Jim Rather was a naive 19-year-old college student when he received a letter from his Uncle Sam.
The draft notice came as a shock for the Midwesterner, a part-time college student and full-time worker, even after he had passed the state-mandated physical in May 1966.
"I was surprised. I was scheduled to have dinner with my parents and meet my grandparents there," he said. "As soon as I got there, they handed me this letter and my mother was crying."
He served in Vietnam from Jan. 19, 1968 to Sept. 7, 1968.
Q: What was your reaction to receiving the letter?
A: Well, I guess I will have to quit my job. Everyone was kind of emotional about it, but I just thought it was my job. OK, so they called you up - go do your thing.
Q: So you landed in Vietnam on Jan. 19. What was it like getting off that plane?
A: It was 130 degrees when I got off that plane. It took my breath. I landed at 68 feet above sea level. And that humidity and that heat just takes your breath away. It was like walking into an oven. I was on a Pan Am 707, and as we landed they were mortaring the end of the runway ... because it was the beginning of the Tet Offensive in 1968.
Q: What was your main job while you were there?
A. I had two friends and we would take a Jeep and go from base to base. I didn't have a map, didn't have GPS. We would just drive. Someone would say go, take Highway 1. Go over to the coast and go to the Phu Cat Air Force Base and work on stuff over there. So we would just go base to base and work on stuff, and while we were there the base would get attacked, and so we would go get our rifles and get in the bunker and wait to see if we should be part of the fighting. I never had to actively hand-to-hand combat or anything like that.
It could be extremely boring. They had a monsoon season and you could stand outside and hardly get your breath.
Q: How did you manage that transition – from one minute being so bored to the next minute in fear of your life?
A: There's an interesting phenomenon that occurs. I call it sleeping with one eye open. I have a sleep deprivation problem now, and I think I got it in Vietnam. We were always hyper-sensitive to noise and light. If there was a flash or the slightest sound – you were listening for it – and when there would be an attack, it was normally at night. We got used to it. The government told the military, you are not on the offensive, you are on the defensive.
Q: That must have been extremely frustrating for you.
A. We knew what they were going to do. And my company had a team of Korean troops stationed with us. They were hand-to-hand combat experts and they did a three-year tour. If we were attacked in any way, these Korean troops would go into the village and find North Vietnam sympathizers and slit their throats. They were brutal. They hung a guy ... on a cross they built and staked him in the center of the village and he stayed there for a week or two. He turned black and swelled up, and there were all these little kids playing around this cross. That was really gross. I couldn't believe they would do that.
Q: Do you feel like your position insulated you from many of these atrocities?
A: I think my belief that things like that couldn't happen, I think that put a hard shell around me. I said, "Now, don't think about that. Don't let that get to you."
It's really weird when you think about it. When I was a little kid, we had cap guns and BB guns, and we'd play cowboy and Indians, and we shot each other and we would play dead. But when you get to Vietnam and that actually happens for real, it is astounding. It really is astounding. I didn't see my first dead person (from violence) until I was in Vietnam. I was 20 years old.
Q: How did that change your perspective?
A: I was so naive. I wasn't political in anyway. I didn't have a party. I wasn't old enough to vote. So I didn't have much of a position on life at 20 years old. So everything was new. I grew up a lot. I learned you're homesick, but there is nothing you can do about it. You can't cry, and you can't call mom and dad. You have to deal with it.