Vietnam ‘anything but conventional warfare’ for Canuck

Vietnam ‘anything but conventional warfare’ for Canuck.

Before the aircraft even touched ground in Vietnam it was being shot at.

That sense of foreboding, on the flight into Danang East, Vietnam, was a taste of things to come for Leonard Pellerin.

“I remember thinking if we can just get our feet on solid ground we will stand a chance,” said Pellerin. “Only a fool is not scared. You’re brain dead if you’re not.”

A Canadian born in Moncton, N.B., it was a family decision to move to the U.S. in 1951 that positioned Pellerin for the Vietnam draft.

By then he had extensive experience in the construction industry and was drafted into the Fighting Construction Seabees. His training to be a soldier was extensive and included gorilla warfare.

Pellerin’s journey to Vietnam started in Fort Providence, Rhode Island, on to Alaska, then Japan and finally Vietnam.

“It was the worst year with 10 offences,” said Pellerin of 1968.

He had only been there for a few days when their camp was targeted every night for a week. It was hard to know who they were fighting because in the light of day they all looked like farmers, said Pellerin. If one was killed they were immediately considered an “innocent farmer.” It was anything but conventional warfare.

The role of the Fighting Construction Seabees was to build temporary bridges where a permanent one had been destroyed, construct buildings and dugouts. Sometimes the construction, that took place around the clock if required, happened under sniper fire.

Sandbags were of little protection when hit by a rocket. Pellerin was hit by shrapnel and noticed blood on his chest. One piece of that shrapnel remained hidden in his body for many years and ultimately showed up on an X-ray.

In March 1968 Pellerin was recognized as the “Seabee of the month.”

“During the past three months your performance has been consistently superior. As a crew leader … your squad had produced twice the work that other squads have produced.”

He served for a relatively short period of time in Vietnam but the awful experience still lingers more than four decades later. When he first returned home he’d wake up in a nightmare, standing on his bed punching holes in the drywall. Now there are about two bad dreams a year, he says.

On return to the U.S. there was a program to help them adjust to “normal life.” Pellerin spent three months in San Francisco for what was called “disorientation.”

“To learn how to live on the street without a gun,” said Pellerin, who did not find the “disorientation” useful at all. “To us it was just a joke.”

He does not believe the U.S. government ever appreciated the full impact Vietnam had on its soldiers.

In the hot and humid climate they were often in foxholes desperate for a cooling breeze. When helicopters came over spraying what seemed like a moist cooling substance they felt relieved. Now Pellerin says he knows that “cooling spray” was in fact “agent orange.”

“We did not know we were being poisoned,” said Pellerin, who in addition to having post traumatic stress disorder has had other health issues he believes can be directly linked to his experiences in Vietnam.

In 1977, after a recession in the U.S., Pellerin decided it was time to return to his homeland of Canada. He wasn’t ready though for people here calling him a “draft dodger.”

He is now 75 years old and living in Medicine Hat. Each Remembrance Day Pellerin and his friend Larry Brenner lay a wreath in Veterans Memorial Park very much aware of the personal sacrifice each soldier makes.

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