Keith Fahey was raised in Great Falls. He served in the U.S. Army from 1966 to 1968. This is part of his Vietnam story.
Fahey: "In May of ’66, I graduated from the College of Great Falls. We had all been expecting the draft, and so I just sat back and waited for it. I had a kind of lazy, leisurely summer. A friend had a swimming pool, and I would sit and read and wait for the draft. It finally came in August for induction in September."
Gazette: You thought this was unavoidable then?
Fahey: "I saw no escape. The only way out was through enlisting or the National Guard and the National Guard was more for, at least in my perception, for people who had some kind of in. Enlisting in was out because that meant an extra year."
Gazette: In 1966, we were escalating and troop build up. How aware were you of events that were going on in Vietnam?
Fahey: "That's a good question. I had been aware since the early ’60s while watching Chet Huntley or David Brinkley, the nightly news would announce another person killed in Vietnam and say something like, 'That brings to 363 the death toll in Vietnam.' So, I was aware of it all through the ’60s. Also, aware of the increasing demonstrations and protesters. I was more inclined to support them, but I was too fearful. ... It seemed the people I was closest to, all of us had some misgivings about the war, but none that I know of had the courage to fight the draft."
Gazette: So you get the draft notice, you're watching the 5 o'clock war on TV, what's going through your head?
Fahey: "First we were bused to Butte. I remember keenly the moment that I was step forward if we had no mental reservations whatsoever — I think they used that phrase. I sure didn't want to step forward. I did it with reservations.
"When I got to Fort Lewis, I did well enough on the tests that they invited me to go to (officer candidate school). In many ways, I decided to go because I thought I might get quartermaster or something like that. I figured the worst that could happen is that I could eat up some months in training if I didn't finish.
"That's what happened. The key moment in training was when we were in an ambush exercise, it just struck me as increasingly absurd, and I just stood up to warm myself by a tree and the guys thought I was crazy. It was both crazy and the sanest thing I think I did."
Gazette: What was the end result of OCS?
Fahey: "I got booted, although they let me write a letter of resignation and I stated my misgivings about the war. I wondered if they had kind of a laugh when they assigned me to the Ninth Division in the delta."
Gazette: That must have taken courage — you're in OCS, clearly part of the Army now and then you voice the concerns. You resign that.
Fahey: "... At the time, I felt more confused and just unsure. But I also knew I couldn't deny my doubts about the war. The other thing was when I was sitting around the swimming pool, waiting for the draft, one book I didn't read was 'Vietnam: An Anthology of Essays' — explaining the history of our involvement, and I didn't have the courage to read it. I think I was afraid of learning more than I could handle."
Gazette: At that time, what were your objections to the war — maybe they're the same now?
Fahey: "Mainly distrust. I had more confidence in some of those protesters. Again, because I didn't have courage to read enough, I couldn't give a lot of information that I could give now. But, it was just the feeling that we were supporting a government (in Vietnam) that wasn't a government and a civil war that we had no business involving ourselves in. Much of the information became clearer in years to come when I embarked upon my own reading commitment."
Gazette: Is it hard to go to do that reading that you couldn't do or didn't want to do?
Fahey: "I think the irony is I felt a greater need to know more afterward because of those who were killed. I especially can never forget Mike Hendrickson and Glenn Fish, who went to my high school. Mike, a year ahead of me, and Glenn, a year behind me. When they got killed, it was my way of atoning to try to learn as much about the war, and why they did not and why I somehow managed to get out. Again, the main reason I got out, when I got there, I arrived at battalion headquarters and told the clerk that I had a degree and could type and they might want to use me. Within a couple of weeks, I was called up to the battalion headquarters to serve as an S2 clerk."
Fahey landed in Bien Hoa.
Fahey: "What I always remember is the suffocating heat when I stepped off the plane. ... I hadn't even been to states like Florida, which in some ways can be comparable. I had nothing to prepare me for tropics."
After a week in-country training, he received orders to an infantry company.
Gazette: What's a day in your life like in Vietnam?
Fahey: "It was mainly radio work. Keeping in contact with the companies in the field. Usually, it would be the company (radio technician operator) ... they would generally call in situation reports. Most of the time it was negative, but once in awhile it would get involved. That's when the battalion commander would get in a helicopter try to hover over the troops to give them whatever assistance they requested."
Gazette: Most of the time when you're doing it, is it mundane and procedural? Punctuated by moments of excitement, I'd imagine.
Fahey: "It does get, exciting, it is a word. I am reminded that on my first night of arrival I had a ferocious headache after a nap. I later thought was due to being on a plane with smokers for roughly 23 or 24 hours. But, after settling into a tent and bunk, we had an orientation that night. A lieutenant colonel — or light bird — welcomed us and said that you will remember this as the adventure of your life. Even then, I thought, 'Bunk.' I think the real adventure comes after, when we try rebuild our lives."
Gazette: That was a little bit of propaganda to psych you up?
Fahey: "In some senses, I think you could call it propaganda, but at the same time, I know that people still believe it. I was reading a story about Marines from a forgotten battalion in Afghanistan, and they've gotten into a suicide rate years after their discharge. I think that they, too, have been tricked into a notion that it was the adventure of their lives when the real adventure is trying to start over. Many of them haven't been able to do that."
Gazette: You're on the radio, getting the firsthand reports. You're the first line that's listening to that. Is that scary?
Fahey: "The most terrible time came when in late December or early January of 1968 when an ambush patrol went out and came back by the same trail they went out on. That's an automatic no-no for any infantryman. If you come back by the same trail, chances are someone will be waiting for you and someone was waiting with a Claymore (mine) and managed to get the whole patrol in the line of fire. The first report was a desperate plea for dustoff helicopters, medevac. It was one of the few times we had trouble getting a medevac. Usually they were real prompt. The guys kept calling, 'Charlie-six-Oscar.' Finally, the four killed became ... now five. It felt like an accusation. That was a rough day."
Gazette: You feel fairly powerless because you're not a helicopter pilot.
Fahey: "All we can do is relay the message and send it. As I said, for some reason, that was a day that the dustoffs couldn't get there."
Gazette: So the strategy there was sending out troops on ambushes?
Fahey: "In retrospect, I always called it 'ambush bait' because the strategy was to actually send them out, hoping to lure Charlie out and then pound him. That was the whole of our strategy. Most of the time, we were the ones that got pounded and then Charlie vanished."
Gazette: Are you fighting Viet Cong or NVA?
Fahey: "In the Delta, around Saigon, it's mostly VC. I always remember that the radio terms for VC is Victor and Charles. I always thought it was predestination that we called them 'Victor Charles.'"
Gazette: What was work like for you?
Fahey: "In the early months, we were helicoptering all over the place. We would go for three or four days in the field, set up basecamp and fill sandbags. We'd give ourselves some protection and set up the battalion headquarters in the field with a perimeter. ... After we got set up, then our shift would be more routine. Being on the radio as RTOs, our shifts were two hours. In the course of a day, we probably had three shifts at least five or six of us, as I recall now."
Gazette: In the South, with the VC, there was a lot of quick, guerrilla attacks. Were you under RPGs or mortars. Was that part of it?
Fahey: "Until we got to Nha Be after Tet in late January 1968, Nha Be was an oil tank farm, south of Saigon and actually considered a suburb. Once we got there, and we were there for extended periods, we became a known, easy target. We got occasional targets, but not often."