Specialist 4th Class Charles (Pete) Christy
161st Assault Helicopter Company
I was married in June of 1966 at the tender age of 19. After I was married I decided to attend college at night school and work days. Two months later I was drafted. I fought with the draft board and appealed my draft notice because I was attending college under a 2S deferment. The requirement was to carry 12 units to be considered full time. I had my classes lined up for the fall semester which was turned in to the draft board. When I received my notice, I immediately went to the draft board to contest it. They told me “night school was considered part time.” I told them “12 units is 12 units, day school or night school.” My appeal was turned down. I was gone. I felt like I was going to prison.
After basic training at Ft. Lewis I received orders for Fort Polk Louisiana. All through training and basic, the word was you didn’t want Fort Polk as an AIT station. If you went there you had a 99% chance of going to Vietnam with an infantry MOS. There was no doubt in my mind where I was going. I was trained as an infantryman and soon thereafter I was on my way.
I arrived in Vietnam February 26, 1967, two days before my 20th birthday. I was assigned to the 14th Aviation Battalion where I volunteered to fly as a door gunner. I was assigned to 161st Assault Helicopter Company. We supported the 101st Airborne, the 196th Light Infantry and the 198th Light Infantry. I also flew TDY with the 5th Special Forces Group out of Da Nang. While there I flew to Khe Sanh, Lang Vei and various areas around the Ho Chi Minh trail doing SOG (Special Operations Group) missions.
My DEROS (Date Eligible For Return From Overseas) date was Feb 26, 1968. January 31st 1968 was the beginning of the Tet offensive. There was supposed to be a ceasefire but none of us at my platoon believed it would really happen. At about 1:30 in the morning the 1st mortar rounds came in. All of us yelled “incoming!” I remember diving for our bunker right outside of the hooch when the 2nd one hit right next to me. We took a direct hit on our hooch. One of my buddies was killed and another was wounded. Shortly after that, the Marine ammo dump which was a half a mile from our company area was hit. They had a bunch of five hundred pound bombs along with other ordnance that went off. A concussion went off through our area that rocked the earth. The sky lit up brighter than day-light, we thought an atomic bomb had been dropped on us. I was shaking uncontrollably and telling myself “I’m too short for this shit.” Our company was located on the very south perimeter of Chu Lai. We were an easy target for mortar and rocket attacks. I was 25 days and a wake up from getting out of there. The next morning after we crawled out of our bunkers we were told to pack-up. “We’re moving up to the north end of Chu Lai.” A Marine unit had moved out and we were moving to their area.
Over the next couple of weeks, I was flying mostly as a fill-in door gunner. We had quite a few new replacements come in, so I was now considered a true short timer. When I wasn’t flying I stayed very scarce in the company area. There seemed to be a lot of disorganization after we moved and I took full advantage of it.
On February 25, 1968, I processed out of the 161st. My freedom bird was waiting for me in Cam Ranh Bay so I hopped a C130 from Chu Lai to begin my trip home. While in Cam Ranh I hooked up with some of my old buddies from AIT. We were at Fort Polk, Louisiana together for infantry training. A bunch of us flew to Vietnam together and then to the 90th replacement battalion in Bien Hoa. We started comparing notes of what happened to our buddies. One person I was concerned about had ended up as a grunt with an infantry unit on the Cambodian border. He was in his mid to late twenties, older than most of us, from a farming family in North Dakota. He had a wife and three children, smoked a pipe and I remember telling him in AIT that he had no business being in the army and should try to get a hardship discharge. He was killed after only two weeks in-country in a firefight. What a waste. When I was in D.C. at the wall years ago, I etched his name along with many of the others I knew.
Getting on that freedom bird was a great feeling. When she lifted off and flew out of Vietnam air-space a big yell erupted. I don’t remember much after that until we landed in Washington. From there we were bussed to Fort Lewis for processing. We arrived early in the morning of February 26, 1968. We took showers, we’re given new uniforms for travelling, paid and fed a steak dinner. After processing we were bussed to SeaTac airport. I was still with some of my buddies from AIT. We decided to find a bar at the airport and have some last final beers together. When in the airport, there was a sea of GI’s from one end to the other all in transit. My buddies and I found a bar and went in. There was a bouncer at the door checking ID’s for age, my buddies got in but I was two days from turning twenty-one and they would not let me in. I was pissed. We said our goodbyes and I never saw them again.
