After serving during wartime, Ron Caldwell, of Lucasville, is happy that he returned home but that never stops him from remembering those who did not.
Vietnam was in full swing, and Caldwell was ready to serve his country. The young man was attending Portsmouth Interstate Business College, which would have prevented him from serving, but he was not looking for a way out.
“I was kind of excited,” Caldwell stated, looking back to when he was just 19. “I was full of spit, i guess you might say. I was ready to go. I had started college, and was going to college, working a job and trying to pay my tuition. Just thinking about Vietnam, I knew I was going and saw no point in putting it off, so I dropped out of college, and it wasn’t long.”
Caldwell was drafted for the Army in March of 1968 and said he didn’t have any apprehensions at the time.
“The boys I went to school with were all going. I figured if I was going to go I might as well go then,” Caldwell explained about giving up his draft deferment.
The veteran started his Army career by heading for basic training at Fort Campbell, Ky., where he stayed eight weeks before going to infantry training in Louisiana. With infantry as his military occupation code (MOS), the soldier felt ready to get his orders to go over to Vietnam. After nine weeks of infantry training, he got his orders and was leaving out the next morning. Before leaving, he was called in by his commanding officer. Because Caldwell already had a brother in Vietnam, he was not eligible to go. Rather, he watched his unit pull off while he stayed behind an additional five weeks. He remembers being mostly alone, doing “every little crappy detail,” and feeling very homesick. This was not what he left college to do.
“That was the last time I saw my unit. They all went to Vietnam,” he said thinking back many decades ago.
After five weeks of being on the fort mostly alone, Caldwell got his orders. However, he would not be going to Vietnam. Rather, the soldier was being sent to fight in Korea. He arrived in September of 1968.
“I can’t say anything nice about it,” Caldwell stated about Korea. “It was not a very pretty place.”
In Korea, he was given a great opportunity to join the United Nations Honor Guard.
“They were telling me how good of a job it was. To be in Honor Guard, you had to be infantry, you had to be at least 6’2”, you had to be slender and you had to have a perfect military record and a perfect civilian record. You get sleep in nice brick buildings with hot showers. It’s a pretty good duty, If not, you get to go up on the hill to the DMZ (demilitarized zone along the Korean peninsula) and sleep in a tent.”
The job sounded great. If Caldwell was not going to see Vietnam, he was at least going to have a detail that allowed him some luxury.
“It’s a very tough job. I found out” Caldwell explained. “One out of 10 makes it. Half of those who don’t make it, don’t want it. They just couldn’t handle the life. It was constant work.”
On duty, soldiers would work 10 hours and be off four around the clock.
“The hours you weren’t on duty, you would have to work parades and learn how to march,” the veteran remembered.
That continued for three months before the soldiers found out if they were actually chosen to serve in the honor guard. At the end of three months, those soldiers who did not made honor guard got released or sent to the DMZ. Caldwell, however, was one of few to be accepted.
“The duties of the honor guard is to provide security for the commanding general of United Nations forces. That’s several countries. And, to provide security for any visiting dignitaries,” Caldwell commented before adding that the force also provided security for top secret posts.
As a young man, he got to provide security for former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, comedian Bob Hope and actress Anne-Margret, a detail he still remembers clearly.
“All the time I had been there, I had not seen an American woman. I definitely hadn’t smelled any perfume. Her perfume was intoxicating,” Caldwell stated before adding a little joke. “I thought, ‘Man, she is in more danger from me than she is the people I’m trying to protect her from.’ She was a lovely lady — just sweet and nice.”
He also escorted Miss American, singing groups and movie stars from across the world.
“Three or four times a week, we do parades for these people. We took part in President Eisenhower’s funeral. His body lied in state for the United Nations for viewing by all the other counties. We took part in that,” he added.
Though it sounds like great work, meeting famous people from around the world, the beautiful people could not take away from the ugliness of war.
“It was very hard. It was a hard life to live,” Caldwell said. “You had to be a very proud person to even want to do it.”
The 32 soldiers in the Honor Guard rarely had a day off. Even when they were off, they had to attend parades. The only sleep was what few hours the men could catch between shifts.
“It was hard duty, and I was proud to have done it.” Caldwell stated.
In total, he was in Korea 14 months. During that time, he met several dignitaries, but the Honor Guard is also infantry for a reason. If there were any insurgents, the Honor Guard was expected to put on battle gear, wade through the rice paddies and go after the enemy.
“We had to be very diversified soldiers,” the Lucasville veteran explained.
Caldwell explained that though there were several incidents of insurgents, they usually ended easily with the enemy going back on their own.
“Most of the time, it was the South Koreans who provided most of that security, and they usually caught them (insurgents) first,” Caldwell stated. “It was terrible what they did. They hated each other so much (the North and South Koreans). If they (South Korean soldiers) caught them (North Koreans), they cut off their ears and their noses. It was awful. We preferred to just stay back. War is terrible. It is a shame that we have to have soldiers to go through that stuff, but also thank God we do.”
After serving 14 month, Caldwell got to come back home. He remembers being excited to come home. He arrived in Fort Lewis, Washington where he got a steak and baked potato to eat while waiting on his discharge papers and traveling money. Caldwell left the Army in 1969. Afterwards, he got a job on the railroad and eventually started a family, but his experiences in Korea never left him.
“It puts a lot in perspective,” he stated about war. “Before you go in, life is pretty good. It’s fun. You just don’t realize some things that you realize after. After war, you realize how fragile life is. You realize that some people have to step up to die. A lot of them did. Then, you get back, you realize that you are fortunate for your life. You kind of feel guilty that you’re alive. I thought I was alone in that, but I talked to some of the guys and found out I’m not. I’m not really sure why you feel that way. You aren’t really guilty of anything, but you’re alive and a lot of those other guys are not.”
Caldwell says he has carried survivor’s guilt with him his entire life. He has gone on with his life, but never forgets who died to allow him to do so. He added that during his life he has rarely talked about his military experiences.
“Most veterans are that way,” he explained. “There’s so many undesirable things that happen to you. It’s a rough life. You see death, every bit of it. Regardless of what branch of service you are in or what you do, it touches you. You know people are dying. You never know if your number is going to get called. Everyone of us that served know that there was a lot that time. Most of them were our buddies. We served with them. It’s hard for us to accept any kind of honor or thanks, even though we do, because we know someone who gave up something more than we did. Those are the people that we have to honor.”
He added that it is also important to honor the families of those who died in war. Once Caldwell’s children became adults, his two sons joined the military and also saw war. He remembers that for two years while they were in combat, he and his wife would wake up in the middle of the night not knowing if their sons were alive or captured and tortured. Though both of his sons came home, the sons and daughters of many do not.
“We were very fortunate,” he explained. “So many others are not.”
Though he served his country by fighting a hard war, this Memorial Day, Caldwell will remember those who gave a greater sacrifice by dying on foreign soil or by putting their loved ones on a plane and sending them to war they never came back from.
“They are the ones who deserve the honor,” he concluded.
Reach Nikki Blankenship at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931.