Monthly Archives: February 2017

Ron Walker – Gun Crew – Part Two

August 12, 1969

That summer we got mortared not only at night but during the daytime too. It was just raining 81s on us (81 mm mortars). It was on Gun 3 and late at night when Pyle got killed. Two Medevac helicopters come in. We was there loading the wounded, and I was one of the guys on the stretcher carrying Pyle. He was dead before he went out. A real good friend of Pyle’s, Mulvihill was his name, he took it real bad I remember. The whole gun crew was wounded. A friend of mine I came in country with, his name was Ruben Wagner, he was wounded. He had a flak jacket on, but I remember he got wounded in the spine right below his flak jacket. He was a big guy and he must have had a small flak jacket.

In addition to Gun 3, early that morning at 1:30 AM Gun 2 also took a mortar hit. It killed Theodus Stanley and wounded two: crew chief Rik Groves and Paul Dunne. First lieutenant Hank Parker, soon to become battery commander, describes the state of affairs following the August 12 attacks.

“Now we are dangerously shorthanded at LZ Sherry. We lost ten men on August 12. That on top of the losses from the pounding we’d taken during July and early August. So out of a full strength battery of six guns and 120 guys, we’re down to five guns and 67 guys at Sherry. A full gun crew is eight guys, and we are struggling to find four for a gun.”

We had a couple of real good medics that saved a lot of lives. The medics always took good care of the wounded and got them on to Medevac’s. Especially that night. I think most of the guys wounded on that night recovered and came back, because a couple of them ended up on Gun 6. I remember because the next day or two they moved a bunch of guys around and took me from Commo onto Gun 6.

Humping ammo with Willie Wheat (on right) – Gun 6
Humping ammo on Gun 6 with Willie Wheat

Rik Groves had just thirty-two days left on his tour when he was wounded. After  recuperation he managed a brief, bittersweet visit back to Sherry but did not return to duty.  Paul Dunne did return.

Death of Paul Dunne

They were asking for volunteers to go on a mine sweep, and I guess I volunteered. We were slated to do the mine sweep and then go all the way into town with the convoy. There was a new Commo sergeant who was in charge of the mine sweep. He was the one who had the metal detector. I remember him sweeping all the way up to the bridge. The jeep stopped in the middle of the bridge and everybody got off. It might have been a C4 (plastic explosive) mine planted there, because he did not pick up anything. The sergeant gave the all clear and then we all piled back on the jeep. I went to the left front bumper and I set there on the front of the jeep. Something told me to turn around and look, maybe it was divine intervention, and when I turned around nobody was sitting in the passenger seat next to Dunne who was driving. I got off the front, went and sat down in the passenger seat. Jim Kustes he was on the back of the jeep, he went up there and took my spot.

The jeep began to move, and just as we got off the edge of the bridge we hit the mine. My eyes went black and my ears was ringing so bad from the explosion. After I come to my senses I somehow stumbled around on the other side of the jeep and I seen Paul laying there. I seen his jugular was cut. The first thing I did was put my hands down over his neck. It was just gushing out so bad. Then the Commo sergeant, he run up to where Paul was at. He always had this green towel around his neck. He took the towel off and pressed it down on Paul’s neck.

I stood up and then I heard Kustes hollering for help. Maybe twenty feet away I seen him laying in the creek down there off the side of the road. There was water in the creek up to his chest. I ran down and pulled him out of the creek. The first thing I noticed around his thumb area, I cannot remember which hand, it was peeled back pretty good. And there was a big hole in his leg. From those first aid pouches they gave you that I had on me I bandaged him up as best I could and gave him a shot of morphine. I said to him, “Well, it looks like you got a ticket home.” I wish I had not said that because he said back to me, “Oh don’t tell me that.”

We did not have a medic with us.

After Kustes and Dunne were Medevac’d out, they were the only two wounded as I remember, we went back to Sherry. They pulled the jeep back to Sherry and if you look at pictures of that jeep it did not have a windshield.

Picture by Andy Kach
Picture by Andy Kach

I do not know why they took them off. I think a part of the hood is what cut Dunne’s throat. If there had been a windshield on that jeep he might be alive today. It was just an inch or two on his jugular that was cut. I do not know if his lower body was injured, it probably was. But I am almost a hundred percent sure he died because he bled out from his jugular.

My ears rang for three days is all that happened to me. I was fortunate.

The Medals Were Purple

I came into Sherry in April 1969 as a PFC (E3). In December a bunch of us got promoted to corporal (E4) all because of one guy. His name was Cleaton, the guy who carried an M-79 grenade launcher out on that perimeter sweep with Parker. So many guys out on the guns were PFCs. If you were a gunner you were supposed to be an E5 sergeant. An assistant gunner was supposed to be a corporal. I was a gunner, I was an assistant gunner, I was a loader, but still a PFC. And I was not the only one. Cleaton was always bitching about not getting promoted. He said, “What do we got to do around here to get promoted? We do everything these people ask us to do. We run out in the middle of the night getting rained on by mortars, we return fire, we do our jobs.”

