Never volunteer for anything.
It’s the quiet mantra of many who serve in America’s military. But Doug Sherrill volunteered often during his year in Vietnam, and because of that, he experienced diverse duties that took him from beneath the dismal shadow of a rubber plantation to hanging out the door of a Huey with his finger steadily on the trigger of an M60.
“The toughest was the door gunner job,” he said, mentioning that he came under the most fire there. “You didn’t fear a tracer if you could see it. The ones you feared were the four between those tracers.”
Sherrill recalled his time in Vietnam bittersweetly, and while he is proud of his service, that pride is clouded by issues that didn’t manifest until recently, when Agent Orange exposure led to health issues.
The proving grounds
The 67-year-old was born in Haywood County and graduated from Tuscola in 1969. About a year later, he was drafted.
“I can’t remember the month I received the draft notice,” he said, adding that he went to basic in September. “But it was sometime around June or July, so I didn’t have much notice.”
After basic training, Sherrill went to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland for Cobra helicopter armament school, a highly technical training program that required attendees to extend their enlistment an extra year.
The Cobras were armed with 2.75-inch rocket pods, grenade launchers, 20 mm cannons and 7.62x51mm miniguns, all of which became the 19-year-old’s responsibility.
“It was very interesting,” Sherrill recalled fondly.
Ironically, Sherrill never once flew in one of the two-seat choppers until after his school, but he said he got so much practice doing maintenance on the weapons, he could have done the job in the dark.
“In the military, you do it until you know it,” he said.
However, Sherrill spent a couple months between school and Vietnam in a maintenance support role at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, where the pilots trained.
But like most who were drafted into the Army, Sherrill’s time came, and in 1971, he was sent halfway across the world to Lai Khe, where he lived on a primitive compound surrounded by the tall trees that made up the 31,000-acre Michelin Rubber Plantation.
“We had no running water,” he said. “We did have a shower, but it was just a 55-gallon drum on top of a box.”
The compound Sherrill was assigned to was an outpost for the 5th Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), but there were also three American helicopter units there. Sherrill was initially attached to the 317th Air Cavalry Unit.
He said that as soon as he got there, he learned how to cope with frequent incoming rocket and artillery fire.
“Lai Khe was known as rocket city,” he said. “I don’t remember many nights that we did not get rockets and mortars. We stayed in the ditches most nights. Those ditches were three or four feet deep, and most of the time they were filled with muddy water.”
Sherrill recalled that perhaps the toughest thing about the first part of his tour was the shock of being a stranger in a strange land.
“I remember talking with other soldiers like, ‘man, I wonder what it’d be like to wear civilian clothes, or I wonder what it’d be like to have a hamburger, or I’d like to see a car,’” he said. “It was like that. It was very lonely. It was dark. It was the darkest place I’ve ever been. It was in the rubber plantation so it was a heavy canopy. It was just a dreary place. It was a place you wanted to escape.”
A change of scenery
As much as Sherrill liked his job itself, he volunteered for a changeup by going to a reconnaissance school for the First Cavalry, after which his MOS was changed to infantry. His first job was to stay back with seven other men while all American troops from the 317th Cavalry left.
“I remember that time, it was nothing but fear of being overrun because we could just imagine it,” he said, noting that they were there alone a little over a week. “How could you keep what was, in our minds, thousands of North Vietnamese or Vietcong troops from overrunning us. It never happened. We never was under attack. The 5th ARVN division was on the perimeter and they did a good job, so we didn’t have to do a lot. But we were on guard duty 24 hours a day.”
Next, Sherrill moved with 4th Air Cavalry’s F Troop Long Binh, a much larger base near Saigon.
“We were a mobile unit, so we did not stay there,” he said. “A lot of nights, we stayed at Long Binh, but we normally went to places with names like Tay Ninh and Loc Ninh and into Cambodia.”
With F troop, he often was a door gunner on a volunteer basis on rescue missions and as part of hunter-killer teams.
“I did mostly recovery missions,” he said. “That was extremely scary.”
Sherrill recalled something from a recent Mountaineer article on another local veteran that rang true of his time in Vietnam.
“I remember reading something that Glen Wyatt said in the article about him,” Sherrill said. “We volunteered at that time for a lot of things just to get the patches that you could earn, and so I volunteered for a lot more dangerous assignments to get those patches. But when you’re 19 years old, you’re invincible.”
But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t frightening. Being a door gunner was one of the most dangerous jobs for an American soldier in Vietnam.
“I remember on one trip out when we got back, there were 21 holes in the Huey,” he said. “No one was hit or killed, but there were 21 holes in it.”
The rescue operations were tough on Sherrill for a number of reasons. Mainly, it boils down to how close it put him to the human toll of the war. One day, when he was going along on a rescue operation for training, something happened that he still ponders to this day.
“It was actually during in-country training with the First Cavalry,” he said.
To begin with, it was one of the few times he ever left the helicopter for more than a few seconds on a mission, which was to rescue six Army Rangers that were pinned down. He said that he was knee-deep in water and under fire the entire time.
