duty in the Vietnam war, a war that cost 47,424 American lives.

"Me and a friend of mine got sick and tired of hanging out, working odd jobs and not doing nothing. He said, 'Let's go in the service,'" Zellner, of Coaldale, recalls. "I said, where do you want to go? He said, 'Let's go in the Navy.' I said no, I don't want to. I don't like being out on the water with nowhere to hide if anything happens."

Zellner, of Coaldale, told his buddy that the "Army was good enough for my grandfather, it was good enough for my dad, so evidently, it'll be good enough for me."

So, off they went to see the recruiter. It was just after Christmas.

The recruiter assured the young men they wouldn't ship out for at least three months, maybe four. They signed up.

"Well, Jan. 7, he called and said, 'Be in Wilkes-Barre for the 8th. You'll be sworn in and then you're going'," Zellner said. By 2:30 p.m. Jan. 8, they were on a plane to Fort Benning, Georgia.

Eight weeks of basic training and a 30-day leave later, Zellner was on his way to Fort Ord, California.

"We spent one day at Fort Ord. The next day we were on an airplane, a jetliner, to Vietnam."

About 22 hours later, they landed at Bien Hoa air base.

"When I first stepped off the plane, I said, God, this place is ungodly hot! And it reeks of death," Zellner recalls. "What Godforsaken country am I in? We had khaki uniforms, and as soon as you got off that plane, you were soaking wet within 15 minutes."

From Bien Hoa, Zellner shipped off with the 25th Infantry Division to Cu Chi, "which is a big division base camp," he said. Zellner was there for about three days before moving on further south to "our small outpost which was called Bung Tau. We worked out of there for maybe two months." From there, they shipped out to a fire support base.

A typical day involved being up by 5 a.m.

"You'd go over to the chow tent and get something to eat, then usually by first light, we're outside the wire waiting for the helicopters to come in," he said. "They'd take us on what they called eagle flights, and what they call the light load, which is only three helicopters going out that's the first guys going in."

Zellner was always one of the light load.

"We'd go in first, secure the area and then our main company comes in behind us. Then what we'd do is make sweeps we'd get dropped off and (for example) we'd sweep this rubber plantation. All we're doing is looking to find the enemy, make contact, kill them and get a body count. That's all our colonel wants he wants a body count," Zellner recalls. He speaks in present tense, the memory pulling him back to 1968. He's there again, enveloped in heat, green and fear.

"You'd make one big sweep, a big circle, you'd sweep around. Nothing happens, the choppers pick you up, take you to the next destination and drop you off. If you're lucky, you make the sweep again and nothing happens. You might do this four times 'til it's just about dark. Well, nothing happened today, so we'll come home," he says.

But, on far too many of those days, something did happen.

For Zellner, it happened during a routine sweep on Jan. 19, 1969.

"We walked into an ambush. They came in behind us. It was a rubber plantation. They're dug into the ground, they're up in the trees. They open fire on us and I must have been bobbing when I should have been weaving," he recounts.

Zig-zagging through the trees, Zellner suddenly felt a stinging shock in his leg.

"I just sat down then, and I could see that my leg is all soaked in blood. What I didn't know was that I had one (bullet) in my ankle, but I also had two in the higher part of my leg. They just went clean through. The medic came and gave me a shot of morphine, then the helicopter came and shipped me out to Cu Chi. They got me on the operating table ..."

He remembers the pain, and the terror of possible amputation.

Doctors were able to save his foot.

"They worked 16-18 hours, put me together and plastic-ed me all up. I figured well, gee, this is my ticket home," he said with a wry smile.

But after about six weeks, "In comes an officer, and he says to me, 'How do you feel, soldier?'"

Zellner replied, "Not too bad. I can walk."

"'Well', the officer said. 'That's good news, because you're outfit is moving back into combat tomorrow. You can be on the helicopter with them.'"

So Zellner soldiered on, having trouble only when he rappelled down a rope from the helicopter.

"I had to watch how I landed."

But the gunshots were not the only danger to soldiers in the steamy jungles of Vietnam.

One night not too long after, "We were on a bunker line, and we were all just sitting up talking" when they were hit by a rocket attack.

"When they started coming in, we jumped in the bunker," he said. After a while, they thought the attack had stopped, so they ventured out. But "two or three more came whistling in," he said.

"They hit our bunker direct. You heard this 'BOOM' all of a sudden it looks like nothing but stars going up. Everything's light. Oh my God, I said, I'm dead. I'm going to Heaven! I must be going to Heaven. Everything's white and all this bright stuff ... but five seconds later, I knew I wasn't dead I was screaming and hollering. It was white phosphorus and it got all over my back and my legs and my arms.

"One of the guys knocked me down and threw me in a mud puddle. The only way you can stop that burning clear through your skin is to cut the air off. So he packed me in mud and took me to the medical tent," Zellner said. There, he sat in a tub while men dumped big jugs of what looked like milk over him.

"It was ice cold," Zellner recalls. "Then they threw me a wire brush. I said what am I going to do with a wire brush? They said, there's a lot of fine particles scrape that it'll knock that stuff loose."

They picked out the larger pieces of phosphorus from his back.

"I finished out my tour, and, with a lot of luck, I didn't have anything like that happen again," he said.

Zellner still has pieces of shrapnel lodged in his leg.

The day the bullets struck, Jan. 19, seems to have an eerie presence in Zellner's life: in addition to being the day he was shot, it is the day his mother died in 1975. But in a happier coincidence, it is also his wife Laura Lee's birthday.

Zellner arrived back on American soil on June 10, 1969.

"I came home, I wasn't out of the Army," he said. "I had enlisted, so I had a year and a half to do yet. I was home 45 days. From there, I shipped out to Fort Jackson, South Carolina with an infantry outfit."

Zellner's belief that he would finish out his tour of duty stateside was short-lived.

"The first sergeant comes in and says, we're promoting you to buck sergeant and you're going to go to drill instructor school."

Zellner came out of drill instructor school and back to Fort Jackson. As light-weapons specialist, he was put on the M-60 machine gun range, then a hand-grenade range to teach new recruits.

One day, as he checked the duty rosters, he noticed that his name was listed to go to Korea, Germany and Vietnam.

"I grabbed all three and went into the first sergeant's.

"Yo top, I know this is a mistake. I'm not even back 60 days from this Godforsaken place. This has got to be a mistake I'm not going back there."

And indeed he wasn't. Zellner was bound for Germany with the Third Infantry Division.

He served there until his tour was up.

Zellner's memories are dark.

"When I came home from Vietnam, I came home to a very cruel environment," he said. "I was called everything from a baby-killer, a butcher. That's all because they let the media into our war zone and they twisted the stories and made us out to be cold-blooded killers. But what people don't understand is that they've never been there, they've never seen this. Don't fill people with stuff that isn't true.

"We were put in a situation ... we won the battle, but we lost the war. The politicians stopped us from winning that. They didn't want us to win that war. Nixon stopped the bombing up north, and now we can't stop their supply lines from coming in. We got a lot of innocent young men killed.

"At first, I was very bitter. I just couldn't get over the fact that people would treat me that way. It took me a long time to get over that. But if I had to go today, I'd go again."

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