By Ben Olson
Author’s note: This is the first of five profiles of men living in Sandpoint who fought in the Vietnam War. When I booked my trip to Vietnam, I immediately thought this would be a great time to give some attention to those brave men in our community that fought in this terrible war. I got in touch with a few men who were grateful enough to sit down with me. Here are their stories, in as much detail as space will allow. I do not censor my interviews, so if you are offended by language, please overlook it. I thank all of those who allowed me to interview them, as well as the rest of the generation who served in Vietnam.
Seth Phalen grew up in upstate New York on a farm. He grew up introverted and awkward—a scrawny, 140-pound teenager that wasn’t good in sports.
“I was a country kid,” said Phalen. “I couldn’t relate to the whole high school clique thing. In our school it was the farmers versus the kids who lived in town. I sort of exiled myself.”
Phalen knew early on that he wanted to serve his country.
“I was always so impressed by all the movies about World War II,” he said. “I was obsessed by this idea of a man’s duty. It was something that I thought I had to do to be a man.”
In the spring of 1966, while he was still in high school, Phalen enlisted with the United States Marine Corps.
“I grew up in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s,” he said. “We were indoctrinated about the communist threat. There were always these horror stories. I felt that this was my generation, my time, I needed to go out there and fight communism.”
Immediately after graduation, Phalen went through boot camp, where he felt satisfied that he became equal with all the other grunts.
“But I was a loner all through the Marine Corps,” he said. “All the conversation was braggadocio about hot cars and women, and I was a shy adolescent. I didn’t have any of that experience. I was just a callow rural kid.”
Nonetheless, Phalen’s sole purpose of enlisting was to fight for his country.
“What was the whole idea,” he said. “I wanted to go fight, to put myself in the firing line. I volunteered for the Marines, I volunteered for Vietnam and I volunteered for the bush when I got there.”
Phalen shipped out from California, but not before talking with some soldiers who had been in country.
“The old hands would just shake there heads and say, ‘You don’t want to go there,’” said Phalen, who freely admits that he may jumble some impressions from time to time.
“I’m not used to thinking about Vietnam,” he said. “In fact, I’ve only recently begun to process it all. As soon as I got out, I pushed it away all my life.”
The first smell that came to Phalen’s mind when remembering arriving in country was the “smell of burning shit from the shitters and diesel fuel.”
Phalen remembers the stink of the Marine Corps base, the gunpowder fumes, the godawful heat and humidity: “You stepped onto the land and it just penetrated you,” said Phalen. “How could you possibly function? It was just a forbidding, toxic environment. We didn’t go in as a unit, we were all just fuckin’ new guys. We all had to face the newness pretty much on our own.”
Though he desired to be a rifleman, Phalen scored well on combat aptitude tests and was given a job carrying a radio. In Dec. 1967 he was stationed at an artillery base where he would receive incoming fire missions and relay them to the guns. He also recalled riding shotgun on convoys and Med-Caps where he would help distribute medicine and food to villagers.
“I always enjoyed that,” he said. “I had very little interaction with villagers. We were up in the boonies most of the time.”
The artillery base was located outside of Dang Ha village, near the DMZ. Phalen spent five months there until an opportunity came his way.
“The attrition rate on Marine radiomen was pretty high out in the field,” said Phalen. “I jumped at the chance to go out there.”
Phalen became a member of a Forward Observer Team, working under a Lieutenant. He was originally part of the 4th Battalion 12th Marine Regiment, but while in the bush was attached to the 2nd Battalion 26th Marines, 3rd Marine Division. He had risen to the rank of corporal, and was now taking part in active patrols and search and destroy missions where he would call his own targets.
“We were north of Dan Ha, just a few miles south near Kan Tien,” said Phalen. “The big battle was there, before I’d been there.”
The constant barrage of artillery remains a strong memory for Phalen.
“There was 155mm, 105s, there was Naval gunfire, which was notoriously inaccurate, and fuckin’ air strikes,” he said. “A whole world of high explosives from any source would rain down on whatever target found important enough. It was surreal.”
These various high explosives reminded Phalen of the awesome destructive power available on call to Forward Observers, a power that he could dial up instantly from his radio.
