SD Vietnam Stories: Craig Tschetter

Last Updated by Heather Benson on

In the Moment welcomed Vietnam veteran Craig Tschetter. He was a finalist for last year's Veterans Writing Prize. He has a new book. It's called "Fifteen Minutes Ago." You can meet him at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood. This is an edited version of that conversation.  You can listen to it in its entirety here.

 

Lori Walsh:

Let's talk a little bit about where you were at as far as when did you start wanting to write some of your experiences from Vietnam, and how did that fit into your overall processing of your life there?

Craig Tschetter:

Well, first of all, that's a great question. I went to a writing class that Ron Capps put on a couple years ago, and I think that's what really triggered me to keep going forward, okay? 'Cause I think anybody that sits down and wants to put words on paper, really has a struggle with what to say and how to say it so that a reader has a chance to understand what he's trying to say, or she's trying to say.

Karl Marlantes, who's one of my favorite authors, Tim O'Brien, or people like that - that constantly have that message out, that you need to write something. You need to put your words on paper. It doesn't have to be in a book form. It doesn't have to be in poetry. It can be in anything, but the theory behind it is to do something. And I think that's where I started.

Now I wanted, for a long time, to put words on paper, but I couldn't get it done. Every time I started, I failed, and I had no direction in which way to go. When I heard Karl Marlantes speak at the Veterans Hospital a few years ago when he was here for the Festival of Books, he stressed to every one of us veterans, and those on the staff at the VA that attended, that you really do need to think about writing as an avenue to find peace, or at least search for peace, and it triggered me. Then I went to the Ron Capps writing thing on campus, and that really moved me in a direction, and while the timing on this is not going to work out in your mind right now, but it was a five-year project for me because it was over a window of time that I started doing this. And I didn't seriously start writing the way I wanted to write the story or the book until just a couple years ago.

I had almost two years, Lori, that I spent in research because, as you know, a memoir, at least in my opinion, has to be factual and true, and I wanted my readers to know that. That what they're going to read is true, and before I could do that I had to unclutter my mind of over 50 years ago, and I went to a website that is available now for declassified information, and I read every single After Action Report.

From Vietnam on our battalion in my company, to time-line things that I had mixed up, to put down dates, events; reunions I go to for my battalion, people tell me stories. I found out those stories weren't true. Not true, but they were wrong ... Out of sequence.

And so it took me a long time to get that put together. But once I had my map drawn out of how I wanted to do it, it seemingly came together much like I felt I wanted it to. And I feel really good that I got it accomplished.

Lori:

You were a combat radio operator, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. My father was a combat radio operator for the Marines Corp in Vietnam. He always used to tell me, that's the first person who got shot, was the guy holding the radio. How dangerous is that job?

Craig:

Well, I can tell you I had a round shot through my radio on my back. I can tell you that when you're hit ... When you're tied by the hip to a company commander or a lieutenant of a platoon, squad leader, whatever the case may be, there is no question that in any combat setting if the enemy can take out a commanding officer, the communications system, then they're ahead of the game. So, absolutely, we were targets. There's no doubt about it. I mean, the web antenna alone was, I think, 20 feet tall.... You know? I mean, just say "Shoot me", I guess. I don't know.

Lori:

Do they still carry those?

Craig:

Oh yeah.

Lori:

We did.

Craig:

Yeah.

Lori:

All those years later. That's what we had too. It's the same equipment.

Craig:

Yeah. It was a PRC-25 and 23.5 pounds, and I contend that that was one of my saviors - is that I volunteered to carry a radio. I wasn't trained as a radio operator, but I did not like walking point. And after walking point three times I told my squad leader, "I want to carry the radio." There's no reason for me to be, in my mind, up front, saying, "Here I am, shoot me." So these guys have a chance behind me. I'll carry that radio. And after two weeks of humping the radio for him, he made me the official radio operator for 2nd squad. Then I worked up to lieutenant's platoon commander, then I worked my way up to the company commander, and I had four company commanders that I served with.

Lori:

And you don't like everyone that you're holding the radio for, necessarily, but that wouldn't matter. You're tied to that person whether ...

Craig:

Absolutely.

Lori:

Right. That's your duty.

Craig:

Whether they want to go front, or whether they want to do whatever, you have to stay with them. 'Cause you're their link to communicating with other people. And understand, on a company commander's level, it's to the battalion.

So he has two radio operators. One is within the company to talk to platoon commanders, and then one that I operated, which was battalion, to keep battalion informed of everything that we were doing. And I took orders from the battalion radio operator on what our plans were for the next day or two. I always knew more about what was going on than most of the troops did.

Lori:

Right. The submission that you sent to the writing project or contest last year was called "Yellow Ribbons." You were a finalist. True story?

Craig:

Absolutely.

Lori:

Yeah. So, those memories come back. And they come back at an odd time. Tell us a little bit about when some of the uncomfortable memories, those thoughts, really return in force from your time in Vietnam, and why then.

Craig:

Well, Lori, if I was a light bulb, and everytime I thought about Vietnam today ... And I have those ghosts that are very prevalent in my life, I write about them in my book. They're the common denominators that link me to the war and my problems today with PTSD.

If I were a light bulb, I'd go on and off all the time. That's why the title of my book is Fifteen Minutes Ago. Because, when people ask me that question, when was I in Vietnam?  I always tell them, November 23, 1967, through July 27 of 1969. What I really want to tell them is fifteen minutes ago, because that's truly when I was there.

So when you ask that question, what haunts me ... Haunts me, not so much today as it did years ago, when I was extremely depressed and at a state of near suicide - it's been because of medication, it's because of counseling, the VA staff. All those people that have helped me be able to live what I call somewhat of a normal life, where I'm level to the point where what goes through my mind every day just goes through it. It doesn't bother me like it used to.

