It wasn't a decision Dan Crawford made freely -- joining the U.S. Army at the height of the Vietnam War.

But when his draft number was called in 1968, he didn't complain.

"Back then, of course, Vietnam was very prevalent in everyone's mind," he said. "We all knew we had a six-year military obligation, all young men, so when I was drafted, I expected to serve as the others my age were serving at that time."

And, reflecting on that service 50 years later, Crawford was still proud to have done it -- and emotional about his fellow soldiers not getting their due credit for decades afterward.

"As I've gotten older, and at that time as I matured, why, yeah, the war was probably unjust," he said. "But I stand proudly with those who served, and I feel we served our country when our country asked us to."

Crawford was born in Charles City on his parents' farm but grew up near Winthrop, graduating from East Buchanan Community School in 1967. He worked for a neighbor the summer after graduation and then attended a semester of trade school in Omaha before returning home to begin working as a carpenter in residential home building.

The trade school semester allowed Crawford, who had just turned 18, a temporary deferment from military service. But when that was up, in May 1968, he received his draft notice and was told to report to Fort Des Moines.

If his family was worried, they didn't show it, he said.

"My family was very supportive," Crawford remembered. "I'm sure they'd rather I not enter the service at that time because of the Vietnam War, but they supported me."

Crawford was assigned to Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas, for nine weeks of basic training from June to August 1968, then went on to Fort Ord, in Monterey, Calif., for about nine weeks of advanced infantry training, where he learned about everything from small arms to heavy weaponry, including machine guns, fragmentation grenades, and explosives training.

"It was quite extensive on evasion," Crawford said. "They wanted to cover all the possibilities."

Crawford remembers the exact date he was told he'd be heading to Vietnam: Sept. 23, 1968.

"Well, I was kind of apprehensive, but all the way through -- both basic and advanced training -- we assumed we were going to be sent to Vietnam," he said. "It was the peak of the involvement at that time."

After he finished advanced training, he had a two-week leave to see family and friends.

"It went quickly, as you might expect," he said. "I remember we took a family picture -- everybody was kind of somber about my orders -- but everybody was positive, very supportive."

His unit arrived at Ton Sa Nut Air Base in Saigon, and then went to South Vietnam on Oct. 22, 1968. He was assigned to the 90th Replacement Battalion in the 101st Airborne Division, which replaced troops getting done with their year in country.

"I remember it was quite a shock -- it was terribly hot and humid," Crawford said of Vietnam. "It basically smelled like a landfill. I felt real sorry for the people I first seen, because of the conditions that they lived in. ... It was quite a different way of life for those people back then."

Crawford's first two weeks in South Vietnam included further infantry operations training in "swamp and mud," and he said that included live-fire training, where instructors were "actually shooting at you."

"I've told people, the first time you feel the heat from a round, why, it's a very different feeling, and we actually felt the heat from the rounds 'cause they were trying to shoot close to us," he said. "They wanted us to get a feel for what perhaps lie ahead."

After that, his battalion was issued equipment and weapons and sent up north.

"I remember riding in a truck at night, and of course we thought the enemy was right there," Crawford said, though by daylight he realized they were in the rear, away from the action.

Crawford was assigned to E Company, a weapons company within the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry, and was placed in the recon platoon. Initially, he carried an M-16 rifle, and in later operations he would use an M-79 grenade launcher and an M-67 recoilless rifle, a 90-millimeter anti-tank or anti-personnel weapon.

Most operations he went on in his first three months were offensive, search-and-destroy missions at night in the jungles, he said, and lasted between a couple of days to a couple of weeks. His unit would find enemy arms and supplies and destroy them.

Crawford, who described himself as "kind of small," had to carry the same rucksack full of weaponry, ammo, grenades, land mines, rations, and four canteens of water everyone else did.

"Sometimes my pack weighed more than I did," he said. "You learned to just carry what you needed. The first time you packed your C-Rations, you packed all the boxes and cardboard. The second time you just packed what you liked."

He remembered a friendly fire incident, as well as incidents where his unit killed North Vietnam troops and they killed his.

