Jerry LaFountain is a Vietnam veteran who has received a Purple Heart. He was in the U.S. Army. He started the Purple Heart memorial in Yellowstone County and has been active in veterans organizations and events. He was raised in Lewistown. He had to drop out of high school to help support a family of eight siblings. He later went on to get a high school diploma, a degree and go to law school.
Gazette: You joined the Army in 1965, why?
LaFountain: “My younger brother, Mel ... he’s a little more than a year younger than me. He joined the Army. The next thing I know, my mother gets a letter and he’s going to Vietnam. I was raised that my job was to look out for my siblings. This may sound like a wild deal, but the fact of the matter is I joined the service with the intent of going to Vietnam and teaming up with my brother and making sure that he came home.”
Gazette: In 1965, Vietnam still was not fully on everybody’s radar, but you understood where you were going?
Gazette: Did it worry you?
LaFountain: “I never gave it a thought. But underlying your question is the real question: Did you know what you were getting into? And the answer is: Yes. My younger brother had been there, and by the time I managed to get in the military, go through basic and (advanced individual training), and get to ... Vietnam, then my older brother joined — probably for the same reason. We both did basic and AIT at Fort Ord, Calif. I met my older brother down there. He was graduating from AIT as I was graduating from basic. So by the time I finally got there, which was probably nine or 10 months later, I had two brothers over there. In 1967 and ’68, every place in Vietnam was a terrible place. ... They were sending 300 body bags a week home.”
Gazette: I can imagine a parent’s worry having one son over there. What did your parents think of three?
LaFountain: “You know I have thought about that many times over the years, but from my point of view, that is the only one I can give you, I was 19 when I went to Vietnam. I turned 20 and 21 in Vietnam. We never thought about it. I thought about it afterwards, after we were all home and I was talking to my mother once and she was telling me about an incident where one of us was missing in action and the sergeant and some officer came to the door and knocked on the door, because they came over and advised you. ‘I’m sorry Mrs. LaFountain, I have to advise you that your son is listed as missing in action.’ And they saluted and turned around and walked away, and my mother couldn’t hardly talk, but she was crying. She stopped the guy and said, ‘I need to know which one of my boys because I have three of them.’ I’ve always thought that fortunately there aren’t very many parents in that boat. I always thought if there was a medal of honor for my parents, my folks could have got one, especially my mother.”
LaFountain went to Vietnam as a track driver — a person who could drive tanks. When he arrived, all the tank units were full, so he was assigned to the First Cavalry Division.
Gazette: What were your first impressions of Vietnam?
LaFountain: “The airplane was air conditioned until they opened the door. It was almost exhausting going down the stairs. It was a shock to your body. To go from 70 on the plane to 115, and then the humidity makes it hotter than that.”
LaFountain was stationed near Pleiku. He also moved to Anh Khe. He served there all the way north to the demilitarized zone.
Gazette: What does the terrain look like there?
LaFountain: “In Pleiku, in northern I-COR, it’s relatively flat, but it looks like, if you’re looking at the Judiths from Lewistown, you’re looking either north or east from Lewistown from town. It’s kind of like that, only the hills are not as high. Anh Khe is in the mountains. So then, whatever you see is the mountain next door and that’s about it.”
Gazette: Was that terrain comfortable for you?
LaFountain: “The terrain itself, if it weren’t for tracers coming out of everywhere all the time, was a lot like where I grew up at. Terrain was not uncomfortable. The main thing that I learned after being there a while is that you can adapt to heat, but it’s cold you can’t adapt to.”
Gazette: What was daily life in Vietnam like?
LaFountain: “ ... Most guys who get drunk didn’t get drunk in Vietnam, because the problem with getting drunk in Vietnam is that if you get really drunk, and Uncle Charles comes up to you and sticks a gun in your eye, there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. You don’t get undrunk.”
Gazette: It would seem like the jungle — getting sick, drunk — would not be a real conducive place for a hangover.
LaFountain: “It was the only thing that would let you forget. We were always out, or if we weren’t lobbing something to keep the enemy out, they were lobbing something in to keep us awake.”
Gazette: What’s a day like under those conditions? Most of us don’t have that experience or anything to relate it to.
LaFountain: “We ran search-and-destroys. Basically, you went out and destroyed whatever you saw.”
Gazette: You assumed that if it was out there it was either put there by the enemy or was the enemy?
LaFountain: “We played war as fair as you can play war — this is my personal opinion. We had bullhorns mounted on the struts of a couple slicks — a slick is a helicopter. ... We would go out, if we were running a search-and-destroy, we would fly over a half hour and say, ‘We’re coming. We’re the Cav. And if you’re here, xin wai, which is ‘Sorry about that, you’re dead.’ We leafleted the area the day before... They had these leaflets they printed up in Vietnamese and they’d throw them out of a plane or a helicopter and if you were Vietnamese or whatever, and you were native and you came up with your hands up, they’d take you back and interrogate you.
“ ... We would take two or three helicopters out, four or six guys on a helicopter, and just dump you off and you just start going and if anything moved or even if things didn’t, you shot them. A basic load for an infantry was 200. A basic load for a cav was 400. You never brought ammo back. All the war stories you hear about M16 jamming, they do. Usually, it’s because they have sand. They were tight chambered. You got sand or something in the chamber, it was going to jam. We never took ammo back. We used it before we went back inside the wire.”