While in combat, Phalen carried a PRC-25 radio with two spare batteries, ammunition belts, smoke grenades, frag grenades, extra mortar rounds, field gear, gas mask, entrenching tool, bayonet, sleep gear, extra shirts and socks and the AR-15 rifle. The gear weighed around 60 pounds.
“We were all young and strong, basically,” he said. “We had good chow and all the pills we needed, salt tablets and stuff. It’s just so hard for humans to operate in that heat and humidity. The biggest battle was just dealing with the elements; the country, humping, humping the shit.”
During his tour, Phalen remembers a general sense of futility among the soldiers.
“We had a job to do, and we were willing to do it, but we were caught up in the green machine,” he said. “There was no sense that we were really accomplishing anything.”
Phalen remembers procedures like body counts as another surreal part of the war.
“One of the absurd things we had to do was make estimates of body counts, killed in action, wounded during our target missions,” he said. “But because it’s jungle and scrub brush, and you were sometimes miles away, you could only see mere glimpses of a few people now and then. But headquarters demanded a body count, so we’d have to invent something.”
A nation at war
One of Phalen’s strongest aversions to the war was the atrocities that happened on both sides—atrocities that were consequences of war.
“I don’t want to impugn anyone’s sense of duty, honor or bravery,” he said. “When we were out there, we were always trying to do our best. But, there was a sense of not being able to separate the good guys from the bad guys sometimes. The common saying was ‘Nuke ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.’ But there was also a lot of sympathy for the Vietnamese people. I encountered a lot of racism and hatred, too.”
Phalen recalls stories of how American troops would take fire from a particular village, and later, they’d pass by and see the villagers face to face.
“The villagers were all terrified because of the Viet Cong,” said Phalen. “And then atrocities happened.”
Over the months, Phalen recalls a sense of futility building up inside of him.
“There was no successive taking of ground,” he said. “We just went out in the busy, got shot at, kill or be killed, come back, go out the next day the same place, take casualties. What did it accomplish?”
Face to face
Around nine months after he joined the Forward Observer Team, Phalen was on patrol with his company on a search and destroy mission. As the name implies, the objective of these missions was to seek out and engage enemy units.
“We got to our objective, whatever it was on the side of a hill,” said Phalen. “We were setting up our bivouac and digging foxholes and we were ambushed with mortars, just a huge, dense mortar attack.”
It was the closest attack that Phalen had experienced. He remembers he was down at the creek getting water when the attack began.
“You heard ZZZZST and you learned to get down,” he said. “I remember the mortars, it was like they were walking down to where I was laying. I could hear them getting closer, boom, boom and then BAM.”
That was when Phalen and a sergeant that was with him were both hit by the same mortar shell. Phalen was hit in the ankle with deep shrapnel, and his face and arms were peppered with shrapnel wounds. The man with him ended up with a plate in his skull but otherwise recovered from the attack.
“I remember feeling that extreme moment of terror, feeling like that next mortar was going to be the one that got us, but it didn’t come,” he said.
It was a screaming soldier that snapped Phalen into action after the injury.
“The wonderful thing about being scared is when you see someone who’s more scared than you, it takes your mind off your own fear,” said Phalen. “There was this screaming corpsman, so, even though I was wounded, I could still get about, so I helped him bandage up his arm and got him under cover, picked up a rifle and looked out toward the perimeter and waited.”
He remembers being in a total state of shock after the attack commenced. Twenty of his fellow Marines were killed. But overall, Phalen felt regret that he was now being forced to leave.
“My ankle was basically ruined, but I hung back, I didn’t want to go,” he said. “That band of brothers thing, it’s very real. You have to experience it. You bond with these guys and go through shit, you don’t want to leave them.”
It is in leaving his outfit that Phalen still struggles with feelings of remorse.
“I still feel these residual emotions of shame,” he said. “Why should I feel shame? But it’s there.”
When Phalen joined his outfit, they were just recovering from heavy combat. They were just getting back on their feet again when the mortar attack brought Phalen out of the fight.
“I heard stories later about how my outfit got into some really severe close quarter firefights, fights at pistol range, and I felt so guilty for having missed out on that,” said Phalen. “It’s weird. I know it’s dysfunctional, but it’s there.”
After spending a few days in a triage unit south of the DMZ, Phalen was quickly flown to Japan, and later stateside to St. Albans VA Hospital in New York. He remembers these days in a negative light.
