David Gold will admit he lacked direction in 1968, so when he was drafted into the Army, it was a little more welcome than it was for most. After excelling in training, he found himself in the middle of the Battle of Hamburger Hill as a member of 101st Airborne Division. Being one of thirty who survived in his company of 230 was just the beginning of a story that Gold endured, relatively intact. Today, he’s retired after a long career as what he said was the first male dental hygienist in Gainesville. Our conversation took place August 22, 2017 at the University of Florida’s Innovation News Center.
My birthday is April 25, 1948, and I was born in Washington, D.C.
And you live where now?
I’ve lived in Gainesville for 45 years.
What brought you down here?
Partly climate, partly smaller city, and partly still some education and culture in the area.
So what is your educational background?
Well I had a bunch of degrees but I eventually got a degree from Santa Fe in Heating, Air Conditioning, Refrigeration and I got a degree from Santa Fe in Dental Hygiene which was my career for forty years. I was the first male dental hygienist ever here. I went to school with 69 women the first year.
Not too bad of a ratio. Right?
No, it changed from being in the Army.
Yeah, I bet. The complete opposite almost. *You mentioned all these different degrees that you have. So what all different things have you gone through in your life?
Well, I studied agriculture. I was going to be an extension agent and I worked for the department. And after a while I’m spraying toxics 245D and DDT, etc. Because when they speak to an extension agent, “I got bugs, how do I get them off my plants?” “Here’s some toxics.” So I knew that was not what I wanted to do anymore. That was the end of that. Originally, I had been a math major. I’m very good at math but I just didn’t want to do what they wanted me to do. Figure out insurance rates? Anyways, I didn’t apply myself to math the way I should and then I majored in business which fit in for a temporary major. And at one point I was majoring in recreation therapy because after giving up on my agriculture background I had to do something and so I was learning how to teach square dancing and working with children. So I’ve had a variety of experiences. And I spent a lot of time, put in a lot of the heating and air conditioning all around Gainesville when the Oaks Mall was first built. I was doing that in the ’70s. But then I evolved into my dental hygiene career in the late ’70s and that has been a wonderful career.
You mentioned that you were the very first male dental hygienist in the area. That’s an interesting thing to be in Gainesville. Can you explain a little about that?
Well, I’m very good with my hands. You know before that I was doing duct work and heating and air conditioning and I play the guitar and I’m very good with my hands. So, it evolved and one time I majored in dental assisting, that didn’t pay. You couldn’t get good jobs. So, because I’m pretty smart I thought okay I’ll try this and then when I got there it was all women. But it was a wonderful time in my life, because it gave me a new perspective on life. It’s very different than being in construction or being in the military and it’s really helped me personally spending a lot of time with women.
So, to dive in a little bit, can you tell us when you first remember hearing about Vietnam? How old were you?
Well, I grew up in Washington, D.C. so we’re very aware of what the government is doing, and I followed the whole thing with the Kennedy assassination and the whole thing about the war starting and I grew up in a very educated society and they weren’t being drafted. And I did some stupid things and ended up becoming eligible for the draft and was drafted, which then left me in a position to try and avoid the draft or just go along with it which I did. So, when I went into the service, this is a little of my personal stuff, I tested very high and they said, “Do you want to go to officer school?” I said, “Well how many years is that?” I said, “Well, I’ll take the two when you have the draft.”
So they assigned me to the infantry. I took the infantry training. I had never shot a gun in my life. I became a very good infantry soldier, got the highest score in my company, etc. So then I was assigned to Vietnam. When I went over to Vietnam I was immediately assigned to a unit fighting out in the field called the 101st Airborne Division. Now, these guys are trained jumping out of helicopters and I was not. So, I went right back with it and I got the order and I said, “Sergeant, I’m not airborne.” And he said, “You are now. Ha, ha, ha.” Anyways, so I was assigned to this very tough Army unit and we got, you know, our company is like thirty guys walking in the woods loaded with all kinds of guns, ammunition, mostly M-16, big machine guns, Claymore mines. There’s all kinds of stuff, food, and we drank creek water and that’s how we lived for about thirty days. Then they would bring us in. They wouldn’t bring us in to a city. They would bring us into a base where it was safer and so we weren’t fighting the war for three days and they’d send us back out into the field again.