A colonel was coming in one day. I remember we were sitting around playing cards. Cleaton was good at cards, he always took our money. He said, “I’m fixing to either get promoted our I’m going to be court-martialed.”

I said, “What are you talking about?”

“When that colonel comes I am going to march down to his hooch and have it out with him about getting promoted.”

And he did. I do not know what he said to that colonel but it was not long after that all the PFCs who had been at Sherry for a certain amount of time got promoted to corporal.

Besides promotions there was a bunch of guys deserving of Bronze Stars and probably even Silver Stars. I was put in for an Army Commendation medal, but I never got it. We would get out on our guns to return fire with mortars still coming in. There should have been a lot more medals awarded. Instead we got Purple Hearts. I got mine on September 6 from mortar shrapnel. I caught a little bit on the knee and shoulder. It was not bad enough to get Medevac’d out. I was fortunate again.

Things You Thought You Forgot

Bacon Sandwiches and Cigarettes

The mess hall always had good, hot food. I especially remember the bacon sandwiches in the morning. A couple of kids worked in the mess hall and lived on base, a girl named Cindy and a boy we called Slick. They got caught one day in Phan Thiet selling black market cigarettes, which they probably got from those SP packs we would get every ten days. (Sundries Packs contained writing paper, envelopes, pens, foot powder, toothbrushes and paste, candy, chewing gum, and cartons of cigarettes.) The mess sergeant, a great cook but not a great guy, was in charge of dispensing the SP boxes. When Cindy and Slick got caught I think he got into some kind of trouble right along with them.

B-52 Alarm Clock

Bet some of the guys still remember getting rolled out bed one morning from a B-52 bombing mission on the mountains west of us. All you could see was smoke and dust. The ground shook like an earthquake.

Aiming To Please

I remember a fire mission one night when we had three guns firing a perimeter defense for a squad of a Army Rangers surrounded by the NVA. We fired all night long around their perimeter. For some reason they did not call in choppers, probably because it was too dangerous at night. The next morning here comes a dozen tired and lucky bunch of guys walking into Sherry. I don’t think they had anyone wounded. We fed them, helped them get some much needed rest, and that afternoon a couple of choppers picked them up. All courtesy of B Battery.

More Important Than Donuts

I remember the Doughnut Dollies that came out to cheer us up.

American Red Cross “Donut Dollies” were young, college-degreed women who spent a one-year tour in Vietnam as morale boosters for American troops. They traveled to front-line landing zones and base camps to bring games, snacks and a touch of home to soldiers.

ARC volunteer in the mess hall at Sherry Picture by Andy Kach
ARC volunteer in the mess hall at Sherry
Picture by Andy Kach

The only ones to get any personal attention from the Donut Dollies were the First Sergeant and the officers. I never actually talked with one of them. And never did anyone from Sherry go see a USO show with Bob Hope. Seems we were forgotten in many ways. But thanks to our memories from that far away place we can always say, “I served at LZ Sherry.”

Ron Walker – Gun Crew – Part One

Ron Walker on Gun 6
Ron Walker on Gun 6

Good News and Bad News

When I was still in high school in 1966 my older brother got drafted and went to Vietnam. He was in the 25th infantry division. When I graduated in 1968 he had just gotten out. The draft was still going pretty good and I was 1-A. My brother said to me, Whatever you do don’t go into the infantry.

I was driving around one-day and rode by the Army recruiting station. I just parked my car and went in there and talked to the recruiter. Of course recruiters get paid to sign people up. I said I did not want to go into the infantry.

He said, “Well we will get you into electronics school.”

I did not know anything about electronics, but it sounded pretty good to me. He signed me up for three years to become a fixed station technical controller. I did not even know what that was. He told me the school was in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. I did not know where that was either. He told me it was about 40 miles from New York City. I said that sounds alright.

About a month or two later I was at home still asleep when the phone rang. My mom came in and said, “The Army recruiter wants to talk to you.” This is around 7:30 in the morning.

I got on the phone with him and said, “Yes, sir.”

He said, “I got some good news for you and I got some bad news for you.”

I said, “Give me the good news first.”

“We got the school that you signed up for. You are all set to go.”

“Well what’s the bad news?”

He said, “Your bus leaves at 9:30 this morning. I got your tickets. Don’t be late.”

I did not have time to say goodbye to my dad or my brothers. My mom drove me over to the bus station and I caught the bus for Jacksonville to get sworn in. From there I took a bus to Fort Benning, Georgia where are I took my basic training – Sand Hill (the training facility within Ft. Benning). I thought to myself, I am from Florida so I can probably take the heat. But I know now why they call it Sand Hill, because it was the hottest place on earth in August. Anyway I took it a lot better than some of the guys.

