EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth installment of a 10-part series on the Vietnam War, highlighting veterans from Central Texas and the issues they have faced. Read the full series at forthoodherald.com/vietnam.
For many Army spouses in the Killeen-Fort Hood area during the Vietnam War, living in a military-minded community helped soften the blow of having their husbands deployed to the war zone.
“Everyone in this community was so kind while he was gone,” said local resident Jean Shine, whose husband, Bill, was fighting with the the 1st Cavalry Division in 1970.
The couple was stationed at Fort Jackson, S.C., when Bill received orders to head to Vietnam. Jean, 22 years old at the time, moved to Killeen, where Bill was from and she had lived in the 1950s when her military father was stationed there.
Killeen proved to be a good fit for Jean, who got a job at First National Bank in Killeen. Other military spouses — and even the community as a whole — understood what she was going through.
Still, it wasn’t easy to say goodbye to her husband.
“You knew at that time, that everyone was going (to Vietnam),” Jean said. “It was devastating.”
She had seen media coverage of the war, which was reported daily in newspapers and on TV. For a young married couple, they were not looking forward to the separation.
Letters from home
Several military spouses who spoke to the Herald said the lack of communication — and the sheer fact of not knowing if your spouse is alive or dead — during Vietnam was perhaps the most difficult part of the deployment, which usually lasted a year.
“No telephone whatsoever,” Jean said. “Letters were few and far between.”
Jean said she “would write every single day,” although, because of the mail system in Vietnam, Bill might get a box of letters at a time.
Former longtime Army spouse JoAnne Wentworth, now a Harker Heights resident, said she did not speak to her husband for a year at a time when he deployed in 1965 and again in 1970.
JoAnne, 79, said her husband was able to call once, but it was an odd, broken conversation filled with Army radio-like terms of “over” and “out.”
There were no emails, Skype, texting, cellphones, social media and other communication opportunities that exist today.
“That’s the way it was back then,” JoAnne said.
And unlike today’s Army, there were no family readiness groups organized to help families within units.
“They didn’t have anything like that,” JoAnne said.
Soldiers also deployed differently than they do now, JoAnne said. Soldiers deployed on an individual basis, many getting their unit assignment when they arrived to Vietnam.
“It was quite different than the deployments today,” she said, adding the Army didn’t allow the families to stay in on-post housing while the soldiers were deployed.
To help cope with the deployments, JoAnne and the couple’s two children moved from Fort Lee, Va., back to their hometown of Leavenworth, Kan.
Like Killeen, Leavenworth is a military community, and JoAnne had her family there as well as Eugene’s.
“I felt very fortunate to have that,” said JoAnne, who occasionally worked as a substitute teacher while her husband was deployed.
Mainly she took care of the family home and children, which had grown to three by Eugene’s second deployment. “A lot of the young women didn’t really have that support.”
Based on what the Army was doing, the Wentworths expected the deployments were coming, giving the family time to discuss and plan what to do.
“We knew he was going to have to go to Vietnam,” JoAnne said. “You just kind of prepare yourself.”
Finishing up his first tour, Eugene “came home on his birthday, and we had quite a celebration,” JoAnne said. “What I didn’t like was saying goodbye a second time.”
Growing up during ’Nam
Harker Heights resident Rebecca Clark was a child growing up in the 1960s and 70s when her father, Mike McDonnell was deployed to Vietnam.
“That was my first memory — may dad coming back (from Vietnam),” Rebecca, 50, said. The year was 1967, and her father was in a cast from a non-combat accident.
Three years later, McDonnell, now a Copperas Cove resident, deployed to Vietnam again, this time as an advisor. The family was in Maryland during the first deployment, and was at Fort Ord, Calif., for the second.
“As an Army brat, I grew up with my dad coming and going,” Rebecca said, adding her parents were very consistent with the upbringing of her and her siblings.
“I consider myself very blessed,” she said. “My parents kept it very simple, very positive.”
Even with her father in Vietnam, life seemed normal, Rebecca said.
“My life revolved around what was going on in the neighborhood,” she said.
And while her father missed birthdays or other occasions, he made up for it when he returned from Vietnam.
Rebecca said she likes how the military does things now for families of deployed troops, with homecomings and other events. However, when she was a young child, she didn’t really know any different.
“Maybe that made it easier for me, but maybe not,” she said. “The dynamics are different” between deployments nowadays and deployments during the Vietnam era.
Rebecca later married a Vietnam veteran — Marc Clark, who deployed in 1974 and worked on early computers.
Rebecca said she’s proud of both her father’s and her late husband’s service in Vietnam.
“I’m very grateful they would want to do that,” she said.
Maureen Jouett, a former Killeen mayor, said her father also served in Vietnam, going to the country as an adviser in 1959.
Maureen was 6 years old and living with her family near Fort Ord when he returned.
“When he came home, his face was like leather,” she said. “He went over there, I thought, a young person and he came back an old man.”
“In my organization, we see people from the Vietnam era, and they tell terrible stories,” Maureen said, referencing her military support group, Bring Everyone in the Zone. “It was really a bad time.”
Those tumultuous times affected communities, as well.
Coupled with an unpopular military draft and public support of the war being at an all-time low by 1970, protests were popping up in cities all over the country.
Those protests did not penetrate military communities in the same way as elsewhere.
Still, a well-publicized protest did come to Killeen in the early 1970s, highlighted by anti-war activists and actors Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.
“To this day, I have really bad feelings about her,” said Jean, who was in Hawaii visiting Bill midway through his deployment on R&R, when Fonda and Sutherland were protesting in Killeen.
It’s probably a good thing Jean and Fonda never met face to face.
Jean said she’s not sure what she would have done.