As Veterans Day approaches, Bismarck VFW Post 6947 Commander Mike Greer is once again reminded of the time he spent in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and the many sacrifices made by his fellow servicemen and women who fought valiantly in a conflict that many Americans had strong feelings about — and not all of them were positive.
After graduating in May 1967 from Southwestern High School, Greer, 69, a native of Alton, Illinois, enlisted in the Army two months later. His story, however, has an interesting twist.
“When I went into the service, I cheated to get in,” he said. “Most people cheat to get out. I felt it was my duty to go. When I went through all the testing, they found out that I’m hard of hearing in my left ear. So, they said, ‘We’re going to test you and if your hearing is bad, you’ll wash out. At that time all they had was a booth. It didn’t have any windows in it or anything.
“They said, ‘We’re going to test your left ear.’ As soon as that door shut, I took those earphones off, switched them around and put them on. The sounds came through and when they stopped — just as soon as I got them switched back and let go of them — the guy at the door said, ‘Get out of there! There ain’t nothing wrong with your hearing.”
On April 5, 1968, Greer was sent to the Republic of South Vietnam and remained there for around a year. He arrived in Saigon and then was transported to Camron Bay where he was assigned to the 128th Signal Company where he repaired telephone equipment and switchboards. Soon after he was reassigned to the 69th Maintenance Battalion as a battalion commander’s driver.
“Six or eight months after that I was loaned by our battalion commander to the group commander who was a colonel,” Greer said. “I drove for him for probably three months and then I was reassigned back to the 128th Signal Company as the company commander’s driver. That’s where I spent the last year-and-a-half driving for the company commander. While I was there, our base came under attack probably six or eight times.”
Greer recalls that one of his most memorable experiences while in Vietnam took place while about 40-50 soldiers were watching a movie on a big screen set up to entertain the troops.
“There was a big explosion,” he said. “It was a war movie, naturally. Behind us it just kind of lit up. We wondered what that was, so we turned around. Probably, oh, 100 yards behind us, somebody had been walking by the jet fuel lines that were running from the bay to the airbase and hadn’t realized there was a leak. He threw a cigarette. We never knew who he was — we did find a pair of boots, though.”
After being in Vietnam about five months, Greer was assigned guard duty out on the bridge that connected the mainland with the airbase. While on the bridge, he looked toward the airbase where he could see jets landing and taking off.
“One of these ‘air jockeys’ came in low over the water and just as he got on top of the bridge, he opened her up. Oh, I’m telling you — I nearly jumped in the water. I’m sure he was laughing because he had to have seen me standing there. Well, then here comes the sergeant of the guard and it was time for me to take my four-hour relief — but they weren’t going to take me back to the guard shack.
“He said, ‘There’s a bunker out there. You go out there and you sleep in the bunker out there. Once you get in the bunker, don’t come out.’ I asked him, ‘Why is that?’ He said, ‘You see all those lights out there?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He said, ‘That’s the Korean White Horse Division. If they see you outside that bunker, they’ll kill you.’
“OK, so I’ll go in the bunker and I’ll stay. I’ll catch a few winks. I ducked down to go into the bunker and the last thing he said was, ‘Watch out for the rats.’ So, I spent the next four hours sitting in the opening of that bunker wide awake. I never got any sleep and they came and got me and took me back to the bridge for my last hours. Then I went back to the camp. It was an interesting four hours.”
It wasn’t until near the end of his tour in Vietnam that Greer’s hearing loss was discovered while he was once again on guard duty.
“The sergeant of the guard came up on my left side,” he said. “I didn’t hear him. He stood there, and he said he talked to me for about five minutes. I never heard a word he said. Then he touched me on the shoulder. I came around with the butt of my rifle and he ducked. He got up and he said, ‘What’s wrong with your hearing?’ I said, ‘Nothing that I know of.’ He said, ‘Yes, there is. I’ve been here for five minutes and you never heard a word I said.’
“So, they sent me up to La Trang to an ear specialist and he found out I was deaf in my left ear. I didn’t have to pull anymore guard duty or anything like that. More or less all I did then was drive for the company commander. I made several friends over there. I traveled between La Trang and Phan Rang. I made a trip to Pleiku and a trip to Deloitte. I made it back and I saw some terrible things. I can’t begin to describe what they were like.
“We left 58,000 heroes over there. Kids my age — some of them older, some of them were ‘lifers’ and all that. They didn’t deserve that. Then when we got home, we got spit on, called ‘baby killers’ and all kinds of crap. All we wanted was to hear, ‘Thank you for your service.’ I get that all the time now, but back then I didn’t get it at all. You’ve got guys now coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan — all of those places — and they’re treated the way they should be treated. We didn’t get treated that way. We only did what our government wanted us to do.”
Greer described Vietnam as “a terrible, terrible experience” that he wished he’d never had to go through — but in a way he was glad that he did.
“Irregardless of what people think of me here, or anything, up in Illinois people would turn their backs and walk away,” he said. “I’d be wearing a veteran’s hat and they’d say nothing. We moved down to Bismarck and probably the first day we were down here I got a, ‘Thank you. Welcome home.’ And it’s been that way ever since.”
Greer and his wife Karen have lived at Holiday Shores since moving to the area in 2006.
“We go back to Illinois to visit, but that’s all it is,” he said. “I joined the VFW in 2008 or 2009 and I’ve been in the VFW since then. I was junior vice commander for three or four years. This year I took commander. There’s a great bunch of guys in here.”
The Greers are proud of their six grandchildren and two great-grandsons with whom they spend as much time as they can.
“That’s probably the best part of aging is having grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” he said. “To be right honest with you, I feel as good as I did when I was in my 50s. I tell everybody that my mind keeps telling me, ‘You can do whatever you want to do’ and my body said, ‘Wait a minute! I get a vote in this!” People say this is the ‘Golden Years,’ but it’s not. It’s the ‘Rusty Years,’ because you’re just about worn out.”
Despite Greer having health problems associated with his exposure to Agent Orange while in Vietnam, as well as diabetes, he and Karen deliver Meals on Wheels for the Bismarck Senior Center. Additionally, he serves as president of the center’s board and his wife serves as its secretary/treasurer. Prior to that, the couple worked for George West’s transportation service. Karen drove a bus and her husband worked on them.
Asked what Veterans Day means to him, Greer said, “I don’t even count myself as being in the same company as the veterans that we salute on Veterans Day. It’s a time to reflect on the veterans that didn’t come home. They were men of honor. They were men of courage. They just have my upmost respect.
“Veterans Day is a day that should be celebrated as a national holiday, but it isn’t. When I worked in Illinois, on Veterans Day kids were still in school, I think. The banks are closed and you don’t get any mail. To my way of thinking, Veterans Day is a day when this country should just shut down and honor our veterans — living and dead — because the ones who died paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
“Veterans Day is a day that should be celebrated as a national holiday.” — Mike Greer, VFW Post 6947 commander
Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or firstname.lastname@example.org