David Willkomm served toward the end of the American ground-based conflict in Vietnam, and by then, he witnessed a sad breakdown of G.I. morale within his unit. Drug use, racial tension, and alcoholism were all too common, according to Willkomm, who later became a counselor at the Gainesville Veterans Affairs hospital. In that role, he said he coined the term “mental malaria” to further describe post-traumatic stress disorder manifesting itself in returning veterans’ psyches. Our conversation took place Aug. 8, 2017, at his home in east Gainesville, on the western rim of Newnans Lake.
My name’s David Curtis Willkomm. I was born in Sheldon, Iowa. That was Sept. 20, 1950. My dad had been working out in Iowa from Wisconsin, where I was raised. He was an infantry soldier in World War II.
How long have you been in Gainesville?
We moved here in 1984. I was working for the Navy on Whidbey Island. I took a lateral transfer to the Veterans Hospital here in Gainesville. We had never heard of Gainesville before, but knew there was a VA here and it was a university town. I thought it would be a good move for us.
What’s your educational background?
After the war, I returned to school in Wisconsin. I got my bachelor’s in 1975 in social work. Jobs were hard to get back then, so I went back to grad school the following year and got my masters at the University of Milwaukee in 1977.
Do you recall when you first heard of the conflict in Vietnam?
I’m 66. Anyone around my age (remembers when) back then they started television the war in the 1960s. At 5 or 5:30, it was on every night. The media really played it. That’s the first exposure. When I first really started thinking about it was when Mr. (Robert) Reukauf, our freshman year high school history teacher, in the spring of 1965 said, ‘What do you all think about the Vietnam War?’ No one said anything. He said, ‘You better pay attention. You guys might be in the war.’ I was 14 years old, spring time in high school, and I thought, ‘Oh no. That war will be over before I even graduate from high school. I didn’t even have my driver’s license yet, and he’s talking about us going to war.’ But he was right because in 1970, five years later, we were still fighting the war and I was over in Vietnam and in harm’s way. Mr. Reukauf really brought it home to us.
In which branch did you serve and were you drafted or did you volunteer?
I served in the U.S. Army. A friend of mine had joined the Army, and my dad had been in the Army. When you say ‘volunteer,’ I got to the point where I didn’t have much choice. I was 16 years old when my dad lost his Chevrolet dealership business, and I took on a loan to try to go to school in Platteville, Wisconsin, and was just having a hard time trying to make grades. A young man back then, you had the war hanging over your head, and the draft. That was before the lottery. They only had deferments like if your wife was having a child or if your wife was pregnant or you’re going to college. School wasn’t going well. I didn’t want to take out any more loans, so I just quit. I got a recruiter who tricked me into signing up for three years by saying I would get my school guaranteed. I was learning to be a supply sergeant. Although I was a volunteer, I felt kind of forced into it, because it’s the poor people that really fight these wars.
Where did you serve and for what years?
I took my basic training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and my advanced training down in Fort Polk, Louisiana, but my first duty station was out in San Francisco at 6th Army Headquarters. When I got out there, I didn’t have a regular slot. There were too many clerks. They were overbooked. Units would get called and told they had to give up a certain amount of men. We have to provide men to get sent to Vietnam. Because I didn’t have a regular slot, our unit had a 10-percent turnover going to Vietnam. After four months in San Francisco, I could see guys were getting sent to Vietnam. I put in for Korea, and like a week later, my name came up on the roster to get sent to Vietnam. That was September 1970, when I got sent to Vietnam. I did 12 months there. I got sent to an area that was one of the first Marine bases in and around Chu Lai with the Americal. It was a light artillery unit. The first place we were was called Landing Zone Bayonet. By November 1970, we were standing down. We were starting to send troops home. The previous six months, we were going into China, into Laos, into Cambodia, and it was going to be called the Indochina War. But then, they started to draw down and, of the three brigades in the Americal, they started to send them home. From Landing Zone Bayonet, we moved back to the major base camp in Chu Lai. That was in November 1970. I rotated out that following September. The whole unit stood down in November 1971. The land war really wound down by 1971. I was there toward the tail end.
