ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – Like so many men of his generation, Vietnam veteran and Cecil County resident Al Louthian placed duty to his country above personal uncertainty.
When he arrived at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, North Carolina on April Fools’ Day of 1966, he had no illusions about the path ahead.
“I knew the chances of going to combat were pretty good. But you lived with it back then. The mindset was completely different than what it is today.”
He said he quit high school in the 12th grade and joined the Marine Corps to be different from his two older brothers, both of whom joined the Army. Louthian and his three siblings, including a younger sister who worked for the National Security Agency, were the first in their family to join the military, and have a combined total of more than 80 years of military service.
Despite his siblings’ established military careers, Louthian initially chose not to tell his father that he had enlisted.
“My mom signed for me; she had to sign for me because I was 17. Dad didn’t know about it. I borrowed a neighbor’s car and she went with me to the enlistment office.”
In 1966 he completed recruit training as part of Platoon 385, and was sent to Camp Pendleton in Southern California for Advanced Individual Training (AIT) and later earned his GED. He spent eight months in Okinawa, Japan for additional training before being stationed in Vietnam as a truck driver attached to the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion; the equivalent, he said, to an airborne division.
His military occupation specialty as a truck driver took him North to South, from Khe Sanh to An Hoa, carrying supplies. Louthian said that when he “wasn’t out in the bush,” he traveled in a convoy hauling ammunition and Agent Orange in 55-gallon drums.
During combat, units would call for more ammunition, which he’d move from the ammunition depot to a designated location. He also took food supplies to remote Vietnamese villages. He said the constant travel back and forth in dangerous territories kept him on edge.
“You’re constantly looking around, looking over your shoulder. And I was pretty jumpy,” he said. “You couldn’t walk up behind me and tap me on the shoulder, or I’d turn around swinging.”
He added that the Viet Cong, whom he and fellow Soldiers referred to as “Charlie,” were “pretty ingenious.”
“He had ways of making stuff from the things that we had, to use against us.”
Louthian said he experienced a few ‘close calls’ during these cross-country drives.
“One time I had to pull a tanker; an RPG had hit it, but it didn’t go off,” Louthian said. “Two guys jumped down, cranked the landing legs up on the trailer and the other guy pulled the pin. We were just about back when it blew,” he said.
“You did what you were told and complained about it later.”
Louthian said that when he wasn’t behind the wheel, he’d sometimes go on maneuvers with the recon unit. He recalled the ‘68 Tet Offensive as “a bad one” in which he lost a lot of good friends.
In late January, 1968, North Vietnamese and communist Viet Cong forces launched a coordinated attack against a number of targets in South Vietnam. The U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries sustained heavy losses before finally repelling the communist assault. The Tet Offensive played an important role in weakening U.S. public support for the war in Vietnam.
After the offensive Louthian said he ran into a fellow military member – an old buddy from high school that he said, “got shot up pretty bad” but survived. He said when he thinks back on his time in ‘Nam, he remembers most clearly the camaraderie shared between him and his fellow Soldiers.
“You had each other’s back regardless,” he said. “If we had a mortar attack, we made sure everybody was in the bunker. Even though it wasn’t your responsibility, you looked around to make sure everybody was there.”
But there were times not everyone made it back.
“That gets to you,” he said. “You learn over time that you can never get complacent. Once it’s in your head, it’s there. You had to go there with the attitude that you’re going to come home,” he said.
“A lot of guys didn’t.”
Louthian left Vietnam in 1969 after serving one tour. He left the Marine Corps as a sergeant E-5 about a year later at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. He said the chilly reception he received after returning to the states left him bewildered.
“Back then we were considered warmongers,” he said. “We weren’t really welcomed home that much, but we were there representing the United States, putting our lives on the line every day,” he said.
He struggled to adjust to life at home. He recalled an incident when he was in his hometown of Oxford, Pennsylvania walking around while a reporter interviewed him.
“The 12 o’clock whistle went off in town, and I jumped in a manhole and landed right on top of a city worker. I landed right on top of his helmet. But that was instinct; I heard the siren. And sirens meant one thing to me: get in hole; get covered up.”
He said when the reporter asked him to answer some questions about Vietnam he told her “I’m not the right person to ask.
“There’s lots and lots of things I don’t even talk about with my wife,” he said. “Most of the guys keep it in. Maybe that’s a downfall, but don’t give me a bunch of medicine just because I don’t open up about something. It’s over, it’s done. That’s the way I look at it.”
In the early 1970s, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) became the term often used to describe a variety of psychological problems involving readjustment-to-life exhibited by persons who have experienced a traumatic event. Research indicates that a substantial number of Vietnam veterans suffer from some form of PTSD.
