Chuck Tooley, former Billings mayor, served in the U.S. Army during Vietnam. He’s lived in Montana for more than 40 years. He graduated from high school in Washington in 1964 and graduated from Lynchburg (Va.) College in 1968. He worked as a technical director while teaching theater in college and high school in Birmingham, Ala. This is part of his Vietnam story. To hear the full interview, please go to billingsgazette.com/Vietnam.
Tooley: “When my first draft notice came in September 1968, my boss did not want to lose me. He wrote an impassioned letter to my draft board, saying that I was teaching this high school course — this course of study — and that I was also an instructor at the university. In those days, teachers got draft deferments. He characterized my work as a teacher, and he said obviously it would disrupt the operation of this university considerably to have Mr. Tooley drafted at this time. I didn’t know he cared so much. He was a pretty tough boss sometimes. ... In any case, the draft board in the state of Washington did give me a deferment, and so I didn’t go into the Army right away. It wasn’t until September of ‘69 that I was drafted and went, and then actually was in for three years, from 1969 to 1972.”
Gazette: You got one chance at deferment.
Tooley: “Actually, I got two chances at deferment. I had a student deferment, like so many thousands of people did.”
Gazette: Having been able to defer twice, was being drafted a real possibility, or did you did you think you could just keep deferring? How do you deal with that out there?
Tooley: “In those days, I thought, ‘This is a great experience, but I am doing four jobs.’ I was teaching at two different institutions and was the technical director for two different companies, plus I picked up some spare work for an opera company for outdoor drama. So, I was working like crazy. I thought, ‘It’ll be a relief to go into the Army.’ The only issue was the political one, which was Vietnam. Of course that caused a lot of hard feelings. ... I had nothing against the military. My father had been in the service, all of my uncles were World War II veterans. I just assumed after this deferment in Birmingham, I’d just go into the Army. And that’s what happened.
“I left Birmingham and went back to the Seattle area, and before I found a job, I was interviewing and one of those was an insurance company — a very large and recognizable insurance company that had an office in Seattle — and they were looking for an insurance adjuster. I interviewed, and the man who interviewed me said, ‘Gosh, you might be a good fit,’ but everyone has to take this test before they can employ them. I went into the room, took the test, completed it, and then I heard the knock on the door, ‘I’m sorry. Time’s up. You’re going to have to stop.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m done.’ I scored really well on that test, and the interviewer was excited. ... I said I could start the next week. And he said, ‘Oh yeah, what’s your draft status?’ I said, ‘I’m 1-A,’ and he said, ‘Oh, um. Gosh I am going to have to wait before I give you a final decision on this. I’ll give you a call.’ That was a very strong example of discrimination that I experienced as privileged white, middle-class American male. To have a 1-A draft status was a mark against you. ... If I was 1-A, I was very likely to be drafted. They didn’t want to invest in training me and have me taken away into the Army. Of course, I never got a call, and it was obvious by his attitude I never was going to get one. But I did get one, and I was drafted.”
Tooley went into the Army at Fort Lewis, Wash., where he completed basic training. He went to Fort Gordon in Georgia and was trained in communications, obtaining a top-secret crypto security clearance. After serving in Arizona and Europe for nearly two years, he received orders to go to Vietnam.
Tooley: “When I went to Vietnam. I was in Region I, and most of my work was at I Corps headquarters, outside of Da Nang. I started there because I had experience, they made me what is called a ‘methods and results NCO (non-commissioned officer).’ Qualitative management — making sure things were done properly. That we formatted things in the correct way. ... But in the meantime you live in a place and your job was not everything. For example, you have to get to your job. So I lived a few miles away and then had to get my duty station. There are a lot of things that can happen in the course of living your life day by day. My job was not to be in the bush. My job was not to go out and kill Viet Cong. My job was to support the people that did and support other allied units, not just American units, but Vietnamese, Australian. We got a bit of action, even though that wasn’t our job. We would take fire. We would get rocketed. I’ve been blown out of bed more than once in the early morning incident.”
Gazette: You’re enjoying Europe, and then you get orders to go to Vietnam. What goes on in your head?
