Sunday, December 10, 2023

War and remembrance

Staff Writer | March 30, 2023 1:09 AM

COEUR d'ALENE — Lew Allert doesn't talk too much or too often about his experiences in the Vietnam War.

"I spent a lifetime trying to get over what happened," he said. "I don’t try to dwell on it."

But Wednesday, which was National Vietnam War Veterans Day, the 79-year-old Allert sat down at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 889 in Coeur d'Alene with fellow Vietnam War veterans Bob Martin and David Morgensen and shared some of what happened.

Allert was 20 years old when he enlisted in the Marines in Spokane on Sept. 16, 1963, the same day as Martin. He was in logistics and stationed at Phu Bai Combat Base in Central Vietnam, serving from 1967 to 1968.

"It was a very traumatic experience," he said. "It caused me a lot of problems when I got home."

During war, he said his mind overcame what he saw and with support of his fellow Marines, he focused on the job that had to be done.

"You don’t focus on the trauma, what's going on. You're too busy doing something else," Allert said. "Until several years later, when the mind starts releasing stuff you did. That's when it becomes very traumatic."

Later, he worked in burial detail.

"That was traumatic, dealing with families," he said.

Allert left the military in 1968 and returned home, which was a wheat farm in Adams County, Wash. He couldn't afford college, so he worked.

"I didn’t like people then," he said. "I didn’t want to be around people."

Allert, who lives in Coeur d'Alene, said he appreciates it today that people show respect for Vietnam War veterans.

"People recognize them more now, what they did," he said.

David Morgensen is VFW Post 889 Quartermaster. He served in the Navy from 1965 to 1970 and served two tours in Vietnam as a combat salvage diver.

His responsibilities with a six-man crew included diving for downed helicopters, sunken patrol boats and setting up anti-swimmer netting in rivers.

"We were called for all sorts of jobs, anything that had to be done on the water," Morgensen said, adding, "as most people know, in Vietnam, almost everything happens at night and when it’s raining."

The 76-year-old was involved in diving for at least six helicopters.

"They seemed to fall out of the sky all the time over there," he said.

Morgensen paused. He said talking about the war "brings back certain memories that make me feel certain things."

"You go to war at 18 years old, you come home differently," he said.

After leaving the military, he attended San Jose State University and earned a business degree.

While many Vietnam War veterans spoke of being greeted with insults when they came home, Morgensen said that didn't happen to him.

"I didn’t tell anybody I was in Vietnam,” he said.

When Morgensen reflects on the war, he thinks of those who fought and died there.

"It upsets me. It wasn’t finished right," he said.

Living in Kootenai County, home to an estimated 18,000 to 20,00 veterans, helps. Morgensen loves VFW Post 889.

"I’m blessed to be around here, other veterans," he said. "This is a good community."

Bob Martin, commander of VFW Post 889, served in the military from 1963 to 1983.

He served four tours in Vietnam and has three Purple Hearts.

With the airborne infantry, he saw many men killed, and he nearly died himself after he was burned on more than 50% of his body when his unit fell under attack Nov. 6, 1970, while on patrol.

"I heard a click and whoosh," he said. "It could have been a flamethrower. My point man was killed. Basically my troops saved my life. I was on fire.”

He was taken in a medevac aircraft to a hospital and eventually back to the states, where he spent about a year recovering.

He recalled one time being back from Vietnam in San Francisco, standing near a bus top, when he heard someone say, "Hey, baby killer."

Martin went into the alley to see who it was.

"There was two of them and they both took off down the alley," he said.

Martin is pleased there is more appreciation today for those who served in Vietnam.

"I think it’s great to have a day like this for Vietnam veterans, particularly for combat veterans," he said. "Those guys should get special recognition."

Martin later worked as a police officer in Chicago. He said, during a psych evaluation, he was asked to describe his war experiences.

"They were the best of times and they were the worst of times," he answered.

"Is that Bob Martin?" came a response.

"No," Martin answered. "It’s Charles Dickens. 'A Tale of Two Cities.'"

Martin smiled as he finished the story.

"I got that psych to laugh a little bit."

This story has been updated to reflect the following correction:

Bob Martin served 20 years in the military, not the Marines.

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