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Veterans’ Voices Honoring our men and women in uniform By MARY DRENNON Special to the Tribune-Herald T he first time Robert A. Plumb III got into a firefight in Vietnam, a bullet hit his metal helmet, causing it to bounce and cut his forehead. It was enough to drive home the fact that he could be killed. Plumb was a long way from his Circleville, Kansas, home. Born in Holton, Kansas, Plumb grew up on a farm in Circleville where they raised everything from cattle and hogs to corn and milo. He remembers when he was young and tractors took over the farm; his grandfather refused to switch and continued to use horses. Plumb graduated from Circleville High School in May 1966 and spent the next couple of years working on the farm, driving a truck for Kansas Power & Light and drag racing in his spare time. U.S. ARMY He was drafted into the U.S. Army in October 1968. “Starting in 1965, they just started picking them like chickens,” Plumb said of the draftees. Plumb was sure he would be sent home due to his poor eyesight, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, he was sent to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for his basic training. Advanced training for prop and rotor mechanics of helicopters and fixed-winged aircraft took place at Fort Eustis, Virginia. By this time, he was an E-4. He briefly attended Officers Candidate School but dropped out when he discovered he’d be sent to Vietnam in the Infantry as a military officer, an idea for which he didn’t care. Instead, he went directly to Vietnam. But Plumb had a plan. He figured by the time his year was up in Vietnam, it would be almost time for him to go home. Plumb flew to Alaska, Japan and Thailand before arriving in Saigon in November 1968. “That was interesting,” he said. They were fired upon as soon as they landed. Plumb dove under a building. From Saigon, Plumb was sent to Phu Loi in Southern Vietnam with the 539th Transportation Co. Phu Loi became their home base. It was a general support battalion, meaning they handled everything themselves internally, from driving trucks to supplying water. Plumb, who had worked for a grain company and had a commercial trucking license, was often tasked to drive trucks when he wasn’t doing his duties as an aviation mechanic crew chief. He even served as door gunner on CH-47s and Huey helicopters. “We had some 20 different aircraft in our unit,” Plumb said. “We had to prioritize pilots and gunners for aircraft.” It also helped that you made extra money for flying. Another task was guard duty. Each battalion had a perimeter to protect and Plumb would take his turn at guard duty. His scariest moment was on duty one night Photo by Mary Drennon Robert A. Plumb III served in the U.S. Army, as an aviation mechanic squad leader, during Vietnam. when he was up in the guard tower. “One of the tricks (of the enemy) was to try and bring the tower down. We came under fire and had to defend ourselves,” he said. Plumb said soldiers didn’t always take things seriously, such as the time two women were caught trying to destroy communication wires. Some of the soliders laughed about it. When he got into that first firefight and cut his forehead, that’s when he realized how serious it was. “It helped me realize I could be killed,” Plumb said. “I knew the war was serious, but I had never killed a human being before. But if you want to go home, it’s either them or you.” Plumb said even the children were involved in the war and could be quite dangerous. Children as young as 10, 11 and 12 would carry machine guns and rifles and knew how to use them. Once, tragically, when soldiers were transporting ammo, they came across a child in a tree with an AK-47, shooting at the them. They had no choice but to fire back. “Life doesn’t mean to them what it means to us,” Plumb said. “It’s like you went 100 years back in time.” 574 Youngblood Road, Waco, Texas, 76706 • 254.662.5571 • JRoof.com That included the lifestyle. Many times, Plumb said, the locals would take anything a GI would throw out and make some astounding things with it, such as a beer can house. “It was amazing to see the stuff they did with what you threw out,” he said. In addition, soldiers, like Plumb, spent some of their own money on clothes, cigarettes and more for the locals to help out. While in Vietnam, Plumb also was exposed to Agent Orange from both the ground and the air. The men would wash the helicopters in their shorts because it was so hot, and the coating of the Agent Orange got all over them. No one knew at the time it was a problem. But, it would cause him serious problems later in life. Next week: Plumb survives Vietnam and goes to Germany. He later worked for the VA until his health took a turn for the worse. “Veterans’ Voices,” featuring stories about Central Texas veterans, publishes every Sunday. To suggest a story about a Central Texas veteran, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.“Veterans’ Voices” is proudly sponsored by Johnson Roofing. At Johnson Roofing, we believe in America and proudly stand behind the men and women of our armed forces.