Gazette: Do you remember the first time you were fired at?
LaFountain: “I had been there about a month or so, and it was actually a rocket attack. The first one came in, and it landed, quite a bit away from me. But, it’s strange, it sticks in my memory to this day. My brain knew what it was, but I didn’t know what to do, so I stood there. The second one came in, and it was a way away from me. Then the third one came in, and suddenly, I was just huddled up next to a command bunker, and that third one landed right where I had been. It sticks in my memory to this day — the noon meal was turkey loaf and the smell of turkey loaf to this day flashes me back to that instant. I knew what gunfire was. Hell, I was raised in Montana. We were poor, we lived on deer meat. ... By then, I had a pretty good idea what war was, and that one instant, it just all sunk in. From then on, I reacted to loud noises and low noises and things in my peripheral vision and I do to this day. ... I am pretty sure it’s permanent.
“ ... I look back and think, ‘Goddamit, you just stood there. What the hell?’ That’s not a really bright thing to do. If my luck had been otherwise and that first one would have landed where the third one did ...”
Gazette: How do you get used to that?
LaFountain: “I don’t know that you do. I can tell you what I did: I had been there a month later and I was out on a convoy and we’d stopped somewhere to eat. They put security out and the sergeant in the jeep he was escorting it and he came up to me and said, ‘You got to get over that.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘This (moves his head from side to side). One of two things is going to happen, you’re either going to drive yourself nuts or you will have to adjust to this.’ And I said, ‘Well, how do you do that?’ And he said, ‘Me and most of the guys I know’ — and he was a Korean War veteran before that — ‘We developed a belief in fate. I’m serious: If you believe in fate — and you really believe in it — it won’t bother you anymore.’ He said that I had been going along, riding shotgun ... all you’re doing is dwelling on (not getting shot), you’re going to drive yourself nuts or deal with it. I adopted a belief in fate and to this day, I believe in fate. If you actually believe it’s preordained, then you can get to the next step which is: Don’t mean nothing. When you hear that from somebody and you’re talking about Vietnam, you know that’s how he got by.
“ ... That’s exactly how I got by, because some old-timer helped me. If you accept the concept of fate is that we all got our time, our time is preordained, and no matter what happens, it ain’t going to change. So, if you’re going to get shot in the head or the ass, or whatever it is, that’s what’s going to happen to you. So, why not put all (that) aside and concentrate on staying alive until whenever.
“ ... For the next couple of hours I thought about it. I knew there was no real solution, to take a pill or go home. There was no actual solution to the problem. From that day forward, I believed in that. The downside is you do crazy sh—. You need two guys to volunteer for a night ambush? Yeah sure, I’ll go.”
Gazette: Let’s talk about your nickname.
LaFountain: “Dinky dau. It was Vietnamese for crazy. If you were perceived by people in your own unit as dinky dau, then you were the guy you should leave alone and don’t do something dumb like tell him to shave or anything.”
Gazette: Did fate earn you that name?
LaFountain: “No, I think my personality did that. I don’t have the patience to wait around for the person in charge to get things going or get things done.
“ ... We had a concept we called — and I suppose other outfits did, too — ‘recon by fire.’ We didn’t walk out and see if we could find a trip wire. ... If we hadn’t been there and no one else had, we take and run a string of bullets down there, and usually if there’s something there (pause). Then, we’d look for trip wire. ... That’s the reason we carried extra rounds of ammo. We never snuck up on anybody. You could hear us coming by all the gunfire and smoke.”
Gazette: Tell me about the Tet Offensive. What was your perception?
LaFountain: “My perception was probably different than a lot of people’s. About a week before that, my brother and I had taken a Jeep from Kon Tum, which is north of Dak To and then Dak To back to Camp Schmidt in Pleiku. You couldn’t drive through the main street of Pleiku. There were too many people. It was sidewalk to sidewalk, not that there were sidewalks. A city that normally had 10,000 or 15,000 now you had 40,000. It was obvious to anybody who had ever been through that there was something really, really wrong. Our problem was that we didn’t know and we couldn’t do anything about it if there was.”
For the last four months of his time in Vietnam, LaFountain’s brother was his platoon sergeant. His brother was his platoon sergeant during the Battle of Dak To.
Gazette: Was fighting in the same platoon with your brother a good thing? Bad thing?
LaFountain: “No, it was far from a good thing. During Dak To, him and I took turns trying to play bullet-stop for the other one. We’d be up against the command bunker, and the next thing I know, he’d wormed his way around between me and if you went to sleep, he’d sneak off trying to protect me or something. I need to say this, and I realize that this is for posterity or whatever. ... I was raised a Catholic, but that night, I prayed to everybody, the devil, the great white buffalo, offered them a deal — you let my brother go home, I included myself in the deal, not intentionally, but if I make it home, I’ll do something good for someone every day of my life without any expectation of something in return. And I have kept that promise to this day, and will until the day I die. Now, I may have made a deal with the devil. I don’t know. I was open to anything then. That’s the God’s truth.”
Gazette: What part does faith or spirituality play in a place like Vietnam?
LaFountain: “None. They’re not compatible. Especially the ‘Thou shalt not kill’ part. Your options get real limited in a hurry.”