GOSHEN — He survived a deadly rocket attack and suffered the effects of Agent Orange, but John Alheim says he still didn't have it as rough in Vietnam as others did.
The longtime Goshen firefighter and commander of VFW Post 985 enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 19 and worked in communications during his one-year tour of duty. He was assigned to a relay station outside Da Nang when it was destroyed by enemy forces in February 1967.
"They blew it up with us in it," said Alheim, 70. "I came out OK, but they killed a bunch of people."
So it's not for his own sake but for fellow veterans that he was glad to learn that March 29 has been named National Vietnam War Veterans Day. The act establishing the holiday, coauthored in February by Sen. Joe Donnelly, marks the day in 1973 when the last combat troops were ordered out of Vietnam.
"With this bipartisan bill signed into law, we can finally give our Vietnam veterans the additional recognition they deserve," Donnelly said in a statement. "These Americans sacrificed to protect our country – they are our family, friends and neighbors, and it is important to honor and remember their patriotism, service, and sacrifice."
Alheim said the new holiday caught him by surprise, but he thinks it's wonderful news.
"Vietnam veterans need to be honored for what they did," he said. "They went, they did their duty and they came home. Unfortunately, they came home to a lot of bitterness from people who didn't understand the war."
He remembers coming home himself on New Year's Eve, flying into Chicago and driving the rest of the way. The clock struck 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 1968, while he was still on the road.
Alheim said he didn't get the cold – even hostile – welcome of the returning soldiers who were cursed at and spat on. He did need a kidney transplant years later, thanks to the effects of the defoliant Agent Orange, but he said the chemical hit a lot of guys even harder.
He wouldn't venture to guess how many Vietnam veterans are living in Elkhart County, though the Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., lists the names of more than 20 from the county who died during the war. Statewide, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says there are more than 150,000 Vietnam veterans in Indiana.
Alheim served with a motley crew, thanks to the draft. His squadmates included gang leaders, entertainers and other smalltown boys like himself. He had grown up with some of the people he knew over there and said in some ways it was kind of a small world.
"We got along well, for throwing a bunch of us together. For a small kid from a small town, I learned a lot," he said. "There was good interaction. We learned from the various backgrounds that were there and I learned there's good in everybody."
But they were thrown into a very strange, dangerous world where the rules of who you could fire at or who was firing at you were a far cry from the all-out warfare of World War II or Korea, Alheim said. An anthem among his men was "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," a 1965 song by The Animals: "We gotta get out of this place, if it's the last thing we ever do."
"They were sent over to do a job and they did the best they could. They left their family, homes and lives behind," Alheim said. "They should be recognized, not so much for me but for what they did."