David Kampwerth takes down a photograph he keeps pinned to a bulletin board in his cramped basement study. In the photo, Kampwerth is seen sitting beside two men in their mid-sixties. All three are grinning.
The photograph was taken last summer in Dallas, Georgia. Kampwerth, now 63, went down to Georgia to reconnect with some of the men from his old infantry division: Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 16th infantry.
“It’s taken years, but now that we’re retired, we’re looking for each other,” he says. “It’s the band of brothers thing. We shared the same hole for a year and kept each other alive.”
The Vietnam War vet began attending military reunions in 2002. His first was held in Reno, Nevada. As evening approached, five men from his squad approached and asked Kampwerth’s wife if she knew that her husband was a hero.
“I never figured myself for a hero,” he says.
Kampwerth pauses and reaches down to pat the head of one of his hunting dogs.
“It’s hard to talk about it,” he says. “We were crying just seeing each other, the bond was as strong as ever. What you don’t remember, they do.”
Kampwerth still lives on the family farm outside of Highland, Illinois where he grew up, one of 16 children. He remembers what it was like in the 1960s as a high school student.
“We felt it was our duty to fight,” he says. “Kennedy and LBJ were talking about stopping the spread of communism. A lot of people didn’t like LBJ, but I did.”
Kampwerth’s father served in World War II in Italy, and his father-in-law fought at the Battle of the Bulge. “Dad didn’t like talking about the war,” he says. “At least not till I came back from Vietnam. Vets can talk to each other because they have that in common.”
Kampwerth graduated from high school in 1965. For the next six months, he worked on the farm and on the assembly line at a local electronics plant. But he and his friends were just biding their time. “We knew if we weren’t going to college we were going to Nam.”
Shortly after his eighteenth birthday, his draft notice arrived in the mail. Kampwerth said goodbye to his mother and father and boarded a Greyhound bus to Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training. After that, it was off to Ft. Polk for infantry training.
The next stop was Vietnam.
Kampwerth was quickly promoted to squad leader. His company operated mostly in the Iron Triangle, a Viet Cong stronghold known for its hundreds of miles of tunnels just 25 miles from Saigon. His squad mostly “sealed villages” and provided security for convoys rolling north from Saigon.
It was hazardous work. “We’d get shot at once in a while and hit the ground and laugh like hell we were so nervous.”
Kampwerth replaces the photograph on the bulletin board. “When I got there I joined eleven other guys. After a year, there were eight of us left. The rest went home in body bags.”
By 1966, the Army had had enough and decided to put an end to the VC’s network of tunnels. To that end, allied forces launched three search-and-destroy operations during the dry season of 1966-67: Operation Attleboro, Operation Cedar Falls, and Operation Junction City.
One day in October of 1967, Kampwerth was walking point, leading a patrol down a jungle trail, when they walked into an ambush. The Viet Cong popped out of a tunnel and opened fire from both sides of the trail. “We had to shoot our way out,” he recalls. Kampwerth was wounded. A piece of shrapnel from a grenade went through his hand and through the stock of his rifle. Kampwerth, however, kept fighting until his men were out of harm’s way. All eight soldiers made it out okay.
“I guess that’s why they called me a hero,” he laughs.
Cedar Falls lasted 19 days. In the end, 72 Americans and 720 V.C. were killed. The allies never did manage to drive the enemy out of the Iron Triangle nor did they completely destroy the network of tunnels.
WHEN KAMPWERTH returned home in 1968, he went back to work on the family farm. He got his old job back at the electronics plant, too, and there he met his future wife Barbara. They will celebrate their fortieth anniversary this year.
Like most Vietnam vets, Kampwerth still feels a tinge of bitterness at the way he and his brothers were treated when they returned home from the war. That feeling returns when he sees returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans being treated like heroes. “I don’t begrudge them anything…” He shakes his head slowly, unable to finish the thought.
“Nobody really understands a veteran unless they are one,” he says. “They have no idea what we’ve been through. So many of those young boys never got to grow up. I saw guys gored by water buffalo, I saw guys get their legs blown off by mines, I saw rescue helicopters crash. But we were a band of brothers. We looked out for each other. That’s why we get together today. I can’t remember my captains’ names, but I will never forget the guys who were with me.”
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