Dennis Sheppard

(Army Heritage Center Foundation Staff interviewed Dennis Sheppard in March of 2016.  His story is told here in his own words, with minor edits for clarity.)

Dennis Sheppard in Vietnam (Photo Courtesy of Dennis Sheppard)

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 in 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.”

“I left for Vietnam on Christmas 1969, wearing my winter uniform.  When we landed at Tan Son Nhat airbase in Vietnam, a couple of things hit me.  Number one, the temperature was terrible, and we were in winter uniforms.  Second was the smell, like stepping into a sewage plant.  Then there was the walkway where a 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.  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.”

“They sent me to Vihn Long Army Airfield in the Mekong Delta.  I was pay clerk for six units, 500 pay records.  Everything was done by hand.  I did all the paperwork, made sure they got their pay; made sure the deductions were right, if they got an Article 15, all that stuff.  I took care of Special Forces teams, aviation units, transportation units.  So I was in an office unless I had to pull guard duty or go on a convoy somewhere, or out into the field.  Some guys could come into the office for a pay issue, but Special Forces guys can’t do that.  They’re way out there.  So how do you take care of their issues?  Well, Sheppard, get into a helicopter and go out there.  These are the things that don’t get in the records.  I tell people in the military today that if they do something out of the ordinary to write it down and get witnesses because it took me 40 years to prove some of the things I did.”

Vihn Long Airfield (Photo Courtesy of Dennis Sheppard)

“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’.  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 drank.  Some used drugs.  Some consorted with locals.  Others played games and gambled.  The down time causes problems.  20 year-old kids don’t just have fistfights when they’re carrying weapons.  They’re thinking ‘I’m invincible’.  So fights are different, they’re not hand-to-hand like they would be back here.  So you have to be diplomatic because you don’t want to end up in a dangerous situation.”

“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 AM 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 I was dead.  I started spraying the area with my M16, then everyone opened up.  The three guys 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.”

A portion of the perimeter at Vihn Long. In Vietnam, guard posts were frequently manned by Soldiers trained for non-combat duties. As a result, a many Soldiers who never expected to see combat found themselves in battle defending their base against an attack. (Photo Courtesy of Dennis Sheppard)

“I saw a lot of racial tension.   Imagine an African-American from Chicago sent to Vietnam.  He might be in a unit with guys who don’t like black people.  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?”

“And vice-versa.  You’re a white guy from Pennsylvania, and you arrive in Vietnam and you’re stationed with guys that are from Chicago, and Boston, and Philadelphia, and they’ve got the Black Power flags up, and they’re doing their handshakes and playing soul music, how are you going to handle that?  Because they’re going to call you a names.”

“Not everyone handled it that well.  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.”

“Driving was stressful.  They mine the roads, or you could get ambushed, which I did on the day my son was born.  All that stress.  When the mortars and rockets come in, you don’t know where they’re going to land.  There’s no place to hide, and there’s no place to run.  You run but you don’t know if you’re running away from or towards the danger.  You have the stress of the war, the stress of trying to please everyone, then the stress of trying to survive.”

“You see people lying dead.  Not in a funeral home, on the ground.  These people were laying in the position they were in when they died, with the same expression they had on their face when they died.  And you think: ‘That could have been me if I’d turned the wrong way when the rocket hit’.”

“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.”

“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.”

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