“I probably had it, or have had it, or may have it right now. I don’t know. I had my mood swings occasionally,” Louthian said.
“My wife learned how to wake me up. The first time I almost took her whole chin off. She went to wake me up and shook my chest, and I came up out of bed ready to swing. Now she wiggles my feet so she can get out of the way.”
Louthian said he didn’t often discuss his experiences in ‘Nam with friends or family.
“I didn’t show emotion; never a tear. Not that you’re so hard that you can’t. But to lose as many friends over there as I did, it takes its toll,” he said.
Louthian said he turned to alcohol to help him cope.
“I used to drink quite a bit,” he said.
After leaving the Corps, Louthian joined the Army in 1970 to provide for his wife and family, and because he had grown accustomed to the military way of life. He and his eldest brother, Ronald Louthian, were stationed together as drill sergeants in 1971 at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
While there, Louthian and his wife lost a 10-month-old son to “crib death,” or what is now known as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
“They say it might have had to do with exposure and stuff from ‘Nam, but they never really figured it out,” Louthian said.
It was during this time that his daily drinking escalated.
“I was probably putting away two, two and a half fifths a day, even while I was on active duty during the work day,” he said. “I’d carry a flask, fill it up probably twice during the day, and then get done with work and head straight to the NCO club.”
He said his drinking was not a secret among his colleagues.
“I used to be the PT-NCO in the company, and they could always tell when I was ‘fired up’ because we’d take off running. We’d come back when I got tired, which I very seldom did. The company commander had to tell me one day ‘Sgt. Al, don’t you think we ought to turn around and go back?’”
Louthian left Fort Dix in 1977 and was assigned to APG as a driver for the post commander, Maj. Gen. Patrick W. Powers of the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, known then as TECOM. He was later assigned to the U.S. Army Ordnance Center and School as an instructor in the recovery area.
Drinking to cope
He admitted that by then, alcohol was beginning to interfere with his life. “I ended up realizing that if I wanted to [stay] married and continue my military career, I had to quit.”
He recalled the exact day he decided to give up alcohol.
“It was New Year’s Day of 1980. I offered my wife wine, and I was going to make a double granddad and coke.”
His wife told him, “You’re not drinking anymore. You don’t need to be drinking. I’m not drinking with you.” Louthian said he poured his drink down the sink. He had a few more drinks that February at a buddy’s wedding but said, “That was the last three drinks I ever had: Feb. 17, 1980.”
Today, Louthian is alcohol and nicotine-free.
“I’d probably keel over dead if I had a drink of liquor,” he said, but he conceded that despite giving up cigarettes more than 30 years ago, he still craves one to this day.
“That’s always there, I think. Doing it as long as I did, and as much as I was doing. If I’d have kept on, they [cigarettes] would have ate my lungs up.”
Later in his career, Louthian rotated between OC&S and Stuttgart and Garlstedt, Germany in the 2nd Armored Division at the Materiel Maintenance Center. He served as a Senior Tactical Noncommissioned Officer in the Advanced Noncommissioned Officer Course, as a sergeant first class and retired from the Army in 1987.
Post-military, Louthian spent 26 years as a civilian truck driver with the Tipton Trucking Company in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He recently had double bypass surgery after suffering his second heart attack last April. Less than two months later he had a cancerous growth removed from his lung.
“I got lucky; they got it all,” he said. “No radiology, no chemo.”
Louthian will celebrated his 67th birthday in December. He has four children, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with one on the way. He said he has no regrets about his military career.
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d probably do it,” he said.
Like any other war, Vietnam produced an array of veterans. When the conflict ended, some veterans opted to continue service in the military while others returned to civilian life. Some returned with life altering wounds – physical and psychological – while too many others, who never came home at all, remain among the Missing in Action.
On the surface, the veterans of the Vietnam War faced the same challenges as veterans of other wars, except for one glaring difference: they were vilified by American society like no other generation before or since.
Today, nearly 50 years after the war’s end, the veterans of Vietnam are in their 60s and 70s. The passage of time has cooled the tempest of indignation that shrouded their homecoming and an ambiance of repentant thanks thrives in its wake. Many still do what they can to serve this nation.
This article originally appeared in the “APG News” as part of an ongoing, multi-year series hailing the service members and civilians who served the nation during the war in Vietnam. Giving a voice to local Vietnam veterans, it is through their stories that we honor their service and sacrifice, and offer a long-overdue “Welcome Home.”
For more information about the series or the veterans featured, contact “APG News” Editor Amanda Rominiecki at email@example.com.