5/09/2018 Roger Moore

Back to Vietnam

This magazine article is part of Spring 2018 / Issue 91
  • Illustration

There were 509 of them, in the fall of 1964, finding their dorms and meeting their roommates. Which of these freshmen, boys still, could imagine dying in a hostile jungle 9,000 miles from home?

“If you’d have asked me or any of my classmates to point to Vietnam on a map, I don’t reckon we could have done it,” says Dave Lehman ’68, P’01, now an F&M trustee.

College life cocooned them at first. They emerged to find the Vietnam War had become not only a contentious campus issue but also the era-defining national experience. It bracketed a tumultuous period from civil rights marches and black power militancy to women’s liberation and political upheavals. Shocking assassinations sparked rioting and burning cities. Hanging over it all, the Damoclean military draft.

Today, as F&M’s Class of 1968 prepares to gather for its 50th reunion in June, personal stories revisit that turbulent time. Two are from reunion committee members who served as dorm counselors, worked to pay their way, share a pacifist heritage, and were elected to the Black Pyramid Honor Society. Neither had college-educated parents.

 

The Farm Boy

Lehman grew up on a small dairy farm in southern Lancaster County, the eldest of four children. “What you get out of a 120-acre farm is a lot of blisters and sore muscles but not a lot of money,” he says.

True to their centuries-old Swiss-German heritage, Lehman’s family practiced a strict Mennonite faith; they didn’t treat the Ten Commandments like the Ten Suggestions.

“When I got into high school,” he recalls, “I wanted to wrestle and play football. Too much time away from farm work, Dad said, so we had a little tussle about that.” Locking horns with his father taught the strong-willed son “to bull through a concrete wall to get what you want.”

His wrestling coach led him to F&M’s wrestling coach and a college that “bent over backwards to help me.” Playing football put him next to an F&M assistant coach, Dusty Ritter, a geology professor, who knew how to plant a life-changing seed. “Why don’t you take a course in…?”

Dave graduated with honors in geology, played football and wrestled all four years. Goal-focused and action-biased, he was working too hard to pay attention to Vietnam—or to let anything stand between him and a doctorate from the University of Texas.

Yet he changed his mind about being a conscientious objector. “I explained to my parents that [like them] I was very patriotic, believed in paying my dues, and if I had to defend my country as part of the deal, I should. My dad and I had many head-bangings over that.” Their pastor understood, but politely “kicked me out” of the church.

After graduation and a summer in Montana working for the U.S. Geological Survey, he arrived in Austin for graduate school to discover he’d been drafted.

By June 1969, he’d been trained at Fort Dix and flew to Saigon. “We stay in the barracks there overnight, and I’m scared out of my mind. It’s the middle of a war zone—helicopters, rockets, grenades, machine gun fire, M-16 fire, all night long.”

Next morning, assigned to 1st Field Force Artillery, he flew north to Cam Ranh Bay, then to an artillery base in the Central Highlands, west of Nha Trang. His new job: aiming and firing 105mm and 155mm howu in support of combat troops.

“The only thing separating us from the jungle are some sand bags and concertina wire. You can’t see the enemy. But every two weeks or so, 15 or 25 mortars or rockets sail in. You can hear incoming—it makes a very distinctive high whining whistle [he whistles]. If you hear the shell exploding, it’s missed you.”

There were close calls. In his 13 months on the base, other soldiers were killed, though none in his unit. “But you can’t be scared all the time. A shell could hit me, but odds are it won’t, and you live within that realism and start counting the days till you come home.”

“When I first went to Austin in August 1968, I thought it was hot, I flat, and desolate, Lehman says. “When I came back in 1970, I thought it was heaven.”

He took just three years to become David H. Lehman, Ph.D., the steppingstone to a 27-year career at Exxon-Mobil and, since 2002, his own petroleum exploration businesses.

“I’m very proud of my service, proud of the fact that when I had to make a scary decision, I made the right one. No organization teaches leadership like the military,” he says.

 

The Objector

As editor of the 1968 edition of Franklin & Marshall’s yearbook, “Oriflamme,” Roger Derstine ’68 decided to capture his class through an ambitious breakout design. “A chaotic view of a chaotic time,” he called it. He transformed the yearbook into an impressionistic photo and graphic mash-up, punctuated with pokes in the eye of the established order. Senior pictures departed from cookie-cutter headshots to let each student express a casual individuality.

Four decades later, Derstine wrote an affectionate video tribute to “the Cast of ’68.” The old photos, ’60s sound track, and bemused narration summon wistful coming-of-age memories. (William Fergusson ’68 posted it on Facebook page of F&M’s Class of 1968.)

