By Ben Olson
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final installment of our special series highlighting the stories of Vietnam Veterans living in Sandpoint. It has been an honor and a privilege talking with these five men about their experiences in the Vietnam War. I thank them and every other man and woman who served their country.
While he was growing up in Downy, Calif., Jeff Dunnum had aspirations of becoming a police officer. He hailed from a blue collar family. His uncles worked as lawyers and judges. Upon graduation in 1968, Dunnum set his sights for an administration justice degree at nearby Cerritos College.
“I was working full time and going to school,” said Dunnum.
At the time, the U.S. Military gave college students what was called a 2-S deferment from the draft while completing school.
“I was a stubborn idiot and said ‘To hell with this,’ so I went down and volunteered,” he said. “That took me to Vietnam.”
Dunnum said the driving force behind his volunteering for the service was because it was what he was “supposed to do.”
“Everybody was going there,” he said. “Either that or they were heading to Canada. I felt I had a responsibility. I went down to the Draft Board and said ‘Take me,’”
Dunnum was inducted into the U.S. Army at the end of 1969 and was sent to Ft. Ord, Calif. for Basic Training.
“Basic kicked my ever-loving ass,” he said. “But then again, they were breaking you into the way they did things. You didn’t have much of an option to like it or not. A lot of the guys that were having problems got moved out, then there were the conscientious objectors, they were moved to medical where they more or less became medics. They’d still go fight in combat, but they didn’t need a gun.”
Basic training lasted for 8 weeks, followed by eight weeks of advanced infantry training, which taught shooting, marching and combat training with equipment and weapons. With that, he was sent to combat in Vietnam at the end of 1969.
Dunnum never did get assigned the M-16 rifle, but instead started out on the M-79 grenade launcher, and a few months later was moved to the M-60 machine gun.
“It was so much fun to fire the M-60,” he said. “Every fifth round was a tracer, so the aiming was very intuitive.”
The M-60 weighed 26 pounds not including ammunition, which was a heavy load when combined with the rest of Dunnum’s combat gear. He also carried about 300 rounds of ammunition around his waist.
“You got used to it,” he said. “We were in the jungle all the time, sometimes under a triple canopy, so it was dark, too.”
Dunnum was assigned to the 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry, 11th Brigade, Americal Division of the US Army. Like most volunteers heading in country, he was sent in separate from his unit as replacements.
“You learned never to really get close to anybody,” he said. “We all had nicknames, but very seldom knew a guy’s first name. We called them ‘Kentucky’ or something like that, or we used their last names.”
When he first arrived in Vietnam, he was a part of larger company operations, then broke down into smaller platoon operations. Later, he was broken down into a smaller squad unit of anywhere between seven to 15 men.
“That was scary,” he said. “It was a such a small unit.”
An average squad had a Sgt., an RTO or radio operator, 3 to 5 rifleman, a machine gunner, an assistant machine gunner and a grenadier who carried the M-79.
Dunnum flew into Bien Hoa Airfield first, was later bused Long Binh, the reception center. After a few days there, Dunnum was flown to Chu Lai, the division rear area, and was later sent via helicopter to his unit in the bush. His firebase was San Juan Hill.
“The first thing I remembered about Vietnam was the smell,” he said. “It was a rotting, jungle smell. It was a whole different world.”
While he was part of a larger company before being split into a smaller squad, Dunnum remembers feeling he felt conspicuous moving through the bush.
“It was like a parade going down the jungle,” he said. “We were making too much noise, clanking, banging. We’d get snipered and stuff like that. We were just doing what we were trained to do.”
The area that Dunnum was assigned with his unit was considered a “free-kill zone,” which meant the rules of engagement were different than other areas.
“In a free-kill zone, everybody was bad guys,” he said. “You’d drop in and just start searching and try to stay away from booby traps.”
Some of the more memorable traps set by the Vietnamese were grenades set on trip wires and “punji pits.”
“They used bamboo stakes dipped in shit, and they were sharpened,” he said.
The sharpened bamboo stakes would be positioned in a pit facing upwards to stick into the unfortunate soldier who stepped into a punji pit. The stakes would be rubbed with toxic plants, frogs or feces to cause infections in those who were wounded by them.
Of the year SPC Dunnum spent in combat in Vietnam, he keenly remembers the fact that he rarely was ever at ease.
“You were always on alert, 100 per cent of the time,” he said. “You’d get a couple hours of sleep every once in awhile, but you would always be woken up for a watch or rotated out with the guys. You didn’t think about it though. It was the job.”
