Summit County veteran David Patterson reflects on Vietnam
Although four decades and 8,000 miles separate David Patterson from his 22-year-old self, his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam remain locked in his memory.
“It’s a pretty country,” he says of it now, pointing at copies of old photographs of himself on palm-tree-lined beaches. At the time, however, he wasn’t able to sit back and appreciate natural beauty.
Patterson didn’t come from a military background, although his father did spend some time in the Air Force as a doctor. As for his reasons for signing up for the Army, Patterson said, “I don’t know. I had some buddies that got killed in Vietnam and I kind of wanted to go pay some people back for those kills. (Like) counting coup.”
So he volunteered and went to basic training near Seattle, Wash., during which he turned 21. After basic he went on to advanced training, then had a two-week leave before being shipped overseas. He spent those two weeks in Loveland with his family.
Patterson arrived in southern Vietnam and traveled north to Camp Eagle, between Phu Bai and Hue. As a member of the 101st Airborne, known as the “Screaming Eagles,” Patterson would rappel out of helicopters, often into highly dangerous areas.
“There were some funny times; there were a lot of real serious times,” he said.
He has a book commemorating his experience. It’s homemade, not professionally published, spiral-bound and consisting of photocopies of photos, medal certificates and letters he wrote home. His sister compiled it and several copies exist, mostly for the purpose of family history.
“In this book, my sister analyzes it and says you could tell that I was fairly excited about going through new experiences at the start of (my service), and then it kind of got where the letters were a bit more mundane,” Patterson said.
The photographs, faded and some blurry with water damage, show various scenes from Patterson’s time in Vietnam: Patterson standing beside a lake, wearing his round military helmet. Patterson with a monkey sitting on his shoulder. A shirtless Patterson with bullet-filled ammo belts draped across his chest.
For Patterson and the other soldiers, letters and care packages were a great source of comfort, a brief taste and reminder of home. He wrote and received letters from his parents and both sisters. When he got tired of the tasteless C rations, his mother sent him garlic powder and hot sauce.
“Mail was real important over there,” Patterson said. “It was always great to get letters from anybody, or care packages.”
Although Patterson carried an M60 machine gun, 300 rounds of ammunition and up to five quart bottles of water, he also carried the “important stuff” in a small ammo can on his backpack. These were the letters, the photos, the garlic and hot sauce.
As time passed on Patterson’s two-year term, he became more savvy to the ways of survival.
“Your senses really stepped up as you got used to the jungle,” he said. “It took a while to get used to it, even to walk in it, and most of us were excellent trackers. We could tell where people had been and what was going on.”
Sometimes, the helicopters Patterson was in would drop explosives around a site before landing, in hopes of driving away enemy forces and triggering any waiting booby traps. Sometimes they defoliated the nearby trees.
“I had my experiences with Agent Orange,” Patterson said. “I crawled through a lot of it. Nobody was really aware of what it was, back then.”
Toward the end of his term, Patterson came down with a serious kidney infection. After initial treatment, the doctor sent him back to his unit with the injunction against any highly physical activities like “running and jumping.” The doctor’s orders didn’t hold and soon Patterson was right back in the thick of it, assisting at a fire base “that was just getting nailed. I had a fox hole that was just about as wide as I was, just 6 feet deep, but I poked my head out when they hit a bunch of artillery shells, and it singed all my hair off, all my eyebrows.”
When he returned, hairless, to the medical area and the doctor learned that he had, in fact, been “running and jumping,” the doctor took a more serious stance and refused to let Patterson go back to fighting.
“They really had to force me to come in. I didn’t want to leave the field, because by then … I knew a lot about the jungle,” Patterson said. “I didn’t want to leave my friends because I was afraid (that) without me, they’d get hurt.”
This time, however, he didn’t have a choice. Since he wasn’t in combat, he was given another job to do — identifying bodies of soldiers killed in action.
“They kept all the bodies in these trucks, in a refrigerated truck, and I’d go down and try to identify who they were. Because I’d been out in the field so long, I knew most everybody,” Patterson said. “The only way I put up with that was it wasn’t me in the refrigerator truck. That’s how I managed that.”
Eventually, Patterson was able to return to the field with his fellow soldiers. Not long after that, came one of his closest calls.
“I stepped out of a helicopter — I was the first helicopter in — I ran over to the side,” he said. “The next helicopter came in, the guy got off exactly where I was, stepped on a bomb and blew himself up.”
Patterson knew him, and knew they had both stepped on the exact same spot on the ground.
“Then I was like, ‘Send me in, I’m ready (to go home),’” he said. “That was close enough.”
Not much later, Patterson finished his required time in Vietnam and, with the rank of sergeant and several medals, including the Air Medal and the Bronze Star Medal, returned to civilian life in the U.S.
Homecoming and moving on
Patterson returned to Colorado and attended the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley on the G.I. Bill. He graduated with a degree in education.
He cites friends and classes as his best tools for making the transition to civilian life, admitting it was difficult getting used to not carrying a gun with him everywhere he went. Staying in touch with soldier friends was difficult, too, he said, because of the staggered timing of their returns home.
“Most Vietnam vets, when you came back, you just didn’t talk about it. Even if you knew somebody that had been over there, you didn’t sit down and talk about your experiences,” he said. “So for a long time nobody really talked about it. You just —“ he made a motion with his hands, as though pushing something behind him — “that’s over, that’s done. Let’s get on with my life.”
Patterson graduated from UNC in 1973, spent a short time teaching and coaching in Idaho Springs, and then decided to try out a winter season as a ski instructor in Breckenridge.
That single season turned into 40, as Patterson fell in love with life in Summit County. He retired from teaching skiing this year, planning to spend more time with his dog, Marley, and on the back of his Harley Davidson motorcycle.
In the past, Patterson said he didn’t really ever do much for Veterans Day. An experience he had in Denver, while still in school after he’d returned, affected his view of the whole thing.
“I belonged to a veteran’s club at UNC and we went down to Denver to the Veterans Day parade, and basically got kicked out,” he recalled. “We were just going to bring up the rear of it and the cops stopped us, told us we’d be arrested if we continued and we’d have to walk on the sidewalk.”
His experience in Summit County has been much different. He’s gone to Veterans Day ceremonies at the elementary schools, and spoken with students at Silverthorne Elementary.
“It was pretty interesting. The (students) at Silverthorne all made poems and thanked me and it was nice,” he said, a big grin spreading across his face. “I made a poster out of them.”
Patterson has also been receiving help from the Summit County Veterans Service Office, particularly from Veterans Service Officer Tom Byledbal, who has been helping him apply for benefits related to his exposure to Agent Orange.
“He’s really helped me because, in the Army, it’s government and it’s forms and forms and forms and forms, and he’s just really knowledgeable about all the procedures,” Patterson said. “I really appreciate what he does and if there are veterans up here that aren’t using that avenue, then they should.”
Now that he’s retired, Patterson’s plans are simple. “I want to just go ski and have fun,” he said with a laugh.
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