After trying all day to get a flight stand-by, I was getting frustrated. I was married only two and half months when I was drafted and I wanted to get home. I called my wife to let her know I was unsuccessful and that there was one flight left to San Francisco at about 8 o’clock that evening. I went to the desk to find out if I could get on stand-by and they told me It was booked but there was one seat left in first class. I asked “How much?” If I remember correctly, I think it was over $200. It took a good chunk out of me but I paid it. My mother, brother, mother in-law and wife all met me in San Francisco. We had an hour and a half to drive home. What a great feeling.
I still had six months left to serve before I would be discharged. I had a 30-day leave and was due to report to Camp Pickett, Virginia by April 1st. Just like the army, I live in California and they send me to Virginia. I am an E4 with very limited funds. I had planned on flying to Virginia but my wife wouldn’t have it. She said she was going with me. We had a 66 Volkswagen and we packed it up after two weeks of my leave and headed for Virginia. After arriving I reported to the orderly room on the base. Camp Pickett in those days, had been deactivated after the Korean War. It had only about 150 permanent party and had the Reserve and National Guard units coming in for summer training. The company clerk told me to report to the commanding officer who was a Colonel. The Colonel went through my file and discovered that I had been a lifeguard and gave swimming lessons. He told me that they were getting ready to open their pool on base for the summer and wanted to know if I was interested in running it. I told him without hesitation “Absolutely.” He informed me his kids needed swimming lessons and asked if I would teach them. “Absolutely.” He also informed me there would be two college kids from last summer that would be returning as lifeguards and that I would be scheduling them. The Colonel then exempted me from all duty and I never wore a uniform again. I taught his kids how to swim as well as any others that wanted to learn. I could not have asked for a better duty.
After my meeting with the Colonel I went to check-in with the Lieutenant in charge of special services located at the gym across from the base. It was a couple of miles. I went into the gym and met the Lieutenant. I was there approximately 10 minutes when an MP came in. He asked “Who’s driving the Volkswagen?” I told him “I was.” And he asked me to go outside with him. He told me that he had seen me run the stop sign and that I was speeding. I did not do any of that! I told him “If you had seen me do all this, then why did it take you 10 minutes to find me?” He wrote me a ticket and told me to appear in court the next day. I was stunned. I went back to the orderly room and talked to the orderly room clerk about this and he told me that that MP’s on base were bad and that they work closely with the circuit court judge who was hired by the government to handle cases on the base. He said “It was a kangaroo court and the judge got a percentage of everything he fined you for.” The next day I went to court. I told the judge my side of the story and the MP told his. I confronted the MP and called him a liar. The judge fined me 65 dollars, it might as well have been a million dollars as I was broke from driving to Virginia. I told the judge I was broke from my trip, and that I did not have the money. He told me I had two hours to bring the money in or he was throwing me in jail. I was stunned. This was not right. I went back to the orderly room to see if my pay records had shown up yet, they had not. The orderly room clerk ended up loaning me the money until my pay came through. Then I went back to the courtroom to pay. As I stood in the doorway, I could overhear the judge talking to the MPs. He told them that no matter what anyone said in his courtroom, he would always believe them first. What a brainwashing, what a scam. I paid the fine and kept my distance from the MPs for the duration of my time there. The rest of my time there was good. I got a 30 day early out.
After my discharge from the Army I returned to school. I wanted to forget the past two years in the Army and get back to my life as I knew it before. I never talked to my wife or anyone else about my experiences in Vietnam. She asked me questions but I never volunteered anything. It was painful. I started having bad nightmares. When I slept it was only a few hours a night. My wife became pregnant in my 2nd semester of school, so I took a night job at a major food manufacturer in their warehouse. Loading and unloading box cars and trucks. I would work swing shifts, 3 pm to 11 pm and plan my schedule at school from 8 am to 1 to 2 pm carrying 15 to 17 units when possible.
My time in school was not always good. I still had a lot of buddies over in Vietnam. The SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) were demonstrating on campus. One day on the quad area they set up a tent. A girl was handing out leaflets and a guy was on a bullhorn demonstrating against the war. I had no problem with them demonstrating but when he started calling our soldiers baby killers and war criminals and encouraging the men in the campus to burn their draft cards, I went off on them. I told them they had no Idea what they were talking about, that I had just returned from there and that those men were fighting for their lives and doing what their country had asked of them. He in-turn called me a baby-killer, big mistake. I went behind their tent, took a trash can and dumped it on their tent and lit it on fire. I went back to the front and he started to come at me. I clocked him good. That was all it took. A buddy of mine that was there with me, grabbed me by the arm and dragged me out of there. The demonstration was over. I waited for days for the authorities but never heard any more about it. I continued my schooling and worked nights until January of 1974 when I graduated with my B.A. What helped a lot was a friend of mine who was also an Army vet; he was also working nights and receiving the G.I Bill and had the same schedule, so we commuted together. We kept each other going. After graduation I started working as a sales-rep for a major tractor company, selling heavy equipment to farmers and contractors in the construction industry. I Worked for two different companies until 1991. I enjoyed the work and did well but had problems with management. I had difficulty with authority figures so I started my own business and ran it until my retirement.