After basic I did not have a chance to go home, but went straight to New Jersey. It was a beautiful school up there. The only requirement was to go to school during the day, and after that you were free to do whatever you wanted. But it was way above my head. It was one of those schools where you really had to be good at math and how to figure out circuits. A few of us flunked out of school around January. They came to us and said, You guys aren’t making it here and you have two choices: infantry or artillery. I said I wanted artillery. Most of us picked artillery. So we went to Fort Sill in January of 1969. I spent eight weeks training on the 105 howitzer, and then some extra time training on the 8 inch and 155 artillery pieces. After that I had twenty days of leave before going to Vietnam, my first time home.

I flew from home to Oakland California. They put us all in these airplane hangers. Everything was in there, bunks, even a PX. When you went in there they closed the door and would not let you out. When they did open the door, they had the plane sitting outside and marched us all out to it. I guess when you made it that far it was too late to back out. If you’re going to go AWOL you should have done it before going into those hangers.

About three or four hours in the air they told us to fasten our seatbelts, we were going to land in Anchorage, Alaska. The plane we were on, Northwest Orient Airlines, developed engine trouble. They said we were going to be in Anchorage a few days to get the plane fixed. They turned the whole plane load of GIs loose in Anchorage. They just told us to be back at a certain time. We spent two or three days there.

We stopped in Japan to refuel, and then landed at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. After you have been on the plane so long breathing fresh air, I remember when they opened the doors in Vietnam it had a rotten fish smell. I thought to myself, Oh my gosh do I have to smell this for a whole year? The smell was so horrible, I’m going to die.

Once we got settled they put us on a detail pouring concrete. I remember seeing nice homes with swimming pools and shopping centers. Where am I? I thought I was in Vietnam. We poured concrete from wheel barrels building sidewalks for three or four days.

Long Lonely Nights

When I got to Sherry first thing I had to do was go to the bathroom, which was a little two-stall latrine over these half barrels. Poor old doc (battery medic) had the duty of pulling the half barrels out, pouring diesel fuel in and lighting them up. Not long after that we had some combat engineers come in and build the Cadillac of all latrines. That’s when burning the shit barrels moved around to other guys. I remember I had that duty a couple times.

A Caddy with no wheels Picture by Rik Groves
A Caddy with no wheels
Picture by Rik Groves

My first job at Sherry was in Commo because they didn’t have any openings on any of the guns. Instead they needed guards for that one stupid Commo tower on top of the Fire Direction Center. We did not have much to do in Commo except pull guard duty. Which was probably a good thing because when I came out of Fort Sill I did not know anything about commo, radios and stuff. I was trained in artillery.

Walker on guard duty
Walker on guard duty

We had to pull guard for 24/7. There were only three of us so we had long shifts. There was a sergeant, a guy by the name of Jones, and me. We each had to pull eight hours of guard duty. It was terrible. After a while we got another guy which made it a little bit easier.

I remember one night I was on guard duty when we got shelled. In the tower it was real quiet, and you could hear the mortars going off. You never forget that sound. I hollered out IN COMING, and of course I said the direction it came from. I remember after the attack First Sergeant Durant and Smoke came out and started climbing up to the tower, and I thought holy shit I am in trouble now. I must’ve done something wrong. They said, How did you know a mortar attack came from that direction? I told them because there in the tower you had these round lids that came off the 105 shell shipping tubes, and we had numbers painted on them all the way around inside the tower. So if you heard something you just looked down and you knew what direction it was coming from. After an attack they would go out and look at the mortar fins sticking in the ground and they could pretty much figure out what direction it came from. Durant and Smoke told me I was right spot on about the direction I told them that the mortar had come from. They said, Good job and keep up the good work.

I took that job seriously. When you are up there at one o’clock in the morning by yourself and everything is quiet and all you hear is crickets, you could hear that mortar coming out of its tube. It was a sound like no other sound in the world. It’s like the smell of marijuana, there’s no other smell like it in the world. I could hear that mortar being shot and I put everybody on alert. Once the mortars stopped falling, everybody got out on their guns and started returning fire.

It was a lonely job. I remember ducking a few times. There were snipers out there, and sometimes I could hear a bullet whiz by my head. Back in those days I smoked cigarettes. They told us in basic training that you could see a lit cigarette from a mile away. I always ducked down behind the sandbags to inhale, and then came back up again.

I also recall being on guard duty and seeing these strange white objects flying overhead, they looked like glowing cylinders, and you could hear them whizzing. A bunch of us saw them and joked that they must be UFOs. Only to learn later that it was the battleship New Jersey off the coast in the South China Sea firing it’s sixteen inch guns right over our firebase. Never knew what they were firing or who they were shooting at.