How did your parents feel about your service?
It’s very interesting. When I got my orders for Vietnam, I (found) a pay phone and called home. Mom was on the phone. I told her, ‘Mom, I got orders for Vietnam. My mom’s first reaction was ‘Maybe they made a mistake.’ I said, ‘No, mom. They didn’t make a mistake.’
My father… I was a counselor at the VA in Gainesville. I actually had my mom and dad come as guest speakers to one of my groups I had for the husbands and wives (of veterans). They were the guest speakers. My dad told everybody he was proud I had gone into the service, because I was only one of five boys who actually ever served in the military. He always called me ‘Sarge.’ But he said he would have felt very guilty if I would have got killed in Vietnam. By the 1970s, the country soured on Vietnam. It had just shifted. He had never told me that to my face, but he told it to this group that he would have felt really bad because he thought it was a good thing. When I first got back from Vietnam, and we’d go out places, he would introduce me as his son, David, and he’s just back from Vietnam. He had a pride, but he also felt I would have died without a purpose, because the cause really got muddled.
Did you know anyone, as you were entering or otherwise, who purposefully didn’t serve?
There were 75 boys in our class. There’s only five of us that served in Vietnam.
Oh, yeah. That’s the majority. I graduated from high school in 1968. There were 75 boys in our class. There’s only five of us that served in Vietnam. I remember coming back home on leave and went out to a bar drinking. One of the other classmates came up and he had joined the local National Guard. That was one of the ways you could legally avoid the draft — just like (President Bill) Clinton and (President George W.) Bush did. They joined the war. He came up to me and told me I was a sucker for being in the military. I was a sucker for going to Vietnam. And if his unit actually does get called up to go to fight, he said he’ll go to Canada. I was just kind of shocked. I was just there to listen to the band, drink beer, check out the girls. I didn’t want to have a discussion about Vietnam. The majority of men avoided service. There was resentment. They called them draft dodgers. In my own mind, I called them stay-at-homes.
But I will say, because of my experience in Vietnam, I’m glad people didn’t have to serve. It really can affect you in a negative way. Make you cynical. Also, you can have physical ailments from it like Agent Orange (exposure), or physical wounds. I had conflicted feelings about it and still do. I was glad you didn’t have to serve.
Did you ever encounter that aggressive individual again after that night?
I never did. I may see him at the class reunion, because our 50th reunion is coming up. But I remember going to our 20th class reunion, and the class president stood up and said, ‘Ha, Leonard’s not here. He must still be in prison.’ Leonard was one of the other five of us that served in Vietnam. After he said that, everyone kind of laughed. I was married at the time, sitting next to my wife, and I turned to her and said, ‘Get up. We’re leaving.’ I turned and walked out. That class president has now retired and lives down in The Villages. Last year, when I met him again, I told him about walking out about what he said. I didn’t do it in anger, just-matter-of-factly. He had no response. He’s never contacted me since. I was just so angry people were making fun of him when a lot of them didn’t have to serve themselves.
Do you know what Leonard was in prison for?
I could remember my mother sent me a clipping of him on the front page of our little newspaper, and he was holding a pistol to his head because they weren’t letting him see his child or something like that, but I don’t know what he was in prison for.
You get to Vietnam. Reactions to the people, the places?
We flew in from Japan to Cam Ranh Bay. It was in the daytime. Flying Tiger Airlines. We’re looking, and all you can see is the ocean and the sandy shore. I looked at it and said, ‘This is what hell looks like.’ When the doors opened up, it was tropical. It was heat. The heat hit ya. You’re just like, ‘Oh, man.’
Is it comparable to a summer in Gainesville?