“From the time we hit the ground until we got to them, you just held the trigger down basically,” he said, adding that when they got there, two of the Rangers had already been killed.
And while Sherrill said that was the toughest thing he encountered on the ground, the part of that mission that really sticks out in his mind is what happened in the air. Because it was a training mission for Sherrill and a few others, they weren’t quite sure what chopper to board. One of the young soldiers boarded an earlier helicopter while the rest got on a later one.
“In our approach to the landing zone to try to rescue those rangers, one of the helicopters blew up. The one that blew up was the one that our guy had been unlucky enough to get on,” he said.
Sherrill’s overall take from the rescue missions was that they were painful because often the person they were searching for would be dead or not found at all. Understandably, that could take a toll.
“There was a lot of stress in that job because, truthfully, you saw a lot of blood,” he said, adding that often someone on the search team knew whomever they were looking for. “And you always wanted to keep looking.”
When it came to his infantry MOS, he used skills gained at the reconnaissance school in patrolling the perimeter. But he said that job itself wasn’t too bad, even when they had to go to another area.
“It was generally quiet,” he said. “Normally, when we did a recon mission that was close to Lai Khe or even Long Binh, we did it based on advice from South Vietnamese civilian sympathizers. It wasn’t too bad.”
For many who fought in Vietnam, coming home was, in a sense, just as tough as leaving. Sherrill said that when he returned, he made brief stops in Japan and Alaska, both of which were pleasant, before ultimately arriving in San Francisco.
“We were told we’d have a good meal waiting for us, like a big steak or something” he recalled.
But when they touched down, there was no great meal — only angry strangers protesting the war and those who were made to fight in it.
“I remember we walked to the terminal from the plane but there was a chain link fence that was maybe had two fences six feet apart and a chain link ceiling,” Sherrill said. “I remember tomatoes and eggs were thrown.”
Sherrill was quick to say that he didn’t feel sorry for himself, but that he still remembers how people talked about him and the other soldiers over there.
“No one spoke to me, per se, but you could hear them talking about baby killers and stuff,” he said. “That’s always stuck with me.”
But perhaps most difficult to deal with was the fact that everyone back home kept living their lives in his absence, and when he returned to Waynesville, people expected him to jump right back in as though nothing had changed. He recalled that just 24 hours before he’d come home, he was still carrying an M16 and a .45, living in constant fear that he’d have to use them to stay alive.
“It was like I’m not supposed to mention it,” he said. “And nobody asked a question. Not even my family asked. It was like I went on a camping trip.”
About three months later, Sherrill was discharged. He came back to Western North Carolina and worked various jobs while also serving several years in the National Guard unit out of Haywood County.
Eventually, he found jobs that took him elsewhere.
“I ended up working for Erickson and Nokia and moving around to different locations in Texas and Massachusetts and Atlanta over the years,” he said. “But in 1996, I actually took a retirement from Nokia because they were moving out of the country.”
By 2003, Sherrill and his wife moved back to Haywood County for good. Now, he lives deep in the woods in the beautiful White Oak area, where he tries to live a peaceful existence.
“It’s been fantastic,” he said. “It’s been very peaceful.”
But over time, despite how long he’d been away from the country, the war caught back up with him in more way than one.
First came memories of what he saw.
“Normally I don’t like to talk about it, but I do have PTSD,” he said.
Sherrill said sleep never comes easy.
“I have never in all these years been able to spend a full night sleeping,” he said. “My nights, as far as sleeping goes, are fairly short most of the time. Even when I was working for Nokia as a plant manager, I did most of my work at night. My wife and kids always thought, ‘he’s just a good worker.’ But it was because I couldn’t sleep, so I’d write all my memos and letters and production schedules and all that. I’d stay up at night doing that instead of sleeping.”
More recently, aftereffects of exposure to Agent Orange manifested, and now VA trips have become commonplace.
“I have diabetes from agent orange, which causes other complications,” he said. “I can see well, but recently I’ve had to have shots in the eyes. That’s not fun. I have two heart stints, which the government says is caused by agent orange. I have no idea if it is or it’s not.”
Sherrill said the Charles George VA Hospital in Asheville has taken good care of him, but he still thinks about the war, and while he considers himself patriot who’s glad he fought for his country, he has come to question what he was fighting for.
“We thought at that time, we were doing something good,” he said. “Even though we were 19 years old, we were patriotic. We loved our country. We weren’t draft dodgers. We intended on doing what we were told to do.”
“I think it was more dangerous than the American population thought it was,” he added. “I think the American soldiers during Vietnam were better soldiers than the American population thought they were. I know they were. A lot of people lost their lives in my opinion now for nothing but a political war that didn’t help America in any way.”
Sherrill’s feelings about the war in which he participated are perhaps best summed up by a simple anecdote.
“A woman, a sympathizer, asked me what they would do once the we leave,” he recalled. “I answered with a question by asking her, ‘what do you think you’re going to do?’ She said, ‘I think we’re going to die.’ I’ve thought about that all these 40-some years. I would hate to have to give that answer in this country.”