Sultan veteran's time in Vietnam

Sultan resident Gerry Gibson still recalls the muggy heat as he stepped off the plane at the Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam in September 1968. Vietnam is jungle country ' hot and humid ' and the lush banana plantations in the south offered endless places for the enemy to hide.

Born in 1947, Gibson became an adult during an era when military service led straight to Vietnam. It was something that was inevitable, Gibson said, and it was an idea that filled him with dread.

"Nobody wanted to go to Vietnam,GÇ¥ Gibson said. "Not everybody came back.GÇ¥

He grew up in the Seattle area but often spent time at his parents' riverside property in Sultan. They purchased their Dyer Road lot when he was 11 or 12, and Gibson recalls spending weekends and holidays next to the Skykomish River, camping and fishing with his family. He and his wife, Bonnie, eventually built their home on that property, where they've lived for the past 14 years.

Once out of high school, he began attending Highline Community College, staying out of the service for a couple years through a college deferment.

He struggled with his courses.

"I was a troublemaker,GÇ¥ Gibson said. "I was not a productive person in society. The Army changed my life; it's one of the better things that ever happened to me.GÇ¥-á

He was drafted into the Army in March 1968, shortly after turning 21. He completed basic training in Fort Lewis, and traveled to Fort Ord, California, for eight weeks of advanced infantry training (AIT).

"I'd never been on an airplane before,GÇ¥ Gibson said. "It was pretty cool. I don't think I'd ever been out of the state other than we'd been to Canada.GÇ¥

Gibson traveled to Vietnam on Sept. 2, 1968, landing at the Bien Hoa Air Base.-á

Vietnam is a long, skinny country that's bordered by Cambodia and Laos to the west and the South China Sea to the east. The country became politically divided in 1954 as a result of the First Indochina War; North Vietnam was ruled by communist leader Ho Chi Minh, while South Vietnam, also known as the Republic of Vietnam, ended up under military rule. American troops were first deployed in 1965 to help support South Vietnam as they struggled against communist insurgents, who sought to reunify the country under Communist rule.

U.S. military forces fought soldiers from both the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC). The VC soldiers invaded the south by way of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran in a north-south direction from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, traversing through both Cambodia and Laos.

Gibson was with the first brigade of the 9th Infantry Division, a reconnaissance division that was deployed to the Mekong Delta area in South Vietnam, roughly 60 miles south of Saigon. Also known as the "Old Reliables,GÇ¥ the 9th Infantry Division was a mobile unit tasked with identifying which routes along the Ho Chi Minh trail the VC were using to get to Saigon.

Gibson first spent time in the jungles of the Mekong Delta. During the day, the soldiers traveled with interpreters through small villages, attempting to gain intelligence and learn which routes the VC soldiers were using. At night, they stayed in the jungles, quietly waiting and watching for the enemy to make an appearance. And it often did. -á -á

"They moved at night, and they were in big numbers,GÇ¥ Gibson said.

Warfare frequently broke out at night.

"When you've got a thousand of them coming through, there was some pretty fierce firefights,GÇ¥ Gibson said.

It's widely documented that the VC soldiers moved at night, and would travel in groups of more than 1,000. An Army fact sheet referenced the NVA and VC soldiers as "tough, ingenious, and elusive ' a formidable foe.GÇ¥ They had superior knowledge of how to navigate the South Vietnamese landscape, and relied on an intricate system of underground tunnels to elude American troops. According to military documents distributed in 1968, "The enemy's strengths stem largely from effective unconventional tactics, discipline and intimate knowledge of the terrain.GÇ¥

It was a combination of being in the right place at the right time and his ability to type that got Gibson reassigned as a clerk. Although he was still out on the front lines, Gibson felt being assigned to a mobile base was a vast improvement over spending nights in the banana plantations. -á -á

There were pivotal moments throughout the Vietnam conflict, one of which occurred on Oct. 31, 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson announced the United States military would cease "all air, naval and artillery bombardment of North Vietnam.GÇ¥ The president hoped the gesture would deescalate the war and lead to peace.

But for the soldiers in combat, the fighting got much worse, Gibson said.

