WASHINGTON — Like a lot of his fellow servicemembers in the 1960s, Arlen Bliefernicht didn’t choose to join the Army. The DeForest, Wis., resident didn’t know what to expect when he finished basic training and shipped to Vietnam with the 4th Infantry Division.
|Army veteran Arlen Bliefernicht discusses his service in Vietnam during a July 15, 2010, interview. |
DOD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class William Selby
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“For the first six months I was in Vietnam, it was like a Boy Scout outing,” he said. “It was very casual, and we didn’t see a lot of action. But we didn’t see what was coming.” The last six months of his tour, following the Tet offensive in January 1968, were less casual, to say the least. “It wasn’t nonstop action, but there was a lot of it,” he said. “Up to that point, we suffered very few casualties, but after Tet it was a rollercoaster.”
At one point, Bliefernicht’s unit ran into a scene straight out of the movie “Full Metal Jacket.” In Kantum City, the troops got caught up in the “fog of war,” attacking hills where the North Vietnamese army had bunkered, not knowing for sure if the attacks were coming on a small scale or were part of a larger offensive. It was there that they had their first soldier killed in action.
After taking one hill, Bliefernicht said, he realized how much trouble his unit was about to encounter.
“One time we were on this hill, we could actually see the North Vietnamese coming up the valley toward us,” he said. “We called in, … ‘Where’s the air strikes? The gunships? The artillery?’ They were out.”
The troops had to hold their positions until the supply chain could catch up to what they needed to fight back. “That was a very shaky feeling, that all of a sudden we were so low on ammunition,” Bliefernicht said.
But it was the battle of Chu Moor, near the Cambodian border, that really “chewed up” his battalion, Bliefernicht said. The entire battalion and a few other companies were involved, he said, and though it isn’t known as well historically, the troops who were in Vietnam that year remember it vividly, perhaps more so than the Tet attacks.
It was there, Bliefernicht said, that he was wounded for the first time. He got shot, but the injury was relatively small, he said, and he was back on his feet and in the field within a few weeks.
“I got a couple of Purple Hearts and a Combat Infantry Badge,” he said. “But the biggest medal I earned was getting out alive, and I don’t have any disabling injuries from that.” Bliefernicht said he visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial here regularly to pay respects to the soldiers who weren’t as lucky as he was. It’s hard on him, he acknowledged, but he said he has learned to cope in a way similar to visiting deceased friends or family members at a cemetery.
“The Battle of Chu Moor is big in [the memorial’s] section 53‑E,” he said. “There are a few names that jump out who are special to me. It’s an emotional impact every time I see it, but I’ve learned to deal with it.”
Bliefernicht said he learned a lot coming back from the war and seeing the negative reaction people had toward Vietnam veterans, and that he thinks the American people have learned from that mistake. He had only a few brief instances of people harassing him, he recalled, largely because he avoided places or events that would invite harassment. He’s glad he hasn’t seen that kind of reaction en masse toward veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, he added.
“We’re backing you,” he said. “I know the ‘Nam vets are going to get out there and make sure you don’t get any receptions like we got when we came back. While you’re over there, keep your head down and stay lucky.”
He said the best way people can support veterans is to listen to them, and steer them to proper help for PTSD or other emotional issues that can arise after experiencing combat. “The biggest thing, especially with returning veterans, is to have some understanding of the emotional and mental problems they’re going through, and the multiple tours,” Bliefernicht said. “So have some understanding; we didn’t get that understanding when we came back. They went through some very traumatic experiences –- anybody who goes through war does.”
(“Veterans’ Reflections” is a collection of stories of men and women who served their country in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day conflicts. They will be posted throughout November in honor of Veterans Day.)
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)