Brian Lenz as told to Kim Norvell
Published 1:42 PM EST Jan 2, 2019
Editor’s note: Brian Lenz first told this story on stage at the Des Moines Storytellers Project: War Stories event. The Des Moines Storytellers Project is a series of storytelling events in which community members work with Register journalists to tell true, first-person stories live on stage. An edited version appears below.
It was about four years ago when I told one of my friends that I enjoyed drinking B&B brandy when I was stationed in Vietnam. Without skipping a beat, he turned to me and said, “You must have gotten pretty thirsty after killing babies all day.”
I was appalled, but I didn’t say anything.
I found out later he was in kindergarten when I was a captain at Da Nang Airfield in Vietnam. He had no idea of our experiences or what happened overseas.
I returned from Vietnam 45 years ago and really haven’t spoken about it since — not to my wife, not to my grown sons, not for 45 years.
I have my military medals ranks and a flag displayed in my library, but I certainly don’t wear — or even own — a Vietnam veterans hat.
Before I even left for Vietnam, I asked a pilot returning from Vietnam how things went and what to expect. He told me, “Don’t ask, we just don’t talk about it.”
And I haven’t.
So in a way, this is my coming out story.
In 1972, I was serving comfortably as an Air Force Missile Fuels Officer in Los Angeles when I got word that my replacement had arrived on station. An overseas assignment was in the works for me.
But with six months left before finishing my master’s degree in chemistry, I was able to delay my overseas order — but with the understanding I would have to take whatever came my way. Vietnam it was.
After a grueling 24-hour flight, I arrived in Saigon at 0500 hours, 27 July, 1972.
Before deplaning, we were told to start taking weekly malaria pills, to watch out for rabid dogs, and watch out for venomous snakes. (They called them two-steppers because, if you were bit, in two steps you were die.)
I was not prepared for any of this.
Later I found out my commander was named Lt. Col. Custer. Obviously not the Col. Custer, but a bad omen nonetheless.
It didn’t take long to hear what would become the regular background noise for the nine months I lived there. The first week, on my way to work, I was under a rocket attack. I turned off the jeep and jumped into a ditch. Later, I was congratulated for being a fast learner.
Those rocket attacks continued two to three times a month. It was just the luck of the draw whether you got hit or not. Luckily, the closest a rocket ever came to me was 20 feet.
I remember clearly the nighttime attacks when the Giant Voice would announce over the intercom: “Da Nang is under attack.” We would jump out of bed, grab our helmets, roll into a flack vest and hide under the bed.
I spent a lot of time thinking during those moments. I’d like to tell you I was on my knees praying, but really I was just getting as low as I could.
After the all-clear, we went back to sleep as if nothing happened.
That’s the way things were. You’d get hit by an attack and it’d be all-quiet an hour later.
I was the fuels management officer at Da Nang Airfield, which meant I was in charge of re-fueling aircraft, operating the service station, and making sure the generators for our hospital and water heaters for the showers were full of diesel. If there was petroleum, I was responsible.
Fighter pilots typically left the base at 0600 hours for the first round of bombing. They’d come back around 11 to refuel, rearm, eat lunch, and head back out. It was all about getting the job done — and fast.
The mission continued seven days a week without let-up. There was always something going on. The chaplain used to put a little sign up that said “Today is Sunday,” and that’s how we knew it was the end of another week in Vietnam.
Five of us lived together in a hooch — a dorm-like space with three bedrooms, a bathroom and a small kitchen. Alcohol and tobacco were rationed on a monthly basis, and the base exchange had limited supplies. We were always happy to get a care package from home.
Once, my wife sent me some pecans to make a pecan pie for Thanksgiving. I had no idea how to make pecan pie, but we had a library and I found a recipe that seemed easy enough.
I was making that pie in our tiny hooch kitchen, alongside fellow officers working on the meal. One was from the South and, although he enjoyed living a frugal, simple life — not the image of a Southern gentleman — he scolded me for just dumping the pecans on top of the pie.
