|Soldiering on: Vietnam vets get a
taste of modern military training
Two friends who grew close while sweeping mines in
the 11th Armored Cavalry in Vietnam reunited in March to drive cross country
and get a look at how their old unit is training for the battlefields of
As engineers with the 919th attached to the cavalry division, Wayne Connie
Padgett, 57, of the Laurel section of Carroll County, and Fred Sheetz, 56,
of Lakeland, Fla., became fast friends as they rode around from Saigon to
Parrott's Beak packed into an armored personnel carrier with four other
soldiers, their gear, ammunition and other supplies to do odd jobs.
"The main thing we as engineers did was
mine-sweep the roads and destroy ordinance," Padgett said.
The men have vivid memories of blowing up 500-pound American bombs on the Ho
Chi Min Trail that didn't go off when dropped from the Flying Fortresses.
"We'd go swimming in the bomb craters," Sheetz said.
"They'd fill up with water in one day," Padgett said, recalling the weather
in tropical Vietnam.
"We had to throw hand grenades in first to kill the snakes and the leeches,"
They belonged to the only Army engineer corps in Vietnam, so they got jobs
like building roads and a community center.
For 8 1/2 months, Sheetz drove a personnel carrier resembling a tank in the
field. It had a back end that lowered like a beach landing craft.
Padgett remembered Sheetz as a smooth driver from their days "in the saddle"
with the cavalry.
Close quarters made close friends, they said. The soldiers had a bond that
rivals their families, Padgett said.
"You could tell who got a CARE package and you could tell who got a
sweet-smelling letter," he remembered.
Certain perfumes still make him flash back to those days. Sheetz gets the
same effect from the smell of diesel fuel.
The two friends stayed close even after they suffered injuries during
guerrilla warfare with the enemy.
After almost getting through his two-year tour, Sheetz took shrapnel in the
face from a rocket-propelled grenade at the 1st Cavalry's fortified base at
Sheetz had just got a job driving a captain around, so he figured he was out
of the field and safer.
Add to that, the 1st Cavalry had only that day reinforced its defensive
perimeter with fences and barbed wire.
When the siege came that night, Sheetz had the option of driving a jeep out
to the bunker under attack, but he felt safer manning the M-60 machine gun
on the back.
The guerrillas had breached the defenses when they drove up. Sheetz thought
he saw an American soldier come out of their bunker.
But it was really a Vietnamese armed with a rocket propelled grenade.
The rocket hit the tip of the M-60, blowing metal shards into his eyes, face
He would have fallen off the jeep, but a fellow soldier made sure that he
didn't and then took him back for medical treatment.
Sheetz went into shock instantly. He felt no pain but was aware of what was
going on around him.
Padgett came back from leave that day to find Sheetz in the same cot that
one of his commanding officers had died in earlier. He squeezed Sheetz's
hand and thought that he would survive his injuries.
It was about two months later that Padgett followed his friend to a clinic
He jumped down off an instant bridge that folds out from a flatbed truck to
cross a stream. He landed on a landmine and lost his leg.
Padgett and Sheetz caught up with each other stateside at Walter Reed Army
Hospital, but lost track of each other when they were discharged.
They found each other at a reunion of the engineer's corps two years ago.
Sheetz had lost one eye and most vision in the other, as well as part of his
larynx, and hasn't been able to drive.
"I'm not complaining one bit," he says now. "There's a lot more guys on that
[Vietnam Memorial] wall worse off than me."
The two began making plans, along with several others, to drive out to Fort
Irwin, Calif., to visit their old unit's base, see the troops train and
check out its museum.
So Padgett picked up his friend and drove 5,000 miles roundtrip for a visit.
They picked up fellow veterans from the 919th: Rick O'Dell in Vinton - the
guy that Sheetz credits with saving his life on the day of the attack - and
Sam Caldwell in Texas and Joe Rooney in Santa Clara, Calif.
The vets joked they had a one-legged driver and a blind navigator.
They took side trips to see other comrades, like Ben Fields, who couldn't go
to the reunion, and made a stop in Las Vegas.
A stop in Aspen offered Sheetz his first in-person look at winter weather.
"I never saw icicles before," he said. "I got out of the car and got my feet
wet in the snow. I never knew snow got your feet wet."
What really impressed the friends, though, was the personnel at Fort Irwin.
A lieutenant served as a liaison and two soldiers had the assignment of
showing the veterans the base and the war games taking place.
"It was sort of like having a valet at a hotel," Padgett said.
Technology in the field has taken huge steps forward with developments such
as global positioning systems and satellite phones.
A two-star general seemed quite approachable, compared to what the vets were
familiar with in the past. He gave two of the corps' medallions to Padgett,
who admitted to being "too star struck" to ask for the same for his buddies.
"They haven't let me live that one down."
An all-volunteer Army made a huge difference in morale at the base.
The mess hall also proved to be quite different than what Padgett and Sheetz
experienced in the Army.
"What stuck out in my mind is going to the mess hall and having 60 varieties
of food," Padgett said.
When they went to the base museum, Sheetz noticed the record wasn't complete
for the 919th from when they were soldiers.
He brought along articles that proved that the unit won four citations that
had not been accounted for in the museum. He donated his clippings to the
museum so it would have documentation.
The most exciting part of the visit was fulfilling a dream of Sheetz's,
Padgett said - to get him an opportunity to drive a personnel carrier again.
The vets crowded in and Sheetz drove through the Mojave Desert, despite his
virtual lack of vision. Padgett said he is still a smooth driver.
Don't lose contact with your Army friends, the vets told the soldiers. The
other soldiers will be able to understand you in ways your family can't,
Sheetz, Padgett and other veterans talk often, especially when they want to
blow off steam about something connected with the military.
"Thank God for cell phones," Sheetz said.
"Stay in touch," he said. "Don't spend 35 years looking for each other."