Bob Gillett, of Marion County Lake, received a terrible homecoming reception when he returned from a tour of duty during the Vietnam War.
“They called us women killers and baby killers,” Gillett said. “It was like a slap in the face when you came home.”
In part because of that experience, he became involved with several organizations that try to show soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan that they are appreciated.
Gillett expected to be drafted into the Army, and he was in 1968. After training, he spent 370 days in Vietnam. After the first month he was there, he saw combat nearly every day. He was in the mountainous Central Highlands for most of his tour, where troops were mortared most nights.
“You didn’t sleep soundly hardly at all,” Gillett said. “You’re on edge the whole time.”
He said he virtually always carried his rifle and wore his “steel pot” (helmet).
A particular hot spot was Landing Zone Action, where he helped secure an artillery battery that included 175 mm howitzers. The big cannons were capable of firing shells up to 21 miles.
“It shook you,” he said.
Gillett said his opinion of the Vietnam War changed during his time there.
“At first I didn’t know why we were there,” he said.
He said he grew to realize that people there wanted freedom from communism. He was actually angry when he found out the United States was leaving Vietnam.
“Send all those guys over there and leave all that blood over there, and not finish the job,” he said.
He is involved with the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion Riders, and the Patriot Guard, all to show respect for current soldiers. Gillett said he has been to four funerals where members of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church demonstrated. He said he saw a huge crowd of motorcyclists at a funeral in Newton to shield the family from protesters.
“It was a tear-jerker to see it all,” he said.
The Vietnam War had differences from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also some similarities. The fighting now is more in cities, he said, but like in Vietnam, soldiers can’t be sure who is an enemy.
When Gillett was deployed, the people he trained with were sent to different replacements as units, so there haven’t been any reunions over the years, but he tries to keep in touch with a few.
“They were like brothers to you,” he said.
He doesn’t waste any time wondering how things would have been if he hadn’t been drafted.
“I don’t have any regrets about anything,” he said. “You grew up real quick.”