I was in Commo for about four months. After I left I heard that the sergeant got caught sleeping on guard duty and they busted him down to corporal. I could understand him going to sleep because it was a tiresome job. You are awake all day long anyway, and then you have to pull eight hours by yourself of guard duty at night. You did not get much sleep. When I left Commo I think they only had two or three guys left. He could have been pulling double guard duty shifts, meaning sixteen hours in that guard tower by himself. 

An Infantry Outing

Hank Parker was a good lieutenant. One day he put together a sweep outside the wire, and that is a story all in itself. I think it was in June. We had been shelled quite a bit, and he was wanting to go out to find out where is the VC we’re shooting from. He asked for a bunch of volunteers. I guess we was bored cooped up there in that compound for so long that we was really just wanting to get out. Believe it or not, there was a little time in there when there was not much going on.

At that time we had two tanks that was assigned to us on the perimeter. And the guy that was in charge of the tanks, he was an E-6 staff sergeant, Parker was wanting to have him and one of his tanks to put all of us on the tank, and we was going to go out on top of that tank. The sergeant and Parker got into kind of a heated exchange of words.

The sergeant said, “I am not taking these guys out. These guys here is artillery, they haven’t been trained in the bush. They’re going to get in a firefight, are they’re going to get into landmines. You’re going to get them all killed out there.” He refused to do it. He said, “I’ll just take my two tanks and I’ll leave.”

Parker took us out anyway. There were maybe twenty of us. We waded through a couple of rivers out there.

In this picture Bean is on the left, me in the middle, and Cleaton on the right with his M-79 grenade launcher.

Bean, Walker and Cleaton w M79 grenade launcher

Some guys preferred the grenade launcher to the M-16, and boasted they could drop a grenade inside a basket at a hundred meters.

 We also had an M-60 machine gun out with us. I cannot remember who had it, but I was carrying an extra ammo belt over my shoulder. (You could never have too much machine gun ammo.)

I can remember at one point we hit the ground and opened up on the tree line, but didn’t get any response. Jim Kustes was with us I remember. We did not run up on anything on that whole sweep, and it’s probably fortunate. That’s the only time I can remember us going out and looking for trouble.

The tank sergeant was good to his word. It wasn’t long before he took his two tanks and left. After that we relied on the Dusters and Quad 50s for perimeter defense.

Dusters, each with twin 40 mm cannons - June 1969
Dusters, each with twin 40 mm cannons – June 1969

Jon Varat – Fire Direction Officer – Part Five

Back To School

The Army had never sent me where I asked, with this exception. While still in Vietnam I asked if it would be possible when I returned to the states to be stationed at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, and they said yes. Ft. Dix is 55 miles from Penn Law School in Philadelphia, which allowed me to work at the fort in the morning and take classes in the afternoon. I would work in the Courts and Boards section at Ft. Dix from 6:00 AM till noon prosecuting cases, and then go off to a 1:00 evidence class. I would race to school, park illegally and run to class, and it worked. I did not have time to go home and change, so I showed up in my uniform. At this time, the Fall of ‘71, Cambodia was underway and protests in the universities around the country were in full swing against the Cambodian incursion. There were banners in the middle of the law school that said: Get out of Cambodia.

I showed up in the law school in my uniform every day. The students didn’t know what the hell to do with me, and some were intimidated. I have to confess, although I am mild mannered myself and I usually don’t do this, but there was one young woman who screwed up her courage one day and asked me why I wore my uniform to school. Instead of telling her the truth I could not help myself, I told her it was because I was such a patriot. I was not a pro-war guy, I was actually anti-war. I was being sarcastic and said it with a smile, but I think she took me seriously because she never talked to me again.

I was not treated as badly as some veterans on campus. Most veterans just got ignored, which is being treated badly enough. The inability to do what Doris Kearns Goodwin later said, to distinguish between the war and the warrior, was pretty bad in those days. I didn’t find a lot of open hostility, but nobody wanted to acknowledge it or talk about it. Which was not good for people returning.

Picking up my law studies after Vietnam was wonderful. Most people think that by the third year of law school you’re getting tired, maybe bored or a little out of sync. Law school’s hard, but for me, no offense to the military, it was like an intellectual feast to go back to school after being in the Army. I’d had this break, and I came back very enthusiastic about school. I had the opportunity to be a research assistant for a famous professor in the area of federal courts when he was working on his book. He became my mentor and from that all kinds of goods things happened for me.

Jon finished first in his class all three years at the University of Pennsylvania law school, the two years before Vietnam and the one after.


I was a good student and I had spent a summer at a premier law firm in LA before Vietnam. I wanted a federal court clerkship, but when I returned from Vietnam it was late in the application process and the clerkships had already been snapped up.

At the appellate level, federal court clerks mostly conduct legal research, prepare bench memos, and draft opinions after discussing cases with the judge.

