Sobriety, respect finally arrive for Vietnam vetParkston vet never wanted glory, just to go home; earned four Purple Hearts.
By: Anna Jauhola, The Daily Republic
PARKSTON — Jerry Triebwasser never wanted the glory.
“I just wanted to get out of there,” he said. “I didn’t care about medals.”
The Parkston native said when he was first wounded in Vietnam, an
officer brought two Purple Hearts to his bedside at an Army hospital.
He had them sent home to his sister rather than worry his mother. He
didn’t receive his third and fourth Purple Hearts until 10 years after
he came home.
He received 10 medals overall for his service. They’re in a display
box with other Army insignia and patches. He said he hadn’t looked at
the box since he placed it in a closet about 30 years ago, until he
took it out for an interview with The Daily Republic this week ahead
of Veterans Day, which is Sunday.
Triebwasser entered the U.S. Army on March 26, 1968. Like so many
others, he was drafted. After basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash.,
Triebwasser joined the ranks in Vietnam.
As a rifleman, Triebwasser started out adjusting to the extreme heat
and humidity by filling and loading sandbags. On his third day, he was
suddenly on the front lines.
He helped drag 114 dead soldiers off Black Virgin Mountain where the
Army had an artillery base that the North Vietnamese tried to take.
“We finally got that back,” he said. “My first few days over there, we
cleaned up that mess, putting people in body bags. From then on it was
After that mission, Triebwasser was chosen to join the 25th Infantry
Division, which was stationed at Cu Chi, Vietnam, for a year’s tour of
duty. He spent eight of those months as his division’s radio man.
Advice from a sergeant at Fort Lewis helped save Triebwasser’s life.
“This sergeant at Fort Lewis told me this E-6 (staff sergeant) in
Vietnam had been in Korea and had a better idea of what was going on,”
Triebwasser said of the man he carried a radio for during his tour.
“The sergeant also said, ‘Don’t ever wake up in the morning thinking
the day is going to be the same. Treat every day as a new day.’”
The staff sergeant and a lieutenant each asked for Triebwasser to
serve as their radio man. Triebwasser refused the lieutenant’s offer
based on the lieutenant’s limited experience.
The lieutenant took his case to the captain of the base and
Triebwasser said the lieutenant was too inexperienced and would get
him killed. Triebwasser ended up carrying a radio for the staff
sergeant who was recommended to him back at Fort Lewis.
“The lieutenant who wanted me to carry for him, he was snooping around
and didn’t know what he was doing,” Triebwasser said. “The lieutenant
and his radioman got killed.”
Not long after, the captain called Triebwasser into his bunker,
admitted Triebwasser was right about the lieutenant and threw out any
charges against him for insubordination.
A dangerous job
Carrying the radio for communications was a dangerous, but important,
job. Triebwasser recalled a bad firefight in which several soldiers
were pinned in their position and couldn’t get out of the area.
He said the government wouldn’t send in tanks or helicopters unless at
least three men were injured or dead.
“We were replaceable,” he said. “So I lied through my teeth.”
Triebwasser said several were wounded, though none actually was, and
called in a helicopter to get the soldiers out.
Triebwasser’s first wounds came from a friendly booby trap, and his
legs caught a lot of shrapnel.
He suffered his second injury when either a rocket-propelled grenade
or mortar round exploded in the bunker he was in during a firefight.
He took shrapnel in his eyes and lost his sight temporarily.
While working road security on a newly constructed oil road,
Triebwasser was working the radio for his division when a soldier in
front of him stepped on a mine.
“He flew like a rag doll,” Triebwasser said. “The radio took the blast
and some of the shrapnel ripped open my neck.”
That was his third injury. The North Vietnamese placed several mines
in that 20-mile long road, blowing up tanks and jeeps, Triebwasser
His fourth injury came from enemy fire when artillery fragments
slashed open the top of his head and lodged in his shoulder.
He was wounded multiple other times, but wasn’t hospitalized and
didn’t receive any other citations, he said. He suffered many of those
wounds during night missions.
“It was stupid going into those missions at night,” he said. “It was terrible.”
But it was necessary in some cases. He said the Viet Cong did most of
their missions at night, so commanding officers insisted they go into
the jungle and try to stop the enemy.
“Our unit refused going out sometimes,” he said. “It was the worst
time to go because we’d hit the booby-trapped areas and then it was
hard to do it.”
Triebwasser said his service wasn’t day-in, day-out fighting. He said
many times his unit was on the front for three days and then sent to
the rear base camp for three weeks. During that time, he was able to
write letters home.
At first, he wrote his parents that he was loading and unloading
helicopters. Then his mom wrote him, “You can start writing back about
what’s going on because we have TV here.”
“It was putting them through hell not knowing,” Triebwasser said.
Although there were some easier times during the war, Triebwasser said
the worst part was dragging dead soldiers back from enemy territory.
“The first four days, that was the worst,” he said. “Going up (Black
Virgin Mountain), seeing what they did to our guys. It was
At one point he told fellow unit members not to revive him if he was
“I told the guys, ‘I’m done. If I get hit to the point of no return,
don’t revive me because I can’t do this no more.’”
The U.S. escalation of the Vietnam War is now considered a mistake by
most observers, as it was by many protesters at the time. Soldiers
were not welcomed home in a glorious manner.
Prior to leaving Vietnam, an officer warned Triebwasser not to be the
first off the plane because some protest groups became violent toward
soldiers returning home. The officer told Triebwasser a story about a
woman who supposedly stepped from a crowd and shot the first soldier
who walked off the plane, allegedly stating, “My son died in Vietnam.
You don’t have the right to live.”
