Forest Hope hasn’t had a nightmare about his 18 months in Vietnam for the past 35 years, but he said that doesn’t mean he’s done processing what he experienced there. He served in the Marine Corps and stationed in Vietnam from late 1966 until mid-1968. Today, he is the president of the Vietnam Veterans of American Chapter 1092 Alachua County and runs monthly meetings at American Legion Post 16 in Gainesville. Our conversation took place Aug. 15, 2017, at his office in Turkey Creek in Gainesville.
My name’s Forest Hope. I was born Feb. 17, 1947, here in Gainesville, Florida.
What educational background do you have?
I graduated from Gainesville High School in 1965 and then went down to junior college in Ocala, because there was not one here at the time.
I decided I didn’t want any more schooling and that I wanted to do something different. I was tired of getting up in the morning early and tired of having to be where I was told to be and when I was supposed to be and all the regiment that went with school. I decided to break free and I joined the Marine Corps.
Because they don’t get up early in the morning, right?
Just something different. (Laughs)
What year did you enlist then?
I enlisted in December 1965 and reported to Parris Island, South Carolina, in January 1966. I went through boot camp and infantry training in North Carolina. They sent me to school in San Diego, California, where I learned how to use Morse Code and communications. From there, they sent me to Vietnam. First week in December 1966, I got to Vietnam.
What did your parents think about your decision to go to the Marine Corps?
My father was in the Army during World War II in the Pacific. He was called back during Korea to work at Walter Reed Medical Center, so he thought that was a good thing to do. For a young kid who doesn’t know what they want to do out of high school, the military’s the best thing for you. They’ll take you, straighten you out, make a person out of you, let you develop your own personality. Do what you’re told, that’s about it. They’ll teach you skills — some of them you can’t use, but some of them you can. If you want to make a career out of it, you can. There were several times I thought if I’d have stayed in, I’d have retired by now.
What was your time like at Parris Island?
It was 10 or 12 weeks, I don’t remember. They were rushing them through on because of Vietnam. It was cold and rainy. Walking in the rain at 5:30 in the morning to go get breakfast. Those were things you had to do. I did not want to go during the summer because I had already heard about sand ants and mosquitoes, and being from Florida, you don’t have to be told you don’t want to be outside around the swamp. Looking back 50 years ago, it was nothing. At the time, I’m sure I thought it was a lot more difficult. I was never one of the ones who thought about skipping out and going AWOL or anything like that. I think one person in our platoon tried to go. Of course, they caught him and locked him up, but that was never one of my thoughts.
So you get to Vietnam in December 1966. What were your first impressions of the land, the people, the mountains?
This is pretty. This is pretty. They have hills and mountains, whatever. We flew into Da Nang and then took a smaller plane up to a place called Dong Ha, which was a regimental headquarters for the 12th Marines, which is an artillery unit. Then by jeep, I guess, to the headquarters, where I checked in. We had a tent with a wooden floor that there were 12 cots in it. Twelve people would sleep and had a regular canvas cover to it. It had an outhouse and urinal tubes. You were able to take and look out over and see a mountain. From Florida, you know I’d never seen one. I didn’t get a chance when I was growing up to go to the mountains and see snow or anything like that.
What were some of the responsibilities that you were given?
I was a radio operator. What we worked with was coordinating artillery units from someone in the field through our headquarters for our fire mission. Then sending that fire mission on to an artillery unit that we would assign to fire artillery in for cover for that platoon that was calling it in. Being in headquarters, sometimes someone out in the field came short on radio operators. They would call headquarters and say we need you to send somebody in. There were eight of us. One of us would be assigned. You need to go with this patrol for a week until they can get a permanent replacement back. If you didn’t know how to read a map, it was very difficult. Fortunately, I took right to that. I had one Army officer who couldn’t read a map. It was almost deadly.
Did you have many encounters with the enemy and what were some of those like early on?
Because we were the headquarters base, and they knew it, they would on a regular basis shell our area and the mortars and shells from artillery were not as scary as the rockets they would fire in. The rockets you could hear coming. You didn’t know if it was going to miss you overhead, short, or whatever, but you could hear them whistling.
Why were the mortars not as terrifying?
You knew that you had 15 seconds or whatever for incoming to find a bunker.
Whenever they went “POOF” as they were fired, you’d know how strong that poof was as to what direction they were going to be. You knew that you had 15 seconds or whatever for incoming to find a bunker. When they were rockets, by the time you hear the whistling, you don’t have time to start moving. Just get down and pray.
So you were there from the end of 1966 to the end of 1967?
