WHY I FOUGHT IN VIETNAM… AND WHY I’D DO IT AGAIN

While at Fort Knox with Chaplain Challman, I was part of the Armor Corps. When my orders for Vietnam came through, I was reassigned to the Military Police. Chaplain Challman gave me some simple advice on the day we parted company. “Pray for protection of God,” he said, “but never forget the wickedness of man.”

My father said something similar to that when he hugged me on that last day. His eyes were red and a tear was rolling down one cheek. “Keep your Bible and your rifle in ready reach at all times,” he cautioned.

I promised I would. And then he let me go.

The flights to Vietnam were long. I had the chance slowly and carefully to replay the memory tapes of my life in an effort to discover how it was that now at age twenty-one, of my own choosing, I was en route to a country I had never visited, yet planned to defend against an invader with my life.

From Michigan to California I pondered the problem. From California to Hawaii I eliminated the obvious answers and simplistic explanations. Much later, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Vietnam, I found my solutions, I ultimately decided that it all came down to my fourth grade Sunday school teacher, Joe Jenkins, Jr., and a 1966 trip I had made to East Germany. An odd combination of factors perhaps, but then what in life isn’t?

When I was nine, I had had perfect attendance for a year in Sunday school. My teacher, Mr. Jenkins, had given me a New Testament as a reward. He had admonished me to put it in my hip pocket and carry it with me every day wherever I went. One never knew, he told me, where God would direct, and it could very well be that there would be many chances to witness to people if I would just keep that New Testament handy.

I was young and I took his words literally. I began to carry that New Testament in all my clothing—in my school trousers, in my summer baseball uniform, and in my Sunday school dress slacks. Years passed and I maintained the practice, more out of habit than conscious effort. We moved from Detroit to Bay City, and the New Testament also moved (on my person). It was always with me.

Just as Mr. Jenkins had predicted, chances to witness did arise—sometimes at school, sometimes at summer camp, sometimes at college.

Though not consciously knowing it, I had become a missionary while in fourth grade. A dozen years later, that same small black-covered New Testament was still in my hip pocket as I flew, now dressed in an Army uniform, toward Vietnam. From now on I would not only be witnessing to my own people, but also to others of new races and nationalities. I felt prepared, even “called” if you will.

But there was more to my motivation. I also came to realize that I was as much an anti-Communist in my own way as my father had been an anti-Nazi during his war. Only now I knew why. And suddenly I understood a lot more about my father.

You see, in 1966 after graduating from high school, I had spent the summer touring Europe on my own. While there, I was taken on a ten-day trip through East Germany by a German friend. We saw loading areas where Jews had been put on trains to be taken to concentration camps.

It upset me. That never should have been tolerated, I thought. Where had the good men been then? Why hadn’t more come forward? Where had the Davids been, unafraid of the giants, the Moses’, unafraid of the oppressors, the Peters, ready to pull a sword from the hip at any sign of wrongdoing? My father had been a good man…a good Christian man. He, obviously, had said, “This must stop. Now! It’s barbaric. I am my brother’s keeper. This I cannot condone.” And then he had stepped forward. I was proud of that.

It wasn’t that good men lusted for war, I realized. They craved peace. But to obtain peace, good men often had to serve as peacemakers. Nobody liked that role. But, like Gideon, they accepted it with equal feelings of awe and bafflement, amazed to think they could make a difference.

But I really didn’t worry about making a difference in Vietnam. I just accepted the assignment, the same way I accepted that little black New Testament. God would provide the opportunities. All I knew was that concentration camps, torture, war and oppression were now being used by godless Communists that same way that they had been used by the godless Nazis. And it was time once again for good men to come forward.

According to the Army records, I did make a difference during my year in Vietnam. Perhaps. I flew in helicopters and protected chaplains who were going to and from the distant fire base camps. It was rough at times and they gave me the Bronze Star and two Vietnamese service medals for being an extremely good bodyguard. Actually, the motivation for all that came quite natural to me at the time. I just wanted to stay alive. But I accepted the medals and wrote home to my father about it. He understood perfectly. A good man did what he had to do.

And I did eight months duty working in a stockade, helping to organize prisoner choirs, writing letters home for prisoners, and just being there to talk to prisoners. It was sorrowful at times. They gave me the Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Ribbon, and Good Conduct medal for that and promoted me to Specialist Fifth Class. I accepted it all, but began to cross the days off on my calendar. It was a long war and even a man who strives to do good grows weary with time.

During that year in Vietnam I witnessed to many Americans, many Vietnamese. I also physically resisted the Communist takeover. I did what I could, which most of the time didn’t seem adequate enough.

But after I was sent home in 1972, I sat in front of my television set and viewed newsreels of the Communist takeover of South Vietnam. I saw innocent people killed in cold blood. I saw farmers driven off their land and cast adrift in leaky ships. I watched these helpless “boat people “sink and drown because they were forbidden to return to their own shores.

And I said, “We were right to have helped those people. I was right to have helped those people. But why did we stop? They still needed us. Why did we stop helping?”

And the unspoken answer became obvious: because good men quit coming forward to fight against evil.

The Waynedale News Staff
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Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D.

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