LEB: “I don’t know about any best memories in Vietnam. I had some worse memories in Vietnam.”

What is your birth year?

1945. 

How old are you?

I guess that makes me 72.

What branch of the United States Armed Forces did you serve in?

US Army, Corps of Engineers.

What was your rank?

I retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.

Where were you born?

Portland, Oregon.

Do you have any siblings?

I had three brothers, and a cousin that lived with me, and two sisters.

You grew up during the ’60s. I like to ask about the social movements happening during childhood; you grew up during the era of the Civil Rights movement. Do you have any memories of this?

I can just recall some times when I was a small kid, and I used to go downtown with my mom to the clothing sales stores there- Lipman and Wolff, Meyer and Franks; they had up signs- “Colored Only” for bathrooms here, drinking fountains “White Only”. That was in my early childhood; I was only probably five, six years old, but I remember going into the stores and seeing those signs, and not really understanding what they were all about, at that young age. I ran into early prejudiced comments from many of the white folks that were in the area. Mainly, they were from places like Germany and old Franken Europe. I was born just after the war, so there were a lot of people that came over after the war into the United States. I think by the time they got to Portland, Oregon, and Washington, it was probably late in the season. Mostly, I think they all came through New York, and they all had to get processed through the immigration department back there, and all that stuff. It was probably sometime before they got out here to the West Coast. I can remember at times, when I was going to school, and people would yell at me, and tell me to, “Go back home to Africa, where you came from.” I used to hear that a lot. I never could understand it, because I didn’t think I was from Africa. I was born here, so I got no roots to Africa. Today, my brother lives in Africa; he’s been going to Africa since ’94, but I don’t need to go visit him. He’s asked me to come and visit him many times, but what do I need to go to Africa for? I don’t know anybody in Africa; I don’t care about you, you’re my brother! Anyway, just things growing up here, in Oregon. The schools I went to- initially I was in a school that was basically 90% black, and maybe 10% other. All my teachers that I had were white, anyway; I never had any problems with my teachers, and I never got in trouble in school. I was a pretty good student. I guess that’s because I did what the teachers told me to do.

What schools did you attend?

I started out at Holiday Grade School, in kindergarten, which is down where the Lloyd center is now. I think I went there up ‘till about the third grade, until they built Elliot Grade School up by Albina. I started going to that school from I think the fourth grade to about the seventh, and then my parents moved, and they moved to an area where it was mostly white folks. I ended up in Irvington school, which was like 95% white. If they had that 5%, I don’t think there were many blacks in the school. That was just one year, and then I went to Grant High School, which was a pretty big school. They had a lot of students there- they weren’t quite 4,000- my entering class was only about 700 or 800 students. At Grant, I was voted my sophomore class officer; I was sophomore class president. That was the beginning, I guess, of my leadership career, because every year I was a student body officer at the school. I think it was based on popularity then. People liked me, and I didn’t have a problem getting along with people, so I ran for an office and they all voted for me.

Tell me about high school.

When I graduated from Grant, in May, around May 30, some guy knocked on my parent’s door. He asked for me, if I’d like to go to University of Oregon. I said, “University of Oregon?” My school counselor had asked me if I wanted to go to Harvard. I’m saying, “Harvard? Where in hell is Harvard?” You must’ve had good grades, then. I graduated with high honors; I wasn’t a 4.0 student, but I think I was a 3.7 or 3.8 student in all my classes I had for the four years. So, my counselor suggested that I go to Harvard, but I said that it was too far away. I didn’t want to go that far away. Then, this guy came in May, and I didn’t have a school to go to-  I was gonna go to OSE, Oregon College of Education, down in Monmouth, by Salem- but then this guy came up and said, “We’d like to offer you an academic scholarship for University of Oregon.” It paid for everything; I’m sayin, “If you’re gonna pay for stuff, sure!” My mom agreed; she said, “That’s not a problem!” And I ended up down at University of Oregon. I just met more people, from all different states now- I’m getting out of Oregon; that was a new experience for me. In Oregon, I was able to go to something called ‘Beaver Boy State’. I don’t know if they still have it, but you go in your junior year; it’s a government structured course. We spent a week down in Salem, and then they conducted elections and stuff down in Salem. They put us in Willamette University, in their dormitories- we stayed there. They had training and stuff for us to do, and I got elected State Treasurer. I didn’t want to do anything on this State Treasurer, but I remember the guys that were in this class with me, with the governor. He ended up down at University of Oregon as well, so I met him there and we had a nice time. I still talk with him, all these years. He went to the NCAA organization. He turned out to be a pretty influencal individual, definitely because he was in a place where he made a lot of money. He rose up from being the student governor in Oregon, and he was one of our star football quarterbacks- he always made the right connections. He was from Yamhill, Oregon. I hadn’t had an idea where Yamhill was located until after then. Now, I’ve been down there many times.