When Triebwasser’s plane landed in California and he saw the crowd
outside, he was terrified.
“I was more scared of that crowd than I was in Vietnam,” he said.
“They were out there spitting, hollering ‘baby killers.’ I snuck
around back and went through baggage. What a welcome home.”
The guilt and confusion of the part he played in Vietnam consumed him,
and Triebwasser immediately “crawled into the bottle.”
He was so drunk that day he missed his flight home twice. When he got
on a plane, he had a stop at Salt Lake City, where a stewardess found
him passed out at the baggage claim.
“She took me to her apartment, got me cleaned up and helped me get to
my next flight,” he said. “She was really nice.”
In his hometown of Parkston, it seemed only his parents understood his
“My parents figured, ‘He’ll work his way through it,’” Triebwasser
said. “They never pressured me about it, just took it as it went. I
suppose writing letters home helped them understand.”
In Vietnam, the weather seemed like it was 120 degrees with high
humidity, he said. So 80 degrees felt cold.
“I’d be driving around in a car with no air conditioning, wearing a
sweatshirt with the windows rolled up,” he said. “I was cold. They all
thought I was nuts.”
Triebwasser slept on his parents’ lawn for a month after he came home.
“I just couldn’t get comfortable inside,” he said. His unit slept in
the open air for a year — no blankets, pillows or any kind of creature
One night, he went to a dance at Island Park near Milltown. Someone
set off a pack of firecrackers near him and he dove for cover.
Everyone stood and laughed at him, whispering that he was a “crazy
He did the same thing in downtown Parkston when air whistled in a body
shop. It sounded just like a rocket.
“People were cruel,” he said. “To this day, I still don’t understand
why we were there. None of us did.”
Learning to cope
Triebwasser was discharged from the Army on March 26, 1970.
He said he spent the next 18 years drunk. He worked at various jobs,
including Trail King, Mitchell Iron Supply and Dakota Manufacturing.
He spent some time attending school at what is now Mitchell Technical
Institute. He got married and had two daughters, and later divorced.
Through it all, he took personally the derogatory comments people made
about the war.
He moved to Mitchell and lived there until 1997. With help from a
friend, he was able to crawl back out of the bottle and sober up. He
now lives in Parkston again.
“I’ve been sober for 30 years now,” he said, pointing to several
Alcoholics Anonymous coins he’s kept. “There are only 18 here.” He
kept 18 because that’s how many years he lost to alcohol.
He said several things contributed to his recovery — realizing that
the government was responsible for the war, and not him, was the
“They drafted me. They sent me in. It wasn’t something I did,” he
said. “I did what I had to do to survive.”
Talking about the horrors he faced in Vietnam also helped. He said
many veterans simply buried their feelings and stories, thinking they
could forget about the war. Triebwasser was one of them.
He eventually realized not all of his memories were horrific.
He recalled missions his unit embarked upon through the Hobo Woods, a
tangled jungle with booby-trapped trails throughout.
“We couldn’t use their trails,” he said. “We chopped through there and
you couldn’t tell me people couldn’t hear you coming.”
The unit once chopped its way through a patch of the Hobo Woods and
ended up at a North Vietnamese trail. The soldiers stopped to rest,
and children from the area came out with soda and water in coolers.
“They were waiting for us. They knew where we were at,” he said.
Although this seemingly kind gesture stuck in his memory, Triebwasser
said they’d been warned not to take anything from children. He said
the drinks contained crushed glass in it in an attempt to prey on
He recalled the respect he had for helicopter and jet pilots.
“They get shot at and everything else,” Triebwasser said. “They’d come
in and it was unreal what they went through to help us.”
Good communication, he said, was key in staying alive and
communication between ground soldiers and helicopter and jet pilots
One example occurred when Triebwasser and his unit spotted a camp of
North Vietnamese eating. Triebwasser called in jets to “mow down the
camp.” The only problem was the men in the camp had a stolen American
radio and heard the conversation between the jet pilot and
Triebwasser. So when the pilot asked Triebwasser to drop green smoke
to mark their position, the enemy followed suit.
“We switched to an emergency channel they didn’t know, and I said we
would drop blue smoke and the pilot should mow down the green smoke,”
When the pilot circled back he asked whether there were two groups of
American troops in their area. Triebwasser confirmed his unit was the
only one in the vicinity. The pilot reported a group of men walking
toward them in Army formation, wearing U.S. Army uniforms, but they
were not American. They soon realized the group was North Vietnamese.
“The pilot mowed down that whole bunch, too,” he said. “If he wouldn’t
have spotted them, we probably wouldn’t be talking here today.”
Although the Vietnam War is viewed by many as one of the worst
blunders in U.S. history, veterans of the war are getting more
Triebwasser, for example, helped dedicate the refurbishing of Island
Park near Milltown earlier this year. He was chosen to raise the POW
flag during the dedication ceremony. He was also recognized for his
service during a ceremony honoring wounded veterans in Mount Vernon
Three years ago, he was hired by a company in Mitchell to haul
fertilizer on a seasonal basis. His daughters — Jennifer Triebwasser
and Jodi DeBoer, both of Mitchell — also recognize his service during
Vietnam and have attended ceremonies honoring Triebwasser and other
veterans in area towns.
Since he’s been recognized publicly for his service in Vietnam,
Triebwasser said a few people have personally thanked him for serving
his country. He does the same thing for Iraq and Afghanistan war
veterans. He hopes people realize war is terrible no matter where it’s
being fought, and veterans should be recognized for their service.
Although it’s taken 40 years, Triebwasser said it’s rewarding to
finally be respected and recognized, but he wishes things were
different when he came home.
“This is the first time in 40-some years I’ve ever been recognized for
my service,” he said.