Dan Gallagher woke to the sounds of silence each night at 3 a.m. The din of battle in Vietnam had become a lullaby, but now safely home, the quiet made it difficult to sleep.
Positioned in the central highlands in 1967, he came to fear such silence. There, the rhythmic thunder of outgoing artillery was comforting. It meant the enemy was safely at a distance.
“We were half a mile away from a place called Artillery Hill, where all night long the guns would fire,” said Gallagher, 67. “When the guns stopped firing and it grew quiet, it meant the Viet Cong were close to us – too close for artillery.”
Dressed for the chill of a Missoula morning, Gallagher quoted Simon and Garfunkel and their 1966 classic, “The Sounds of Silence.” In the song, visions creep in the night; Gallagher knows those demons.
For a man born into a tradition of military service, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. His Irish father was a Sinn Fein rebel before immigrating to America, where he proudly served in World War II.
The last of 13 children, Gallagher watched his older brothers leave for subsequent wars, including World War II and Korea. When North Vietnam fired on the USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, he saw the writing on the wall.
War was coming and he’d be turning 18 soon. He had a family tradition to uphold, and he wanted to do his part.
“I came from a family that was oriented toward serving their country,” Gallagher said. “In the early 1960s, I was totally affected by John Kennedy, as I think many people my age were. His inaugural ‘Ask not’ quote rang true in a lot of people’s ears, and it was always assumed that if war happened, I would go.”
Gallagher would get his chance and it would change his life. Fifty years later, he says, “I’ll take Vietnam to my grave.”
North Vietnamese troops seized Binh Gia outside Saigon in 1965, and President Lyndon Johnson authorized Operation Rolling Thunder. In an effort to boost the nation’s combat strength, he also ordered 60,000 troops to action – a buildup that began 50 years ago this past January.
The surge continued the following spring as Gallagher took his oath to serve. He raised his hand and offered his pledge with a young man’s bravado. He enlisted in the U.S. Army.
“I don’t want to think we were naïve, but we weren’t as jaded in those days about the government and serving,” Gallagher said. “I have to admit, I believed in the cause. I believed fighting communism was legitimate.”
Gallagher left for the central highlands of Vietnam in 1966, and he remembers the places – Dak To and Pleiku. He remembers the North Vietnamese crossing from Cambodia and Laos under the jungle’s cover, the enemy most active at 3 a.m.
To slow their movement, Gallagher applied his skills as a combat engineer. He detonated fortifications and bridges, dismantled booby traps and mines. Metal detectors didn’t work when bamboo mines were in play, so he probed the fields with the end of a bayonet.
He worked the soil at just the right angle and without too much force.
He lost a friend in battle.
“I knew war was about killing and destruction, so I wasn’t necessarily surprised by it all,” he said. “I don’t know if you ever get used to it. You just get numb to it.”
Still, the soldiers couldn't reconcile all they saw and did in Vietnam.
Gallagher's patrol drove water buffalo into the open fields, allowing the animals to detonate hidden devices. He came to detest the practice after considering the cows back in Montana: How would he feel if they were sacrificed for a similar cause?
When he wasn’t detonating enemy mines, he was planting his own – M-14s and “Bouncing Betties.” He remembers their blast ratio and weight, what mine was effective under what scenario.
“I thought about how I planted a lot of mines in Vietnam, and thinking about that comes back,” he said, citing a UNICEF report on the number of Vietnamese killed by American land mines in the years after the war. “That hurts like hell.”
He stops to think.
“What affected me more about war was the unending nature of it,” he said. “We didn’t think as much about winning as we did about surviving.”
Gallagher stood before a crowd gathered at the Missoula County Courthouse on Veterans Day last year. As the wind blustered beyond the door, he reflected on the consequences of war.
“Every war has its beginning,” he said that day. “But does it really end for those who return home to live with war’s residue?”
Gallagher struggled with that residue for years after leaving Vietnam and returning to Montana. During the war, he dreamed of the girls back home, the ball games he would see, the career he would begin.
Presented with his chance in the safety of Montana, he shut himself off from the outside world. He couldn’t find work and struggled to sleep. Other young adults talked about last night’s basketball game and who was dating which cheerleader, but he couldn't care less about such matters.
“I came home and found myself out of sync with others my age,” he said. “I felt like an outsider. We were very young men with very old minds. We missed out on our days with no bigger worry than whether the Beach Boys would record a new song.”
The country had changed while he was away and it confused him. There was no ticker tape parade awaiting his return, no job offer. The older generation saw the younger soldiers as losers who'd lost the war and complained too much.
The betrayals stung and Gallagher lost time, the world spinning below his feet. He stopped listing his veteran status on job applications. He stopped sharing his thoughts. He internalized his fears and learned not to talk about Vietnam.
“There was a sense of betrayal,” he said. “We’d gone to war, fought this war, and we’d been told all our lives to go serve the country, be honored and respected, and that it was the right thing to do. We’d done that and been shot at, and it didn’t mean anything to people.”
Instead of treating the wound, Gallagher applied Band-Aids. By the time he turned 27, he was falling behind his peers and toying with desperate thoughts. Not just suicide, but what he came to see as a foreshortened future.
“I learned we were not well-loved,” he said.
In 1982, the Charlie Daniels Band sang “Still in Saigon.” The ballad described the plight of a Vietnam veteran 10 years after the war. “No place to run to, where I did not feel that war,” Daniels sang.
Gallagher related. He tried to lift himself up and find his motivation, but he couldn’t escape the gravity of war. He didn’t want to face the campus protests, so he avoided college for years.
When he finally did enroll at the University of Montana, he struggled with anxiety.
“By 1975, with the fall of Saigon and some of the things that accompanied that, I was suffering anxiety, survivor guilt, the dreams and I wasn’t getting any sleep,” he said. “The panic attacks were so bad I couldn’t sit inside the classroom.”
UM history professor Paul Lauren urged him to keep going, keep moving forward. On campus, he also heard of a UM psychiatrist named Charles Catz. While asking for help was seen as weakness, Gallagher knew he needed it, stigma or not.
As it turned out, Catz was a World War II veteran who was a POW in the Philippines. The man saw through Gallagher’s fears and diagnosed him with “post-Vietnam syndrome.”
He learned he wasn’t alone.
“Service people can tell one another in a crowd, and there’s a bond that forms,” Gallagher said. “It dawned on me that if I was hurting this bad, there must be other people who feel this way.”
Gallagher worked to overcome the challenges. He finished school, going on to become a lawyer and a teacher.
He now helps other veterans deal with issues stemming from war.
“As a veteran, you internalize all the problems, the survival guilt and things like that. With the doctor, I realized it was how I was responding to it and this was a problem that was legitimate.”
It took Gallagher years to realize how deep his wounds had cut. It would take decades for Vietnam’s residue to fully surface. It takes the form of homelessness, suicide, depression and addiction.
Of the 2.7 million veterans who served in Vietnam, some statistics suggest fewer than 900,000 are still alive. The numbers are disputed, though Gallagher said it doesn’t matter.
He experienced the problems firsthand and knows they linger among thousands of combat veterans his age.
“Vietnam veterans haven’t been what they might have otherwise been,” Gallagher said. “There’s a certain amount of lost opportunity in this generation. Had it not been for Vietnam, there are veterans who would’ve been something different, something more.”