Keith Hovland’s service during the Vietnam Conflict ended more than 40 years ago, but to him, it still feels like yesterday.
As a member of the 584th Combat Engineers, Hovland served as a paratrooper/combat engineer from December 1968-December 1969. The battalion’s job was to build bunkers, roads, bridges, etc. Hovland’s job, however, was to lead three-man listening and observation teams into the jungle in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Once the men were in place (never in the same place twice) they would hide in the leaves and brush and looked for the enemy. They listened for enemy conversations to take back to their unit.
Every other night, in rain, cold and monsoons.
In the dark, the team’s senses were heightened, Hovland said, including the sense of smell. Hovland recalled the smell of the jungle and of spent gunpowder in the air. His own team smelled of mosquito repellent and gun cleaner. The enemy smelled of fish sauce.
“Our unit was attacked by mortars and rockets at least once a week,” Hovland recalled.
One morning, the team returned to their bunker before daylight as usual, only to find that their camp, including Hovland’s bunker had been mortared. The unit dug graves for their own dead, including a close friend of Hovland’s, he said. The enemy dead, he said, were placed in a mass grave with a bucket loader.
Hovland may not have had to go to Vietnam. Instead of being drafted, he and two of his seven brothers enlisted against their mother’s good sense. (Brothers didn’t have to serve in Vietnam simutaneously).
“I convinced her that it would be better for her to worry about three of us for one year, than to worry about one of us for three years,” he mused.
So she signed the waiver that allowed the brothers to join.
“Parents in general weren’t very supportive,” he said.
“Most kids, and that’s what we were, kids, enlisted for benefits — the GI Bill because they couldn’t afford to go to college,” he said adding that higher-income young people were able to avoid service because they could afford college.
The lack of support back home, even from perhaps his own government didn’t go unnoticed. Even so, Hovland didn’t disagree with the philosophy, only the management of the war.
“It’s less about the war than the management of the war,” he said. “A war has to be about a full-time commitment to winning. It’s about using full force. We can’t win a protracted war.”
“We were in Vietnam for four years planning on leaving,” he said of a war he believes could not have been won because the U.S. Government never put all it’s resources into it. “And we haven’t learned our lesson,” Hovland said referring to the war in Afghanistan and the second Iraq War.
The military’s purpose is to use “overwhelming force,” he said.
“We learned there that the ‘Domino Theory’ (going to war to stop the Communist from taking over one country so they won’t try to take over the next one) just doesn’t work,” he said, pointing out that the same thing may be said about the second Gulf War or the war in Afghanistan.
In fact, Hovland believes that the Vietnam people were more about Nationalism than Communism, he said. They just wanted to be their own country, away from French rule.
The political climate in the U.S. didn’t make his homecoming very welcoming either.
“We waited in a hut in Cameroon for eight hours waiting to board a transport plane home,” he said.
It wasn’t until later that he realized the flight had been arranged so that soldiers would land in Seattle after darkness, so they wouldn’t be so obvious...to their own countrymen.
“People coming home from Vietnam were mistreated,” Hovland said calling the atmosphere soldiers came home to the “Berkley Effect.”
“Jane Fonda should have been tried and executed for treason,” he said of the actress-turned-activest who publicly ostracized U.S. troops for their involvement in Vietnam.
But Hovland was not disillusioned by his experience, he believes in compulsory service for young Americans, even if it isn’t military service (Americorps, Peace Corps, etc.), noting that, “It’s not about patriotism, it’s about responsibility.”
Today, Hovland lives in Valley City with his wife Cynthia and is retired from John Deere. He has two sons, one of which served in the Army as a paratrooper, and 10 grandkids.