Were you drafted, part of ROTC, or did you enlist?

When I was at University of Oregon, I took [the] ROTC program. They were phasing it out, because they were phasing out the draft. There was no need; I was going ROTC, because if you had to go into the service, you had to go in for two years- might as well go in as an officer vs. enlisted. You know how things roll down the hill- whoever’s at the bottom of the totem pole is the guy who has to do all the work. My brother told me, “If you’ve gotta go into the service, you [don’t] go in as enlisted, because you gotta do all the work!” I understood that, and I took ROTC when I was in school, and when I finally graduated, they took me in. I didn’t want to go in at the time, but I didn’t apply for my degree at the time. I had enough credits at the time, but I didn’t know how many credits you needed- I was just going through and taking classes. My easiest classes were mathematics classes, so I took a lot of mathematics classes. I had enough credits in mathematics to graduate, so the ROTC department decided they were going to take me in the Army at that time; they didn’t care if I graduated or not, they were going to take me in and put me in the Army. I didn’t have any choice, so I applied for my degree and got it, graduated the next year.

How old were you when you were part of ROTC?

I got to Vietnam in ’69, so I think I was 23.

What was the weather like?

It was hot, hot, and hotter. When it rained, it would only rain for about twenty minutes, in the afternoon. That was about it. I don’t remember which month the monsoons were in, because it’s always so hot. I mean, you’re sweating all the time, and I think I lost weight over there. I wore a size 28 pant, and an extra small shirt, because I was the littlest guy over there. We’d play in the company area, outside Da Nang- that was our headquarters. Each unit had a place they’d go out, where they were working with the local government people. I ended up with a Vietnamese interpreter; first, I had an American interpreter, and I’d go out in the field and do work, but my American interpreter wasn’t able to keep up with speaking the language to the Vietnamese people, because I moved around so much. You’d go to different areas, and people spoke the language a little differently. They had certain words for different things, and it was difficult for the American. He was trained, but it was hard for him. I knew nothing about the Vietnamese language, so they had to give me an interpreter to do anything. Finally, I got an interpreter from Saigon- a Vietnamese sergeant who could speak very well. I ended up doing a lot of communication with the local populace about the people who had gotten injured. We had a status of forces agreement with the Vietnamese. In the status of forces agreement, it was our policy that if any of our soldiers damaged the friendly Vietnamese’s’ land, or killed their family members, the US would have to compensate them for their loss. I made a lot of payments; I was the guy who delivered the payments to the Vietnamese people, because they would all come back to me and say, “So-and-so shot so-and-so!” So I’d go around back and have to investigate what happened. Then I’d settle the claim for what they did, and give them a monetary payment. It was kind of a strange thing, because if you shot a water buffalo over there, you’d have to pay them the maximum amount of money. If you shot a human being, you had to pay the same amount. A water buffalo was the same as a human life; the water buffalo, to the Vietnamese family- all they had was that water buffalo to drag and carry all that they had. Do you remember how that was? 10,000 PS dollars? How many US dollars is that? I don’t remember. Somewhere near about 100 bucks. If you convert the money, it was set up in our status of forces agreement how much- if they lost a leg, we paid them so much money. If they lost a life, we’d pay 10,000 PS. They were happy to get that, because that was a lot of money to them. I had to make those payments, because I had to satisfy the parents that were there. There were always a lot of tears, when someone got killed and injured. It wasn’t bad, paying off their damaged property, but when it was a life, or injury like that, it was always hard. I didn’t have the same level of what I put on the life as they did, but I soon understood it by how the people live, how they move from one place to the other. When I went out in the field, it was just me and my interpreter. I’d go out and talk to the people; every time they’d have a party- the church would usually put the party on- I’d be there, representing the US government. I told my Vietnamese interpreter, “Hey, don’t let me eat anything I shouldn’t eat.”

Do you recall arriving to your assigned locations? What did you expect?

I landed in Long Binh, Vietnam, and ended up in Da Nang. Da Nang is where my headquarters were.

What was your job or assignment there? Did it change over time?

