DAKOTA CITY | For a long time, John Ludwick's wife, Deborah, would wake him at night as he tossed in his sleep, haunted by dreams of jungle warfare.
“I was never a big dreamer before," the Vietnam veteran said. "After about 10 years, though, the nightmares went away.”
Ludwick was drafted, then enlisted in the Army in 1969. Born in Youngwood, Pennsylvania, and graduating from high school in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, he was shipped off to Fort Polk, near Leesville, Louisiana, to begin his military service.
In the Louisiana swamps, Ludwick and his fellow soldiers were taught to combat guerrilla warfare, preparing to fight in the jungles of a faraway continent.
Trained for long-range reconnaissance patrol, Ludwick patrolled parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and in Tây Ninh Province on the western edge of the Iron Triangle. He was stationed in Cu Chi. The area is known for the network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong.
“We had smaller guys in our squad to deal with the tunnel rats,” Ludwick said. “The Viet Cong would fill the tunnels after they left with cobras, bamboo vipers, nasty stuff.”
Life in the jungle was harsh and riddled with pests. People would take up smoking cigarettes so they could have something handy to burn off blood-sucking leeches and ticks, Ludwick said.
“I still have jungle rot on my feet and have to take extra care of them,” he said.
Facing the possibility of death in the jungle at age 19, Ludwick said, he would have to psych himself up to get past the fear by reminding himself who the enemy was and how much he wanted to survive and get home again.
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He likened combat against the Viet Cong to what soldiers encounter in fighting the Taliban today. His men would be patrolling an area, unsure of what was going on or who the enemy really was, he said.
“Combat was like an out-of-body experience. That’s the only way I can describe it,” he said.
When Ludwick left Vietnam and traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska, to see family, his first order of business was buying a Plymouth Road Runner. He still has the car and longs to restore to its original beauty when he has the time.
Eventually, he settled in Dakota City while working for Transcontinental Refrigerated Lines, helping ship trailers built in Wayne, Nebraska, across the country.
He also found work in driving cattle and fruit in trucks from upstate New York to the Midwest, then running shipments back and forth to the West Coast. He's a truck driver to this day, still hauling goods from one part of the country to another.
He recalled encountering anti-war sentiment when he flew into Seattle on his way home from Vietnam. No one harassed him for his role in the war once he reached the Midwest, he said, and he credits farm-family values for that.
“The hippies, they’d call you a baby killer and try to spit on you,” he said. “The guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan today, they’re surprised when we tell them how we were welcomed back.”