SIOUX CITY | Leon Koster's career as a teacher and school principal was interrupted by a grim year as an Army infantry officer in Vietnam.
Earlier deferments that had allowed some teachers to stay in their jobs had evaporated by the 1969-70 school year. In the critical time leading up to that point, politicians had begun speaking out against the war that generals contended was still winnable.
"They had to go into drafting teachers because they didn't have enough others to fill the quota .... They were hoping against hope that more soldiers, bigger numbers, would turn the tide," said Koster, 72, who still lives in Sioux City with his wife, Ruth. They married a week before he shipped overseas.
Koster said he didn't delve into his Vietnam experiences to inform his teaching after returning to Hopkins Elementary School along West Eighth Street. He rarely spoke about his service, although he was able to discuss it with others a decade later, in the 1980s.
Since then, he's often shared his experiences in college talks and Memorial Day events. He has worked with veterans of Vietnam and other wars as a member of the Woodbury County Commission of Veteran Affairs, duties he said he finds gratifying.
Memories rushed back for Koster recently as he paged through 12 pages of an album with about 170 snapshots taken in Vietnam. He pointed to fellow soldiers who lugged 70-pound packs through waist-high swamps in overwhelming humidity and heat.
Koster, a native of Hospers, Iowa, in Sioux County, well knew the key dates of his military service -- the day he was drafted, when he began stateside training at various bases, the day he arrived in Vietnam. Piercing observations about his service there are undimmed.
"I have a wonderful family, I have two wonderful kids. But there are days that go by that I don't think of the day I got married, and there are days that go by that I don't think of the day my son and my daughter were born. But in 45 years and three months, there hasn't been a day that has gone by that I haven't thought about Vietnam," Koster said.
"Every day, since I left Vietnam June 2, 1970, I have thought about the fact that I am a combat soldier of Vietnam. It doesn't consume me, I don't think it inhibits my development as a person, it just has changed my development as a person. You can't have experienced what I did for a year and not be altered by it in some way. War is such an unimaginable hell. It just defies easy wording."
Dropped into Vietnam on July 2, 1969, to join about 500,000 soldiers during a particularly heavy period of the war, Koster began counting the days of the full year every soldier had to serve. Everyone knew his own ETS, or estimated time of separation -- the date the 365 days were up. Some had calendars enumerating months on their camouflage helmets.
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Koster immediately gravitated toward people who had served many months, eager for tips to make it through the ordeal that lay ahead. Others had survived, Koster reassured himself, so he could, too.
"We are gonna live for 365 days .... The reason we made it was because we were driven to ensure the safety of our compatriots and buddies. That's what kept us sane, this feeling of mutual support," Koster said.
A sergeant amid many privates, for two-thirds of his year Koster was in charge of a rifle team with his 4th platoon. For much of that time, Koster and the men walked on patrol through triple-canopy jungles where it was often quite dark even during the day. They navigated areas that looked "like the face of the moon, a death zone," he said, after the Americans spread the defoliant Agent Orange to knock down trees and expose the terrain.
Every night, the platoon members dug a series of deep fox holes to sleep below ground and placed land mines, while three people drew duty to stand on the outskirts and nervously keep night watch.
"(That) was scary as hell," Koster said. "Some had to do it a lot more than I did."
Koster went through roughly one severe gun battle in each month he was overseas.
"War is quite often described as extreme boredom punctuated by moments of just hell-raising craziness, and that's what it is," he said.
Koster was never wounded, but he contracted malaria and was sent back from the front lines for a month to recuperate at Cam Ranh Bay on the South China Sea. During that time, he missed the Dec. 2, 1969, ambush that killed more people in his platoon than any other encounter.
Koster got out of Vietnam one month early, a result of being accepted at the University of South Dakota for an advanced degree. He taught and was a principal at six Sioux City schools before retiring in 1998, then was an instructor at Western Iowa Tech Community College through 2006.