It was 1968 in Hue-Phu Bai, South Vietnam. My grandfather had just graduated from college and enlisted in the U.S. Army as the northern Vietnamese were spreading communist values throughout southern Vietnam. My grandfather, James Moore, a 22-year-old from Connecticut, was stationed right in the middle of it all.
The A Shau Valley was an entry point for communists to cross into southern Vietnam—for my grandfather, also the location on his base. The landscape consisted of hills and mountains, cleared rainforests, and dirt. His job was to cover for the men who would stop the communists from entering. He shot large guns, dubbed “one-five-fives,” a nickname for 155 millimeter howitzers that could shoot up to seven miles away. From their base in the mountains, my grandfather and the others were instructed where to aim and fire. He shot at the northern communists to prevent them from entering unseen into southern Vietnam.
My grandfather also spoke about the surprise night attacks, but he shared few details—only that the Vietcong approached the barbed wire and tossed grenades onto the base, causing destruction. Mostly, they aimed for the cannons and guns rather than the men, as the guns were more dangerous.
Nearly five decades after his service, I was in second grade. My school assignment was to speak to a veteran family member about his or her service and share with the class. I spoke with my grandfather and was thrilled to have the chance not only to spend time with him, but also to learn about his service. At seven years old, it was difficult to speak with veterans—even my grandfather. I was afraid I would ask the wrong questions.
He told me about going to war and showed me pictures from his time in the military. He showed me his uniform and explained that he fought in the Vietnam War. I left his house utterly confused and with little understanding of what his actual service was. I was too young to comprehend what he was saying. Because I didn’t understand, I didn’t ask him to come to speak with my class—a decision I would regret. I was left feeling guilty about not being able to understand.
In middle school, I wanted to truly understand my grandfather’s service. I still had so many questions. What did he do? Where was he stationed? What was the Vietnam War? How old was he when he served? What was the importance of his role? What was the impact of his role on him and on the war?
But this time, I was mature enough to understand, though I still lacked general information about war. I needed answers.
During eighth grade, my perception of war was how Hollywood portrayed it: blood and death, and bullets and bombs. I knew the military had branches—Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard—but that’s about it. I didn’t know there were different jobs within those branches. Movies only show the fighting, never the roles that don’t involve action, so there is never any education, and the viewer’s perception of war becomes skewed.
That is exactly what happened to me. No one ever tried to explain what that fighting meant or what went on without the fighting or what the impact was on a person or on a nation. When my grandfather informed me that he had been in the artillery, I had no idea what that meant.
After eighth grade, I knew that service was much more than fighting. Yes, there are infantrymen, but there are also lawyers, engineers, doctors, linguists, and more. I also have learned about the impact service has on veterans, about post-traumatic stress disorder but also the relationships formed in war. I learned how some individuals’ experiences involved traveling around new countries and interacting with the local communities, while others were stationed on ships and their roles were to fix mechanical issues. Some people are doctors and never see fighting, while others are always surrounded by it. Some veterans have long-term negative effects and memories from their service, but others who served differently may not feel the effects of war.
More recently, after learning about war, I went to speak with my grandfather. We went into the basement and he broke out old boxes and uniforms.They covered the floor and couch and chair cushions—we were surrounded by pins for recognition of service, and the hat he wore while serving, as well as many pictures of his living space, the guns he loaded, the Hue-Phu Bai mountains. And old water-stained professional documents. As he went through them with me, he talked.
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To avoid being drafted and getting stuck with a role he didn’t want, he joined the Army after college in 1967. He started in Officer Candidate School but quickly dropped out as he “could not stand OCS.” He then went to artillery school at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, ranking as a private E1. There he learned about all kinds of guns: what types there were, how to load them, what they did, and more. He said artillery training was like going to school all over again.
“They brought you all sorts of torture,” he said about the officers.
Every day, they would run five miles up and down the same hill; they had to eat square meals; and everyone got the same basic training until they got to advanced training specific to their roles. My grandfather did not enjoy getting harassed and belittled by the officers. When he told me this he chuckled, as he obviously did not enjoy it then, but he does look back at it with fond memories.
After six months at Fort Sill, he went to the mountains of Hue-Phu Bai for 11 months. It was humid except on the higher-up mountains. The soldiers worked at the base in just their boots and pants to combat the heat. With the mountains having a jungle-like terrain, it was hard to shoot clearly. So the engineers would clear enough for the soldiers to see. The climate was dry and sandy at the base. The soldiers had to dig their shelters and carry water for showers, and they only received one hot meal a day.
My grandfather worked in the gun crew for 45 days. He helped figure out which fuses to use, and loaded and fired the guns. After the gun crew, he joined the Fire Direction and Control Center. My grandfather’s role was as the chart operator. When the team was told to direct fire to a specific point, he confirmed and located the coordinates using maps. He found the angle and direction to aim using slide rulers, protractors, math, and more.
This vital job stopped the soldiers from firing at the wrong location, missing the target, and hitting a surrounding village or area. While this all sounded scary to me, my grandfather spoke with pride.
I asked him about the best part of his service.
“Everybody looked out for each other,” he said. “No matter where you were from, everyone was brothers.”
I recalled learning about this from the veterans who came to our classroom—the bonds of war and friendship.
My grandfather also seemed excited about other stories, the ones not about fighting. He grew close with the men he served with, he said, explaining that they worked together 12 hours on and then slept 12 hours off. He proudly showed me pictures of the living spaces they built from sandbags and boxes. They worked hard for what they had, he told me. In every picture, he smiled.
He likes to think about the experiences he had when he was not fighting, all the good that came out of it, all the hard work he put into his time there, and all the happy memories he made, rather than the fighting and shooting. When I asked him if he would sign up again, he said he would if there was a draft but not if there wasn’t a draft.
As my knowledge of war service and its impact still needs expanding, I am grateful that I am better able to understand my grandfather’s service. I now know what he did and how it was impactful and important to the war. I also better understand what the Vietnam War was about. I was able to learn about the combat and what they did during “downtime.”
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But it also made my grandfather happy to tell me about the house he made from sandbags, the things he learned, and, especially, to share the pictures of his experience with me. It was important to have this conversation with him again once I was able to understand.
To write this story alongside my grandfather was amazing. To be able to tell his story from his point of view and incorporate my ideas feels great. Occasionally, he would send me a text explaining an aspect we spoke about or correcting an error.
To me, this was more than just an essay. This was a chance to connect with my grandfather again on a deeper level.