He then showed me how to properly arrange the pecans in circles on top. Sort of a silly thing to do in a war zone, but in the end it was a reminder of home.
We watched and listened from overseas as Nixon launched several peace agreements with no success. “Peace is at Hand” was the false word of the day — and it dragged on forever.
Nixon escalated the war in December and ordered Operation Linebacker II to strategically bomb military and industrial facilities in Hanoi, which we called the 12 days of Christmas.
Each day I would watch formations of B-52s fly over Da Nang then turn north to bomb Hanoi. Later they’d return the same route and I could count the losses. I knew major damage was being inflicted and I was concerned about retaliation to us.
In January 1973, the rumor on the base was that the Viet Cong were moving artillery into place to step up attacks on Da Nang.
Then the Army side of the base was bombed, Big Time. We were in shock over the magnitude of the attack.
But we found out rather quickly it was friendly fire.
Turns out an American pilot mixed up his coordinates and the squadron of F-4s bombed our base instead of his target one mile north. It wasn’t a good day for anybody. But at least there were no casualties that day, though I did lose two petroleum storage tanks.
In the end, we found a way to joke about it. A sarcastic news release was distributed among the base. It read: “The Army will not negotiate peace as long as the Air Force continues to bomb us.”
It may sound crass, but our defense was to make fun of a bad situation. It was a losing war and our sick joke was, who was going to be the last American to die for their country?
You couldn’t stop it, it just kept dragging on. Sort of like a bad dream that you just can’t wake up from.
You went to bed, it was there. You woke up, it was there. You went to work, it was there.
My favorite song was John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” — for obvious reasons. For just a moment we envisioned being far, far away on some quiet, peaceful country road.
We tried to find humor, anything to cope during those long, grueling months. We joked that everything on the base had been stolen — it just hadn’t been taken off the base yet.
You know how in “M.A.S.H” they keep finding themselves in these crazy situations? That’s how they were able to live through what was going on. It was the same for us, too.
I could not watch “M.A.S.H.” after returning from Vietnam for a long time, and it still brings back these memories.
On 29 March 1973, I was on the last aircraft to take United States combat troops out of Vietnam. We were counted by the North and South Vietnamese to make sure all Americans had left the country as POWs were released. We all erupted in joy when the pilot announced: “We are now out of Vietnam airspace.”
In Vietnam we listened a lot to another John Denver song, “Readjustment Blues,” that was released overseas, but never in the states. It tells of a returning infantry soldier from Vietnam who comes upon a demonstration in Washington, D.C. The flag he fought for overseas was flying, but flying upside down. The domestic men had uniforms on and guns just like he had in Vietnam — but this time, he was the civilian and they were pointing their guns at him.
Welcome home, soldier.
I came home when the war was over, so I didn’t experience protests or picketing like some other guys did. I remember the feeling I had when I landed in San Francisco, I felt a cool breeze, and gave thanks that I would never be shot at again.
While we weren’t being shot at, we certainly weren’t welcome. We were told never to wear our uniforms off base, and we never drew attention to having been in Vietnam.
Now, what I wish people would understood was we were just normal, good people trying to do the best we could in a turbulent time.
Since Vietnam, wars have changed from a counter force in some faraway place to counter value in any home town. The despised Vietnam veteran has now been replaced by honorable soldiers held in high regard. It took attacks coming to our land to give the soldiers the respect they deserved.
Looking back, I’m thankful I survived Vietnam. It molded me into someone who tries to enjoy every day and be happy with what I have. But I want to be remembered for more than just my service in Vietnam.
I want to be remembered for my many peacetime accomplishments in a 20-year career in the Air Force. I want to be remembered for the many projects I tackled as an environmental scientist in Iowa. And I want to be remembered as a friend by people I’ve met along the way.
Because it is here, in Iowa, where I’ve finally found my home. My country roads.
