The Vietnam War changed the National Guard.
During that conflict, joining the guard was seen as a way to avoid the draft; during America’s recent wars, the guard and reserve made up nearly half the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
You can trace the transformation of the guard back to the few units from it that did go and fight in Vietnam. And ahead of the 40th anniversary of the end of that conflict, several former guard members — who are also Vietnam vets — met up at the Veterans Of Foreign Wars Post in Carmel, Ind., just north of Indianapolis.
Around a table there, they remembered their paths to Vietnam.
‘Find A Way Out’
In 1968 Bob McIntire was a college student in Indianapolis, having trouble paying tuition. When he dropped a few courses at Butler University, the draft board called.
“When we got done with the physical the guy there said, ‘you’ve got usually about 90 days to find a way out, if you’ve got a way out,’ ” he says.
Back then, the National Guard was one way out: You could serve without going to war. So McIntire looked for guard and reserve units. Most were full, but a unit in Greenfield, Ind., would take him — if he agreed to train as a paratrooper.
“I lucked out by joining the National Guard and signing up to go airborne,” he says. “It’s the only way they were takin’ anyone.”
But unluckily for McIntire, he landed in one of the very few National Guard units sent to Vietnam: Company D, 151st Infantry. In all, several thousand guardsmen — out of a total of hundreds of thousands — eventually were deployed.
Sent To The Jungle
McIntire says he was so sure that he wouldn’t be deployed to Vietnam that he didn’t realize he’d gotten orders until he heard it on the radio during a lunch break.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says.
Next thing they knew they were just northeast of Saigon, at a base in Bien Hoa. It was just before Christmas in 1968.
They were sent into the jungle in teams of six to set up ambushes until they were picked up by chopper pilots from the regular army.
Mike Slabaugh remembers a patrol in April 1969, when he traded positions with another member of the unit — a guy named Bob Smith.
“He wasn’t there for 20 seconds, he got shot in the head,” Slabaugh says. “And uh, we carried him to the chopper and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it was — he was gone.”
Four men from his unit, including Smith, died during the year they saw combat. Their guard unit was one of the most decorated of the war: Its soldiers earned 19 Silver Stars, among the military’s highest awards for valor.
Their experience is almost unique.
President Lyndon Johnson never wanted to call up the guard: Sending those units to war could turn the public against what the White House and Pentagon — in the early days — hoped would be a short conflict.
“It would publicize the war, it would make the war, economically, more difficult — two things that Johnson did not want to do,” says Andrew Wiest, professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. “This war was going to be quick — and quiet.”
But, Wiest says, after the draft ended in 1973, the Army had little choice.
Paving The Way For A Change
Gen. Creighton Abrams, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, wanted to ensure the guard was not sidelined in future conflicts.
“He felt that one of the great failings of the Vietnam War was that the National Guard was never called up, and the nation was never engaged,” Wiest says.
So the Pentagon began to knit the guard with the active-duty military; key specialties like combat engineering or air refueling are now built into guard units.
That unit from Indiana actually paved the way for what was to come.
“Been a lot of things written about the Indiana Rangers, because it did work — we were successful,” says Gary Bussell, one of the Vietnam vets at the VFW Hall. “But it was the first step into trying something like that.”
All of the Indiana veterans say they watched how guard troops and active duty soldiers worked together in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a small victory for the men sitting around the table, borne of a war they wished they hadn’t had to fight.