So in this big incident at Hamburger Hill, it was a very, thousands of troops were called in and we were going up a mountain. Now, our company of about 230 guys was going up in one particular place. What happened to David is, I’m going to tell you my little story, there were a couple of wounded guys who needed to be taken to another location so they could be out in the helicopter for medical care. They assigned a small group of men to escort them to this other location. I was one of those guys. As we were walking, taking them to this other location, our company was overrun and massacred — 230 guys, mostly dead… So it was a wild situation to be in as we’re trying to take this hill where the Vietnamese were dug in… Later, they sent us back with more people. We were pinned down. I had no food, no water for five days. I was just getting shot at and basically moving bodies. Body parts and trying to get ammo away from the enemy. So this went on for a long time until our unit of 220 was about 30 and they called us in because we weren’t the fighting force we were supposed to be. So, at that point David had a sore knee from a lot of crawling and he hadn’t paid any attention to it and it became very infected. So, David went to medical care, this was the first place there had been medical care. Do you mind me talking so much? I’m telling you my story.
No, no, no. That’s fine.
So, I ended up working the Army hospital there and a wonderful part of my life began and I didn’t have to participate in this war anymore.
Okay, so he said, “Ohhh yeah, you need surgery, you got to go in.” This was the best news I had heard. So, I was put in a helicopter with dead bodies, body parts, guys in body bags and all kinds of wounded guys and they sent me into the first base where I was with a bunch of other wounded guys who were having medical care. Well, to make a long story short, they didn’t give me good medical care and all they did was put a hot soak on my knee because there were a lot of seriously wounded guys and my knee kept getting bigger and bigger. So, they looked and said, “Well no, it’s going to take a long time after your surgery so we’re sending you to Japan.” So I said, “Great, I’m getting out of Vietnam.” I woke up in the morning, “Oh, no all the hospitals in Japan are full from the Hamburger Hill fighting. We’re sending you to Hawaii.” So, I tried not to smile but I was very happy about that. When I got to Hawaii they took me to the medical hospital, immediately did a quick surgery, squeezed all the infection out of my knee; before the medication had taken effect so it was very uncomfortable. But, anyway I was there with my leg up in traction for six weeks while I was recovering. So, at that point, at that time in history you had to be out of the country for eight weeks in order to avoid being sent back into combat. But, since I was six weeks in traction they were trying to send me back, but I didn’t want to go back. And among other things I did, I sent a letter to my parents describing the very controversial fighting on Hamburger Hill. They forwarded it to our congressman and he passed the word down with the powerful people in the military and the Army that I didn’t have to go back to combat. So, I ended up working the Army hospital there and a wonderful part of my life began and I didn’t have to participate in this war anymore. And interestingly, I don’t think I killed anyone. There’s a long story about how I didn’t end up killing anyone but I was assigned a grenade launcher rather than M-16, and so I never shot at anyone. I’d shoot a grenade up on a hillside somewhere. So, I really don’t have a lot of strong feelings of guilt about murdering people which most of my colleagues did. Those who are still alive. So, I was just very lucky all and all and people say, “Oh my God! You were in this big war, aren’t you traumatized like all these other guys?” But I just feel so lucky that I just count my blessings every day. And then I lived in Hawaii for the next fifteen months and it was wonderful.
So, backtrack just a little bit on some of the things you mentioned. You mention your parents and how your parents were somewhat instrumental in getting your message out to the congressman and kind of keeping you out of the war. How did your parents feel about you getting drafted? How did they feel about your involvement in the war?
Well, my father was a World War II hero and we’re great supporters of the United States. I love the United States, though I think our country gets into a lot of stupid wars in the past many years and Vietnam is one of them and they weren’t very happy with how their son had been doing in 1967 and things like that. So the fact that I was going into the military wasn’t too bad and they actually came to my graduation from infantry training so they supported me as best as they could and I just did what I was supposed to do. So, it was good.
You didn’t choose to join another military branch and you didn’t choose to not serve at all. Did you know people that chose not to serve and how did that make you feel?
Oh yeah, well most of my friends were in college at the time and a lot of other people; I knew no one that went into the Army at the time that I did. Certainly not in the kinds of vulnerable situation I was, where I could be assigned to the infantry.
So why did you choose to serve, instead of not serve? Is there a particular reason, just a kind of responsibility, or your father had done it, or it was a good way in life a good path to follow?
I didn’t really have direction in my life, and this was a direction that I had never had anything like this before. As I said, I had never shot a gun. I was a peacenik and here I am. And what David did and how he survived in the jungle out there, those are a lot of other specific stories, but I didn’t want to kill anyone, but I went because they assigned me, and that’s what I had to do.
What was your first impression when you got to Vietnam, though? Where did you land and what was your first impression when you got there?
Well, the thing is I was an infantry soldier so wherever you are you’re going through to get where you’re going to be which is out in the jungle with a gun and a bunch of things on your back and that’s what you’re doing. So, at first they send you here and there and you have army chow and the whole situation was a disgusting way to live and eventually you’re out kind of in the field and they’re sending you out.
You’re going through the jungle and kind of going through to your different positions, what’s your first interaction? What’s the first time that you actually met the enemy?