"It was horrible shortly after that. I mean, you hardly ever got out of a bunker,GÇ¥ Gibson said. "Instead of night attacks and firefights, there were firefights all day long ' and nights. They just replenished so quickly. Because the bombing stopped, a lot of people got killed and wounded.GÇ¥

Gibson recalls the grim detail of having to stack the bodies of American soldiers who didn't survive combat. It was a few months after the bombing stopped that mortar fragments injured Gibson during a middle-of-the-night attack at his base; it earned him a Purple Heart. Mortar attacks were especially dangerous, Gibson recalled, because they came out of nowhere. Even in the black of night, gunfire was visible by tracer ammunition placed every fifth round.

Both sides used tracer ammunition, Gibson said; the VC tracers were white and the US were red.-á -á

"When you would load your ammunition, every fifth round was a bullet that had a little red tip on it,GÇ¥ Gibson said.

But mortars were tricky because you never knew where or when one would hit.

During his 10 months in Vietnam, Gibson advanced to the rank of E6 Staff Sergeant and earned a Purple Heart, two Army Commendation Medals and two Bronze Star Medals.

Bronze Star Medals were given for "meritorious achievement in ground operations against hostile forces.GÇ¥ Gibson was commended for his service in Vietnam.

"He consistently manifested exemplary professionalism and initiative in obtaining outstanding results,GÇ¥ stated a letter penned by the U.S. Army. "His rapid assessment and solution of numerous problems inherent in a combat environment greatly enhance the allied effectiveness against a determined and aggressive enemy.GÇ¥

Not all of his Vietnam memories are scenes from combat.

Gibson recalled creating barbecues out of 50-gallon oil drums, and the time he and his comrades negotiated a trade with naval officers; toilet paper for steaks. He traveled to Sydney, Australia, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, while on R & R, and at one point spent an evening with a friend stationed at the Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon.

"I couldn't believe they had flush toilets there, and showers ' real hot water,GÇ¥ Gibson said. "Of course we went out that night, going down the streets of Saigon, drinking out of a whiskey bottle.GÇ¥-á -á -á

He left Vietnam in 1969, completing his service in Texas. After being honorably discharged from active duty, Gibson resumed his education. He attended college using his GI Bill, earning a two-year degree in law enforcement from North Seattle Community College, and a four-year degree in police science and administration from Seattle University. He met his wife, Bonnie, on a blind date in 1970, and the two were married a year later.

Gibson got a job with the state of Washington, initially as a welfare fraud investigator. He moved up through the ranks to become the supervisor of a Medicaid fraud investigatory unit. He was then recruited by the federal government for a positon with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and attended the federal law enforcement training center in Georgia. He spent 23 years as a federal agent, the last three years of his career as an assistant regional inspector general.

He also was given the opportunity to attend firearms instructor school.

"Many summers I would go for a couple weeks to the federal law enforcement training center and teach new agents how to shoot,GÇ¥ Gibson said. "That was interesting.GÇ¥

Gibson said he's grateful for the way military service transformed his life. It was there, he said, that he learned the value of hard work, something that follows him to this very day. Gibson is active in his community and takes time to interact with elected officials. When Gibson noticed pollution in the Skykomish River recently, he paid for the water to be tested out of his own pocket when bureaucracy was moving too slowly, he said.

He credits much of his success to his military service.-á -á

"I guess I could easily be persuaded to be a supporter of every kid getting drafted or having to serve in the Peace Corps or the service for a year or two,GÇ¥ Gibson said. "I don't think it would be a bad thing, especially today.GÇ¥

Gibson is an active member of the Sultan VFW Post No. 2554, and he's currently seeking a board appointment to the Snohomish County Veterans' Assistance Fund Executive Board. The father of three loves spending time with his four grandchildren, who frequently visit his riverside home. He said he loves the beauty of the Skykomish River and living in such a visually dynamic area.-á

Veterans like Gibson will be honored during Sultan's annual Veterans Day Ceremony at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 11, at the All Veterans Memorial Wall in Sultan.

"It changed my life,GÇ¥ Gibson said, about his military service. "It may not work for the next guy but it worked for me.GÇ¥

Photos by Chris Hendrickson Vietnam artifacts courtesy of Gerry Gibson Gerry Gibson and his wife, Bonnie, in the kitchen of their Sultan home.


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