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Gary Clemon reflects on Vietnam

For Gary Clemon, joining the Iowa National Guard was the right choice. He married his wife, Diann, in 1965. The plan was for to go her to school while he worked. Since he lost his student deferment, he joined the Iowa National Guard in 1965.

In 1968, Clemon’s unit was called for activate duty.

“A lot of people don’t realize this, but there was only one small unit activated for duty in Iowa,” Clemon said. “There was about 900 of us activated out of the state. We didn’t go as a unit, like they do now. About half of us were sent to Vietnam.”

He discovered, after the war, that 12 were killed in action and 64 were wounded.

He was able to spend Christmas at home, but the day after he headed out to Vietnam. He arrived on New Year’s Day. He was assigned to the 199th light infantry brigade .

“Our main base was out of Long Binh,” Clemon said. “We were basically an infantry brigade that primarily did search and destroy sweeps, usually within 100 miles of Saigon. I was a heavy weapons non-commissioned officer. I was a sergeant. I thought being a sergeant didn’t mean you had to do anything. I ended up working three times as hard as anyone else.”

He still remembers his first day in Vietnam.

“They opened that door; the heat, the humidity, the smell,” Clemon said. “It was rotting vegetation, and it was powerful. You got used to it, but the first time — you’re not in Kansas anymore. When you join the service, and you take that oath, you are giving the government a blank check with your life. It’s just the luck of the draw of who gets to go where, and what.”

He provided ground troops with mortar support, and was in charge of a group of soldiers.

“At the ripe old age of 23, I had about 20 to 25 guys under my command, which was an education,” Clemon said. “I was an old man at 23. Most of the guys were 18, 19 or 20 years old.”

In Vietnam, most battles were at night. Clemon’s unit helped support ground troops. They fired illumination rounds.

“We could literally light up the sky,” Clemon said. “(We) could light up an area about the size of a football field. If they said somebody was out in front of them they would call (us). Almost everything in Vietnam was done at night. The VC (Viet Cong) and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) always moved at night, and mostly did whatever they were going to do at night.

“At night, we knew where our guys were at,” Clemon said. “Civilians were supposed to be evacuated. It was assumed that anything we didn’t know about was the enemy.”

Although Clemon was not on the front lines, the danger was there.

“Just being there was emotional,” Clemon said in reference to being in combat. “After a while, you get used to the idea. If you don’t, you won’t make it.”

There were times that Clemon did perimeter guard. He lucked out because of his rank.

“In those days, we didn’t have the specification (night goggles) that they have now,” Clemon said. “They came out with the starlight scope. It wasn’t good. You had to have a lot of moonlight. Since I was a squad leader, I drew up the schedule. I made sure the moon was out. I was not afraid of being killed, but if we were going to be overrun I did not want it to be my fault.”

Clemon met soldiers who saw combat, and never forget the look in their eyes.

“I would see those young kids, younger than me, the glazed over look in their eyes; the stuff they had to go through,” Clemon said. “I don’t feel that I did a whole lot of stuff. Those are the guys that we were there to support.”

His unit sometimes randomly fired, just to keep the enemy guessing.

Almost all battles were at night, which meant mornings were for working and sleeping. He made sandbags and cleaned toilets. The military made many bathrooms involving a barrel. Once the barrel was full, someone had to light the waste on fire. The whole process took about an hour.

He was able to leave the army early because of college registration. He asked his wife to register him for University of Iowa.

“I was discharged on a Saturday afternoon, and registered (at Iowa) Monday morning,” Clemon said. “In those days, you didn’t tell anyone you were in the military. You snuck back into society, and I graduated from Iowa.”

In 1972, he graduated with a business degree from Iowa.

Staff writer Matthew Shepard may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 425, or at

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