No. They had a deal where if you would extend for six months, we will send you home when you want to go for 30 days — free. I said I’d like to make sure I’m home for Christmas 1967, otherwise I could have finished my 12 months. That’s what the tours were. First week in December, I should have rotated out, but then they could have sent me to Okinawa for two weeks, or Camp Pendleton. This way, I said, ‘Look, this isn’t such a bad gig over here. I kinda like the people and I’ll take and extend for six months doing the same thing I’m doing, same place, everything.’ …They said you have 30 days from the time you hit the ground until the time you get back. I came home for Christmas 1967 to Gainesville… Parents picked me up, drove me home. Just get me home type deal. I was very fortunate because whenever I got back, you had to leave from San Francisco and flew to Okinawa overnight, then next day back into Da Nang. As soon as I landed in Da Nang, the Red Cross was looking for me. My grandfather had died, and I spent Christmas with him. It was just very fortunate.
Did you arrive back right around the Tet Offensive?
Oh, I got back just before Tet. All services have the policy that if your grandparents brought you up, we’ll give you hardship leave and you can go home for two weeks or whatever it was. I said to be honest, they lived around the corner, and they were always there, but they didn’t raise me. They said to tough it out. I said OK.
What are your memories of Tet then?
Being the radio operator in the headquarters, they were trying to get an operator out to Khe Sanh. Because of all the artillery that was going in with the airstrikes and trying to be overrun by the NVA, they couldn’t get me to Khe Sanh. I was fortunate enough not to go, but in staying back, it was just all of a sudden, all hell broke loose one morning all over country. You could hear the radios popping about we need fire support. At that time, I was able to talk to ships to bring in naval artillery and ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,’ a big ship — C130 — that fires bullets and tracers on them. It looks like just a straight line. They cover an area real quick. I coordinated with them to help them. We were locked down in a bunker for I don’t know how long. You had plenty of people relieving you, but you had all of your radios; every unit was trying to get a fire mission. It was an intense four days.
What surprised or shocked you the most when you were in country?
Being naive, an old southern boy, the people in Vietnam were very, very nice. They were hospitable. But you had to be told and explained to that those were the same people who changed pajamas at night and come back with an AK47. You can’t trust them. These people, the mamasan who brings the laundry to the base… she’s there scouting it out trying to know where they should shoot the next rocket. You just can’t trust them. Coming back, it was hard to get anyone’s trust, seeing as the farmer who was out in the field — you thought you could trust him. You were there to help him — or that’s what we were told.
You finally returned in mid-1968?
August 1968. I came home and they sent me to Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, which I was happy to go there. I had an uncle who was retired from the Marines. He ran the Chevrolet dealership up there. In evenings, I would go to his place for dinner. Every now and then, I’d spend the night over his place. He had a basement — TV and a bar all fixed up. He had two daughters just a little younger than I was. They didn’t have anything to do with me. Because you’re a serviceman. I don’t want anything to do with servicemen. What you’re doing over there is wrong. All I did was what the country sent me over there to do.
Those are your cousins, right?
About October, they had a (policy where) if you had a job opportunity lined up with a law enforcement agency, you could get out up to 90 days early. At Camp Lejeune, I was in charge of privates. I was a sergeant and E5 at that time in charge of E1’s. We would paint the barracks. I was told by the sergeant major is that I am not to work, to take and direct them on what to do. They finished painting the barracks. When we got through, he says, ‘Let’s do it again.’ I’m in a dead-end road, not doing anything. I worked a little bit in the armory, helping clean the polymer off the new rifles. I (wanted to) get out early.
I made arrangements through Alachua County Sheriff Joe Crevasse to put me on law enforcement. I worked in the communications center with four deputies who worked there, answering calls and dispatching deputies. It was a lot smaller operation than it is today. I did that for a year, back in Gainesville at that point.
Coming back into civilian life, what was it like for you?
Terrible. That is my only regret about going to Vietnam. Coming back, the reception I received when I got home. I had an old lady spit on me.
Where was that?
Down around the University (of Florida) area. I wasn’t trying to do anything, but obviously I was military — short hair, and most everybody had long hair then. When you’ve been in the military, you walk a certain gate with your steps just so wide. That’s just the way you’re trained. She figured, OK, you’re a baby killer, so she spit on me.
I was invited by a close friend of the family to go to some kind of club meeting at the old Primrose Inn. Other than him introducing me — ‘This is Forest Hope, he’s recently back from Vietnam, just got out of the Marine Corps’ — not a single person said anything to me that day. (Nothing like) ‘God, man, I’m glad you’re back. Tell me how it was. I was in the Army.’ No. Totally ignored. I decided I’d grow my hair long. As long as the captain of the sheriff’s department didn’t complain, I’d let it go. Just as a means of fitting in. This is 1968, 1969. (Long hair) wasn’t my lifestyle. I didn’t care anything about doing dope. I didn’t care the first thing about it. I decided you gotta start doing something that’s useful. I started working on a contractor’s license and a real estate license. I met my future wife and in August 1970, we got married — 47 years ago this coming Tuesday.
