by Henry Sengelmann
When I first heard of this interview project for my Literature of Witness class, I approached it the same way that I did all school projects: unenthusiastically, but also with a desire to succeed. To begin my project, I asked both of my parents if they knew any veterans, former refugees, victims of genocide, a victim of any horrible event in general, literally anyone who could possibly fit the description for this project. The only candidate that either of them could generate was my maternal grandfather, a veteran who served in Korea; however, due to his dementia, interviewing him would be quite impossible. This was not the start to the project that I was hoping for.
A few days later, as time continued to pass, I knew I had to find an interviewee pronto. My only option was to use one of the resources that Ms. Gonzalez had provided for us to find interview subjects, and I decided to use the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I called and was quickly connected with a veteran who served in Vietnam, Leo. Leo answered the phone kindly and warmly and was interested in partaking in my interview. We coordinated a time and date, and the interview was set.
I arrived at his house at 5 pm on Monday, February 26th. Although I only drove for nine minutes, I was filled with anxiety the entire ride. I had never truly spoken with a veteran, and the idea of it frightened me to death. So many horrible scenarios began flooding my brain: hat if Leo is an angry man who is irritated with my questions? What if I ask too many personal questions and trigger a post-traumatic episode? What if instead there isn’t enough to talk about and we sit in awkward silence? I could only imagine the worst possible situations.
As I approached the door, I passed Leo’s truck out front. I knew it was his truck because it had three separate bumper stickers all commemorating his service in Vietnam. This was the first of many clues that Leo took a lot of pride in his service, and it wasn’t the harrowing, hellish experience that I expected it to be. I then passed the truck and rang the doorbell. Rather than seeing an old man slowly open the door to greet me, a dog ran out and began jumping on me. An older woman came out and retrieved the dog, apologizing for its eccentric behavior. I learned that the dog’s name was Delilah, and it wasn’t even their dog; they adopted it for the owner while they were out of town. As an animal lover, the situation didn’t bother me, but instead relaxed me because I realized that this man had both a family and a loving dog. Leo’s home was small; there were only a few rooms in the house, and my head was very close to the ceiling when I stood up. It was also dark, as I was visiting him during winter and there weren’t many lights. However, the atmosphere wasn’t scary or repelling. Instead, I felt safe and comfortable in Leo’s small home. After I greeted the woman, she retrieved Leo and we sat together in Leo’s living room. I asked him if I could record the interview, and the answer was a definitive yes. This string of events gave me the confidence to commence my interview.
I began the interview with basic questions, knowing that the interview would progress and become more insightful and meaningful. I first asked him when he served.
Leo answered, “I was in Vietnam in 1966-1967, and then again in 1968-1969. I had one year of separation, and then I was asked to go back. I had a critical M.O.S., or military occupational specialty. I was a refrigeration and air conditioning repairman.”
I had never even considered the possibility that someone could’ve served in Vietnam twice. Although his job seemed pretty menial in his second term of service, I was still surprised that he had the courage to go back to Vietnam after a year of freedom. I asked how old he was when he initially enrolled in 1966; he replied: 21 years old.
Leo then elaborated on his position at Vietnam. He said that refrigeration was so vital because the soldiers needed both food, but also a place to store and maintain the corpses.
As the interview continued, I reached the more impactful questions. I asked, “What were some of your most memorable moments in your two terms serving in Vietnam?”
I could tell that the answer was clear to him, but he paused for a few moments. As he gazed off it was obvious that he was positively reminiscing because he had a small grin. He then responded, “On my second tour in Vietnam, I was running a refrigerated transport outfit. I liked the first sergeant and we had access to good food.” He paused to let out a laugh, but returned to his story. “So when we used to go over and load the food trailers up, and we found something good in there, we would take a little bit extra for us. I would take it back and cook it for the guys…and we ate steak a little bit more often than some guys did…and we ate nice barbecue chicken…so my second tour for me was uneventful. Like everyone else, we had a few bad times in there, nothing too bad. My first tour of duty was tough.”
I anticipated this story to be completely about bloodshed and violence, and I could not have been more wrong. Rather than focusing on the brutality of war, Leo chose instead to tell this story. He emphasized the camaraderie that the war built as opposed to the lives it ruined, and I think this is when I began to see why Leo was so proud and open about his military service.
I decided to then ask whether or not he believed the United States’ cause for fighting in Vietnam was justified. Once again, Leo did not fail to surprise me.
He replied, “Yes, I did. And unfortunately, we would’ve definitely won the war, no question about it. Except, back home, with all of the anti-war sentiment that was going on, they kind of made us lose. North Vietnam was just about to roll over and surrender to us.”
I would have never suspected that a veteran living in the Bay Area could’ve agreed with the cause, and would’ve advocated for the continuation of the war; the interview that I foresaw was completely the opposite. Although I didn’t personally agree with Leo’s position, his patriotism and love for this country were inspirational. His passion was infectious.
I later asked about his return to the United States. He said that his return wasn’t too tough; however, he did avoid certain cities due to ongoing demonstrations.
“The activity in San Francisco and Berkeley — that’s where all the demonstrations were really going on. People were treating you pretty bad. Here in the Peninsula, you didn’t really talk about it, and nobody asked. You just stayed away from it.”
I had never known that demonstrators during the Vietnam War were both verbally and physically attacking soldiers. Leo opened my eyes to a new perspective that isn’t often seen in Silicon Valley, and I appreciated him for it. I also felt disappointment on behalf of the soldiers who were risking their lives on behalf of this country only to be slandered for it.
Leo then began discussing how he was currently still involved in the military. Although I found it to be very honorable, I still asked him why now.
He answered, “For the kinship. A veteran is a brother or a sister. We are related that way.” He got choked up at the very end, and it reminded me of something: no matter the cause, soldiers are fighting for the lives of each other, and that’s what makes them heroes.
Before I left Leo’s house, he showed me some of his many books in his collection. On the cover of one of them was a medal of honor winner, and before I left, Leo told me that a medal of honor winner would never tell you they won the award. As I left, Delilah tried to come with me, but Leo’s wife was able to control her just until I was gone.
My interview with Leo was both eye-opening and life-changing. He taught me about courage, and how it is not only about doing dangerous acts but also about doing what one believes is right in the face of adversity. He also demonstrated to me the camaraderie of service, and how soldiers love and fight mainly for one another as opposed to for their country. Lastly, he revealed what unbelievable heroes soldiers are. He showed me not only their bravery but also their modesty. Celebrities and superstar athletes are inspirational, but Leo has now given me a far superior role model and hero: a soldier.