Through a nice fluke, one of my original law school classmates was clerking for a federal judge in New York. The appellate court judge in the chambers next door had a whole stack of applications, but was still looking. Long story short, I got an interview with Judge Walter Mansfield on Veterans Day 1971. He calls me into his chambers, we meet, and it’s like a bromance. I go to clerk for him right out of law school from ‘72 to ‘73. He becomes the closest I ever came to having a surrogate father. He was just a brilliant judge, a wonderful man, and a super duper war hero in WWII. Walter Mansfield was a partner at the law firm headed by Wild Bill Donovan, who started a clandestine operation when the war broke out. It was then the Office of Strategic Services and eventually became the CIA. Mansfield spends a year behind Nazi lines with Czech partisans, and eventually escapes through Greece. Then he spends a year behind Japanese lines in China. A fabulous human being, very modest, brilliant, one of the most excellent role models you can imagine. If you go to the U.S. courthouse in Foley Square in lower Manhattan there is a tree memorial on the plaza dedicated to him.

Then people tell me: You should apply for a clerkship at the Supreme Court. I thought that would be cool, so I gave it a shot, but of course that would be like getting struck by lightning. I end up having interviews with three Justices: White, Stewart and Blackmun. Justice Byron White makes me an offer to be his clerk the following year, which I accept.

And he’s another war hero, and a football star, and an extraordinary human being. Justice White was the Walter Payton of his day. He goes to the University of Colorado, where he is an all American and runner up for the Heisman trophy. The Rocky Mountain sports writers described him as the guy who ran around everybody and gave him the nickname Whizzer White, which he hated. He is drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates (today’s Steelers) and becomes their highest paid player. He leads the NFL in rushing his rookie year. He played offense, defense, special teams, scored a bazillion points. You’ll find him in the national football hall of fame in Canton, OH. He gets a Rhodes Scholarship and goes to England to study, putting off playing professional football. At the time the Ambassador to the Court of St. James is Joe Kennedy. The ambassador had a practice of inviting all the Rhodes scholars from America to his house. His son John Kennedy is there and the two of them become fast friends. They take a trip together to Germany, and they see that war is coming. They see what Joe Kennedy did not see. During the war, White is a naval intelligence officer, and guess who writes up the report of John Kennedy’s PT-109 incident in the Pacific? Byron White. White ends up being a war hero himself. He is on a ship hit by a kamikaze, on the bridge with a couple other officers. They think they are going to die, but the plane hits a guy wire and crashes into the lower part of the ship. The ship is on fire. By this time White is a celebrity, but he doesn’t care, he does his job. He runs down into the fire and pulls people out. After the war he goes back to playing professional football and graduating from Yale Law School, first in his class. Upon graduation, he clerks for Chief Justice Vinson on the Supreme Court. President Kennedy nominates White to the Supreme Court in 1962, making him the first Supreme Court clerk to become a Supreme Court Justice. An amazing life considering he grew up during the Depression pulling sugar beets in the field.

I start clerking for Justice White the Fall of ‘73. This was during the Watergate era. I was there for that whole period, when the impeachment proceedings were underway, when special prosecutor Archibald Cox was fired and Leon Jaworski replaced him. The Nixon White House Tapes Case, where the Supreme Court ordered the President to turn over tapes connected to the Watergate break-in, was the last case of the term before I left. I finished my clerkship nine days before Nixon resigned.


Now that I had clerked for two federal court judges, I was courted by a number of law firms. But I liked O’Melveny & Myers, the firm in LA I worked for that summer before going to basic training. I had heard from Warren Christopher while in OCS, and then from Phil Irwin, a partner in the same law firm, while I was at battalion in Phan Rang. I had met Phil before going into the Army, and he was the one who brought me back to LA. A wonderful guy. I understood that his dad by the way was a brigadier general. Phil is a wonderful, wonderful tax guy with a photographic memory. I loved working there and thought I would stay there forever.

I get a phone call a little over a year after joining the firm from my mentor from law school, the federal courts professor, and he has moved from Penn to Berkeley law school. He says, Are you interested in teaching? Because you should be. If you like I will introduce your name around at Berkeley, USC, Stanford and UCLA law schools. I liked what I was doing, and did not see myself teaching law as a refugee from practicing law. I was not unhappy, but I thought: You know, here’s one big difference between being a practicing lawyer and being a law teacher. When you’re a practicing lawyer you work on the agenda your clients need you to work on. You’re solving their problem. Which is fine and interesting. But if you become a professor, you set your own agenda, and you work on the things that interest you. I was getting more and more interested in the parts of my job that took me into the library to figure things out, because I liked that side of the law.

I interviewed with the UCLA law faculty, and I had more fun being interviewed by this group of people that any set of job interviews I’d ever had in my life. I just sat around all day talking to brilliant people about interesting ideas. I thought: Wow, this is really a great environment, stimulating all the time.