No, it’s hotter. They gave us plague shots. We took our malaria pills because you’re going into a tropical climate. It was also unique because we had our brand new fatigues on. We’re filing off (the plane) in a line. Who’s waiting in a line to get on board? The guys whose tours are just ending. Their fatigues are faded and that. They’re looking at us, and we’re looking at them as we pass each other. That was a strange thing.
You’re very segregated from the villages and that. The only (Vietnamese) people allowed inside the huge compound were people that would work, like the hooch maids or people that would clean up the grounds. You really didn’t get a lot of contact with the villagers. Guys were very nervous, but because I was an E4, a little higher rank, they put me in charge of seeding people as they came into this hall for orientation. Because I had some authority, they were asking me, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Where’s the fighting?’ I didn’t know any more than they did. I just was to show them where to sit down and pack them in because there was a huge amount. There was a lot of anxiety. I know that when I finally got up to Chu Lai, and they sent the company driver out to get me, as he’s driving me out of the basecamp, we passed this 10-ton truck that must have hit a land mine. I remember the steering wheel had the outer rim blown off, and you saw the three spokes blown back toward the driver. When I saw that, I was thinking, ‘That guy didn’t survive the blast.’ Wow, this is real-deal stuff.
What were your responsibilities with the artillery unit?
One of the scariest things I had to do in that unit: You’d pull guard duty at night and you had the responsibility of checking in the weapons. You had an M16 rifle, an M79 grenade launcher, and an M60 machine gun. You had three-man bunkers, about five bunkers, and so about 15 men. You’re up all night, go out and get set up with claymore mines around the bunker line. When dawn comes, around 6 o’clock, you shut everything down and bring it back to the supply room. You’re supposed to clear your weapon and clean it, turn it in, and you get to sleep for six hours before going on duty that afternoon. As supply clerk, one of my jobs was to make sure everyone cleaned and cleared their weapon before coming into the supply room. These guys are tired, just want to go and eat chow and maybe go to sleep. Sometimes, when they’d come in, the weapon wouldn’t be cleared. You could have the gun go off. I always was afraid of getting shot by one of our own men — accidentally.
One of the other duties we had was going into Chu Lai once a week for laundry run. That was five miles to get into the main base camp. Our supply sergeant rotated out two months after I got there. They didn’t have a replacement right away, so at 20 years old, I actually ran the supply unit for several months before getting a replacement from stateside. I had a $10,000 budget for expendable supplies. You’d go into the base camp and order stuff you’d need for the men. When I think back on a 20-year-old having that responsibility, it was something. The other thing was there was a fear that our unit had been there since 1967 in that area, and when I was a boy and you saw these World War II movies, they’re always moving, taking enemy territory and getting victories. We didn’t see that. In fact, the enemy was very close, but they wouldn’t expose themselves until they’re ready to fight. We took some equipment like pipes and material into a machine shop, and we made playground toys for kids: swing sets, teeter-totters, and went out to a village one time. I was one of the guards. We took it out there, and they had a big ceremony for donating this equipment for these orphans. The following night, the VC came at night and took all that stuff down. They used it to make bombs for themselves. It showed how futile it was back then. I felt after about my fourth month there we weren’t going to win the war. I said if we’re going home, and we can’t defeat them, turning all this fighting over to the ARVN’s (South Vietnamese), how are they going to win?
I hated the South Vietnamese initially — the soldiers, because I didn’t feel they would fight. The South Vietnamese were coming in at night stealing our food. We had a three-man detail that would spend the night in the mess hall with loaded weapons. They didn’t say ‘shoot on sight’ or whatever, but we were supposed to prevent the soldiers from coming in and stealing from us. I thought, ‘Man, this is weird.’
Did your unit have many encounters with the enemy?
