SD Vietnam Stories: Retired Major General Don Goldhorn

Last Updated by Heather Benson on

Retired Major General Don Goldhorn received a direct commission in 1969 as a first lieutenant in the medical service core. He served 11 months in Vietnam. He went on to become a career military officer serving as assistant adjutant general for the South Dakota Army National Guard, and as adjutant general for the Guam National Guard. He retired as a major general, and now spends his time in South Dakota and in Guam.  He joined In the Moment host Lori Walsh for a conversation on his service.  This is an edited version of that conversation.  You can listen to it in its entirety here.

Don Goldhorn:

Well, good afternoon Lori. How are you?

Lori Walsh:

I'm doing well, and welcome back I should say. We were with you earlier this week, and wanted more time with you. So we appreciate you sharing that with us.

Don Goldhorn:

Well, it's my pleasure. My pleasure.

Lori Walsh:

Take me back now to sort of your early experience with Vietnam. What were some of the first things that you started hearing about the Vietnam war, and your first involvement with it. Do you recall that?

Don Goldhorn:

Well, I actually finished my masters degree and was teaching for a couple years at a college down in Texas. Of course, that was a time when kids going to school, if they did not perform well academically, they were off to Vietnam, as they would say.

I was watching part of that, and some of the professors at the university encouraged me to join the military, and that's frankly what decided that was the right thing to do. So, after teaching for a couple of years I joined, and as you indicated received a direct commission into the medical service core.

Lori Walsh:

What helped you make that decision? What were you looking for? You already had sort of a successful career path laid out for you. Why the turn?

Don Goldhorn:

That's a tough question Lori, but I think from my perspective at that time, being quite young and innocent, I frankly thought we were doing the right thing in Vietnam. I kind of bought into this idea that we were there on behalf of the people of South Vietnam, and to ensure a democratic state could be established. I believed quite strongly that it was important for me to be a part of that, and to make my contribution.

If I can back up a few years, in 1964 I was a civil rights worker in Georgia. I always felt that we have to look at ways to make lives better for people, and I thought what we were doing in Vietnam was a way of making life better for a lot of the people of Vietnam.

Lori Walsh:

What stands out to you now, all these years later about your 11 months there? What are the things that you sort of turn over in your mind again, and again now?

Don Goldhorn:

Well, of course I don't talk about Vietnam in the context of a lot of the things that we did. I just don't talk about that. What I do talk about is the tremendous problems we had with our soldiers. The race relation issues that were still so prevalent in the military, and made things very difficult. The drug problems that were inherently a problem in many of the units. It was a difficult time because the draft was still going, I think the draft ended in '75 if I recall.

We had a lot of young kids there who did not want to be there, but yet still were serving honorably, although those that were into the drug scene and those things, were huge problems. But I have to tell you, here is a young officer Lieutenant Goldhorn who had received a direct commission, which means one day you're a civilian and the next day you're an officer.

Don Goldhorn:

Now, seven months later after I volunteered to go to Vietnam, [Jan 00:04:44] and I were stationed at Fort Bliss at the time, and I volunteered to go to Vietnam. And then all of a sudden I'm a commander of a unit with very little experience. A very low knowledge, of frankly, of how to run a military organization, and I'm in charge of everyone.

Every day I thank the non-commission officers for taking care of Lieutenant Goldhorn. If I wouldn't have had a great team of NCOs, I would not have made it. We would not have been successful.

Lori Walsh:

That's a theme that we hear from a lot of the Vietnam veterans, we're talking about is a lack of training, and a lack of understanding that ... The culture, the language, the history. Is that what you found too? Is just the United States were ill prepared for what they were setting out to do? Was there no plan laid out? Was it ideological?

Don Goldhorn:

I think that was part of it Lori but the other part was, we did not have unit integrity. We were sent as individual replacements. As a commander, one day I would lose five soldiers because of ... They were DEER listing. They were going out of country, and I would get five replacements. So the main thing, any kind of continuity and build that team unity, was very difficult. Oh, it was done to some extent but much better today where we are deploying units in their entirety as they go into theater.

So yes, it was a serious problem.

Lori Walsh:

You said earlier, "You thought we were doing the right thing. You believed in it."

When did that change? Did it change for you, and what changed about it?

Don Goldhorn:

I don't know if it ever changed.