So I joined the UCLA law faculty in 1976. I bought a home, had a kid, started at the law school and took a salary cut, all within the span of three months. Mostly I taught constitutional law and federal courts, and I edit a textbook on constitutional law, which I update every year. I became Dean of the law school in 1998, something Warren Christopher had warned me about. He had told me before I went to UCLA that eventually they’d want me to do administration. I did take advantage of him later to deliver a commencement address at one graduation ceremony during that period, and it was one of the best ever given.

Way More Than 40%

I retired from the law school as an emeritus professor in 2013. I did not need to, but I had been at the law school a long time, and I still have been teaching one course a year. I wanted to travel, which is difficult as a teacher, and I wanted more freedom in general to do non-profit work.

I got my wish, but recently the Chancellor of the university recalled me from retirement to head the long standing, complex relationship between UCLA and the Veterans Administration in West Los Angeles.

The West LA Veterans Administration owns three hundred and eighty-eight acres close by the UCLA campus, separated only by highway 405. It serves the largest population of veterans in the country and is possibly the largest physically. We at UCLA have had a seventy year relationship with the VA, essentially since UCLA was formed. Our medical school, for example, was formed in 1948 and for the first seven years before a university hospital was built on campus, our teaching hospital was the VA hospital. We’ve trained doctors at the VA for decades.

Disabled and homeless vets have flooded into LA as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—and the hospitable weather, of course. We have the largest homeless veteran population in the country, and therefore the largest needs. The VA initially did not do a good job responding. They were incompetent, frankly.

For the last fifteen or twenty years the VA land has been very poorly managed. Sizable portions, some of the most valuable land in America, were leased to various private enterprises and institutions at below market rates. Worse still, the lease revenue had not been used wisely for vets, whom this VA had not been taking care of as they should. A real travesty.

A lawsuit was brought by a set of plaintiffs and a group of fancy lawyers here in town for failure to keep the property a “home for disabled veterans,” as required by its 1887 land grant. The VA and representatives of homeless vets reached a settlement in 2013 to do a better job of using the VA land for activities that benefited veterans, including the construction of what looks to be 1200 places for permanent supportive housing for homeless vets over the course of the next decade.

Last year, the Chancellor of UCLA entered into an agreement with the Secretary of Veterans Affairs that, besides what the university is already doing for vets, UCLA will create a series of new programs at the West LA VA to benefit veterans for the long term.

There is yet another aspect to this situation. At the Phoenix VA, the wait list was so long people were dying before they got their appointments. General Shinseki resigned as the Veterans Affairs Secretary, and President Obama replaced him in 2014 with Bob McDonald: Chairman, President, and CEO of Procter & Gamble. Bob McDonald swept away the incompetent leadership of the West LA VA, and replaced them with the best people from around the country, to include specialists and a national expert on homelessness.

As a result of recent legislation restoring the West LA VA’s authority to lease land on the campus so long as the activities overall are veteran-focused, we are at the point where we can begin implementing the agreements between UCLA and the VA. There are a lot of vets suffering from PTSD and drug abuse and physical disabilities. And women veterans have a whole unique set of traumas. It’s a massive but terribly important set of problems for vets. If we can accomplish what we have on the drawing board, the partnership between UCLA and Veterans Affairs will be a model for the nation.

We are talking about transforming a fifteen-acre veteran’s garden that had been allowed to deteriorate, so that vets can grow things for farmers markets and maybe become entrepreneurial. And we can offer therapeutic activities such as yoga. And we’ve committed to introducing adaptive and recreational therapies That’s one piece. As a first step, just last week a group of volunteers from the Student Veterans of America joined with UCLA, the VA, and Home Depot, and cleaned up the front portion of that garden for planting. The long term vet groundskeepers were thrilled. Much more needs to be done, but we have a plan.

We are setting up a UCLA Veterans Legal Clinic on the VA campus, which we are very excited about. Our law students will represent vets with their legal problems.

We are going to have a family wellness and resource center. It is a very innovative concept one of our absolutely magnificent doctors in the psychiatric center has already implemented on military bases around the world. It will help family members who are not themselves vets or not themselves disabled. It will provide therapies for families, for example, so that children will have decent places to be while husbands and wives are helping the vets recover. A very innovative program that seeks to prevent transitional dysfunctions before they occur.

There will be a center of excellence for vets dealing with co-occurring disorders, which will be mostly for homeless vets who have PTSD and substance abuse problems. It turns out that for vets who have one problem, such as a physical or mental disability, you treat that one condition directly. But for vets with co-occurring disorders, you do not treat each condition separately. You have to deal with the special co-occurring issues and how they interact. We are learning new approaches all the time, and we have people at UCLA who know how to do these things. We have the innovative researchers and psychiatrists. And we’ve created interdisciplinary fellowships.