Our Landing Zone Bayonet had an attack that previous spring. The guy I replaced actually shot and killed a guy coming through the wire. That was the only time we got attacked. When I was in Bayonet, they would have these rocket attacks where they would shoot these rockets in, the sound would go off, and one landed (about 100 yards away). You could feel the air move. When we went up there the next day, there was nothing that high sticking up off the ground. It was a direct hit. There were two guys sleeping in the hooch at the time, and I don’t know whatever happened to them. Because Chu Lai base camp was so huge, there were a couple times they would assault the perimeter. That happened several occasions. The other time was when I volunteered to go out on a jump. We took artillery pieces out into the Central Highlands, where the infantry were trying to find and destroy the enemy. It was a half-hour chopper ride from our basecamp. We were out there for about two weeks. Luckily, they were mortared the previous night, but we weren’t mortared for the two weeks, the remainder of time I was there. I actually saw very little action while over there.
But just like a coal miner being down in the ground, you’re always aware that something could happen.
Did you have any interactions with journalists in country?
Yes. When we were out on this jump in July 1971, there were four of us who volunteered to go out. There was a journalist out on this mountaintop with us. My buddy, an Italian guy from the East Coast, was a big talker. People were very nervous out there. I can remember we had one officer, a three-star general, come out, and when he was on the ground talking to the commander, the helicopter would circle and not land (because of) fear. He didn’t want the chopper on the ground for some reason. We felt very vulnerable. This journalist was out there, and he was kind of asking us, ‘What did we think about being in the war?’ I can’t remember the particulars of what I told him, maybe that I was glad I was going home. I didn’t have fear of repercussion because I was going home in a couple months. He interviewed me and had a cassette player and a little microphone. He turned to my friend and said, ‘What do you think about the war?’ He wouldn’t say anything. He was just tongue-tied. Wouldn’t say a word.
Did you have any knowledge while in country of antiwar activities among GI’s?
You had some radio, newspaper, and we had one guy who got sent home on emergency leave, and he told us about that. We were in the Americal, which was Lieutenant (William) Calley’s division, so we started to hear about this My Lai (Massacre). We were hearing about protests back stateside.
What most surprised or shocked you during your year there?
Boy. I think the breakdown of our unit. Half of the enlisted men were snorting heroin. They called it smack. There was a lot of drug use. There was a lot of fighting. A lot of racial tension. That division within us was shocking. Also, I was from the north. Southern whites hated us. I was thinking to myself these guys are fighting the Civil War all over again. You had all this infighting, and people go into groups. You had people who were straight, who would just drink a little bit of alcohol. You had the juice freaks that drank a lot of alcohol and hard whisky. You had the potheads; I started smoking marijuana in my eight month over there. You had the smack freaks, who snorted heroin. You had the mainliners, the smaller group, and they would shoot up.
The term ‘mental malaria.’ Where did that come from and how did the war alter you?
We had guys in our unit attached to the infantry, and they were called RTO’s. They were the field forces and supposed to consist of an officer, radio man, and a recon sergeant. They would come back to our unit for resupply. These guys would really get boisterous, drink a lot. One guy, we called him Geronimo because he was Native American, he had an outburst where he started throwing stuff out of the barracks at night. He just kind of flipped out. They were very, very angry, very defiant. I had read about PTSD. They say it takes six months to surface, but I could see there were infantry guys unbalanced back in the base camp. They would call us RAMFs — Rear-Area M—–F——-. We had safer jobs than they did, and they resented us. It was like, ‘Hey, man. We’re in Vietnam, same as you.’ But I could see there was an effect on them, even when we were still in country.
It’s in your system, just like malaria is, and every once in a while you have an episode when you have sweats and that, and then it’ll get better again.
But for mental malaria, I came up with that term here in Gainesville, when I was counseling veterans in the PTSD clinic. A lot of Americans want a cure for something. Take this, or do this, and you won’t have this problem anymore. Those memories may fade, but a lot of them never go away. It’s mental malaria. It’s in your system, just like malaria is, and every once in a while you have an episode when you have sweats and that, and then it’ll get better again. For a lot of people, we just talk with them about how to manage their symptoms. This will always be with you, you just learn how to control it. I still have hyperalertness myself. You hear a noise and you’re jumpy because of being in situations where you really have to be aware of your surroundings. That’s a term I coined so guys could be more aware of what was going on with them.