As you begin to get settled in, did your ostracization locally extend all through the war and after or was there a point at which you didn’t feel quite so cut out?
Every person has to deal with it in their best way. What I did was just held everything inside. I held inside what I saw, what I went through, what I did. I’m still holding in most of that. I’m not ready to talk about it. I was asked to give a speech to a group here in town about my experiences in Vietnam. It took me about two weeks to write it out. I wanted to be careful what I said because I didn’t want to break down in tears as I’m trying to give a speech. I asked my wife if she wanted to go. She broke down. She didn’t have any idea that I’d been through what I’d been through. I told her, “Honey, that’s only what I feel like talking about now.’ I’m trying to come out a little bit more. I’m very active in the Vietnam Veterans of America. There, you’re around people who had the same problems, saw the same things, did the same things. They all handle it their own way that they think is best. Some of them did turn to drugs. Some of them died because of it. Some of them are still doing drugs or alcohol or whatever it might be.
I haven’t had a nightmare in probably 35 years. By talking about it, I don’t think it would bring anything like that to life, but it’s just something that doesn’t need to be rehashed. It’s something that was in the past, I did what I was supposed to do, what I was trained to do, what I thought was popular, and when I went over there, the country supported it. Whenever I came back, I found out that’s not the truth.
Is there a reason why you feel like you need or want to be more open now?
No, but what we’re doing — all of us — we do what we can to those who are coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. Guys, you got an issue. How you deal with it is up to you. This is how I dealt with it. If we can help you, yeah we’re 50 years older than you, but if we can help you, you got our ear. We’ll be glad to take you and walk you through. Did you know you have this benefit at the VA hospital? I found out two weeks ago a benefit I didn’t know I have. On your ad valorem taxes for real estate, if you’re disabled and 65 years old, you get that percentage off your taxes. Nobody told me about that. I’m in the real estate business. I went down yesterday and filed for that. Why didn’t somebody tell me this years ago? There’s nobody there . That information is there, but you gotta go look for it. If you don’t know the right questions, how do you know what to ask?
During the period in which you were having nightmares, was that from what you referenced when you couldn’t trust anybody or were there specific battles or encounters with the enemy?
There were encounters that… Some of this I’m not ready to talk about.
That’s fine. If you want to walk this back…
I just try to put it all out of mind, OK? It was a long time ago, all right?
The battles did not occur like what you see at the Battle of Hue over a long period of time. The battles occur over a two-hour period of time. It all of a sudden happens, then it’s all of a sudden over. You have to depend on your training, your adrenaline rush, and your belief in God to help get you through it. Whenever it’s over, you’re drained and from time to time, you do have memories of things: Hey, I remember that happening. I’m remembering now how I got that scar on my elbow. I remember a little bit of that. I just try to put it all out of mind, OK? It was a long time ago, all right?
Now, I had a scar up here somewhere. I didn’t think anything of it. When I got it, yes I was over in combat area, and it bled for a little bit, but put enough pressure on it, and it stopped. I didn’t think anything else about it. Years later, I’m getting ready to get married, and my wife says, ‘You know you got a bump on your back?’ Back on this shoulder blade, I had a bump about that big around, and it stuck out about that far, and whenever you wear a golf shirt, it’d show up. She said I think you need to go have that lanced or taken out or whatever it is. It was a piece of metal from southeast Asia. How come I didn’t know that? Because of the adrenaline and everything you got going, it just doesn’t register. It would have been two to three years. If she hadn’t said anything and made a big deal out of it, it might still be there. Or it might have grown on out.
What haven’t I asked about the Vietnam conflict as it relates to your personal experience or the American involvement that you think people should know?
War is hell. It doesn’t matter how big or little it is. Any conflict is hell. You got to have a plan and you got to stick to that plan. You can improvise, but when we went to Vietnam, our plan was just to go there and fight. It wasn’t to take the country, to take any particular area, because whenever we did, we turned around and gave it back to them.
Literally. We’d take a hill, and then two days later, time to move out. Let the NVA come back and take that hill. Have it. They didn’t have to fight for it. We’d just leave.
Too many times, with my involvement in fire missions, someone up the line says no, you can’t shoot on that area. There might be friendlies in there. Well they’re shooting at us? No, you can’t. If you’re going to commit to do battle, you’ve got to give it everything you’ve got and do it to win.
This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.