Well, we were in a number, before that we were in a number of places where they would shoot the first couple of guys in the line like when you’re walking point. You’re whacking your way through the jungle making noise they kill the first three guys and disappear in the woods. But this was a situation where the enemy had a large number of troops and they weren’t hiding and the fact that were there and as big numbers as we were they came out with everything they could bring and that’s how they were able to overrun our company of 220 guys. I mean that was so I was just extremely lucky not to be there. That’s the whole thing and spending days carrying your friend’s bodies and body parts, it changed me. It was a real maturing event. I had to do this and I feel that it made me kind of wiser or smarter. I don’t know what.
I would imagine it’s definitely, at a young age, going through something so drastically so differently that you mentioned it changed you in ways that are positive and negative I would imagine?
I’m sure, I’m aware of the positive. The fact that I survived. I was really lucky, I got to see what war is and death and you know most people who’ve had that don’t have the kind of life I have now. I just feel really lucky.
I don’t know how much of the anti-war sentiment you got to experience while you were over there. Were you aware of it?
Oh, very much. And when I came back and I went back to college we were, the students were having these big events trying to end the Vietnam War. And there’s the National Guard out there with guns and stuff. “All students will be in their dormitories at 9 PM.” And it was they were shooting off their stuff and it was very different. So, but I wasn’t going to do anything that was going to get me in jail. I had had enough of all that already.
What were some of the reactions? Were people aware that you served in the military when you came back? Or no?
Not too many. No. I mean I at the beginning wore my combat boots and my military gear and I was all fired up about it, but that, fortunately, faded.
What most surprised you, or shocked you during your time in the country? Does anything kind of surprise you versus your expectations when you got there?
It was very beautiful. I was out in the jungle and we passed through their cities which weren’t as developed as our cities are. They were kind of from a different technology. So, the jungle was very beautiful and that was nice, but then we were at war so a lot of things got blown up. But I’m sure there was a lot of beautiful jungle there.
So I was against Communism. That was part of why I went, but you know what was really happening there was a completely different story.
Interestingly for me with this war, my wife was a social worker who worked with the Vietnamese refugees right here in Alachua County and we ended up becoming friends in the Vietnamese community and were invited to all these events and they had a lot of respect for my wife and our country was trying to help the Vietnamese refugees. Which is something they were not used to. Government helping them. So anyway, the Vietnamese came here. Their kids went to college. They’re paying taxes. They’ve got jobs, they’re very successful citizens. So I don’t think very badly of the Vietnamese people. I think unfortunately our government was at this war where we thought we were stopping Communism. Which was spreading over there. So I was against Communism. That was part of why I went, but you know what was really happening there was a completely different story.
So you mention your interaction with the Vietnamese community when you came back over here. How interesting is that to kind of interact with a group of people who may have a different perspective on the war than you did?
They loved us. They loved Judy, my wife, because she was the person who gave them government assistance in many ways. So, I was happy to see and meet them and I think these people were by and large happy to not be in their country when this war was going on. This was just a few years after I returned so they were enjoying the good life in the United States is how I would describe them.
You mentioned you finished out your time in Hawaii and then when you came back what did you do?
I went to college on a G.I. Bill.
University of Maryland right outside of D.C.
So what did you remember coming back, you’re going to come back. Did you have the intention of going to college when you come back? Continue on?
Well I had been away from the war working in Hawaii for fifteen months, so I had it all planned out. University of Maryland is my state school and so it was relatively easy to get in. I was always a good student when I applied myself so everything went fine. I had the G.I. Bill and life was off to a good start.
Short of the G.I. Bill, which is excellent, did you have any positive or negative experiences with the veterans’ services when you came back?
No, I had only positive. Everything was good.
Very good. The Vietnam War Memorial in D.C., how much did you pay attention to it when it was in plans to being built and have you visited?
I have visited it but it was built after we left. We left D.C. in ’72. So I think it was built after that. A cute story is that a lot of my college friends didn’t know if I had survived the Vietnam War, I’m sorry, high school, had been in touch with them. So they went down and looked at all the names to see if they could see my name there but you know we got this special coming up all about the Vietnam War, I’m just not in to looking at it very much. I kind of went through it and it was pretty awful for me and now I don’t need to be reminded about it constantly.
How often do you talk about it? Given that you feel that way about it?
Well I didn’t talk about it very much at all for many, many years and recently I began to talk about it and many of my friends for many years didn’t know I had this history. So, it makes a good story and I’m sure my wife is sick of hearing my stories and it’s been somewhat therapeutic for me but again I just feel that living with death like that was a real lesson for me in life that has helped me to enjoy life more. Because we’re all going to be dead some day and I saw a lot of it and so I’m just happy to be alive and I feel that we live in the United States where we have a wonderful life and I just count my blessing every day.
