HESSTON, Kan. (KSNW) — It is estimated one in eight soldiers who served in Vietnam were infantrymen.
Even fewer were members of the Special Forces. Neil McChesney was one of them.
“There’s still way, way back inside that mind of mine a lot of things that I wish I hadn’t done, but I know that I had to at the time,” McChesney said. “People don’t realize what some of these guys, we were taught what to do in Special Forces, and that is, you kill somebody. You don’t hurt them, you kill ’em,” McChesney said.
After attending Special Forces school at Fort Bragg, McChesney would deploy to Vietnam in 1969.
“Little did I know that, of course, the more training you have, the hairier situations you get to put yourself into,” McChesney said.
For his first seven months in Vietnam, the former Green Beret would take part in many special missions, requiring him to leave behind any form of identification, including dog tags.
“I was a little crazier then than I am now,” McChesney said. “On my old helmet, it said I was a Kansas ‘Madman.'”
During these missions, McChesney would find himself in the middle of many intense firefights, leaving him and his men outnumbered and surrounded.
“The first time that you’re ever in a firefight, you’re scared to death,” McChesney said. “If they ever saw what that bullet does to a body, you would never wanna fire that type of weapon again.”
During a skirmish across a valley and into the mountains, McChesney and his men hit a booby trap.
“It went off between my fourth man and my fifth man, my radio man and my next man, and they were okay,
I mean we got ’em evac’d out, and then the guy on the evac put his hand on my back, and he said, ‘Okay, Sarge, you’re next’, and I says, ‘Well, what?’, he took his hand out, and it was of course covered with blood, and I went, ‘Oh, okay’,” McChesney said.
McChesney would receive a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars for his actions while serving in Vietnam.
“That doesn’t mean that I’m a hero. That just means that I spent my time in hell,” McChesney said.
McChesney says he will forever be grateful for the seven out of eight soldiers who served as support for the men on the front lines.
“I have a real good friend. He was a door-gunner on evacuation helicopters, and as he told me once, he said, ‘You know, I, it just scared me to death when I had to take you guys out, but I just loved picking you up,’ and I told him I loved him picking me up too,” McChesney said.
McChesney would serve seven months with the Special Forces before volunteering to join the 173rd Airborne.
“The 173rd Airborne Brigade caught quite a bit of hell, and they lost a number of men, and they wanted replacements,” McChesney said.
The 173rd Airborne was part of a new pacification program the U.S. Army was testing at the time: protecting the men, women and children of the Ang Lo Valley in the central part of Vietnam.
“It had been a real hellhole for the First Calv.,” McChesney said. “They had lost a lot of men in there because it’s a very rich rice area. The Viet Cong were coming in there, and the kids were hungry and scared to death.”
McChesney said he and his men grew to have a special bond with the people of the Ang Lo Valley.
“Those people, at first, were a little nervous about us ‘cuz they weren’t used to having military right there, but then they got, it got to be you’d go down into the village, and you’d sit down just because you wanted to go down and see how things were going, next thing you know you’d just been hugged by half a dozen little kids,” McChesney said.
McChesney says some kids would run miles to give American soldiers a taste of home from thousands of miles away.
“I have pictures of my Coke, what I call my ‘Coke girl,’ ‘cuz these kids, they would put a piece of bamboo over their shoulder with a basket on each end, and they would literally run to Bong San, which was about, oh, I’d say probably 10-12 miles, and they would get Coca-Colas for us,” McChesney said.
McChesney calls the pacification program the most significant thing that happened to him while in Vietnam.
“It showed that, it made me feel like we were really people, you know, and that we cared about those people, and we took care of those people,” McChesney said.
McChesney would return to the states after two tours of Vietnam.
“Everybody behind me [on the plane] had to wait just a little bit because when I got to the bottom, I got down on my hands and knees, and I kissed the ground,” McChesney said. “I was happy to be home.”
McChesney says it would take four years for him to reenter society after his time in Vietnam. He credits his wife, Catherine, for helping him through as he continues his journey of pacification 50 years later.
“That’s what I’ve tried to be like now. It’s my hat, it was my life, it’s an honor, an honor to wear it,” McChesney said.
McChesney said he often wonders about what became of the children he worked to protect decades ago.
“That little valley, the Ang Lo Valley, if I was able to go back in there, I wonder how many of those kids would be grown up and how many they would be, the way that they would talk to their kids and their grandkids, ‘oh, this is who he was, and this is why they did,’ you know, and there’s good, there’s goodness, there’s some good there,” McChesney said.
If you would like to nominate a veteran for our Veteran Salute, email KSN reporter Hannah Adamson at firstname.lastname@example.org.