I was a civil affairs officer. I didn’t understand all that my work was going to have me doing, but I knew I was an engineer and knew how to build things. I didn’t have any soldiers to build anything; we had doctors in our unit, nurses in the unit, and then we had some enlisted personnel in the unit that drove the trucks and did all the clean-up. I was a supply officer at first, when I first got to Vietnam. Did you have any field experience? Oh, I had plenty of field experience after that. I spent two months in Da Nang as a supply officer, and just handed out the equipment and stuff to the new people coming in, and those going out. After two months, my boss decided that I needed to go out in the field. I don’t think they liked me, in that unit- at least, my boss didn’t. He was an infantry guy, and he’d been wounded three times by that point. That’s all he talked about- I wasn’t talking about going out and getting shot, that’s not why I went to Vietnam. I went because I had to go and do my service. I wasn’t meaning to go there and kill, kill the enemy. If I had to, I would, but the job I was in was one [where] I had to deal with the local governments. The people that were the mayors and the camp chiefs and village chiefs out in the field, in the area, those are the people I ended up working with. At the time, the US was pushing pacifications, and our objective was to win the heart and souls of the Vietnamese people, so they would be friendly to us, when our soldiers had to go out on a mission, so they wouldn’t tell the enemy which way they came out, and which way they came back in. A lot of our people- they would set up ambushes, and then they would come back and get set up in an ambush, and some would get injured, killed.

Tell me about any specific memories or experiences that stand out. 

The first day I got out in the field, my boss got killed. I just got out there around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and I met him. The next morning, some of our units got trapped by a sniper out on the field, and so he went out to try to help free them. We were back in our home area, so I’m sitting in the area where the radio is. I hear a call come in- “Requested Dust-off.” There was a sergeant who was answering the phone there; of course, he knew what he was doing, and I really didn’t- it’s my first full day there! I don’t really even know what a dust-off was, at the time. It was a call in for a medivac machine, because somebody had been injured. They called in, and they talked about how it was our major, who had gotten hit. One shot in the head. They figured he was dead, so they called in for a helicopter to come out and pick him up and take him back in to the hospital, if he had any chance at all. I never did see him after that time, because they took him into the hospital and he never came back. It was like, “Aw, man! First day out and they both get killed.” I’m sitting here, and I hadn’t even learned how to get through a day, because I hadn’t been there a day! I was thankful for the sergeant who was there, because he’d been there and knew how to operate the radio. He knew what he was doing. A lot of the NCOs would tell me in my training here in the States before I went to Vietnam- “Listen to your NCO’s. They know what they’re doing. Listen to them.” So, I listened to this guy. He was only a sergeant E5 CHECK, and I was a Lieutenant, but he asked me, could he do this or that, and I’m saying, “Yeah! Go ahead and do that!” Unfortunately, there were things like- any time they fired weapons, artillery fire, to help the guys out in the field, they would have to give them my okay before they fired, because I knew where our friendly forces were, to be sure we weren’t firing at our friendlies. I had to check our maps, of course, to see if where they were firing was okay. I learned the areas where we were, and where the enemy would come through late at night, trying to sneak through the wire and stuff. You wanna be ready for them. That event, of me losing my boss the first day, always stuck with me. That was just the first day I was out there, and I’d been there for 60 days back in a nice area- a nice bed, they even had a swimming pool in the cantonment area where the headquarters were, and girls in swimming suits- green grass! We were at this Air Force base, and that’s how it was. I never thought I’d see anything like that in Vietnam. I couldn’t understand that. Jeez.

What were the best memories of service?

I don’t know about any best memories in Vietnam. I had some worse memories in Vietnam. I guess when I’d go to China Beach, on the weekend. We’d get some time off, so we’d go down to the beach. China Beach is where all the folks went, and I’d never been on a beach that had white sand. I mean, the whole beach was white sand; you had to have on sunglasses, with the water and the sun’s reflection off the water- you really could not see much at all without sunglasses. That’s where my friend TBH was- his job to take care of the campground. I heard about China Beach all the time, when I would be listening to M*A*S*H. Same type of unit- Mobile Army Surgical Unit. That’s what it was.

Were you injured during the war? How, and any after effects?

No, I was fortunate. I didn’t have any injuries- I killed one green snake that was a deadly snake. I had to do that, because it was up in our compound area, and nobody wanted to go near it- nobody should’ve gone near it. I took a big rock and dropped it on it, smashed. That was the only time I did anything- I had to shoot sometimes, but that was when we were under attack. Most of the time, the Marine unit went out with our headquarters area on their night patrols and stuff. The only time I had contact with them was when they needed some support- some fire support or something.

Did you feel you were discriminated against because of your race?

