Rattlinggourd recounts military service in Vietnam
Terry Rattlinggourd, 72, of Pryor, was in Vietnam 50 years ago serving as an infantryman with the Army. He now deals with health problems caused by his service, but said he is proud he served. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Terry Rattlinggourd, 72, of Pryor, served in the U.S. Army’s infantry during the Vietnam War. He entered the war as a replacement. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
PRYOR – Fifty years ago, Terry Rattlinggourd, 72, was in Vietnam serving as an infantryman with the Army.
He was drafted in 1969 and served in Vietnam with the 1st Infantry Division for six months and the 25th Infantry Division for the remainder of his year in country.
“I was 19 when I got drafted. I went to basic in Fort Polk, Louisiana,” he said. “After I basic, I had AIT, Advanced Infantry Training, in North Fork (at Fort Polk), and everybody said if you go training up at North Fork they are training you for Vietnam duty. After I got through with the training, that’s where I went, to Vietnam.”
He said his first stop in Vietnam was the Cu Chi basecamp near Saigon. He came into the country as a replacement.
“You’re always a replacement for someone going home, and then when you leave you’ve got a replacement coming in for you,” he said. “Mainly, we were near what they called the Razorback Mountains and a rubber plantation, which they called the Michelin Rubber Plantation. Wherever you were at you saw this big mountain in the distance. The Americans called this one the Black Virgin Mountain. The locals called it Nui Ba Den or Black Lady Mountain, and they said the enemy had caves in there that you could drive a semi-truck in.”
He said while serving near Nui Ba Den his platoon would go on missions against the enemy for a week to 10 days. “We would just go out there to look for the enemy or we would go out and set up a blocking force and dig up foxholes and stay in one area for probably seven days. There were other troops out there roaming trying to drive the enemy toward us. We were out there in the jungle most of the time. I carried the M-60 machine gun, and we did get into some firefights. Going from camp to camp we did mine sweeps for the trucks. We used metal detectors, and I was one of the soldiers that carried one (detector) out front. Everyone was behind me about 30 feet.”
Another vivid memory for Rattlinggourd was when the enemy would “walk” mortar rounds toward American basecamps. He said the enemy would shoot a mortar round then continue dropping rounds or “walking” them toward a camp until they would hit the camp.
“There was a guy probably 10 to 15 feet away from me that was set up and he got a direct hit from a mortar. He died right there,” he said. “Another time we were trying to take a mountain. The soldier that was up front, he got killed. They were dug in in bunkers up on the top and we were going up and they opened fire killed our point man. You don’t ever make friends when you’re in a war zone because you’ve got a good chance of losing your friends, and that’s going to break your concentration from being on alert.”
He said when he switched units from the 1st Infantry to the 25th Infantry not much changed because he served in the same area.
“The 1st Infantry went home. The reason I got transferred is you had to be with the 1st for nine months to come home with them, so I didn’t have enough time with them to come home, so I got transferred,” he said.
With the 25th he said he continued to carry the 23-pound, M-60 machine gun, which was dangerous because during an ambush the enemy would sometimes try to eliminate the machine gunner first because he possessed so much firepower.
“I carried two boxes of ammo for it. I had one guy in front of me and one behind me who both carried two boxes, so I had plenty of ammo,” he said. “If there were any enemy in the area I always carried it on a sling (for quicker access).
American soldiers on patrol carried their own water and food rations along with ammunition and wore a flak vest. Rattlinggourd said it was common for him to carry 75 pounds or more of gear while on patrol in the hot Vietnam jungles.
He said his platoon also was tasked to set up ambushes on trails used by the enemy.
“I was on guard duty one morning, and I saw three, maybe four, walking up the trail coming toward us. You just have to whisper on the radio that you’ve got enemy up front,” he said.
Claymore mines that explode and shoot steel pellets toward the enemy were used for ambushes, he said. Wires were attached to the mines and they were set off when soldiers squeezed detonators. “Everybody is facing that trail. Once the Claymore mines go off, everybody is firing.”
He returned to the United States in October 1970 on a 30-day leave and was stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, for the last six months of his active duty obligation.
“I was there two or three weeks. The commanding officer, his driver got out of the service, so they picked me to be his driver,” he said. “So, I got out of guard duty, KP (kitchen patrol). All I did was take care of the jeep and be ready to go when he had to go anywhere.”
When he returned to Oklahoma, he went into construction and built homes and residential buildings for 37 years. He’s been living in Pryor about 20 years.
“I’m originally from Jay and I went to school at Oaks Indian Mission (in Delaware County). I went to school there 12 years and graduated there and then went to school in California. From there I went into the service in 1969,” he said.
Rattlinggourd suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from his service in Vietnam.
“I started out one-on-one with a psychiatrist in Muskogee and then I went to Tulsa. The one I had in Tulsa retired, so I went to group. I’m going to try to get back on one-on-one. I still get flashbacks. I can be home sitting, and I see movements to my sides, but when I look there’s nothing there,” he said. “They told me that is something you will never get over. I guess your mind is on alert all of the time.”
He also copes with being exposed to the chemical Agent Orange in Vietnam. The defoliate has been known to cause leukemia, Hodgkin’s disease, prostate cancer and respiratory cancers. He also suffers from hearing loss, has a pacemaker, has had eye surgery, a stent put in his heart and has had both knees replaced. Knee surgeries and replacements are common among former infantrymen.
“They say that Agent Orange breaks your body down and makes your bone softer,” he said.
He said these days being able to visit places such as the Cherokee Nation Veterans Center in Tahlequah has helped him a lot because he is able to meet other Vietnam veterans and have coffee and conversations.
“As far as people here at the vet center, I appreciate everything they do for the veterans. They are doing a good job,” he said.