PENDER, Neb. | Just months after Gene Case got married, he went to war.
Drafted into the Army right before Christmas 1968, the Pender native became an artillery surveyor in Vietnam's Central Highlands, helping coordinate the placement of cannons.
“It was boredom 99 percent of the time,” Case said. “And then absolute terror for that 1 percent.”
Most of his time was taken up with building bunkers and transporting ammunition. He wasn't marching through the jungle with the infantry, but his line of work was still dangerous, he said.
Riding along in supply trains could be hazardous. Sometimes the brakes on the trucks would fail, so they would have to coast downhill without them, Case said.
“I saw people get killed by accident,” he recalled. “One guy from California got caught in front of the cannon while it fired, and that was the end of him.”
The weather was miserable and the living conditions left much to be desired, Case said. He can still remember picking insects out of the flour before cooking on base.
The war effort became a blur of endless work and staying aware of his surroundings at all times, day and night. But there were respites, too, and Case vividly recalled the time he visited a friend on guard duty on Christmas Eve 1968.
"We didn't get a special meal like a turkey dinner, oh no. But it was good being with a friend, you know, on a night like that," he said.
Case left Vietnam in June 1970 and fulfilled the rest of his service at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
When he returned home on leave, the first thing he did, besides seeing his wife, Vicki, was to visit a friend in Omaha.
“He didn’t recognize me. I was 65 pounds lighter than last time he saw me,” Case said with a laugh.
He arrived home just in time for the Fourth of July in 1970, but the celebrations on U.S. soil made him uncomfortable. The noise from exploding firecrackers triggered a by-then automatic alert response, though he said it went away eventually.
And he recalls the angry reception troops got from their fellow citizens when they returned from the war.
“I remember people would spit on us as soon as we got off the plane,” he said. “I attended military funerals, and people were hostile to us nearby.”
Looking back, Case said that although the war and the military consumed three years of his life, he wouldn't trade the experience for anything. He would later become commander of the American Legion post in Pender.
“My life afterwards, I think my time (in Vietnam) showed me how much we take for granted,” Case said.