I could see- the procedure they had most of the time was when you had about thirty days or less before you’re going to go home, they would try to send you back to the rear area, where you didn’t have to go out on any combat missions. Chances of you getting killed was less. It’s heavily fortified back there, so the only thing that’s going to get in is rockets coming in at night. Then, I find out that a lot of these [black] guys had come out of the field two, three days before they were due to fly out. The white guys would be back there for two or three weeks, back in the safe area! They could spend a weekend at China Beach, which was the place to be! I learned that the black soldiers, they didn’t get that same opportunity. In respect to what happened to me when I was there, I didn’t have the direct prejudicial stuff against me, except some of the NCOs would- I remember I had this one NCO who was from Georgia or Alabama. He didn’t care for me much at all, but he had to do what I told him to do, because I outranked him. I guess I didn’t have a big problem with the prejudicial stuff, because the way I grew up, I grew up with a lot of white folks. I knew how to get along with them, so I never had a big problem, but the Marines soldiers had a lot of problems, the black soldiers. They would end up, sometimes, taking the life of some captain out there in the field that they didn’t feel treated them right. They would just toss a grenade [when] the guy goes to the outhouse, and blow him up. They were all pissed off at this guy. I never had that problem, but others did.

How did you stay in touch with the your family and friends?

I think I wrote a letter home every day. I was married, so I’d write every night, just to tell ‘em, “Hey, I’m alright. Things are going okay here. No big sweat.” The things I was involved in- I was on my own. It really seemed strange- I’m sitting out here by myself, trying to do a job, and I’d see guys in other units, my own kind of unit- they would be like two or three of them, and the US guys would be all together. I was sent out to an area by myself and my Vietnamese interpreter. I don’t know how I managed to get through, because I remember one time we were in a market area. They always liked to try and drop a grenade or something in a market area, if they got an US people there. I looked over, and I saw this little kid. Might’ve been maybe 9, 10 years old. He had this grenade in his hand, set down to his side. I’m saying, “Look over there!” I reach for my interpreter, and I told him, “Hey, let’s go.” I didn’t tell him, [just said], “Let’s go.” I didn’t want to alert the little kid over there that I had noticed him; “If he drops that grenade, you and a whole bunch of other folks are going to get hurt.” I got out, and then we got out of the area. I had to leave my Jeep on the roadside somewhere. I’d always try to get these kids to watch it for me, because hey, I’m driving down the highway and I go into the village chief’s area- no telling what happens to your Jeep. It bothered me; so many times that I was out by myself, and fortunately no one got to my Jeep. I’d check back with the little kids I had there, paid them something- it was alright. Going out to these villages- I could’ve gotten shot any time. There were no friendly forces there. I think I must’ve been nuts, because gosh, I don’t know. That’s really a scary thing. I would think sometimes that I was always out without any help, because usually, when the US people went out, they went out in a group. They were going out to fight. But I wasn’t going out to fight anybody, I was just going out to make friends, and try to keep them in a friendly mindset. I know one day that CIA chief, from Washington, D.C., came over. He came to my area, and I got a chance to escort him through the area. I gave him my badge- the badge allowed me to travel anywhere in Vietnam. The military guys couldn’t go where I was going. The MP’s saw me and it was ten o’clock at night and I’m in the village somewhere- they’d see my badge and they’d leave me alone. I didn’t do that- I think I slept one night in a village where I could’ve gotten killed. I laid on this bed that was like a board. That’s the last time I slept in a village- it was so hard on me. And I had a bad back any way.

Why, or when, did your service end?

I actually only went in for two years; it took me 24 years to get my two years in. I was in Vietnam a year after I graduated. I’m a young buck Lieutenant. I end up in Vietnam, so I didn’t know much at all, about what I needed to be doing. My first duty assignment was in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. I was on my way to Vietnam; I graduated [Oregon] in March of ’68, and in March of ’69, I’m ducking my head down.

Did you have a family after the war? How did the war affect this?

I had a family; I have two kids. One was born before I went to Vietnam, and the other was born when I came back. I had a boy and a girl. After Vietnam, I stayed on for twenty more years. I was gone from here about a total of thirty years, from the time I graduated from high school and went down to Eugene for four years, and then I go in the Army. I graduate and have thirty days leave, and then I was on my way to Fort Belvoir in Virginia. I was there for engineering school, and then I got sent to Fort Campbell. There, after about five months, I went to Vietnam.

What was your job or career after the war?

