War is Ugly, But Flowers Still Grow There!

“War is ugly, but flowers still grow there.”

This statement was shared with me on a recent spring evening. I found myself talking with my friend and brother veteran, Robert (Bob) Preston. Bob is a Vietnam Veteran. He joined and served in the United Stated Marine Corp from September 1964 to January 1969.

Marine Corp Basic training took place at Paris Island, South Carolina. Upon completion of Basic Training, Bob moved on to Camp Geiger for advanced infantry training and then on to US Naval Air Station Sanford, Florida. While at the Naval Station, Bob served in the Marine Barracks Unit as part of a security detachment. His duty involved; roving patrols, gate guard duty, funeral services, and traffic control in conjunction with Naval base police.

From the Naval Station Bob moved on to Camp Pendleton, San Mateo California for combat MP (Military Police) School and remained there for approximately 7 months. “While in California, part of us were sent to Vietnamese language school, some went to traffic control, some to accident investigation and some of us did regular patrol training. Soon after training, we (Marines) boarded as a unit and headed to Vietnam.

“We boarded the USS McGoffin and 30 days later we did a beach landing south of DeNang and ended up at Hill 327.”

Hill 327 was a radar installation just west of DeNang. “The Air Force had a big base on top, we (Marines) were at the bottom. We manned a POW (Prisoner of War) Camp, the Marine Corp Brig and a Dog Platoon. That was our base of operation. Most of my tour of duty was in the northern part of South Vietnam, what we called the ‘I-Corp area.’ It was a volatile area.” Bob did share some “generalities” of the area. “The POW camp was for captured insurgents. We carried anywhere from 20-60 prisoners at a time until they were processed. The Marine Corp Brig is just what it sounds like, a holding place, a jail if you will, for Marines who got into some sort of scrape. It was mostly a transition area, time to pay for their crimes and then head back to their units.”

“There was also a large contingent of dogs and their handlers. The Dogs did all kinds of things from bomb sweeps for dignitaries to booby trap sweeps. We called them the Bomb Dogs.” “The dogs were there when we arrived. There was a company called First Military Police Battalion. They were there a year before we arrived helped us to transition in as they rotated out. We picked up part of their dogs.”

“We used the dogs for all kinds of stuff, such as combat patrols, searching for weapons caches, people hiding, all manner of things. Those dogs were the Scout Dogs. I gotta tell ya, those dogs saved a lot of marines and were extremely helpful. I remember one dog found a weapons cache of over 750 weapons.” I wanted to learn more about the dogs and their handlers as I had not educated myself much on that aspect of the Vietnam War, nor knew any dog handlers from that era, so naturally I asked Bob how he ended up being a dog handler.

“I did not receive “official” dog handling training, but I did end up having a dog. I actually had 2 dogs. The first dog I had would not work at night. There is a lot of transition when someone gets a dog. Learning each other’s ways and learning to trust each other. This dog, he just wouldn’t work at night. I later found out that his previous handler had been shot at night, so the dog no longer wanted to or would work at night. I was provided another dog and he was very good, an excellent working dog. His name was Boo.” “One problem that I encountered with my dog was in trying to teach other people how to work with him. People didn’t understand what the dog was trying to tell them with his body language and the people weren’t willing to accept him at first. It took some time.”

Bob did witness dogs that were hurt during their tour of duty. “A dog becomes as close to you as anyone else, maybe more so. They are extremely loyal. When you lose a dog, it is just like losing a buddy. It hurts. Bad.”

“I will say that I always slept well with Boo around. He would lay down with us and stay alert almost all night. The nights we weren’t working, he would lay right down and sleep with us.” Bob was in Vietnam for 14 ½ months, which counted as 2 tours. The average tour of duty for the Marines during that time was 9 to 11 months. “I extended my tour to stay there.”

Bob eventually returned stateside in 1968. “I was kind of scrambled when I came home. I can share that I had a terrible experience at the Los Angeles Airport upon returning home and ended up in a confrontation with some people. That was my return home; not welcomed, and I did not take that too well.”

Bob was home for 30 days, received orders and was shipped to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as part of a Security Unit. “The Marines had a security unit due to one of Castro’s generals getting hold of some rockets which were apparently aimed at the naval base. It was a bit tense, but nothing outrageous.”

After his tour in Cuba, Bob returned stateside to Camp LeJune and “mustered out”.

Another aspect of that time in history came to light during our talk and Bob shared a “human interest story” that he recalled.

“This happened when I was stationed in Florida. I had reported to my duty station and I was asked if I had a problem sharing billet with a black person. I replied no, that I never had any problem with black people.”

Bob made it a point to remind me, “Remember Kim, this was 1965 and racial segregation was still enforced in certain places. So there we were, just two guys, to my way of thinking, living together and getting to know each other”. One night my roommate said to me “I got something I want to show you down town.” So we walked down town. He took me to the bus station. He pointed out that there was still a “White only” restroom and a “White only” water fountain.”

“The “Blacks Only” water fountain was around the corner outside of a building. It was just a water spigot, on a piece of pipe turned in the air, anyone using it would get wet while they turned it on and it would just flow all over the ground. The restrooms for “Blacks Only” were equally primitive. I asked why he had brought me there and he simply said ‘because you treat me different than most.’ That was my first experience with racism. I didn’t care for it then and I don’t care for it now. There was no seeing “color” between us. We were just two people, we were friends. Period.”

As Bob and I continued to talk, I pointed out things I know of him. He is a past Commander of Veterans of the Vietnam War, Post 52 and currently holds a position on the Board of Directors. He is very active with and supports Project Support Our Troops, Vittles For Vets, Soup For Troops and the weekly Saturday Night Dinners, he is a past Color Guard/Honor Guard Captain and still participates in those duties. I asked what drives him to want to help and work with our veteran family and community.

“I wasn’t very active for many years. Then something brought my attention to the fact that there were a lot of veterans not getting the help they needed, Post 52 shined a light on that for me. I became more and more involved and plan to continue to be involved.”

I know for myself, Kim Lengling, that I give of myself and my time for Project Support Our Troops and a non-profit Embracing Our Veterans. I have a passion for helping those in need and to pay it forward.

What does Bob personally get from helping others? “It makes me feel better to know that I helped my fellow man. Two things I’ve always done; if I am traveling and I see someone in uniform, I always try to buy their lunch or dinner. If we can’t take care of our fellow man, we are in serious trouble. I choose to take care of the veterans.”

When asked if he had envisioned himself being heavily involved in veteran issues and helping those in need, Bob shared “The thing that really started me beating the drum was the agent orange issue. Now I have plans to train to become a Veteran Service Officer for our Post with the training being provided through the VA. Once trained, it will be a volunteer position. Just another way to help veterans.”

“In addition, I’ve given presentations at many area schools. I try to tell the kids how things were from my perspective and encourage them to do something for their country, to work for something other than a paycheck. Do SOMETHING to support and help people other than themselves.”

“One last thing I want to share. What the media doesn’t typically share are the good things that happen in a combat zone. Heck, in Vietnam, our corpsman set up medical aide tents in the villages and treated, in some months, a 1000 people. We built schools and dug water wells for the native people of those countries. War is ugly, but flowers still grow there. The cost of war is horrendous, don’t get me wrong, but there are rewards as well.”

As always, when wrapping up our talk, I ask each person “knowing what you know now, would you do it again?” Bob’s Answer was emphatic. “Absolutely. That experience made me who I am and I wouldn’t change that.”

May God Bless America and those who have and will defend her.

Kim Lengling is a local author and Co-Chair of Project Support Our Troops and Co-Founder of Embracing Our Veterans. She can be reached at [email protected]




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