(Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing series featuring the Vietnam War veterans of St. Elmo and the surrounding area. If you or a loved one served in Vietnam and want to tell your story, get in touch with us at email@example.com or (618) 483-6176.)
50 years later, David Cox sits at his kitchen table with his wife Peggy, waiting on coffee and considering the midmorning snack of donuts laid out on a patterned plate. But despite tens of years and thousands of miles between the past and the present, he still remembers the details of his year serving at Phan Rang Air Base: the battleship New Jersey shelling the mountain behind their base, medical clinics in riverside villages, and mortars raining down in the waning days of the Vietnam War.
Cox, now a retiree in St. Elmo and a member of the American Legion, started his military career when he joined the Air Force in the summer of 1966. He trained to become a medical service specialist, and worked in the pulmonary disease center at Scott Air Force Base after he finished technical school in early 1967.
For two years, Cox remained at Scott AFB, celebrating his wedding and the birth of his oldest child, David Wayne. He and Peggy knew his name was on the deployment list to Vietnam—he’d been given a deferment off the roster during Peggy’s pregnancy—but the orders that arrived on Nov. 12, 1968 were still hard medicine to swallow. “I was deferred through Nov. 11,” Cox recalls, “and the orders came in the next day.”
Peggy Cox, in an interview on Thursday morning, March 28, chimes in from across the kitchen table. “We celebrated our first anniversary with the news he was going to Vietnam.”
Cox was slated for a single deployment, assigned to the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing at Phan Rang Air Base in southern Vietnam, just north of what is now the city of Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm and about six hours northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon at the time). As a medic, his first assignment was to the dispensary, but he was moved immediately to service in the emergency room, where he worked for his entire deployment.
Coming into Vietnam only a few months after the Tet Offensive, Cox entered a base that had already been hit hard, and was still being regularly shelled. “We had mortar and rocket attacks pretty regular until March,” he recalls; Tuesday and Friday were generally when attacks occurred, regularly enough that some men went to sleep with flak jackets still on. After March, attacks came less often, largely landing near the airfield.
But in June of 1969, the mortar attacks shifted to the barracks and the base proper. Casualties increased, and attacks started becoming sporadic and unpredictable. At one point, Phan Rang went weeks without incident before a sudden mortar attack in the middle of an afternoon. Cox has been out on a patrol route in an ambulance, and was called back into the emergency room to help with the aftermath.
Recalling the incident, Cox pauses for a long moment. “When I got in, the floors were just lined with wounded.”
“You cannot unsee it,” adds Peggy.
Even after returning home, Cox remembered the many attacks on Phan Rang, experiencing the reactions and symptoms that many veterans now recognize as PTSD. At his first post-deployment job, a custodial post at a truck stop in Effingham, the sound of a slamming door brought back memories of mortars; the first time he heard it, “he came home white as a ghost,” says Peggy.
“My nightmares are not about the heat of the battle,” Cox comments. “They’re about the men we could not save.”
Even so, Cox has some fond memories of Vietnam, chiefly from his involvement with the base’s chapel and Christian Missionary Alliance. Chapel members frequently traveled off base for outreach and missionary work; Cox also participated in MEDCAP events, temporary field clinics for vaccinations, minor surgeries, and immediate care at villages of all sizes, Buddhist temples, and around the city of Phan Rang. At one point, chapel members constructed a miniature golf course for the children of Phan Rang, sticking around to play a few rounds and take photos with the kids.
Holding a carefully-preserved photo album, Cox smiles as he points out images of children crouching with golf clubs as if they were pool cues. “They’d never used a golf club. They knew how to play pool, though.”
Cox tells one last story, shortly after recounting the phone calls home through MARS, or the Military Affiliate Radio System (now Military Auxiliary Radio System), which allowed them infrequent calls back to the States through radio-enabled phone patches. Contact back home was slow and unreliable, and news came in patches.
“Someone told me about the moon landing while I was there,” Cox recalls. “We all thought it was a Hollywood hoax.”
Peggy laughs. “Some people still do.”
If you or a loved one served in Vietnam and are interested in telling your story, contact the St. Elmo Banner at (618) 483-6176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.