“The hospital experience there was really traumatic,” he said. “There were lots of guys that were really messed up, guys that had got shot, that had colostomy bags, they were emaciated.”
Because he had less than six months left in the service, the Corps sent Phalen to Camp Legeune in North Carolina for the remainder of his duty.
Returning to a divided nation
During his final six months in the Marine Corps, Phalen began to see the effect of the war on his country. He saw a deepening divide within the ranks of the Corps on racial lines.
“Morale was so low in the Marines during this time,” he said. “I started reading about the experiences of the black soldiers, who had gone off to fight and come home maimed to the south and experiencing harassment and the same old shit. All of a sudden, it as a black and white Marine Corps.”
The feelings of grief and disillusionment built inside of Phalen. He began finding alternative ways to expand his consciousness.
“I started awakening,” he said. “The Doors were playing, Eric Clapton, the Beatles. There was a whole new consciousness coming, and I wanted to be part of that.”
Phalen got out of the Marines in 1969 and went to college on the GI Bill.
“I wanted to go out west, to canoe and hike and be in the mountains,” he said. “The means to that was to go to college and get a degree in natural resources and become a park ranger or something. So that’s what I did.”
Phalen obtained his degree and took a lucky job at Yellowstone as a temporary park ranger, later cementing a permanent post at Zion National Park in 1972.
Though he enjoyed the natural setting, Phalen opted out of wearing a uniform of law enforcement and returned to school at Utah State, obtaining a degree in Range Science. He then began his career in the U.S. Forest Service.
“Once I got established, it was a matter of where I wanted to go,” he said. “You waited for an opening and you put in for it.”
After working stints in the Kootenai National Forest and Point Reyes seashore, Phalen found a home in the Sawtooth Recreational area for 13 years in Stanley, Idaho. He was a GS-11 in charge of grazing and noxious weed management, as well as various work in botany and wildlife management.”
The hidden casualties
While he was still in college, Phalen experienced his first symptoms of PTSD. It was during an LSD trip that the feelings first manifested themselves.
“I had horrible hallucinations for hours,” he said. “I was going through this severe panic, the panic that became the experience of being wounded and all that grief and panic and feeling that I was going to die and figuring out that I wasn’t ready to die. It was an epiphany of the waster of it all, the futility of dying at a young age, the horror of my imminent death. It all came back to roost during that acid trip.”
A state of unrest dominated Phalen for the next couple of months, but he didn’t seek treatment because he was experimenting with illegal drugs. Over the years, he’d learned to manage the condition, but the episodes came back, progressively worse.
It wasn’t until a chance visit with a psychologist in 2000 when Phalen finally began seeking treatment for PTSD.
“We had a work function at the station to teach us how to work better together,” Phalen said. “There were psychologists there to help us, and we also had one on one interviews. During my interview, he suddenly said, ‘Have you been to Vietnam?’ and I immediately went to pieces.”
The psychologist turned Phalen onto some options to deal with his panic attacks. Phalen began taking medication, undergoing counseling and making regular visits to the Boise Veterans Center.
It is only in recent years that Phalen has come to terms with his experiences in Vietnam.
“Despite my best idealistic intentions, I was stung by the realization that I had only contributed to the net misery of that poor, strife-torn region of the world,” he said. “This was a painful load to carry until I learned the spiritual truth about forgiveness… for myself, as well as others.”
When he retired and built his log home near the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge outside of Bonners Ferry where he now lives with his wife Joyce, Phalen began turning over the rocks in his soul, searching for answers for what his experience might mean.
“I met a Nez Perce man one time who told me, ‘You need to tell your story,’” said Phalen. “I think there’s a call of duty to go to war, to protect my tribe, my country. But there’s a more important duty to come back and report on how it was, what I’ve learned from the experience, for the benefit of my tribe.”
Phalen doesn’t know yet what the outcome of his story will be, but he is determined to sort it out. He said he would like to return someday to Vietnam so that he may make a small gesture of repentance, respect and compassion for the Vietnamese people.
“I haven’t sorted out what I’ve learned yet,” he said. “I’ve forgotten so much, and it’s hard for me to think about it, but I feel compelled to tell my story in as coherent and awkward way as possible – as long as it’s honest.”