Looking back, Dunnum had a hard time placing where exactly his unit was from time to time during his tour of duty.
“You never really knew where you were at from day to day,” he said. “We were small and we’d get into a firefight and it would last maybe two or three minutes of total panic, then clean up and call the medevacs if we got hit, and then search and try to find blood trails, stuff like that.”
Of the dozen or so guys in Dunnum’s squad, he recalls maybe two fellow soldiers getting killed. He never had experienced a situation such as that before.
“But you were a kid, and when it’s panic time, it’s bang bang bang,” said Dunnum.
At the end of his 12-month tour of duty, SPC Dunnum said he had no reservations about leaving the combat zone.
“You wanted to get back home to all the girls and all of that,” he said. “The war was settling down at that point. For the last week or so, the old timers were being brought back in and the new guys went out. They’d just say, ‘Go get lost somewhere.’”
Dunnum said he felt grateful that his First Sergeant gave the old hands this treatment because a lot of men were superstitious about their last week of duty.
Along with the M-60, Dunnum carried a .38 special pistol his father had given him for combat as a “last resort.”
“I gave it to somebody else that needed it,” he said. “I couldn’t bring it home.”
In late 1970, Dunnum finished out the rest of his service in Ft. Hood, Texas, where he took part in training the next crop of green G.I.s before they headed off to the war.
“We’d kick the hell out of them and pretend we were the bad guys,” he said. “We’re capture them, tie them up, that kind of thing.”
Looking back to the enemy that they were preparing for, Dunnum said he respected the Vietnamese and their fighting ability.
“They were a tough bunch of guys,” he said. “Of course, you never said that when you were fighting, period, but after, you always had respect for Charlie. It was his backyard.”
Still intending on pursuing a career in law enforcement, Dunnum went back and finished school, attaining a degree in administration of justice.
“I applied for a few police departments, but ended up taking a job for UPS,” said Dunnum. “I remember thinking, ‘Hmm, I’m getting more money than I would be as a cop, I’m not getting shot at, not getting beat up,’ so I pretty much stayed with UPS.”
Dunnum began as a package delivery driver and moved onto driving tractor trailers for UPS, making it a lifelong career.
Adjusting to civilian life
“It took a little doing to adjust to civilian life again,” said Dunnum. “You had to tone yourself down some. You talk about being out in the jungle, doing what you were doing, compared to coming back and being society again, that’s a big change. The one thing that I hear they’re trying to do now with the service guys is readjust them before they get out. With us, we were just dumped out without any readjustment period.”
Dunnum also said he was “100 percent” affected by Post Traumatic Stress after his return. He went to VA counseling at times, but never found that it particularly helped.
After retirement, Dunnum had a friend who told him about North Idaho. He was tired of the overcrowding in California, and had always enjoyed the outdoors, so he came up and looked at the property and purchased it.
“Ten years later, I was able to move up here,” he said. Dunnum built a house just west of Dover in the Carr Creek area.
Dunnum’s girlfriend at the time didn’t want to make the move to North Idaho, so he left without her and found himself trying to meet people in his new home.
It was at the Gun and Horn Show one year when Dunnum ended up meeting a few of the men who were part of the Sandpoint chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA).
“I talked to them for awhile and said for them to sign me up,” he said.
Dunnum now serves as the president of the Sandpoint VVA chapter #890 which meets once per month.
“We primarily discuss things we can do to bring in money for veterans,” he said.
The VVA is a resource for any veterans to call on if they ever need assistance.
“If somebody needs help, we’ll discuss the problem and try to help them out,” he said. “Whether it be food or housing or stuff like that, guys that have fallen on hard times and need a hand, we’re there. We don’t limit it to only Vietnam veterans, either, we’ll help any veteran that gets into a bind. We’re there to help.”
As the Vietnam War grows further and further away from the present, Dunnum has noticed that it has also faded in our consciousness.
“At the VVA, we have very limited participation from the members because everybody is getting old,” he said. “There’s six or seven of us on the board that pretty much do everything right now.”
When asked why it’s important to help preserve the memory of those who fought in the Vietnam War, Dunnum said “it’s not the memory of what we did there, it’s helping vets who need it. That’s what we’re all about.”
While Dunnum considers himself an avid outdoorsman, he has refrained from hunting or fishing.
“I don’t kill anymore,” he said. “Instead of being one of those old guys feeding the pigeons, I’m one of those old guys that feeds the turkeys and deer around my house. I really enjoy them.”