I have kind of a different experience than many of our Vietnam veterans who served in Vietnam, were sent back to either CTAC in Seattle or some other center. They were put on a plane and the next day they're in civilian clothes, they're out of the army. No transition. Nothing happened to those veterans who served and that's unfortunate, and shame on us for treating service members like that, but that's the way it was in those days. Today obviously, it's much different.

Lori Walsh:

What has changed? What did you see over the years, sort of begin implementation in the armed services, that you with your experience were able to say, "Yeah, that's a direct result of the lessons that we learned in Vietnam."

Don Goldhorn:

There was a few things that happened Lori. Number one, we have very solid family support system today that are in place to help spouses deal with either their husband or their wife being deployed, and the family members. That's a very strong program throughout the military in all services, and something we needed back then we did not have.

I often recall the words of my first Sargent when a solider would come in, and say he needed some help because of his wife and so forth. The first Sargent's response was, "If the army wanted you to have a wife, they'd have issued you one."

That's how sensitive we were to some of that, but that has just so dramatically changed. We also have eliminated, primarily the R&R program, which to me was an absolute disaster.

Lori Walsh:

How so?

Don Goldhorn:

In vision, being in the field, in the bush, and then a day later you're in a hotel in Hawaii or wherever you chose ... At least in Vietnam days. To take R&R to meet your spouse, or girlfriend, or whomever. You would spend ... I can't remember. Maybe five days in R&R. You'd say goodbye to your wife. In my case, I said goodbye, and back to the bush the next day.

It was a terrible transition. A terrible way to deal with that, and we've done away with that. We've also done away with the individual replacements, for the most part. We're now sending units on deployments, which has helped considerably. So, we've learned some things from Vietnam.

I don't know how well we've learned them, but we have learned some things.

Lori Walsh:

How about the drug problem? That has been addressed in a variety of ways hasn't it?

Don Goldhorn:

Absolutely. We have an entirely different force today than we did back in the Vietnam era. One thing, that we now have an all volunteer military.

That has its positive aspects, and I think it also has some negative aspects to it, but we have a very solid program in terms of education for service members. Like testing program that soldiers or service members, I should say, are randomly screened periodically. I don't see the drug problem to be of a serious issue in our military today.

Lori Walsh:

I'm wondering about not telling ... When is it okay to not tell a story? What are the stories that the Vietnam veterans can, and should be allowed to keep to themselves?

Don Goldhorn:

I think that's an individual decision, and we have to respect that. I think some of those experiences are so painful that they do not want to talk about it, and they do not want to share it with anyone. I think we have to respect that. Does that cause some harm to that individual? Perhaps, I don't know but we have to respect what that person wants to do with their experiences.

Lori Walsh:

What was your experience coming home like?

Don Goldhorn:

Well, remember I continued in the military, so I had a totally different experience than many of our young service members who were just dumped back into civilian community almost overnight. I came back in the CTAC. Was processed there for just a short time. They recommended I not wear a uniform when I traveled home. I did not accept that recommendation. I was proud of my uniform and wore it. Flew to Minneapolis to meet Jan, who was working in Minneapolis during the time I was overseas, and so basically I had a pretty positive experience. I never encountered the kinds of things that many of our soldiers did from protesters, and others who were against the Vietnam war.

I had a pretty positive return. I can not say anything really negative about that. Of course, I had tremendous family support for my involvement in Vietnam. I had a lot of uncles who were World War II, and were very supportive of me. So, I felt pretty good about things, and then continuing in the military I had a good support system of Vietnam vets who also chose to stay in. That was very helpful and very positive to me.

Lori Walsh:

What were your thoughts ... We've got just about a minute left. What were your thoughts about the protests that were occurring on college campuses in elsewhere, in America during that time? What did you think about it then? What did you think about it now?

Don Goldhorn:

Well, I'm a product of the '60s Lori. I was a civil rights worker and I ... Peaceful protest to me is a good sign of a young people involved in issues that are going on in our nation. Peaceful protest. I could never understand the protestors during the Vietnam war taking their concerns against the service members, against the service soldiers, the marine, whomever we may be talking about.

That part I could never fully understand. Their protest against the war, frankly never bothered me at all, and that's a reason we wear a uniform today is to ensure that our citizens of America, can in fact have the freedoms to do that.

Lori Walsh:

Don Goldhorn is a retired major general. Thank you so much sir for being with us today, and sharing a little bit more of your story. We'll talk to you next time.

Don Goldhorn:

All right. Thanks Lori.


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