Wayne Cook and Rodney Reid fought in different branches of the military and served in different areas of Vietnam, but both saw action during the Tet Offensive.
Fifty years ago, Cook, a U.S. Air Force radio operator assigned to the Army, was at a military compound in Kon Tum, near the borders of Laos and Cambodia, when he saw that he and his fellow troops were becoming surrounded. Non-essential military personnel were evacuated from the area, Cook said, and they were surrounded and cut off for four days, taking repeated assaults.
“My job was to call in airstrikes. I was credited with 63 airstrikes in four days,” said Cook, who along with Reid attended a meeting of VietNow at Elk Valley Casino earlier this month. “There were 200 of us left in the compound and we fought approximately 1,200 (North Vietnamese Army) and 500 (VietCong). We killed them all, basically.”
Part of the 1st Marine Division, 2nd Battalion, 7th Regiment, Reid served in the Marine Corps. for three years, one of which was in Vietnam.
Reid’s company was called upon to provide support for any branch of the military that called for help. He said he was informed that he took part in 30 different operations, only 13 of which were officially recognized by the United States.
Reid, who carried a bazooka, said he was patrolling an area called Rocket Alley near the Da Nang air base when the Tet Offensive started.
“At Christmas time, there was supposed to be this peace, but we knew differently,” he said. “There’s a bridge over there that we protected and we stopped a battalion of North Vietnamese regulars that were actually trying to dig their way into the Da Nang airport. They didn’t make it. We stopped ‘em.”
One of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, the Tet Offensive was launched on Jan. 30, 1968 by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam against the South Vietnamese Army, the United States and their allies.
According to Cook, more people fighting on “our side” were killed in 1968 than during any other years of the war. Any soldier sent to Vietnam had a good chance of being killed, he said.
“They had been stepping up their attacks and after that, after Walter Cronkite said we can’t win this war, public opinion turned,” Cook said. “I didn’t admit I was even a veteran for a long time.”
Cook, who is originally from Hermosa Beach, said he turned 21 in Vietnam. When he returned to the United States, he was spit on.
“We landed in Seattle and this woman ran up and asked me how dare I come back when her son didn’t,” Cook said. “I felt like apologizing to her. ‘Yeah, you’re right, why did I come back?’ I already had survivor guilt. I’ve got pictures of guys, I’m the only one that lived and all those guys... I’ve got 13 names on the wall.”
Reid, who was 20-years-old, said he joined the Marines because he believes that those who have a desire to serve their country should, even if it’s standing up for the rights of citizens who “disrespect everything we stand for.”
The one regret Reid says he has is that although there’s a memorial wall for those who died during the Vietnam War, there’s no monument for those dying from Agent Orange contamination. Reid noted that every veteran sitting at the table eating breakfast with him were affected by the herbicide sprayed to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam.
“Every one of us sitting at this table that was in-country has a death warrant over our heads and we know we’re going to die from it,” Reid said, adding that he blames Agent Orange for his diabetes. “We’re not going to die from old age.”
Reid said since President Donald Trump was elected, veterans have been better taken care of. Reid said he filed for disability through Veterans Affairs and was given an 80 percent rating.
“There were people that had gone through the process that never ever got their disability rating or any of the money for their spouse because the wait was so long they died,” Reid said. “That’s unacceptable.”
When went through the gates at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Orange County on his return from Vietnam, Reid said he was “greeted with some of the warmest beer bottles you ever saw.” He described thick mesh wiring covering the windows of the vehicle that conveyed him to Los Angeles. When he arrived at the airport, people would move away from him when they found out he had been in Vietnam.
“I’m sitting in the airport in Los Angeles and an ensign came up to me and said ‘Did you just come back from Vietnam, Marine?’ I said, ‘Yes sir,’” Reid said. “An old man and an old lady got up and moved across the room. I got up there and walked over to them and I said what I have isn’t contagious, but what you have is.”
It wasn’t until Desert Storm that the public attitude towards Vietnam veterans changed, Reid said. But, he said, it’s only been in the last roughly five years that people have started to wake up and realize that Vietnam veterans did what they were supposed to do and should be recognized.
Much of that may have to do with recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reid noted that those who served in Vietnam were only there for about a year. Those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are going back “tour after tour after tour because they believed.”
“We would have done the same thing if they would let us because we believed in what we were doing just as they did,” Reid said. “To see these young men and women come back today in modern times with limbs being blown off, some of the stuff Vietnam veterans went through of losing limbs and stuff, these kids, they’re coming back and their attitude is so great. You take a limb, you take two limbs, I ain’t changing my attitude. I still love this country and I’d go back if I could.”
Reid said he’s received an especially warm welcome as a Vietnam Veteran when he moved to Del Norte County two years ago.
“People here respect and love their veterans from all wars,” he said, “but they really love and respect the veterans from Vietnam.”
Reach Jessica Cejnar at firstname.lastname@example.org .