"I hated it," Crawford said. "It was tough, but I had resolved that I was going to survive it. ... You had your teammates, your buddies, you sort of developed a camaraderie. I'm Catholic, I prayed about my family -- I know my family prayed for me. But each day you just, you know, you did what you were trained to do, and you followed orders from your superiors."

He got some time off between operations, time when his unit could go to Eagle Beach to swim and relax, and a couple of USO shows at Camp Eagle. Everyone wrote their DEROS, or date of estimated return from overseas, on their steel pot. A "short timer" was someone with less than 100 days left in country. Crawford's was Oct. 21 of 1969.

"Each day was one day less that you had to serve," he added. "Right away, you started counting the days you had left. It was pretty rough at first. But then Thanksgiving came, and Christmas came."

After about three months, with his heavy pack aggravating a knee condition, Crawford was transferred to the 90-millimeter recoilless rifle platoon, a shoulder-mounted weapon used to provide perimeter security at fire bases, or hilltops where artillery batteries operated.

"Early one morning, I got a call that they needed the 90-millimeter rifle team to go to another hilltop -- it was Fire Base Spear," he said. "And so me and my friend -- his name was Dan Larson -- we were inserted over to this fire base, and it was very, very sad. They had been hit the night before, and there were seven U.S. KIAs (killed in action), and as we landed they were laying there on the chopper pad, covered with ponchos.

"It was very grim," he added. "It was a grim situation whenever someone was wounded or killed, but I was fortunate -- I wasn't wounded, I survived, and I was very lucky. I've always considered myself lucky, I guess."

Though the 90-millimeter platoon was a defensive position rather than Crawford's previous offensive infantry one, it was no less harrowing, he said.

"You pull guard at night, and you always imagine you see things, you imagine you hear things, but you just work your way through it," he said.

Troops received the military's Stars and Stripes newspaper, and Crawford remembers the hundreds of names of men on the paper's regular casualty list. At the time, nearly half a million U.S. troops were stationed in the country, part of a failed build-up strategy.

"It was war. It was scary," he said. "You think you've ever been scared? Fear is something you had to learn to overcome."

During his tour of duty, which lasted until October of 1969, he participated in or supported Operations Nevada Eagle, Kentucky Jumper, Apache Snow, Dong Ap Bia, Montgomery Rendezvous and Bach Ma, he said.

"We concentrated day to day in just doing our job, but yeah, you had questions about, you know, what we were doing," he said. "And the people over there -- we were supposedly there helping them. But those poor people, they were just trying to survive, you could tell that."

Crawford was 20 when he arrived, and turned 21 before he left.

"If you think today of a 20-year-old, you really didn't think about the strategy. I suppose, if I had been a seasoned officer or 20-year officer or something, I would have," Crawford said. "But, again, (you) were just trying to survive with your squad, with your platoon, and trying to not take a lot of chances.

"The big thing that probably prevented any firm opinions about the war was just our young age and the fact that we were trying to just get our year, our tour of duty, in and get out of there," he said.

Once he got out and back to Iowa, he realized the political mood of the country's citizens. He didn't receive any adverse reaction to his service, he said, but was sensitive to stories of those who did.

"I know when we got home, I met with some of my friends who served, and he said the best thing you can do is grow your hair long and get out of your uniform, so you didn't stick out," Crawford said. "It was a hard time. It was many years before we got any credit for what we did. ... I think it was almost the Gulf War in the '90s before we got much credit for what we had done."

Crawford took the GI Bill to Iowa State University, where he got a civil engineering degree. He then worked for a western Iowa company before starting his own engineering company with his older brother in 1983 in Independence -- his wife's hometown.

Crawford Engineering and Surveying, Inc., has been in operation for 36 years at 205 Second Ave. NE in Independence, though Crawford's brother is now deceased. His younger brother and his son now work with him. And Crawford now proudly displays his Vietnam medals in the office -- the Bronze Star, combat infantry badge and Vietnam Cross of Gallantry among them.

"Sitting here 50 years later, I can't believe what we had to do when we were so young," he said.

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Staff Writer

Staff writer at The Courier 2005 (college intern), 2007-2012, 2015-present. Graduate of UNI 2006. Three-time Iowa APME award winner (investigative reporting 2008, lifestyle feature 2016, business feature 2018)

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