Tooley: “You try to focus on the future. What’s going to be happening beyond. This was going to be my last year in the service, so when I got back from Vietnam, I would be able to start my real life. Everybody in Vietnam talked about going back to the real world — and that was America. I had fallen in love with an American woman in Germany, and we made a commitment to each other, so a big part of my concern was how we were going to sustain this relationship. She was very adamant this was going to work and this was going to be a one-year blip in our relationship. It was a planning about what we’re going to do afterward.”
Gazette: You went to a place where you weren’t getting fire to being knocked out of bed. What was that like for you? How does a person adapt to that kind of life?
Tooley: “You always hope for the best, but you knew it could happen at any time. There were times where you billeted. I was in different places. ... There were times when you knew that things might be up, we’d wear flak jackets, helmets and carry our weapons with us. After a while you’d ditch the flak jackets because everything was peaceful, and then after a while we’d quit with the helmets because they were awfully hot in a tropical climate and just go back to our baseball caps. And then after a while everyone was nice and happy and everyone’s friendly and you know those weapons are kind of heavy. And we’d drive to work without. Then, something would happen and by gosh, it was all back on again.”
Gazette: Were you scared?
Tooley: “You know, I looked around at my buddies, it just seemed to me that when we were in a tight spot that they were all a lot more scared than I was.”
Tooley: “Maybe because I was older and had more experience. ... I was one of the oldest first-terms (first time to Vietnam) in my outfit anywhere I was because I had graduated from college and been out of college for a year-and-a-half before I got drafted and in the Army two years before I got sent to Vietnam. So I was in my 20s and they were 18 and 19. So it made a difference. I had more experience and a little more mature.”
Gazette: What do you remember about Vietnam — the actual place and living there? I am guessing it’s not like Seattle or Montana.
Tooley: “My first job after the Army was in Orlando, Fla., and it was very much like that — interior; although the Da Nang area was on the South China Sea, so we did get some sea breeze. The farther inland you went, the more like Orlando it was. It was very hot, very humid. I remember the smells — the fish sauce, going through the city; sewage, open sewage ditches. There were other exotic smells that weren’t unpleasant. The smell of (a) fish market or vegetables as you go through the city. Beautiful skies. There were so many guys who said I want to come back here after the war and start a resort — because there were some nice beaches.”
Gazette: What did you find yourself missing about home — the “real world?”
Tooley: “Of course, my girlfriend — my fiance. The ability to go where you wanted at any time. When you’re in a war zone, it’s pretty restricted to where you go and what you can do.
“... President Nguyen Van Thieu was running for re-election while I was there, and he won with 90 percent of the vote. Can you imagine: A presidential candidate? Details that came out that proved it was just a huge fraud. There were demonstrations and rioting in the streets. In fact, I came through the downtown Da Nang from I Corps and there were still blood in the street where people had been shot down. They brought in the machine guns and ‘blam, blam, blam.’ They wouldn’t put up with any civil disturbance, so it just drove the point home that here was a great democracy trying set an example for the rest of the world — a bright and shining city on the hill — and here we were supporting this crummy dictatorship.”
Gazette: Tell me about your experience with Agent Orange.
Tooley: “We didn’t really pay much attention to it while we were over there. It wasn’t until afterward. ... We knew they used defoliant so that it would be easier to see the Viet Cong and (they) didn’t have as many places to hide. We knew it existed. But it wasn’t until later that we saw the connection between it and the list of really horrible cancers. The guys that really handled it all the time and came up with all these symptoms. ... The Clinton administration said if you were in Vietnam during these years, and you have one of these cancers, we will just presume it was because of Agent Orange and you can just get these benefits. So I got sick about 12 years ago. Somebody called me and ... said, ‘Chuck, have you gone to the VA?” I said, ‘No, I have private insurance. I go to my private doctor.’ He said, ‘I suggest you go to the VA and check it out.’ So I started this process, and, by golly, it was due to my exposure to Agent Orange.
“Here’s what I know: I was on the Da Nang Air Force Base because our 37th Signal Battalion was headquartered. So we had Agent Orange all over the place. They were taking off, flying out, flying back, dumping their Agent Orange. They filled up there. The Da Nang Air Force Base is kind of a toxic area. Vietnamese people who live around there are experiencing all kinds of maladies. They’ve connected it to with the toxins. ... And that’s where I lived.”