Derstine grew up in Souderton, a small town outside Philadelphia, and represented the 11th generation of Mennonite Derstines in the U.S. “Then I went astray,” he laughs.

F&M was “a stretch for my family,” he says. But the College “made it possible for someone like me.”

He majored in government and thought he wanted to become an attorney. Yet his fascination with commercial arts tugged him in a different direction. He edited yearbooks in both high school and college, worked one summer as a commercial artist, immersing himself in F&M’s studio art courses.

As Vietnam heated up, he attended some meetings of campus activists. Lancaster’s draft board was firebombed, and a radical friend went to prison in the aftermath. In October 1967, along with friends and 100,000 anti-war protestors, he marched in Washington.

“Military service was never an option for me,” Derstine says. “I explored every option to avoid it—including going to Canada.” His senior year, he won conscientious objector status. After testing the job market in commercial art, he entered Temple Law School. By the fall of 1969, he’d been drafted and begun two years of alternative service in Chicago at the National Institute for Education in Law and Poverty.

“As part of the war on poverty, the government funded legal services for the poor,” he says. “And the National Institute was putting on training programs for legal aid lawyers scattered all over the U.S. My job was to do the logistics work,” everything from printing the training manuals to flying all over the country to arrange hotel accommodations for training conferences.

“It was cool,” he says, cool enough to draw him back to Chicago after he’d picked up his J.D. from Temple in 1973. For the next 45 years, he worked on behalf of the city’s poor and the disadvantaged.

“I always dabbled in making art, and since the early 90s lived in artist communities,” the last one “a magnificent, magical place… We’d live in our studios, I’d do my legal work, then I’d paint and draw.”

A recent movie about the 1971 Pentagon Papers publication churns up old outrage for Derstine. “I’m three years out of F&M, and I’m reading like everybody else that the president was lying to not only us, but to Congress as well.”

To be clear, he says, “I really do honor and respect those who served in the military. I’m not a self-righteous pacifist.”

 

The Gunner

Vance Fink P’92, Lancaster native, grew up on South Duke Street in the city’s seventh ward poor. “Didn’t bother me, I was used to it,” he says.

A year after graduating from J.P. McCaskey High School, the Army drafted him, despite 70 percent hearing loss in his right ear.

Sent to Fort Lewis, Wash., for a year of combat training, he was told, “You can’t be in combat because of your hearing.” He was offered schooling as an alternative and wanted to think about it.

“Next thing I know, they assign me to Vietnam and give me a machine gun.” Before shipping out, Vance marries his wife, Carol. It was 1966. They were just 19.

The 30-calibre machine gun “weighed about 32 pounds, plus the ammo and 80-pound pack on your back. And I was a skinny grunt, only weighed 118.”

Vance fought most of that next year in the dense jungle of the Central Highlands, where the Fourth Infantry Division deployed his company. He quickly learned that the North Vietnamese, who would cross the border from their Cambodian havens, picked machine gunners as prime targets.

“We were air mobile,” he says. Three-man recon teams would find the enemy, “and they’d fly us out in choppers and drop us. But the North Vietnamese wouldn’t let you make contact unless they had the advantage. They were such smart fighters, they’d ambush you easily.”

So you become “in-ground smart,” learn from experience. “Came up to a village, with a big tree and a gate. First guy walks through it and took maybe six or seven steps and boom. They had a bomb set for a booby trap. That’s when I first saw actual guys getting hit and bleeding and laying there, and it opened me up and said, this is real. Because I hadn’t even been shot at before….We never opened a gate after that.”

Three times he saw “heavy” contact. “One time, another company was overrun, and we were trying to save them and couldn’t get to them. Finally, we brought in air support. It lasted for two days.”

He met guys from all over the country. “You get to know ’em just like brothers,” he says.

Which didn’t make it easier when they started getting killed. Or somebody’s shot right beside you. “I was one of seven in my company who wasn’t wounded, out of 130 or 140 men.”

Reentry to civilian life was a shock. In an airport on the West Coast, he’s called “baby killer.” PTSD? “Big time.”

But 50 long years later, “I’m proud to say I did serve.”

Of the men serving with him, “about 95 percent were draftees. We were all poor—they called it the poor man’s war. We weren’t educated, just a high school diploma.”

Vance spent his working life as a carpenter. “I used to work at F&M putting in ceilings and carpet. I took my older son to help me one weekend in the infirmary. Then I said, ‘Do you want to work next weekend?’”

He said, “No, Dad, this is not my life; I’m not going to do this for a living.”

Vance Fink Jr. graduated from Franklin & Marshall in 1992, went on to Dickinson Law School, clerked in Harrisburg, and practices law there today.

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