I started going to the VA in the late 70’s. My nightmares continued. I had problems on the bottoms of my feet from some kind of blisters that would appear and spread out until the bottoms of my feet would turn black, then it would disappear and return periodically. I was also having problems breathing to the point of hyperventilating. I had no Idea what was going on. Sometimes I felt like I was having a heart attack. The VA ran all kinds of tests on me including pulmonary tests and could not find anything wrong. They said the problems on my feet were probably jungle rot that was still in my system. I also told them I had constant ringing in my ears since my return. They ran tests on my hearing and said I had 25% hearing lost and tinnitus. During this time, I also signed up for the Agent Orange assessment.
Toward the end of the 80’s the VA diagnosed me as having high blood pressure and I was put on blood pressure medication. I was 38 years old. I did not come home the same person I was before. Years after my return I was overly anxious and combative. I had a bad temper and the nightmares continued. My wife and I grew more and more apart to where there was nothing more in common. In 1983 my wife and I split up. I remarried in 1985 and my wife and I have been together since. We have 4 children between us and number 7 grandchild is on the way.
In 1993 a man came knocking at my door, he was from the VFW. I invited him in to discuss my joining. He went over the program with me and I joined on the spot and I became a life member. That was my first contact with anything military outside the VA since my return. In 1994 I was reading the VFW magazine and in the back they had a listing of reunions. I am looking through the list and I saw my old unit there. I literally started shaking, I could not believe it. After 26 years and no contact with any of my old buddies the thought overwhelmed me. I waited about 2 days to calm down and called the contact that was listed. I talked to the representative of the 161st Assault Helicopter Company. The 161’st was having a mini reunion in conjunction with the VHCMA (Vietnam Helicopter Crewmembers Association) in Philadelphia in June. I was very nervous. My wife and I discussed going for 2- 3 weeks and finally decided to buy the tickets. It was one of the best things I ever did. I have reconnected with buddies that were in my platoon. We have visited each other’s homes, met on vacations together and gone to buddies’ funerals that have passed since. One just a couple of years ago from Agent Orange complications. I also made a lot of new friends at the reunion.
During the reunion in Philadelphia, we went to Wall in DC. I was able to rub the names of my buddies lost including my pilot that I flew with most of the time. He was shot through the head on a shoot down. He was from Bedford Virginia. We and I had plans on getting together when we were back here in the States.
In 1998 I was having a major nightmare and woke up in a cold sweat like I normally did. Usually I would get up, walk around the house and try not to hyperventilate and calm myself down. This time was different, I felt like I was having a heart attack. It was 3 a.m. and I told my wife I needed her to take me to the ER. When we arrived they immediately hooked me up to the EKG. After running tests on me the doctor told me I had a major anxiety attack. I was in denial. “Me, anxiety? I don’t get anxiety.” He told me what to do in the future when having attacks like this. All these years and no one, not even the VA had ever explained that to me. I continued having them and in 2000, I went to the VA and spoke to a doctor about these attacks. He then referred me to a VA psychiatrist. He in-turn did numerous interviews with me along with a battery of tests. In the end he diagnosed me as having severe PTSD and recommend that I file a claim for PTSD and loss of hearing. My claim was eventually approved.
In 1973 when our prisoners were released, I watched with both elation on behalf of them and their families and a great sadness because I knew we didn’t even come close to getting all of our prisoners of war released. When I was flying as a door-gunner our unit had been on 2 different missions in South Vietnam to raid POW camps. Somehow the enemy had intelligence we were coming and had moved the prisoners to other locations. Years later at our reunions, I have talked to many of the other crew members who experienced the same ending in their missions. I can’t help but think we left a lot of our own brothers over there. We didn’t only leave them in the South Vietnam, we also left them in Laos and Cambodia. I also believe that of all the POWs that were released from North Vietnam, none of them were amputees. What happened to all the prisoners that weren’t ambulatory? I shudder to think of all the good men that were left behind.
In 1975 the evacuation of the embassy in Saigon speaks for itself. It made me sick to watch all the death through the years and lost resources. For what?