War Vet Shares Experiences and Trials Serving in Vietnam
By Paul Edelman
On Thursday, June 15th, at the Trailside Center at 7 p.m., Vietnam veteran, author, and speaker Gary DeRigne will present his personal experiences in the Vietnam War. As a storyteller, DeRigne, a Vietnam Platoon Sergeant in the US 1st Cavalry Division, will bring the audience into the terrifying and numbing true experience of navigating Vietnam’s jungles during the Cold War Era conflict. Using his life’s work as a soldier, businessman, and veterans’ advocate, DeRigne will present as part of the Trailside Center’s Veteran Living History Series.
DeRigne described his harrowing stint as a soldier in the Vietnam War. Brought as a replacement in 1969, he landed in the Southeast Asian nation in the heat of war some 8,500 miles away from his home in Kansas. He, like millions of other young US servicemen there, dropped into an unknown foreign country. The sweltering jungle climate, differing customs and people, and the unpredictable nature of guerilla warfare cast insurmountable anxiety on new arrivals.
Describing one of his first experiences in Vietnam, DeRigne said “I got dropped off one day in the jungle in my jungle fatigues, the other grunts were unfriendly.” New GIs could be treated suspiciously by battle-hardened veterans. Eventually, a small solace that these men could take in was the brotherhood of camaraderie formed between a band of soldiers. However, to see your brothers-in-arms die in battle traumatized even the most stoic of soldiers, and DeRigne said once his personal Platoon leader fell in a particularly vicious firefight, he had to step up within his unit.
DeRigne became Platoon Sergeant and lived a life fraught with unknowable danger while leading the unit. “With my machete in my good hand, and my rifle in my off hand, I took point.” As DeRigne relayed, the normal pathways were too dangerous to travel, so groups of American soldiers had to search the jungles of Vietnam for enemy fighters while carving a path ahead through dense vegetation. This hazardous environment produced unforeseen dangers to the unfamiliar: Americans suffered around 58,000 casualties in the Vietnam War. DeRigne was incredulous and felt very blessed to have survived his ordeals. Heading a group of soldiers with a rifle in one’s off-hand while hacking away at unknown jungles housing enemy guerillas is not very conducive to survival, but, luckily, DeRigne somehow made it out alive, and is here to tell the account.
Beyond the glimpse offered here, DeRigne’s account at the Trailside Center will extrapolate in detail on life as a soldier in Vietnam, and afterwards, as a veteran and how his wartime experiences made him who he is today.