I also did a group for women — wives and girlfriends of Vietnam veterans — to try to explain to them what’s going on with their husband or partner. They would get the brunt of it because at night, he’d be thrashing around or be angry. That’s where I came up with that term.
You’re discharged in 1972?
In 1971, I get out of Vietnam and back statewide. I’m given the option of whether I wanted to go to Germany. I did 10 months over there, then an early drop to go to college back in Wisconsin. That was probably good for me, because going to that unit in Germany, you could wear your Vietnam patch on the right side of your uniform, and that was actually a status symbol, even though when somebody saw that patch — it was a blue shield with four white stars on it. That’s the Americal — they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re a baby killer.’ That was the nickname they gave to the Americal because of My Lai. He meant it more of a joke or dark humor, and that’s the way I took it. You got afforded a bit more respect.
When you get back stateside, how did you adjust?
A lot of us who are overseas, we feel time has passed us by and we have to do a lot to catch up. I got back to school and I had only turned 22. I was still a second-semester freshman. I wanted to get my school done, get my degree and a good job and find a wife. I felt behind the curve. The first college I went to, somebody knew that I was a soldier. They asked if I had any of my soldier’s uniforms, and I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’ They asked to borrow them for some type of skit, and I didn’t even see the skit, but it probably was negative. When I went to get my uniform stuff back, they had just thrown it in a pile. I thought that’s kind of disrespectful, but I guess that’s just college life.
I also lived for a time in Madison when I got out of service. I went to the Mifflin Street Co-Op and look across the counter, and I see this Vietcong flag that’s posted on the side. It said, in English, ‘Thank you, American people, for supporting our fight against the imperialist, capitalist…’ or something like that. I saw that and thought, ‘Well, I’m not going to shop here anymore.’ I had more of a mild reaction to it.
The only other thing I wanted to say was that it wasn’t only the liberals that didn’t like us Vietnam veterans. We were rebuked by World War II and Korean veterans. We would go to VFW and American Legion posts, and a lot of us were not allowed to join, or we were kind of harassed. I had long hair like I do now, and I had one bartender spill my beer in front of me, and say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. How clumsy of me.’ I had another older veteran walk up to me and say, ‘Hey, honey, you want to dance?’ I was going there for a meeting. The message was ‘We don’t want you here.’ That shocked me. That shocked me that other veterans would reject us. I make a point when I run into a younger veteran like an Afghan or Iraq veteran, I say I appreciate what you did over there, because I know the country often times isn’t behind you. I want to treat them better than I was treated by a lot of people, including older veterans.
What haven’t I asked that you want to share about your experience?
One of the things a lot of us search for is: What meaning did my service have? Or the people that died? What I came up with is the military learned you don’t send people over as individual replacements. It’s bad for morale. Send them over as a unit. Bring them back as a unit. You have a cohesiveness. They did that in World War II, but in Vietnam, we were all replacements.
Society learned you don’t blame the soldier. The media had a field day with us. You had ‘Rambo.’ Oh, he’s crazy. When people hear (someone) is a Vietnam veteran, it’s like, ‘Oh, he may explode. Watch out.’ If there was a bank holdup, and the guy was supposedly a Vietnam veteran, the media would say, ‘Vietnam veteran holds up bank.’ You’ll even see that today, where if there’s some type of domestic abuse or sniper or shooting, if that guy happens to be a veteran or says he’s a veteran, (the media) will add that in. The rest of us get this idea that he really went postal or went off. I think some people still have that stigma that all of us are potentially violent or could snap at any minute. That’s not the case. The media, I think, did us an injustice.
This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.