For some people, joining the service is a calling. For others, it’s more a passageway to maturity, providing necessary discipline and direction for young people on the brink of adulthood. China Spring resident David G. Stovall, now 66, would most likely fall in the latter category. The military provided intangible skills he didn’t know he was missing.
Stovall was born in Waco, but raised in Austin. He was 10 when his father passed away from kidney disease. With four sisters and two brothers to care for, keeping the boys out of trouble was practically impossible.
His other brother, Jimmy, had been in and out of lockup since he was young. Stovall himself quit school to work, but found he was getting into trouble. “My friends and I were pretty much troublemakers,” he said.
Then, of all people, Jimmy stepped in and suggested he join the Army. He even took him to Houston to talk to an Army recruiter, whose office was closed for lunch. But across the hallway was a Marine recruiter. “I said, ‘I always wanted to be a Marine anyway.’ I liked their uniforms,” he said. That’s how he became a Marine shortly after his 18th birthday.
Stovall went for basic training at the Marine Corps Recruitment Depot in San Diego, California, to become a rifleman, just as every Marine does. His advanced training included more military and combat skills such as explosives, hand-to-hand combat, helicopter deployment, amphibious landings and more.
After the customary 30-day leave, Stovall went to the Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, a staging area to deploy to Vietnam. He wasn’t assigned a unit until he got to Okinawa, where he joined the Headquarters and Service Co., 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
He became part of a CUPP unit, or Combined Unit Pacification Program, in the Quang Nam Province located about 20 miles southwest of Da Nang. CUPP units actually resided within the villages and were paired with local militia called Regional Forces and Popular Forces. The idea was to bring together the skilled Marines with the locals’ knowledge of the people and the terrain within and around a village. The main goal was protection.
Rifleman to machine gunner
When he arrived in Vietnam, he was a rifleman. Two days later, Stovall, a tall, strong man, became a machine gunner on the M-60, replacing those who were rotating out. His first time out was a frightening one: “I was really pretty scared. You can see the firefights in the distance; I wondered if I was going to die on my first night there,” he said.
The Marines lived in native huts Stovall said were made of thatch and cardboard. They ate C-rations supplemented with rice and corn, but shied away from local Asian food. Although the villagers tolerated their presence, they were farmers who really didn’t care about war, he said. They weren’t overly friendly.
Still, the locals could be in danger from the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army, who would sometimes slip into the village at night. They were similar to today’s terrorists in that they had no qualms about using children as booby traps and sending them out among the American troops and its allies, he said.
Keeping watch in the dark
The men patrolled mostly at night, setting up ambush areas and keeping watch into the darkness. Once, they spotted a boat full of Viet Cong headed their way. Stovall fired his M-60 and sunk it.
“Nobody wants to be in a war zone,” he said. “It was so different than anything I had ever experienced.”
Stovall’s tour was cut short when he became ill. He was quarantined for a time because his illness was unknown. While he was there, he found out Jimmy was dying from the same kidney disease that had killed their father. He managed to get medevaced to San Antonio and see his brother a couple of times.
Once better, Stovall was to report back to Camp Pendleton. His 6-foot-4-inch frame went from 240 pounds at the start of his Vietnam tour to a low of 180 pounds by the time he left.
Jimmy, just 24, died on the day he arrived at the camp in December 1970. David stayed in the Marines for three more years before receiving his honorable discharge in December 1973.
He met his future wife, Rosemary Teer from Texas, who worked for the Red Cross at Camp Pendleton, and they married in November 1970. They will celebrate 47 years together later this year.
Proud to have served
“I was proud to serve, but I’m sad for all the men and women who lost their lives,” Stovall said of his experience. “I think it was a political war, and they would not let the military do their job and end it.”
Despite that sentiment, Stovall still believes serving in the military is important, especially for young people. “Every young person should serve because it develops patriotism, and we don’t have that today.”