ALTA, Iowa | Don Fisher did everything to stay busy in Vietnam. It helped ease the stress, though not the constant fear, of being in a war zone.
Each day, Fisher, then 23, worked long hours building and repairing whatever the Army needed that day, laboring alongside his comrades in the Army's 84th Engineer Battalion.
Fisher was stationed around Quy Nho'n, a city on the country's east coast. The region was a hot spot, he recalled.
“You’re always scared over there. You don’t know if you’re going to die the next day or live,” Fisher said. “Our compound got hit a lot of times.”
The ever-present stench of death magnified the unrelenting tension.
“It stunk every day -- I’m talking about dead bodies,” Fisher said. “It smelled every day.”
The soldiers formed strong bonds with one another, he recalled. Religion, race and social status meant nothing.
“You’re all brothers,” Fisher said. “If you got in a firefight, you’d always stay together.”
However, Fisher perceived that African-American troops were sometimes unfairly placed in harm's way, such as being sent on solo scouting missions. The memory still troubles him.
“I had a buddy who was black. He got killed,” he said, adding that his friend was sent alone ahead of the group once. “What the hell was he doing down in that area?”
When his tour of duty was up, Fisher left Vietnam with mixed emotions. As relieved as he was to be on his way home, he didn't feel good about it. On his last day, he was relaxing at a bar when a group of his comrades -- who weren’t leaving Vietnam yet -- showed up.
Suddenly he felt sick to his stomach.
“I had the biggest butterflies in the world. I didn’t want to go home then,” Fisher said. “I thought about those guys; are they going to come back or not?”
He never learned the fate of most of them.
“It works on you -- you’ve been with these guys for a year,” Fisher said.
Fisher left as scheduled in May 1969, but the war went with him. Immediately, his life started to unravel. His marriage crumbled and he began to drink heavily, prompting him to embark on a two-year hitchhiking journey across the U.S. to “get (his) senses back.”
“My ex-wife said I changed so much. Well, if you go in a war zone, you’re gonna change,” Fisher said.
In time, he got back on track. He remarried and worked as a carpenter. He spends much of his time with his wife, Cathy, who helps out at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Alta, where Fisher is the commander.
“She got me straightened out,” he said.
Fisher also spends a good deal of time in his personal wood shop, where he crafts decorative plaques for friends and other veterans.
He still lives with the consequences of war. Doctors attributed a mild stroke in 1973 and a massive heart attack in 2001 to health problems resulting from contact with Agent Orange, Fisher said. The heart attack forced him into early retirement.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes coronary artery disease as associated with exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides during military service.
Decades after turning to work as a distraction in Vietnam, Fisher uses that same focusing ability to heal from his emotional wounds. He and his former wife recently made amends, he said. He hadn't seen her for 33 years.
Still, his views on the war haven’t changed. To this day he doesn’t believe the U.S. should have gotten involved in Vietnam, and it troubles him to see troops continuing to be sent into battle without direct provocation.
“When Iraq started I told my brother, this is another Vietnam War starting up again. What is it now? A Vietnam War. We’re fighting for no cause. And we can’t learn to keep our damn nose out of things.”