ABOUT THE STORYTELLER: Brian Lenz is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who became an environmental scientist. He jokingly says he polluted the environment and then had to clean it up. He and his wife enjoy entertaining, spoiling their dog, and supporting local restaurants — but apparently not enough to keep them all open.
Season tickets, which start at $60, are on sale now at DesMoinesRegister.com/Storytellers, by phone at 1-800-745-3000 or at the Hoyt Sherman Place box office, 1501 Woodland Ave., Des Moines.
All shows will start at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, and there will be only one show per evening. Your ticket will include a reserved seat, so no more having to save seats or rushing around to arrive early.
Tickets for individual shows are now available.
The 2019 themes:
- Love in the Modern World: The messy world of dating, marriage and “singledom” (Feb. 12)
- My Great Adventure: Wanderlust, taking a leap and getting away (April 23)
- On Second Thought: Ideas reconsidered and lessons learned (June 18)
- My First Time: The awkward enlightenment of coming of age (Aug. 20)
- True Tall Tales: Stories so bizarre and mysterious they have to be true (Oct. 29)
- Holiday Spectacular: Family, faith and reasons we gather at the end of the year (Dec. 17)
Become a teller
The Des Moines Storytellers Project strongly believes that everyone HAS a story and everyone CAN tell it. None of the storytellers who take our stage are professionals. They are your neighbors, friends or co-workers, and they are coached to tell by Register journalists.
Want to tell your story at one of our upcoming Storytellers Project events? Read our guidelines and submit a story by clicking “Speak” at DesMoinesRegister.com/Storytellers.
Contact [email protected] for more information.
Visit the Storytellers store
Embrace local storytelling with our new notebooks, mugs and apparel, available online in different colors. Order at ShopDMRegister.com/Storytellers.
Hear past storytellers
WATCH: Mediacom rebroadcasts stories from the most recent show on MC22 periodically; check local listings for times.
LISTEN: Check out the Des Moines Storytellers podcast, which is available on iTunes and Stitcher.
ONLINE: Videos from this and other Storytellers events can be found at DesMoinesRegister.com/Storytellers under “Watch & Listen.”
- My grandmother survived the Holocaust. 75 years later the coronavirus awakens her fears of uncertainty and loneliness
- 1 Year Later, AJ's Memory Lives On
- Loma Prieta survivors: One year later, heartbreak and heroism still fresh
- Documentaries mark 45 years of southern Vietnam's liberation
- Chicano Park 50 years later: Coronavirus delays celebration but historic moment still matters
- Ivan Reitman: Why We’re Still Talking About ‘Ghostbusters’ 30 Years Later
- Director Pete Segal Looks Back On Chris Farley’s Breakout Film ‘Tommy Boy’ 25 Years Later
- Blake Horstmann Reflects on Bachelor Nation's Most Dramatic Stagecoach 1 Year Later
- Remembering the Oklahoma City Bombing 25 Years Later: 'We Showed the Strength of Humanity'
- Last Doolittle Raider, 101, recalls attack on Japan 75 years later
- When MS Paint ruled the fandom world: An innovative webcomic, 10 years later
- The Little Rock Nine continue to inspire 60 years later
- Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher: 25 Years Later, Where Are They Now?
- Once enemies, Vietnamese and US veteran pilots join hands in Hà Nội
- Latest Coronavirus News in Vietnam & Southeast Asia on April 18
- Latest Coronavirus News in Vietnam & Southeast Asia April 19
- Vietnam protests Beijing's expansion in disputed South China Sea as world remains occupied with coronavirus
- No 'opportunity for healing' for Indigenous soldiers this year after Anzac Day events are cancelled
- EXCLUSIVE: Puppy love for Leonardo DiCaprio, 45, and Camila Morrone, 22! Couple take newly fostered Siberian Husky for a walk while wearing face masks
- I am in heaven in Vietnam, says Huynh Kesley Alves
45 years later, this Iowa veteran is ready to share his Vietnam story have 2335 words, post on eu.desmoinesregister.com at December 7, 2018. This is cached page on Talk Vietnam. If you want remove this page, please contact us.