OGDEN — Tom Montez says he was still a kid when he left to fight for the Army in Vietnam.
But a horror he witnessed just 13 days into his first stint in the jungle turned him into a man overnight.
It was February 1969, in the A Shau Valley — an area west of the coastal city Huế, near the Laotian border. The valley was one of the the main entry points into South Vietnam and tactically significant due to its proximity to the Ho Chi Minh trail. It’s an area that saw lots of bloodshed during the conflict.
It was there Montez says he was forever changed.
“I’d just got there — I was 13 days in, so everything was still new,” he said. “One day, we were walking along the trail and we just got ambushed. There was an explosion and two of our guys got killed. Morris and Mendez. I don’t remember their first names, but I do remember one of them had something like 33 days left.”
Montez had to help carry the dead to a nearby landing zone, where a helicopter picked them up. He said the experience sent him into a kind of prolonged state of shock that stayed with him until he came home.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, it’s gonna be a long year,’ ” he said. “And it was. It was a real long year. My radar went up that day and it never came back down.”
Months before the ambush, while stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Montez says one of his superiors gave him a piece of eerie advice that would foreshadow what he’d eventually encounter in Vietnam.
“I volunteered for Vietnam and my sergeant said, ‘Have you ever seen anybody with their head cut off?’ ” Montez said. “I said, ’Uh, no.’ He said, ‘How about with their legs blown off?’ I told him no again, and he finally said, ‘Trust me, you don’t want to go to Vietnam.’ That right there gave me an idea of what I was getting into. But I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw. I’ll tell you, you grew up awful quick.”
Montez said this accelerated transition from youth to adulthood is common among Vietnam combat veterans and something he’s talked about a lot in the days leading up to a series of events tied to the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.
The anniversary was commemorated the last week in March in Utah and all over the country, recognizing all men and women who served on active duty during the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, which went from Nov.1, 1955, to May 15, 1975. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 9 million Americans served in the armed forces during that nearly 20-year period. More than 7 million are still living today.
Special events and ceremonies were held throughout the week to highlight those veterans’ service. In Utah, events were headlined by a March 29 commemoration ceremony at the Utah Capitol, attended by hundreds of Vietnam veterans and their families.
Montez, Harry Trease (Army), Dennis Howland (Marine Corps), and Bob Bercher (Air Force), said the week was a chance for them to remember, reconnect and heal.
“I think what the 50th commemoration does is give us legitimacy,” said Ogden resident Howland, a retired Marine who served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967. “From our country, for our war. It’s pretty well-documented that when we came home, the reception wasn’t so great, so these kinds of things — we need this. We need to get together with each other and tell our stories.”
According to the National Archives and Records Administration, 58,220 U.S. soldiers were killed during the Vietnam War. Those deaths include 361 Utahns.
Bercher, a former member of the Air Force and current resident of Clearfield, worked on B-52s and was on flying status during the war. He said when he was in Vietnam, he had a real-time view of the rising death tally.
“I remember being out on the ramp, working on aircraft and they had C-130s close by and they’d just be loading dozens and dozens of those transport coffins,” Bercher said. “I remember thinking, ’Gosh, how many people can get killed?’ But we had no idea about the numbers. The number that we saw was insignificant to what actually occurred. I think that’s something people need to remember when they think of Vietnam.”