I got hired by a communications firm in Washington, D.C.- actually, I was in the Pentagon, at the time. That was my last assignment. I worked for the chief of engineers. I got to be in the war room when Schwarzkopf was over there, fighting Saddam Hussein. My job was [to be] in the war room in the Pentagon, and when the engineers had a problem come up, they’d call back to the warm room and tell us what the situation was, and we’d come up with a plan of attack, a suggestion of what they could do. They made the decision out there in the field, based on what was happening then. I knew the guy that was over there, the chief engineer guy that was in Kuwait. He and I worked together, at the Bonneville dam. I was stationed here for four years, as an engineer, and I worked at the Bonneville dam. Why did you move back to Portland? Well, my mom was still alive, and my brother was in New York, and my other brothers were here in Portland, and my sisters were in Oklahoma.

How did your military service affect how you think about wars today?

I can see the necessity of the wars, but it took a long time before I could understand the benefits of any wars we were getting into. It seemed like about every 20 years, the US will be in a big-time war. I would not volunteer and go back to Vietnam for a second tour, because there [were] just too many prejudicial things that were happening in the United States, to military people, to black military people. I’d always been having a hard time; I was in a situation when I grew up that I could get along with white folks, with other officers I had met that were from the South. They had a hard time, dealing with the same kind of prejudicial things I had. I just knew how to deal with people.

How has living in Portland now shaped your veteran experience?

I’ve been having my business for about twelve years now. [Author’s Note: LEB founded a group that helps specifically Black veterans and soldiers.] In the first ten years, I was able to get about $13.5 million worth paid to the veterans here, for benefits, for their injuries that they received as a result of a war. Most of the time, I found the black veterans didn’t get the word as to what was going on. That’s why I started my own organization. I started that up by myself. It was hard to do, because I retired in ’92, and in ’94 I had a major stroke. Almost died. I don’t know how I made it; I was in the hospital here three months. I managed to get through that, but I couldn’t work myself. I couldn’t do my engineering work anymore, because it was just too difficult. It was so hard that the only thing I could do was volunteer, and help someone do something that was lenient. In trying to find someone like a black organization that was trying to help the veterans, I couldn’t find one here in Oregon. The guy said, “Do you want to start one here in Oregon?” “Well, not really. I’m a stroke victim. I can’t deal with work.” Next thing I know, about four months later, I was able to meet all the requirements I needed to start this organization. I don’t know, I tell ya- I wish I could turn it over to somebody about now. It’s getting tougher, because they always keep changing the rules. Here, they change the rules a little bit, and you have to keep read up on it, almost like you’re a tax person.

How did your service affect your life? 

Yes, it did. I guess in all the things I had to do in the military, being an engineer is something that I hadn’t thought about doing before I was in college. I took mathematics, because it was an easy thing to do, for me; a lot of people had trouble with math. I have trouble with it now, but that’s understandable, given where the damage was in my head, in my cognitive functions. Thinking, and trying to plan things out- very difficult. It’s very difficult. I wish that the military could’ve done more to help me, medically. To overcome that stroke. They do more now, for people with brain injuries, and they talk about TBI’s- traumatic brain injuries. That’s what the doctor told me I had, after my stroke. I’ve had some people this morning [at the veteran’s group] with strokes, especially women and strokes. They never thought about women having a TBI; they barely thought that men had a problem! I’ve had to deal with that for some twenty-some years, explaining to the people that I love that I’ve got this problem, and I don’t understand what they’re trying to say to me. I just don’t understand. It’s not that I don’t want to answer questions, or don’t want to talk, it’s just that it’s hard to do that. It’s tough. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be. I thought it would be like a piece of cake, once you learn the ropes, [like] it would be the same thing every time. But it’s not! These people come in, and they have a little different twist to their injury, and theirs happened a little different way- you have to look at how these things happen. Sometimes, people have car accidents. They get in a car accident and hurts their back. Well, that really obliterates your back problem. When it gets worse, you’ve got to show that it was a result of the military training or exercise that you were in, and [that] that’s why it got worse over a period of time. If you had some accident, a couple accidents, they always say, “Oh, that accident is what caused it to get worse.” Well, it’s hard for you to disprove that! If you’re in some accidents, sure it’s gonna show up in your back. It cuts the person down from getting 100% on his disability, had he not had those other injuries. Then, it would be clear that it was developed from that back injury in the beginning.

LENNY 1

LENNY 2

Author’s Note: This project was recently featured in Portland’s Street Roots Newspaper. Read the article here: http://news.streetroots.org/2017/11/10/these-veterans-have-lived-something-extraordinary-portland-student-listens-shares

This interview has been lightly edited for readability. However, to maintain integrity, and to respect the stories of the veteran, content has not been altered from the original transcription. This interview was originally recorded and later transcribed. Questions partially retrieved from:

“Guidelines.” Veterans History Project. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <www.loc.gov/vets/guidelines.html>.

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