Bill Lund was a soldier once ... and young
Nearly 50 years ago, a collection of young Americans, many of whom had never heard of the mountainous jungle locale where they were sent, fought a ferocious battle that marked the beginning of 10 years of war in Vietnam.
Bill Lund was one of them.
"It's kind of like it was yesterday, but it's also like it was 50 years ago," Lund said.
The year was 1965, the battle was Ia Drang and the death toll was 305 Americans over the course of the week. Lund, a native Minnesotan who spends his summers of retirement in Breezy Point, survived the battle famously depicted in the movie "We Were Soldiers," but his life - along with the lives of countless other soldiers and the course of the country itself - was forever changed.
Born in 1942, Lund grew up first in Bemidji and later in Edina, when the city was still partly rural. His father worked for Honeywell, and his mother stayed home with him and his two sisters. Lund enjoyed sports growing up and particularly took to skiing, which later became the focus of his career.
He met his wife, Kathie, in high school, and the couple later married while in college at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities. With the Vietnam War on the horizon and the draft looming, Lund and his wife decided that he would join the Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC).
"We thought, 'We sure can't live on that pay (if I were drafted),'" he said. Second lieutenants, the rank Lund achieved through ROTC, made $241 per month compared to $99 for draftees.
On graduation day, Lund received not only his diploma, but also his orders to report to Fort Benning outside of Columbus, Georgia, to be part of the 11th Air Assault Division, an experimental division that became the first to use helicopters in combat.
He spent a year training as a forward observer, a position in which he was responsible for directing artillery fire on the enemy.
In the summer of 1965, the troops received word that they were bound for South Vietnam, a country the average American knew little about at the time.
"It was so obscure to us, they actually took a lot of us to a theater, put up big maps and told us how to pronounce it," Lund said. "We were so naïve."
Now part of the newly formed 1st Cavalry Division made up of around 15,000 soldiers, Lund and his counterparts left Charleston, South Carolina, in August on ships that traveled halfway around the globe through the Panama Canal and Pacific Ocean to Southeast Asia.
"They plunked us right down in the middle of the jungle," Lund said. He described the landscape of the central highlands of South Vietnam as beautiful, surrounded by mountains and wildlife he'd never seen before, including tigers and elephants.
Among the first soldiers to arrive, the division was tasked with cutting out the base camp, making room for hundreds of helicopters and an airfield.
The missions in which Lund partook as part of the First Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment soon became routine: The group flew in helicopters to designated landing zones, formed a circle around the clearing in case of enemy fire and then began what Lund called "a long trek" through the jungle, looking for the enemy.
The enemy, in this case, was mostly the North Vietnamese military, although there were occasional skirmishes with South Vietnamese guerrilla fighters.
Nothing much happened in these first missions except nights spent in the jungle, punctuated by expectations of what could lie ahead. Lund's first realization of the intensity of war came while plotting points where artillery would fire. Standing on a cliff overlooking a breathtaking view of the distant ocean, he witnessed two large bomber planes, flying dangerously low in Lund's estimation, crash near their camp.
"That really set in. This is war. This is terrible," he said.
On Nov. 14, 1965, Lund's battalion set out on another mission to another landing zone known as LZ X-Ray, near the Cambodian border, where military intelligence indicated an enemy camp may be nearby. This time, the North Vietnamese military was waiting for them. Thousands of enemy soldiers surrounded the Americans, and one of the war's most famous battles ensued.
The fighting was intense; Lund recalls the group engaging in hand-to-hand combat and near-constant gunfire. The Air Force supported the ground troops with air strikes, and after three days, the North Vietnamese retreated. But not before 79 Americans were killed and 125 more were wounded. Lund described the scene as "lots of chaos."
Despite a break in the fighting, the chaos was not over for the 1st Cavalry. A second battalion moved in to X-Ray, taking over the foxholes and giving the battle-weary troops a chance to return to base and rest. The following day, this battalion left to hike toward another landing zone, LZ Albany, where they would be picked up.
This is when the "tragedy really happened," Lund said. Strung out through the jungle, the battalion encountered heavy weapons and suffered severe injury and loss of life. In a matter of hours, 154 soldiers died and 125 were wounded. Lund had many friends among the fallen soldiers.
Following the first major battle of the Vietnam War, Lund and the other soldiers continued along with the regular missions just as before.
"A few days later, you're doing the same thing," he said. "There's no grieving other than what you do personally."
Lund continued to fly missions into landing zones through March of 1966, until his two-year commitment ended and he could return home. He called his wife from Guam with the news and asked her to meet him in San Francisco. Like a scene from a movie, he said, he kissed the ground when he arrived on American soil and then ran to kiss his wife through the chain-link fence.
"That's how quick it went from being in heavy combat to being in San Francisco," he said.
Lund said if there's one lesson he took away from the war, it is the sheer randomness of warfare, that no amount of effort or skill necessarily prevents one from dying over another.
"There's not much you can do ... it isn't going to make a whole lot of difference if you live or die," he said. "But you're not afraid anymore, because you realize you're totally out of control."
Despite the helplessness this could engender, Lund said the love for the men he served with was what pushed all of them to do their jobs to the best of their ability.
"You want to do your job so well, because you want to protect your buddies," he said.
Lund lived what he called a "pretty darn normal life" following his experience in Vietnam - he and his wife raised three children, owned successful skiing-focused sporting goods stores in Wayzata and later in Colorado, and ran a large skiing school, SkiJammers, also in Wayzata - but the specter of his time spent at war stayed with him.
"PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a big factor. It strikes at any time," he said. "I lived a pretty darn normal life for 20 years, and then I couldn't handle it anymore. It's real hard to find an answer to that."
Lund did not share his experiences at war with anyone, including his family, and said he likely wouldn't have, if it weren't for the release of the 1992 book detailing the battle upon which the movie is based, "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young."
"I would have to say that that book, in a sense, saved my life," he said. "We were the lucky guys, because the book and the movie kinda says it for you."
Following the book's release, Lund started attending reunions with his compatriots from Vietnam, received requests for autographs from all over the world, and he and Kathie were featured on an A&E documentary, "The Love Chronicles: Love in the 60s."
And yet, the negative impacts of Vietnam lingered for Lund; in 2007, he began experiencing heart trouble that led to open heart surgery, stents and a pacemaker. His heart disease is likely related to his exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide the U.S. military used as part of defoliation warfare. Agent Orange is known for the multitude of negative health effects it's had on veterans from the era, including numerous types of cancer and birth defects in the children of veterans. Lund said many of the men he served with have succumbed to diseases related to their exposure.
He made sure to credit the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) for its support for him throughout the health issues.
"The VA has been wonderful," he said.
Lund and Kathie now spend their time split between Breezy Point and Phoenix, Arizona, and enjoy spending time with their children and seven grandchildren.