Dave Rye is a longtime Billings and Montana television personality, having spent the bulk of his career at KULR-TV here. He also served in the Montana Legislature. Rye was born in Norfolk, Va., a naval base location, and his father served in the Navy during World War II. He is a 1962 Billings Senior High graduate and Vietnam War veteran. This is his story.
Rye: “I was planning on teaching high school English for a living, I majored in English. Somebody who worked at a radio station met me and thought I had a voice that belonged on the radio. ... Just for a lark, I became a disc jockey. I went from disc jockeying to radio talk show host to eventually television. All the time, being offered the job. I didn’t seek the job, they sought me, which was a real blessing. But by the end of my college career, I thought I had found my calling in life, broadcasting. I loved doing it, and it was lots of fun. It was mentally stimulating as well. So eventually, I decided to take a quarter off from college.”
Gazette: I think I’ve heard this before.
Rye: “You can tell what is coming next.”
Gazette: What year was this?
Rye: “1967. I got drafted. I was a few credits short of a college degree. I wanted to sit out a quarter and just do broadcasting full time. But then I got drafted.”
Gazette: What did it say?
Rye: “‘Greetings.’ I remember that’s how it always started. In a previous interview, you mentioned Margaret Ward, the local draft board person. Her signature was on every draft card issued in Billings, I think, for about 20 years. ‘Greetings, your friends and neighbors have selected you to serve the country’ — they put the best possible spin on it. The ultimate bad news.
“So I got orders to report for induction in Butte. And this was a time of great civil unrest, as you probably have read. ... My college roommate and I both got drafted at the same time, and he went to Canada and lived the rest of his life there. We just disagreed on the proper course of action to take, pretty much agree to disagree. I’d see him occasionally after (President Jimmy) Carter’s first act was to pardon Vietnam draft resistors, and he’d come back to the States occasionally and I’d visit him in Canada occasionally.
“My parents, who were real old-school, my father being a World War II vet, couldn’t understand how I could maintain the friendship. But I could. We just had different points of view. Me going into the service was the right thing for me to do, and it was the wrong thing for him to do, at least he thought so.”
Gazette: You got that notice, and what did you think? Were you surprised?
Rye: “I thought, ‘I could get killed.’ This was serious stuff. I thought I had a mindset that wasn’t militarily capable. Back then, land grant colleges required ROTC for two years for its male students. The deal was you took ROTC mandatorily for two years, and then you had the choice to continue your commission upon graduation or not. I took the two years and chose not to. No, I wasn’t happy about it. I will explain later it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me for lots of reasons.”
Gazette: You didn’t think you had the mindset for it?
Rye: “I didn’t think I had the macho qualities to be a soldier, let’s put it that way. I didn’t feel like having somebody else control my life, which is of course what happens when you’re in the service. It was bothersome. ... I had thought about enlisting. The problem with enlisting is that you’d be committed to at least three years in the Army, and the Navy required, I think, four. The Marines required at least three. The Air Force required three. If you got drafted, it was only two years, and you were a civilian again. I decided to take my chances with the draft.”
Gazette: What did your old-school military World War II veteran father think about it?
Rye: “He was not real happy about it. He would have preferred that I stay a civilian. But it was considered, back in those days, a part of a young man’s duty to his country to be in the military for a couple of years. We talked of everybody having a military obligation, and every able-bodied male, presumably, had that unless you were a conscientious objector or physically disabled in some way or another. That was just standard. How are you going to fulfill your military obligation?
“... I decided to make the best of it I could and do the best I could at it. So eight weeks at Fort Lewis, Wash., and having drill sergeants yell at me all the time.”
Gazette: Did it live up to your expectations in basic?
Rye: “It lived up to all the hype on television — people being in your face and yelling at you all the time. You learned to change your habits. It makes you self-disciplined or you will be disciplined by outsiders. So the best thing to do is to learn how to be is self-disciplined. The best thing to do is be organized and have things done on time and the way they’re supposed to be done, even if the way they’re supposed to be done ... strikes you with your civilian mindset as being incredibly petty. There’s a proper way to make a bed, for example. There’s a proper way to clean a sink, all that stuff.”
