Ed Van Zandt went into service for the U.S. Army in April of ’68. One year later, he was awarded the Silver Star, which is the third highest military decoration of valor a person can earn in any branch.
An excerpt from the paperwork sheds a little light on what Ed did to earn such a high honor.
“At approximately 1200 hours, the friendly force entered an area of dense jungle containing numerous enemy bunkers. Almost immediately, the platoon was subjected to an intense barrage of automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade fire from an unknown enemy force.
“With complete disregard for his personal safety, Specialist Van Zandt exposed himself to the vicious fusillade of enemy rounds as he placed suppressive fire upon the insurgents. He continued to effectively engage aggressors by moving from bunker to bunker, destroying them with hand grenades and satchel charges.”
So how does a man go from new enlistee to war hero in one year’s time? Like most things, it’s best to go from the beginning and to hear it straight from the original source.
“I didn’t sign up. I signed up after I got drafted actually,” Ed said jokingly. “Me and my buddy went down to enlist together on the buddy plan. I went to school with him. We got physicals and everything, and he had flat feet so he didn’t get to go.
“I didn’t finish signing up, and then about less than 10 months later they sent me a little deal that said: ‘Come and join us at Fort Des Moines.’ I said, ‘Well, this ain’t going to be good.’” he continued.
Ed jokingly added that all you had to do was be able to breathe back then to go into the Army. After he got his letter, he reported to basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas, which he fondly remembers.
“(It was) hot, hot,” Ed quipped. “Hot, hot, just an old desert down. We spent eight weeks down there doing absolutely Army stuff. Marching, obstacle course — anything they had to do. You didn’t volunteer for anything.”
After basic training, Ed was sent to Fort Ord, Calif., for Advance Individual Training.
“We were supposed to be there for eight weeks but that cut short a little bit. They needed people in Vietnam,” he said.
Before going to Vietnam, Ed said he got to go back home to Iowa for 15 days. After that, he reported back in and prepared for his trek overseas with B Company, First Infantry Division.
“Not a whole lot of training when you get there,” Ed said. “They get you with your company, and when they get you out on patrol/recon, you go with them. You learn in the field.”
Ed’s own words came true as he described what happened to him and his unit during recon one day.
“We were going down through a river boat site down along the riverbank and ran into some bunkers,” Ed said. “We took some heavy fire and we got some depth chargers into them — mortars and stuff. We had a lot of injured people, and they took a lot of casualties. There was about 20 dead on their part. Our unit didn’t lose any.”
The stories shared previously in this article weren’t Ed’s only combat experiences in Vietnam. There was another time in combat where Ed’s lieutenant accidently called a mortar strike on his own men. That incident in particular led to him to transfer into transportation. He hauled everything from steaks to weapons.
While Ed worked in transportation, his mother sent him a letter that he found quite amusing.
“She said, ‘Can’t you find a safer job?’ I said, ‘This is safe.’ A lot of people didn’t think so. (The explosives) they didn’t have blasting caps on them,” Ed said jokingly. “I got to haul steaks every once and awhile, and they would fall of the truck, and we’d have a big steak fry. We figured the officers didn’t need that batch.”
Ed got out of the service in June of 1972 after four years of serving his country. He participated in the 2011 Jasper County Freedom Flight as “yellow shirt” and served as a “red shirt” in 2013 as a way to “pay it forward.”
“It was a wonderful thing to do,” Ed said. “I was really impressed with all the monuments; it was good looking at them. It’s a flight that everybody should be able to go on. I’m thankful to the people.”
Staff writer Ty Rushing may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 426, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.