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Local veteran was squad leader in Vietnam

Staff writer

Henry Shockley spent less than a year as a foot soldier in the tropical jungles of Vietnam, but the experience produced effects that have lasted a lifetime.

He was drafted in 1968 and was in Vietnam in 1969-70. He wrote about his experiences in the U.S. Army in a self-published novel titled, “Hearts: The Story of a Reconnaissance Squad Leader.”

Shockley grew up at Florence and graduated from Peabody High School in 1967. His mother and father divorced when he was 3 years old. His mother supported him by working as a cook at Town and Country Café and the former Phillips 66 station in Florence.

After being inducted into the army and completing basic training, Shockley was schooled as a noncommissioned officer and took on-the-job training at Fort Riley before heading overseas.

He had been led to believe that he would have an office job in Vietnam. Instead, he was assigned as a squad leader of five men who went on missions to flush out the enemy in the jungle. The “green” sergeant soon encountered things for which he was not prepared.

“We were in the field almost all the time,” he said. “About all I knew was the jungle.”

His squad served with another squad to form a platoon that included a medic, platoon leader, and platoon sergeant. Two Vietnamese soldiers were part of the group on most missions.

The missions lasted anywhere from two days to three weeks, getting longer as the conflict deepened.

During the six-month monsoon season, it rained four or five inches every night but left no standing water.

“It was like clockwork,” Shockley said. “It came at 5 o’clock sharp. You could hear it coming, and it lasted until early in the morning.”

The men slept on the ground at night and dried off in the morning around a lighted block of plastic explosives.

During the dry season, they carried all their water with them.

The platoon took a defensive position at night, forming a circle with the men five yards apart. The lieutenant, sergeant, and medic slept in the middle.

Every man had a “zone of fire,” and every direction was covered. Each man carried a mine that he placed 15 yards into the underbrush. Attached was a long igniting wire that could be lit if the enemy got close. The mines also were used for ambushes.

The men also dealt with hoards of mosquitoes and other insects. They saturated themselves with insect repellent and burned ticks and leaches off each other with cigarettes. They took medications for malaria, but some still got the disease.

“We always saw signs of the enemy on every mission, and became involved in combat on 40 percent of our missions, sometimes several times in one day,” Shockley said.

As time went by, Shockley had misgivings about the war. What the men were doing seemed futile. Every month seemed like a year, and almost every day he feared for his life.

Several times, he spared the lives of his men by his actions, but he saw no honor in being awarded a medal.

Going home

After 10½ months, Shockley received an announcement out of the blue, informing him that he would be going home in two days. He was giddy with excitement.

Because the men spent little time on base, they did not hear much news and did not realize the extent of the anti-war protests going on in the U.S.

When Shockley returned in August 1970, his reception was a shock.

“It was a really tough time,” he said. “There was so much unrest and opposition to the war, and it seemed to all be directed at the soldiers.”

He said he was sent to Vietnam as an individual and returned as an individual, so he lacked the support of his men around him.

After flying into an army base in California, he exchanged his camouflage fatigues for a new uniform. He flew on commercial airliners to get home to Florence and was met with hecklers in California, Denver, Colo., and Wichita.

“The hecklers were the worst in California,” he said.

Shockley said he heard about post-traumatic stress syndrome after he returned, but shrugged it off, thinking he was tough.

Then 21 years old, he enrolled in Kansas State Teacher’s College at Emporia. At that time, many students had enrolled in college to avoid the draft.

Shockley never witnessed anti-war rallies but the atmosphere was tinged with feelings that soldiers were “baby-killers,” or other such stigmas.

“I didn’t want to associate with anybody,” he said. “I didn’t want anybody to know I had served in Vietnam. I became a recluse.”

He married Kathy Beaver of Strong City in 1972 after a three-year courtship.

After being in and out of school for several years, he obtained a degree in graphic design from Kansas State University. However, he did not want to move to a larger city to find a job in that line of work.

He became involved in law enforcement in 1984, serving as a police officer at Concordia and chief of police at Conway Springs.

Forced retirement

As years passed, Shockley was bothered with insomnia, fearing sleep because of recurring nightmares. He experienced panic attacks and avoided social contacts.

He was working at KHP headquarters in Wichita when VA physicians diagnosed him with late-onset post-traumatic stress syndrome. Previously, he had dealt with the stress by becoming a workaholic. Now, they were telling him to quit working, which he did in 2004.

He follows a medication regimen and has regular appointments with a counselor and psychologist.

“I’ve met so many guys whose lives are a mirror image of mine,” he said. “Now they (doctors) are catching it earlier and preventing long-term effects.”

Shockley has come to the conclusion that the Vietnam War, though well-intentioned, was wrong.

“The objective did not fit the need,” he said. “The Vietnamese people did not want democracy. Communism gave them what they needed, like seeds to plant. I really admire the Vietnamese people. They are extremely resilient.”

“If anything good came out of the Vietnam War,’ he added, “it is that there were lessons learned.”

Just because the 60-year-old veteran no longer has a job, it does not mean that he has nothing to do. He stays as busy as ever.

He likes to hunt and fish, creates oil paintings, and enjoys photography. He also is good at woodworking and applies his skills to remodeling the couple’s home at Marion County Park and Lake and refurbishing antiques.

Henry and Kathy have a son named after Shockley’s point man in Vietnam, Travis. The 23-year-old plans to enter the school of architecture at Kansas State University this fall. Kathy is a high school business teacher at Newton.

Last modified April 22, 2009

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