SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — For the first time in two decades, Veterans Day has arrived in an America not at war. KELOLAND News sat down with a pair of veterans at the South Dakota Military Heritage Alliance to help explain the significance of this Veterans Day, and to hear about their experiences.
Retired Staff Sergeant Scott J. McDermott served as part of the 192th Field Artillery unit of the Iowa Army National Guard. He and his wife now live in Harrisburg. “I’m in the process right now of studying to be a bus driver,” he said. “I’ve got to do something in retirement.”
McDermott did his service in peacetime, entering basic training in 1977, just two years after the end of the Vietnam War.
“Our unit needed a mechanic,” he said “so I went to the wheel vehicle mechanic course in Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri.”
After graduating, McDermott returned to find the maintenance section was full, and instead became a driver for the National Guard trucks. Three years later he was transitioned to handling ammunition, setting time fuses, radio operation and more.
McDermott accrued more and more skills while moving through positions, eventually ending up in a gunner position. In 1989 he became Staff Sergeant and became a section chief, a position that had him overseeing 9 personnel in a Howitzer section.
What McDermott says stands out to him about Veterans Day are the things that the general public may not notice.
“Camaraderie — It’s a whole new family,” he said. “If you’ve never done it, and you want to do it, I encourage you.”
Another thing McDermott has noticed is the difference in perception that comes with donning his dress uniform, both in those he encounters and in himself. “It changes your mindset,” he explained. “You want to show people that you belong to something bigger than you are.”
He sees a reaction most often in the eyes of children. “Little kids, they just love that kind of stuff — they look up to you.”
Dave Van Dyne enlisted in the Navy in the mid-1960s. “I was in the United States Navy from 1965 to ’68. They had a program where if you joined before you were 18, you got out before you were 21 — they called it the kiddy-cruise.”
Van Dyne said he’d intended to join as a military police officer, but that it didn’t quite go as planned. “I didn’t go to the right recruiters. I didn’t know the Navy didn’t have military police (at that time). Once I got signed up, I couldn’t get out.”
Van Dyne volunteered to go to Vietnam, against the wishes of his father.
Van Dyne does not claim to be a hero, choosing instead to bestow that title on the soldiers who served around him. As a matter of fact, this is a complex with which Van Dyne openly admits struggling with.
Despite spending time in Saigon, he rarely carried a gun.
“I never carried a gun over in Vietnam, but I saw the guys that did,” he said. Instead, Van Dyne served as an electrical technician. “I and a lot of guys like me had guilt complexes because we weren’t involved in the direct fighting. My buddies tell me I shouldn’t feel that way. It’s hard to agree with, but it makes me feel better that they don’t look down on me for what I was doing.”
Despite his denial of that mantle, he did perform necessary work in a dangerous environment. Van Dyne was often in harm’s way, travelling into danger zones to preform repairs to electrical work on Swift Boats and the fiberglass PBR boats on which U.S. soldiers travelled the rivers of Vietnam. Without men like Van Dyne, these soldiers would have been without such vital things as radios and radar, which guided them through thick fog and night.
Van Dyne says you can’t compare the events of the Vietnam War with those in Afghanistan.
“War is hell,” he said. “Our war was completely different. We fought belt buckle to belt buckle. Our guys were getting shot at from 20 feet away — In the Middle East and all these wars from 1990 on, it was fought more like a conventional war. We didn’t have that luxury [in Vietnam].”
“They almost overran us,” said Van Dyne, describing the events of the Tet Offensive, a campaign by the North Vietnamese which played out as a surge of attacks simultaneously across the south of the country.
“The U.S. embassy there in Saigon looked like swiss cheese,” continued Van Dyne.
Van Dyne says the treatment of veterans has changed since his time in the service. “We were actually told not to wear our uniforms off the plane — the first time somebody stuck his hand out to thank me for my service I almost slugged him,” he said. “I thought I was defending myself — that’s the way it was for the Vietnam vets. We came home not welcome.”
These days Van Dyne says people are making sure the vets are welcome. “The vets now are counselled. They get mental help if they need it. We didn’t have that back then.”
Van Dyne is a member of DAV, a charity for Disabled American Veterans, and advocates strongly for vets getting the help they need. “I cannot stress how important it is.”
Asked what advice he would give to a young veteran of the Afghan War, now in the same shoes as he was 50 years ago, Van Dyne offered supportive words. “Don’t hesitate to get help. Ask your VA what they can do for you — contact your local veteran organizations — don’t be afraid to ask.”