You see, I don't want to think about the things I don't want to think about, and that's kind of a play on words, but yet, it goes through your mind because of the way I've been traumatized. And I think combat veterans have to learn to live with their experiences on a day-to-day basis, because I don't think you can heal from that trauma. I don't know that there's a healing process to it, an end result, a destination for healing, so to say. I think it's an ongoing struggle that every veteran of combat has to learn to live with, every day, and find a way in which you can survive. That's what it's about. For some, that's counseling. For others, it's medication. For me, it's been counseling, medication, and writing. 

Lori:

The book is called Fifteen Minutes Ago, and my guest, Craig Tschetter. We're going to bring his wife, Della Tschetter, into the conversation now. Thanks for being here, Della.

Della:

Thanks for having us.

Lori:

What's the legacy of Vietnam been in your marriage? In your relationship to Craig?

Della:

Well, it's like another entity in our marriage. It certainly has been a big part of it, and I was married to Craig for 10 years before I was aware there was any problems.

And so, he's kind of textbook, I like to say. If the PTSD symptoms came about at that time, and that would be 35 years ago now.

 

Even at that time Craig was told that writing about his experience could be therapy for him, and he did a little bit at that time, but then didn't. But in 2008, he did have a short story published in the VFW Magazine, and I was proud of him for that, and thought at that time, "Oh, I bet now he's going to write more, like he's wanted to." But, you're working and busy, and it took Craig retiring to have the time to do the research, and I guess the time to think about it, and the time to spend all day in the office writing for the past two years.

Lori:

Have you been able to read the book? Did you read it as he was working on it? Are you staying away from it so you don't have all those stories, or what?

Della:

I read parts of it along the way, but pretty much I would just read what he had written. I've read the book, more than once.

Lori:

Right.  Craig, did you feel like you wanted to protect her from it, share it with her, have her come alongside? What were your hopes as you wrote and sort of revealed and revisited some of those stories that might be more difficult?

Craig:

Well, there was a time in my life I kept it to me, inside me, which was wrong. I know that. But, for me, like I told you earlier ... I was looking for peace to write when I was writing. But I also wanted to help my family understand the complexities of combat and where it can take you, okay? Did I want to share it with Della? I did, and yet I didn't. I was afraid I could never explain it to a point where she could understand it; and I don't think people can understand it unless they've been there. And I think you understand what I'm saying.

But, no. I mean, I love my wife dearly, and I would never want to try to keep anything from her, but at the same time, it's taken years to put this together for me to feel good about the fact that what I'm sharing, at least in the book ... There's things I didn't put in the book, of course.

Lori:

Right. You came back from Vietnam and became a drill instructor? At MCRD San Diego, is that correct?

Craig:

That is correct. I trained recruits for 19 months. I had it 20 weeks of training ... Not 20 weeks ... Yeah, I think it was 20 weeks of training, and then I got turned loose on the drill field in October of 1969, and I left the Marine Corps in June of '71.

Lori:

What was the experience like, to sort of be sending young men prepared to what you had just returned from? Shaping them into the warrior that they needed to be?

Craig:

There's three levels of drill instructors, Lori, which I think you may well be aware of. There's always the father image. There's always the heavy, they call it. And then there's the light. And those people played their roles accordingly. And as a heavy, which I was, and I think it's because I had been in Vietnam, I knew the hostile environment these young troops were going to go to, you know, so every platoon commander I had put me in that position. And I was very serious about what they were going to be doing, and I tried to help them understand that clearly. And in the final phase, when you actually get a chance to sit and visit with them on a one-to-one ba-- not on one-to-one, but within a platoon and they can ask you questions, it's a very rewarding time.

I was decorated on the drill field in San Diego in front of my recruits, who thought I was the biggest jerk known to man, and in an instant I went to a war hero, which I was not. But, I mean, that's what happens with ...

Lori:

You never for-- The heavy is terrifying.

Craig:

It's terrifying. When I was off duty that was their best times. When I was on duty, it went down the tubes.

Lori:

I'm actually like breathing heavy right now, thinking of Drill Instructor Sergeant Roll and how mean she was. She was the heavy.

Craig:

And I put my tattoo, or not my tattoo, my brand on 500 plus recruits ... And I've had two of them call me over the years to thank me.

Lori:

Really?

Craig:

Yeah, which was very moving.

Lori:

What did they thank you for? Specifically?

Craig:

Making them who they are today. That's a fact. That's what they say.

Lori:

What made you who you are today? What's the legacy of Vietnam in your life?

Craig:

It identifies who I am. It changed me. I'm not the person I started out to be. I know that. Because of Vietnam, my whole life has been centered on things that I know I would have never done before if I hadn't been through that experience in my life. I don't know how to explain it to you, Lori, really, quite frankly.

I hope I accomplish it in my book, I do. I tried hard to get the reader to be able to understand it, and yet for an 18-year-old kid, boy, that chose to serve his country, to a 19-year-old Marine that went through all the agonies and sadnesses of Vietnam and all that, and then to who I've been the rest of my life trying to cope with all that stuff, really is the message of this book.

I mean, it's not another book about Vietnam, Lori. That's the farthest thing from the truth. It's my story. It's about me and my struggles and what happened to me in Vietnam, and the things I saw and the things I did as an innocent young man.

Lori:

The book is called Fifteen Minutes Ago. Meet Craig Tschetter at the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood in September. I'll be there as well. I'll stop by and say hello and pick up a copy of my book then and read it.

Craig:

I'll even autograph it.

Lori:

Thank you so much. Thank you for telling the story. Della, thank you for being here with us, and thank you for your service. Thanks for leading the way.

 

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