You mention your congressman that helped kind of keep you out of the war. Do you remember who that congressman was?
His name was Gilbert Gude and he was a state Senator from Maryland and that saved my life.
Did you ever get to meet him by any chance?
No, I’ve would have been happy to but I didn’t.
You mentioned that it’s only just recently that you’ve kind of come to speak about it. Was there anything that triggered that or just kind of the right amount of time had passed?
I didn’t really realize how much I had gone through I suppose is one way of saying it. Mostly good to forget about it. I hang out with a group of people who are not like infantry soldiers in the war. And so it just never really came up in conversation. I didn’t need to tell them about it. I was happy to be away from it. But recently, I had a life-threatening accident, bicycle accident, I was in brain damage ICU, and so it started me looking how my life has gone and things that have happened. And this came up and when I spoke to some people about it, I could see that this was a very interesting thing to talk about so I’m doing it anyway and I’m still just happy to be alive. I’m so lucky to have survived that.
Have you had much interaction with other veterans from the same time frame?
I interact. I’ve been in the Veterans for Peace for a long time, and I take the little bit of health care I need at the veteran’s hospital. But again I have just a different attitude than even a lot of the guys in the veteran’s hospital who are kind of traumatized from their life or their time in the service and I’m just now there. So, veterans… I don’t even have any veterans friends or anything.
That will lead me into my next question. When’s the last time you maybe spoke with any of the gentlemen who survived?
Oh, I never have. Cause I went in and they didn’t. I don’t know if they survived.
So you have no idea whatsoever?
I have no idea.
Would you remember those names if you…?
No, I might remember one of the big guys, but not really.
The disconnect between war, that all these men from around the country and different places all get thrown together and put into this war and go to another part of the world they’ve never been to, maybe never would have visited otherwise. Is that odd, is it strange to you, or was it eye-opening for you in anyway?
Well, I liked it because I really didn’t mix with black people very much, but the majority of the infantry soldiers in the Vietnam War were black people. That’s who ended up in the infantry. And my socioeconomic group really didn’t have many people in it at all. So it was very interesting for me, and I appreciated having the opportunity to spend time with some people of color. That was about the best I could say about all that. Once I got back out of the war and was just working in the hospital, I just had other G.I. friends, and I had the happy life.
What were race relations like? You talk about folks not necessarily mixing part of that different parts of the world, different parts of the country.
The thing is that in the war you’ve got to cover each other’s back so to speak. So everybody’s got to do a good job and if you look like you ain’t doing a good job the other guys are going to let you know. You’re not just going to hide behind a tree. You’re going to get your gun out and be shooting while you’re hiding behind the tree. So once we understood all that everybody got along with each other. You got to take care of your buddies. It’s not like it was a good life but you had to take care of your buddies.
When you see it represented in movies, in TV, in this upcoming documentary series by Ken Burns do anything stand out to you or does it make you feel a type of way of how it’s represented?
No, I’m sure Ken Burns will do a great job representing it, but the thing that is most important about all of this to me is that our country created the circumstances that began the war.
No, I’m sure Ken Burns will do a great job representing it, but the thing that is most important about all of this to me is that our country created the circumstances that began the war. And this is a very controversial thing to say in our great country of the United States, but we started the Vietnam War, just like we started the Korean War, like we started some of these wars in the Mid-East. You have to believe this or you don’t think I’m telling you the truth, but there’s a lot of stuff going on and I wish our country were more for our independence and our peace and not for fighting so many darn wars.
With the number of men that went off and how long this war is, does anything today strike you as very similar to what went on during the Vietnam War?
Well, yeah it does seem similar because it’s another war that it’s hard to know when you’re fighting, “Why am I here?” But you’re going because it’s your job. So that’s what you end up with and then a lot of people get hurt and wounded and screwed up in the head and that’s what war does and I don’t want to talk with you about why and who is making money on this but somebody is making a lot of weapons and a lot of bombs and somebody is making a lot of money on this stuff. So it’s hard not to think about that kind of motivation.
What was your first positive memory when you got back home?
The first positive memory I like to tell you in Hawaii was I’m flying in airplane with a bunch of guys who are all wounded and they’re stacked up, three on top of each other all up and down both sides of the plane. And so we land in Hawaii, and there are the hula dancers dancing right outside and I’ve been living in a war and didn’t have food and water for five days, haven’t eaten and there’s the hula dancers and we’re in Hawaii. I know I’m in the United States. That moment I will never forget.
How about when you came back home, home? How did your parents receive you, how did your friends?
They were very happy to see me and they helped support me in my going back to college so that was very nice. My parents had a busy life and they worked hard and I’m very fortunate with parents.
This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.