Vietnam vet: 'We went and did our jobs'
While the controversies of Vietnam may continue to be discussed and dissected, certain facets, such as why we got involved in the first place, remain clear to some.
"We were fighting against the spread of communism. We served our country by writing a check for our lives in service," said Vern Arndt, who spent 19 months of active duty serving in the United States Marine Corps in Vietnam. "The war was controversial then also, but we went and did our jobs."
Arndt, who was from Vera Cruz, Pennsylvania, was drafted into the Army at 22, in December 1963 before enlisting in the USMC. And over the course of two tours of duty in Vietnam, Arndt, like many others, was often placed in precarious situations.
"Anyone sent to Vietnam was considered to be in a combat zone. Just as in today's world, in being sent to Afghanistan," Arndt said. "Being an infantry platoon leader meant combat in the closest sense to the enemy physically in everyday situations and events.
"We patrolled and set up platoon and squad-sized ambushes to close, kill or capture the enemy troops. We were shot at, mortared and experienced booby trap-type devices meant to kill or maim us."
He served in 1965 aboard the USS Independence CVA 62 as a Marine detachment member. The East coast based carrierwas sent to conduct bombing flight operations from the Gulf of Tonkin.
In October 1966, he went to Quantico, Virginia, and was commissioned a 2nd Lt. in the USMC. He returned to Vietnam as an infantry platoon commander in May 1967.
Arndt applied and was selected for aerial observer duty, flying out of Marble Mountain air facility near Danang."Our primary mission was reconnaissance and support of the infantry and other units on the ground.We directed air and artillery strikes in their support on enemy action," Arndt said.
He served in this capacity for another seven months and was there in January 1968 for the TET offensive.
Arndt was able to recall one especially risky incident in particular.
"My platoon was on Operation Essex in Antenna Valley on Nov. 6, 1967," he said. "I was given an order to advance my troops into a tree line so we could move the company closer to a battalion objective on this mission of search and destroy. As the third squad advanced stealthily into a very rural pathway in this village, they were ambushed by a set of enemy machine guns. I lost four men immediately. The rest of the squad was pinned down for several hours until we could connect with them again.
"Later in that same operation, I lost another man, a corporal squad leader, who was killed by an enemy mortar round. The round also wounded several others in the immediate area. I was not wounded, although I was only some 30 or 40 feet away."
Such incidents were Arndt's biggest worry during his service time.
"The biggest fear for me was the loss of life for several of my platoon Marines," he said. "Another fear was being killed and or maimed, myself. I was a lucky man to have survived in these close combat situations and then even more fortunate not to have received even a slight wound."
While Arndt faced many difficulties himself, he acknowledged that certain tactics, such as the use of napalm and Agent Orange, were less than ideal. But the extenuating circumstances didn't allow for many other options during such arduous times.
"This was war, and we had better weapons and used them when necessary," Arndt said. "But we didn't know about the toxic effect of it on humans at the time. War is sad for all, including the innocent."
Struggles aside, Arndt was able to make the most of his active duty service in the form of some prestigious friendships.
"I have come to know two of the most powerful men in the world," Arndt said. "One was the USMC commandant, the supreme Allied commander of Europe and the national security adviser to President Obama for two years, Gen. James L. Jones. The other man was also a 4-star USMC general named Peter Pace, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking officer in the USA."
Arndt was also rather distinguished himself, with his top-ranking honor being the Air Medal, which he received for performing 430 combat flight hours in Vietnam. Arndt also earned the American Spirit of Honor Medal as a recruit at Parris Island. The medal, awarded by the National Citizen's Committee of the United States, came after a nomination by Arndt's senior drill instructor, Sgt. Charles D. Mortis.
Arndt left Vietnam in July 1968 and served a total of six years active duty in the USMC with a final rank of captain.
As Arndt looks back on his encounters during an undeniably dark time in American history, he's able to see more than just the adversity that he and so many others faced.
"Yes, I would enlist in the USMC all over again," Arndt said when asked what he would do if given a second chance. "It was a great experience, which afforded me travel, friendship, education and prepared me for a career in leadership positions at several companies and organizations."
Name: Vern Arndt
Age: 72 years old
Hometown: Jim Thorpe
Military branch: United States Marine Corps
Years of service: 1963-1969
Medals: Air Medal, Combat Action Medal, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Commendation, National Defense Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation with Palm, Vietnam Civil Actions Unit, Citation with Palm, Vietnam Campaign Medal, American Spirit of Honor Medal.
Last rank was Captain