Jeff Eirvin has only recently begun wearing a Vietnam veteran hat a friend gave him. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Jeff Eirvin has only recently begun wearing a Vietnam veteran hat a friend gave him. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Fifty years ago this month, a 19-year-old draftee from St. Louis boarded a plane to Vietnam. During his 11 months in the Army, Jeff Eirvin shot no one, nor was he shot. Instead, he operated radios and switchboards at an aircraft repair base near the border with North Vietnam. But like any soldier, his life changed both for good and for bad.

“As a young kid, before the Army, I used to smile a lot,” says Eirvin, a member of St. Juan Diego Parish in Northwest Portland. At 70 he has mellowed and smiles frequently again. But for decades, people told him he looked angry.

“I think I was a gentler person before I went in,” Eirvin says.” I came out a little rougher around the edges. You get toughened up in the military and you have a different outlook. I met a lot of rough people. You have to stand up for yourself.”

Eirvin recalls other moments fondly, like the warm days when a 10-year-old local boy would offer to watch his gear while he took a plunge in the salt waters off Da Nang. He bought the boy colas and offered cash for the work, but the boy would always give it all to his mother.

“He was a trustworthy kid,” Eirvin says.

Eirvin has been happily married to JoAnn for 45 years and is retired from Intel after a long career. He serves as president of the vocations-fostering Serra Club of Portland. His son, Father Jeff Eirvin Jr., is vocations director for the Archdiocese of Portland. Another son is a Portland firefighter and a third is a sales manager in South Carolina.

Even with all those accomplishments and all the time that has passed, he still recalls his year in Vietnam as a key to who he became.

‘Good luck, son’

He grew up in south St. Louis, the son of a World War II veteran and the grandson of a World War I veteran. When he graduated from St. Mary High School in 1969, he knew he’d be drafted. The former altar boy considered it his obligation to answer the call.

On the day he left home for the war, he woke up and his mother made breakfast. His father drove him to downtown St. Louis, pulled over, put out a hand and said, “Good luck, son. Work hard.” That’s how it was done in those days.

While waiting for his bus to basic training, young Jeff fell asleep and missed the swearing in. The sergeant lit into him before performing a separate ceremony. The other draftees razzed him as he sheepishly boarded the bus.

At basic training in southern Missouri, he met farm boys and city boys. Two New Yorkers begged him to check their sleeping bags for snakes.

For every single infantryman fighting in Vietnam, there were 10 support troops: barbers, cooks, doctors, chopper pilots and radio operators among others.

Because Eirvin knew Morse code from his Boy Scout days, he was marked for radio school. A friendly sergeant had warned him that combat radio operators got killed frequently, since Vietcong snipers targeted the antennas sticking up in the air. Eirvin had a chance to qualify as a base radio operator and teletype specialist, a much safer posting inside a bunker. He kept failing the exam and feared he’d have to take his chances in jungle warfare. But he tried prayer before his last crack at the exam and then aced the test.

The incredulous sergeant asked what happened to bring about the change. Private Eirvin could only say he did not quite know.

‘You’re in a war zone, buddy’

In November 1969, he arrived at the camp on Da Nang’s Red Beach, so called because the Vietcong had slaughtered French troops there a few decades earlier.

On his first day, he was resting in his bunk and heard a series of booms. The other soldiers began running around. He asked what was happening. One private told him, “You’re in a war zone, buddy. We’re getting hit!”

Vietcong regularly lobbed missiles and mortars from nearby fields and mountains, but the base never sustained serious damage. A U.S. battleship anchored off the coast would send return fire over the base up into the hills. Because of the distances, Eirvin would hear the whistling U.S. shells and explosions in the mountains before detecting the original sharp cracks from the ship. Vietnam was like that — disorienting.

Eirvin was the man who made sure messages and orders got to the right people in his company. During night shifts, he would radio each guard tower to make sure sentries were still awake and had not been ambushed. One night in the sweltering heat, he manned the radio in shorts and a T-shirt. When the enemy starting firing, he had to alert the commander, who would be showing up soon after. He called his pals to bring him a uniform on the double and he pulled it on just as the officer walked into the radio room.

Hooch life

Eirvin lived with five or six other soldiers in a tin-roofed, vermin-infested hut they called a hooch. Eirvin once vanquished a rat the size of a housecat, the only thing he killed in Vietnam. There were good men and rough men, drinking and marijuana. One hoochmate took a rifle and got into a dispute with another man, firing a shot that blew off the leg of an innocent bystander, a soldier who was set to fly home the next morning.

In war, pointless tragedy and profound sweetness often overlap. The soldiers pooled money to pay a local woman to clean the hooch. Eirvin did not smoke and so gave the cleaner his cigarette rations so she could sell them on the black market. The men also would give her slices of bologna, which she would cook up with cabbage and share with them all.

“There were good people in the village,” Eirvin recalls.

Bands came to entertain the men, playing in a hall that was insulated with packaging for mortars.

Faith practice fell off for Eirvin, to return later. Only once did a priest come through, saying Mass from the back of a truck.

‘We’re out of here’

When his time in the Army was done in the fall of 1970, Eirvin was sent to a large base farther south to wait for a flight out of Southeast Asia. He again delayed a bus of soldiers when the captain told him he needed to get a haircut before anyone could go to the airport.

Finally, he boarded the plane and noticed the pilot and copilot speaking casually as the craft picked up speed on the runway. He wished the men would pay better attention, as he did not want to get killed in a plane crash just as he was about to go home.

“As soon as the wheels left the ground, everyone cheered,” Eirvin said. “We are gone. We’re out of here.”

Back in the United States, people at airports called him and his fellow soldiers baby killers and spat in derision. That was hard enough for the combat veterans, but it was extra galling for men like Eirvin, who had harmed no one directly and had no heroic stories to tell.

Eirvin had heard about protesters and the war debate but figured he was doing his duty for his country. “Things were way different 50 years ago. As a 19- or 20-year-old guy, I didn’t have a lot of interest in politics. My main interests were fast cars, good-looking girls and a beer or two.”

Discharged, he met with a career counselor and filled out a resume. The counselor told him to erase Vietnam from his list of experiences, as that would only make it harder to land a job.

At least he got a warm welcome from his family.

Now, 50 years later, Eirvin makes sure to greet soldiers in airports warmly and ask them where they are headed and what they have experienced.

Only recently has he begun wearing a simple hat someone have him as a gift. It reads: “Vietnam Veteran.”