One of our English professors is teaching a creative writing class for vets on the VA campus. Which they LOVE. I was recently asked to facilitate the transportation of these vets to a Hollywood facility where Tim O’Brien, who wrote The Things They Carried, did a reading from his book and signed books for these guys. I read the book several years ago. It is beautifully written and well worth reading. To these vets in the creative writing course, many of whom have also read the book, it was very meaningful.

I’m the guy who is supposed to make sure all this happens, and is implemented as a joint partnership. So all of a sudden I’ve got all kinds of new best friends at the VA. I am spending a lot of time over there. And I’ve got my UCLA people I have to get together to figure out how we go ahead with the partnership in a way that is productive for UCLA and the VA. It’s important to understand that we cannot be the VA. We can’t take over their job of treating people. We can design systems and help implement them. Our people still have full time jobs at the university.

Being retired from the university means I can be recalled to do no more than a 40% job. It’s designed to prevent people from double-dipping: retiring on full pension and immediately returning to the same full time job. What that means for me is I can’t be paid for more than 40% time. You can believe that with this new VA job, and teaching and updating my textbook, I am way more than 40%. On the other hand it is energizing to feel I can do some good.

I also am involved—separately from my UCLA job, though with some important overlap—with this other little piece that Bob McDonald created called the Community Veteran Engagement Boards (CVEB). They exist around the country. The idea is that Veterans Service Organizations and others who are active in helping vets in the community act as a private group working pro bono with VA officials as a two way communication link between what veterans need and what the VA has to offer. It’s fine to know what you think people want and need, but you don’t know exactly until you have this link. And vice versa, this is a way for the VA to communicate to veterans what the VA has available. A lot of vets don’t take advantage of services because they don’t understand what’s available. They may not be that sophisticated in getting on their computers and searching on-line for VA services. We have spent the last many months creating the LA Regional CVEB and will be working to identify gaps in what is being provided to vets throughout the vast LA Region and to propose solutions.

Full Circle

When I became battalion adjutant in Phan Rang in March of 1971, I took it as my personal mission to look after the guys in the field. I had wanted to stay in the field with the guys at LZ Sherry, and in many ways I still felt like one of them. One of my men in the rear felt the same way as I did and he became my main support for making sure our guys in the field were taken care of. He was a talented guy, and he painted the regimental emblem on a small stone to make a paperweight for me. A really sweet gesture on his part. He did it out of gratitude. Not a huge deal to him, but a huge deal to me.

Paper Weight

For the past forty-five years that paperweight has sat on my desk wherever I’ve gone. It’s surprising how few people comment on it. It is still sitting on my desk. I periodically look at it to remind me of this bond with the men I worked with.


Jon Varat – Fire Direction Officer – Part Four

Battalion Adjutant

When Joe DeFrancisco left in March of 1970 we made do without a captain. Bob Christenson was the battery XO, a 1st lieutenant and senior to me, and as I remember we ran the battery together. We were sufficiently experienced that at battalion level they felt they could leave the battery in both our hands.

I was in that role only a short period and then went to Phan Rang as battalion adjutant.

A Field Guy at Heart

From two letters home shortly after arriving in Phan Rang

I am fine and have a new job at battalion headquarters as adjutant. It is really a captain’s job, but with my time out in the field and my supposed qualifications of the academic variety I was recruited. I would have rather stayed in the field for a while where there is less paperwork and more meaningful responsibilities.

I will try to explain my job to you. As adjutant I am on the battalion commander’s staff as S1. This staff position has to do with personnel, where they are assigned, their personal affairs, the trouble they get into, and in general their health, welfare and morale. Also in most things I act as an executive secretary writing correspondence for the commander. A lot of paperwork but sometimes interesting. At least I can see that guys in the field get mail and other little comforts.

Because I had been in the field I knew how much guys looked forward to getting their mail. I personally escorted the mailbags every day to the helicopters.

As battalion adjutant I was able to take a jeep occasionally. When I heard that some of the guys in the field wanted to play ball, I took a jeep up to Nha Trang to our supply depot in order to get baseball equipment. I got bats, gloves and balls, which I made sure got distributed to the battery. This was really in the waning days of the battalion, but the guys were still out there. One of the people working the rear area really appreciated that too. He became my main guy to make sure that the men in the field were looked after.

Baseball at Sherry Umpire Staff Sgt. Hopkins, Gun 5 Crew Chief
Baseball at Sherry
Umpire Staff Sgt. Hopkins, Gun 5 Crew Chief 

Korean Officer

I had a couple of interesting exchanges with the Korean officers. One was an unbelievably chiseled kung fu kind of guy. He looked like the toughest guy I had ever met in my life. Falling into a conversation with him it turns out the Koreans were still very wary of and terrified of the Japanese from WW II. It was a leftover cultural thing that the Japanese were the meanest SOBs on the planet. It struck me how these attitudes pass down through the generations.

