Vietnam War veterans share how their experience translates to work in North Dakota Legislature
Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake,; Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, and Sen. David Clemens, R-West Fargo, reflected recently on serving in the war and how it shapes them today.
BISMARCK — “It really gave me an appreciation of America, and coming home again,” Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Devils Lake, says of his time in the military during the Vietnam War.
Johnson; Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, and Sen. David Clemens, R-West Fargo, reflected recently on their experiences serving in that long, controversial war and how it shapes them today.
Johnson remembers his first impression of Vietnam. “When we landed, it was nighttime,” he said. “We knew where we were, but we didn’t know what we were getting into. I remember the smells of diesel fuel, heat and humidity.”
Johnson was part of the Seabees Battalion, a construction branch of the Navy. In his time in Vietnam, he worked as a mechanic in a heavy truck shop. “Compared to people who were out fighting, we probably had it pretty good,” he said.
Johnson says he served in Vietnam until 1972. “It was a war zone. I watched many refugees live in shacks with roofs made out of the ends of aluminum beer cans attached together,” he said. “Until you see these other parts of the world, you don’t realize how nice we have it in the United States.”
Clemens says he was in Vietnam for 11 months. Originally sent to Vietnam as an infantryman, he was selected during processing to work in a reenlistment office.
“Even though I was working in a pretty secure area, I did still see the effects of war,” Clemens said. “I would see abandoned children walking along the roads, and a lot of traffic fatalities. I would see infantry companies that had been out there for several months come back with the look of war on their face.”
Clemens says he was drafted in 1969 and discharged in 1971. “The military itself has made me a much more patriotic American,” he said. “I have no regrets serving, and I’m glad I got the opportunity to.”
Klemin says he served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, part of the 101st Airborne Division, a light infantry division of the United States Army. Klemin says he served in Vietnam for a full year besides three months he spent recovering from a wound he suffered in the field.
While climbing to the top of a hill in South Vietnam, Klemin said, he was wounded in a fight. “Grenade fragments went through my arm and my shoulder,” he said. It was not until six hours after his injury that he was medically evacuated from the scene by helicopter.
After his injury, Klemin worked as a company clerk at Camp Eagle in central Vietnam. When he arrived back in America, Klemin said his last duty in the military was working as a personnel psychology specialist in Cleveland. In his time in Ohio, Klemin said his team gave over 80,000 mental tests to men or women enlisting in the military.
“Well, I have a greater appreciation for life,” said Klemin, reflecting on his time in Vietnam. “I like things to be orderly like the military does, and I believe in following the rule of law.”
Two resolutions relating to Vietnam veterans have passed the House so far in the session, with Klemin among the sponsors. House Resolution 3007 commemorates the 50th anniversary of the end of the United States combat operations in Vietnam and the release of American prisoners of war.
House Resolution 3008 urges Congress to take favorable action on S 849 and HR 7972 to provide for the inclusion on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall the names of 74 lost crew members in the sinking of the USS Frank E. Evans on June 3, 1969.
Isabelle Ballalatak is a reporting intern with the North Dakota Newspaper Association.