PILTZVILLE – Sgt. Major Mike Jarnevic’s last military uniform is on display at the Indiana Military Museum. His war stories come from the Vietnam era and some 38 countries in every decade since.
The concrete passive solar house Jarnevic built in Piltzville, six miles east of Missoula, is home to the last known American veteran of Vietnam to retire from military service.
The end of a career that spanned 42 years came four months ago, on July 8, his 60th birthday. Jarnevic was feted that day in a ceremony at the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History at Fort Missoula.
Jarnevic became a Marine at 17 and deployed off the coast of Vietnam. Later, he became a Green Beret, serving in Honduras, the first Gulf War and Afghanistan. An Army reservist, Jarnevic spent the 16 months before retirement at Fort Lewis, Washington, where he was an analyst of intelligence reports in the fight against ISIS.
Q: What was your Vietnam experience like?
A: The last of the U.S. troops left March 28, 1973, but there were military people still at the embassy in Saigon, and a lot of former military people were used as contractors to keep the South Vietnamese system running. I enlisted on that day. … In April 1974, I went to my first duty station on the USS Ranger. We left for the Philippines and Vietnam (in) May. This was the period between when American troops pulled out in ’73 and Saigon fell in ’75. The war was still going on. We didn’t have direct involvement over there any more, but we certainly had a vested interest in what happened.
We went to what was called Yankee Station off the coast of Vietnam, where all the ships rendezvoused. We had intended to go to Hong Kong for two weeks of R&R, but were diverted to Da Nang. The North Vietnamese had the city surrounded on three sides and were shelling it. There was the possibility of what we call an NEO, a noncombatant evacuation operation. I think we had a consulate there, and there were a lot of Americans working at Cam Ranh Bay and all those areas around Da Nang.
We finally came back in October 1974. We had a crack in the hull of the ship which couldn’t be fixed, so we came back six months early. Those Westpac cruises were normally a year, so we would have been there at the fall of Saigon (late April 1975). I had buddies on another carrier who were part of the evacuation.
I didn’t put any boots on the ground, but I was in a combat arms unit, we were in a combat zone, and the war was still going on. It’s not the same as if we were staying at Camp Pendleton during those years.
Q: You’ve said your closest shave was in 1991 during the Gulf War. What happened?
A: It was the very first day of insertion into Kuwait from Saudi Arabia. I was a medical specialist attached to the Egyptian Third Mechanical Division. We were making a movement into Kuwait, and we had stopped. All of a sudden, you’d see people running in front with rags over their faces yelling “Gas! Gas!” We went to MOPP 4, which meant putting a gas mask on. We were already in full protective body suits.
In 10 minutes they said, yeah, it’s a false alarm. Well, we later found out it was not. There were 18,000 chemical alarms that went off in the Gulf War, and on top of that, right after the war was over, Army engineers went in and blew up ... a big ammo dump in southern Iraq so Saddam couldn't get his hands on it. Prevailing winds blew the chemical emissions into Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and half a million people were exposed. I actually got exposed twice.
Q: You came to Montana in 1980. What brought you?
A: I had previously come up here in 1971 with a guy I lived across the street from in Kansas City, and fell in love with it. I always said I would come back and I finally did. I lived up in the Flathead at Martin City and got an AA in history and political science at (Flathead Valley Community College), then I came to Missoula and got a BA in political science and history and a master's in creative writing. So I’ve been in Montana for 35 years.
Q: You’re an avowed environmental conservationist. That’s not something most people would expect from a Green Beret.
A: There are those who would say the two are counter to each other, but one of the things I learned over time is war does terrible things to the environment as well as to human beings. One of most recent instances was when Saddam unleashed all that oil in Kuwait in ’92 that did irreparable damage to Kuwait and surrounding areas. Out of that, I sort of formed the ethic that I would like to do my part to maintain these fragile ecosystems. Did you know the Northern Rockies, which includes Montana, is the last intact ecosystem in the United States, meaning everything that Lewis and Clark saw .... remains intact? It’s something that needs to be protected.
Q: Why'd you stay in the military so long?
A: That’s a good question. I wouldn’t have stayed if it weren’t for the fine people I was working with. ... I enjoyed the mission, enjoyed the camaraderie. There are certain aspects of military life that are extremely frustrating. The levels of the bureaucracy, I don't think sometimes people understand. My wife (Maria) said she doesn't see how I put up with it, but over time you kind of become hardened to it. Yeah, it’s going to be painful to see up front, but I'm going to burn through it and go on and live my life.