Free Ride on a Medevac

I experienced a personal incident that had nothing to do with the war. I was still on duty to make rounds on the perimeter. There was not much going on around Phan Rang, but you had to do it. At that point it was only once a month because there were so many officers around. You made two rounds, one at night and one in the morning, and you slept in a special building for that purpose. I made my night rounds, and then got up for five o’clock morning rounds. I step out of bed and there is a sharp pain in my right lower abdomen. I am a guy without problems generally so I think, OK, I just slept funny. I take about three steps and it is not going away. I literally cannot walk without shooting pain. They decide to Medevac me to Cam Ranh Bay. The doctor who sees me says: You probably have something called retrocecal appendicitis and we’re going to have to take your appendix out.

In retrocecal appendicitis the appendix is located behind the cecum portion of the intestine. Even deep pressure on that portion of the abdomen may not elicit pain, and for that reason it is called a silent appendicitis.

Another doctor comes along and says, We’re just going to wait a little bit. We’re not going to give you medicine. I know you are in some pain, but I don’t want to mask the symptoms. I want to see what’s going on here. He turned out to be right. I still have my appendix to this day. As best they could tell I had something called pleurodynia. (I have no idea what that is.) They put me in a bed and had me inhale from oxygen tanks for a couple days and it just disappeared. And then I went back to battalion headquarters. So I had the experience of being Medevac’d in Vietnam, without losing my appendix unnecessarily.

A Human Connection

I worked really hard as battalion adjutant. The battalion commander and his XO, not so much. They piled a lot of stuff on me because they figured they could. Still they were both decent officers. The S3 Operations major there, an African American, was in my opinion the best officer at battalion.

I did not mind the hard work, it actually made the time go faster. And I still had time to go out on special trips and do the good things soldiers did as part of the pacification program. On one particular trip we went to a Vietnamese village where Dr. Muss, who was a really good guy, was giving inoculations to the kids. We spent most of the day there seeing people come in and get good treatment. On the other side of the Vietnamese village, “across the railroad tracks,” there was a Hmong village (mountain people, also generally referred to in French as Montagnard). The were treated more poorly than the Vietnamese treated themselves. As if these villages were not poor enough, they treated the Hmong like dirt.

We came across a Vietnamese woman whose husband had died. She had children from that husband, and then she had remarried and had children by the new husband. The cultural thing was you did not pay much attention to your old children if you had new children. At least that is how I understood it. We saw that the children from the former husband were really malnourished. A group of us decided that one of them, a little four year old kid, would probably die. We just could not leave him there, and did something we were not supposed to do. We smuggled him back onto the base. I held this four year old child in my arms for several hours going back. He had the warmest body. I mention this because it is one of my most vivid memories. In the middle of the craziness there was a human connection. Dr. Muss took care of him and fixed him up. I do not know what ultimately became of him. Nor do I know what became of those two kids who worked at LZ Sherry for us, “Grace” and “Slick” as we called them, although I’ve often wondered, because I fear the worst since they were associated with Americans.

Calling It What It Is

Fragging incidents were serious, and common enough throughout the battalion to worry people. At some point we wrote a letter saying we’ve got to stop calling such incidents fragging. We have to start calling it what it is, which is premeditated attempted murder. You use the wrong language and people get a little cavalier.

Going Home

In July of 1971 B Battery left the field and brought all of its equipment and howitzers to Phan Rang, as part of a general deactivation of the 5th Battalion. At this time the ARVNs took over LZ Sherry. 

I left for home on July 18. I was asked to escort the battalion colors home to Ft. Lewis as well, but I cannot remember that I did so. By this time I had worked out an arrangement to be stationed at Ft. Dix, New Jersey, about an hour from the University of Pennsylvania, which would allow me to return to law classes in addition to my military duties. Writing home, a few weeks earlier, I let loose a little:

 Vietnam is really getting old. We have no real mission. If we did it would not be a pleasant one. The amount of purposelessness and nonsense here is too monumental for words. The whole affair is slapstick; I need to get away before it gets overbearing.

Going home I remember having to wait a couple extra days at Cam Ranh, and that was really unpleasant. I was dying to go home. They searched my duffle bag for drugs. I understood it, but still was irritated that after spending all this time subject to enemy fire they were worried about whether I was bringing drugs back to America. They were right, I understand that, but it was annoying. I also was really annoyed because they took my Ho Chi Minh sandals. I really wanted those things.

The one thing I brought back from Vietnam that I did not want was the sound of helicopters. It’s the only sound I do not like. I did not have traumas or nightmares coming home, but helicopters still bug me.

I bought an MGB Roadster through the PX a few months earlier. I always liked to say that it came from England, I came from Vietnam, and we met in New York.