Gazette: So they break you down?
Rye: “It’s to change your mindset from civilian to military, OK? It doesn’t mean to make you an automaton, but to make you alert, capable of following orders and capable of giving them, if you’re in that position. To be effective at your job and what you do.”
Rye’s military occupation speciality was artillery. After training at Fort Sill, Okla., he received orders for Vietnam. He was given a 30-day leave before shipping overseas.
Gazette: What did you do you do in 30 days’ time?
Rye: “Seeing all the friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time with the knowledge that I could very well be dead within a year and this might be the last time I saw them. I also made the mistake of having a whirlwind romance, which led to a whirlwind engagement with someone I had just met during the leave. Marriage would have been a disaster, which we both realized later. But, you know: I don’t want to die without getting married and having kids and all the stuff that is part of a normal adult’s life. But I came to my senses later, and happily so did she.”
Gazette: What do you remember about Vietnam?
Rye: “I remember getting off the plane thinking I had never felt such a combination of heat and humidity in my life. Just overwhelming. As we were leaving the plane, we got a huge cheer from a whole lot of troops on the ground. Can you guess why we got the cheer? They were the ones who were going aboard the plane. That was the “Freedom Bird” — capital F, capital B. We were the replacements, and that’s why we got the cheer.”
Rye went to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, part of its artillery — the people who were called if a company or unit “got pinned down.”
Rye: “The unit moved about once a month, like a MASH unit. So we were various places, always in the Mekong Delta. I learned more about the artillery than I ever wanted to know.”
Gazette: Was that hard for a guy who had eschewed science and math?
Rye: “Yes, I wasn’t good at those. But it got even stranger. They looked at the personnel records, and it said ‘civilian education, 16 years.’ It didn’t say I was a college graduate — I wasn’t, I had a few credits left to go — but, oh we’ll put him in the fire direction center.
“Those are the people who calculate and translate location into numbers for the artillery. There’s the quadrant, deflection and azimuth. You have to determine all those things and bark out instructions to guns and people on the ground where to aim them and set them and then fire. You had to learn to do it in a hurry because it’s often under duress.
“Three months, three weeks in country, I got wounded, and it was not heroic. People say, ‘Oh you got a Purple Heart, you’re a big hero.’ I was asleep. We got mortared about 2 in the morning. I woke up. We were all assigned a hooch, which we had to build ourselves. It was made out of steel culvert with sandbags surrounding it. Usually we filled the sandbags ourselves. ... So I was sleeping ... on my stomach, apparently. Suddenly I heard incredible explosions, and we were getting hit and hit really hard. I ran to the fire direction center and someone said, ‘Hey you’re bleeding.’ And I was. I was bleeding from the back of my neck, and I was bleeding from my arm.
“I had been hit by mortar shrapnel, and I just didn’t know it that at the time. I was obsessed with the other stuff that was going on. Two of our guys were killed that night. They med-evaced me — put me in a helicopter and took me to a medical unit where I had my first real taste of war because one of my cooks, whom I recognized, was lying on a gurney with his legs blown off. That’s an image that never goes away. Never goes away. It stuck with me the rest of my life.
“Some people say, ‘Hey, Bromley gets to go home.’ Well, that’s a heck of a way to have to go home, you know? One of the guys who was killed had just come back from a (rest and relaxation) in Bangkok ... and told me about his wonderful time, 24 hours later he was dead. That brought the war home in a big way. About every — oh it seemed like every couple of weeks — we’d get hit at night. We never knew when it would be. If you got a civilian mindset, it takes some getting used to. People out there want to kill me. They don’t even know me. What have I done to them? What I did to them, from their point of view, was invade their country. So, you know, I understood where they were coming from.”