The year was 1970, and Archie Albaugh was walking with his wife in downtown Colorado Springs.
A car backfired.
Old reflexes kicked in.
Archie hit the pavement.
He stood up, dusted himself off and looked into the eyes of a man approaching him on the sidewalk.
Today, Archie is 41 years removed that incident but remembers with crystal clarity exactly what the man said to him.
“Just back in country, huh?”
Archie, a U.S. Army lieutenant, had indeed just returned from a one-year tour in Cambodia and Vietnam, where he served as an artillery commander.
For six months of his tour, he and the men he served with ended up in firefights every two or three days.
“Six months of hostilities was enough to give me nightmares for years,” he said. “And, it was enough to make me hit the pavement in downtown Colorado Springs.”
In the years after his return home, Archie said it was difficult to discuss his experiences in Southeast Asia.
“When I talked about the war, I’d get so nervous and jumpy I’d have nightmares,” he said. “And my wife, for years after Vietnam, would see me twitching and all tense in my sleep.
“She wouldn’t just put a hand on me and wake me up because she knew that would be dangerous. So, she would get up, turn the light on, and call to me, ‘Archie, Archie, wake up.’ … I’d wake up, and sure enough I’d been dreaming that they were coming after me, or I’d had a machine gun and was blasting.”
Archie said those restless nights conditioned him to remain silent about the war.
That stance changed last year.
At age 67, Archie said he realized his long-held silence had jeopardized his legacy, and threatened to erase experiences his family never knew of.
One day, Archie learned his 7-year-old grandson, Noah Frier, had little knowledge of his grandfather’s time overseas.
“I asked my daughter, ‘Didn’t you ever tell (Noah) about what I did during the war?’ … She said, ‘Well, Daddy, you never talked about the war,’” Archie recalled.
The realization spurred him to act.
He spent two weeks writing a 21-page journal, simply titled “War Stories.”
The journal describes everything from firefights in thick jungles, a hushed incursion into Cambodia and mundane days in the safety of firebases.
Archie said he wanted his family of five children and five grandchildren to know a piece of their family history.
Having finished the journal, he said he wants other veterans to follow his lead. He’s found it therapeutic, and others might, too, he said.
“I’m sure there are plenty of men who ought to be doing something very similar with their Vietnam experiences,” Archie said. “It’s not just for themselves, but for their families.
“This is part of their family history that their children will lose.”
Of particular concern to Archie are the personal histories of veterans from older wars.
“We’re losing World War II veterans right and left,” he said. “We had a (Hayden) man who was a dear friend, who had met the Russians just north of Berlin. He was there for the invasion, and the European campaign.
“He just died, and none of his experiences were ever put to paper. The family has lost that now. He’s gone. The detail that he could have put down is gone.”
Archie’s story begins with his birth in West Virginia and continues with his move to Fontana, Calif., at a young age.
“It’s a nasty place,” he said of Fontana. “It’s the home of Hell’s Angels and dust.”
After high school, Archie traveled to Germany as a missionary for the Church of Latter-day Saints. He then entered a two-year junior college in California.
During his second year in college, the draft board came calling for Archie.
It was 1966.
“I’m thinking, ‘It’s nasty over there, I don’t want to go to Vietnam. I gotta figure out some way to not go to Vietnam,’” he said. “Well, some men went to Canada to stay out of Vietnam. I didn’t want to go to Canada. … That was not a moral choice that I felt I could make.”
Instead, he enrolled in a two-year ROTC program at another school. ROTC would put Archie on track to be an officer, but he also had an ulterior motive.
“It meant I could put Vietnam off for up to a year after college,” he said. “Surely the war would be over by then. That would be the summer of 1969. It did not work that way. The dumb war was not over.”
In 1969, Archie married his college sweetheart, Dorcas, and then packed his bags for war.
For the first six months overseas, Archie said his Army experience was peaceful.
The next six weren’t.
He was transferred to an ongoing search-and-destroy mission in the jungle.
The experience, Archie said, set him on edge for years to come. A seemingly routine day in the jungle could turn violent without warning.
“All of a sudden, the man in front of you says, ‘There’s (the enemy),’” Archie said. “The whole company drops their weapons, aims toward that direction, and starts blasting.
“And the jungle just falls in because all the bullets are going out there just like a big scythe.”
Sometimes the firing was the result of false information, but the uncertainty had a cumulative effect.
“It’s the emotional impact of being that alert,” Archie said.
His job in the Army was to coordinate artillery fire toward enemy positions. When firefights broke out, he ran to the frontlines, toward enemy fire.
“I’ve got to run up there … get close enough that I’m dodging bullets … and call the artillery in,” he said.
The job also required Archie to direct shells close to friendly positions.
In his journal, he described how he fine-tuned his targets.
“We brought the shells in at 50-meter increments, and it was typically hard to tell how close an impact was,” the veteran wrote in his journal. “I soon learned of the ‘butterfly’ and ‘humming bird.’ Butterflies were pieces of shrapnel falling down through the trees following the explosions. It seemed when the shells were giving us butterflies, the company commander was comfortable with the artillery.
“Hummingbirds, on the other hand, were the result of bringing the artillery 50 meters closer, and now those pieces of shrapnel were zipping through the trees directly over our heads. Every time I got hummingbirds, the company commander would ask for a return of the butterflies.”
Archie said he almost met his end in the jungle. One particular occasion stands out.
“One time, the idiot company commander got us surrounded in the jungle,” he said. “That was really nasty.”
Archie’s company was on a hilltop clearing trees for a camp. The enemy heard the Americans using chainsaws, surrounded the hill, and opened fire.
“There was firing on this side, firing on that side, so I knew we were surrounded,” he said. “So, I hit the dirt, next to a tree, and I called all for artillery.
“But, after the initial firing, there was a lull. No firing. And, I could hear ‘pop, pop, pop.’ The enemy was firing a mortar at us.”
Archie said he was busy working the radio, calling in new artillery targets and their position to a helicopter gunship.
“I don’t know how long this battle is lasting, but when I know that mortars are aimed at me and coming at me, that’s a pretty intense feeling,” he said. “Those mortars are up in the air, and they’ve got to come down somewhere.
“They might come down right on top of me for all I know.”
Archie said the company commander called in an Air Force jet.
A 2,000-pound bomb ended the battle.
Afterward, a shaken Archie stood up and realized he’d nearly been killed.
The tree he’d taken cover against had been hit less than a foot from where his head had been.
“Just discussing it with you gets me nervous and tense, even though it was 40 years ago and I know today I’m not in that situation,” he said. “And so I’m thoroughly convinced that a lot of men don’t want to talk about it because of the nervousness that it brings back.”
On the other hand, Archie said facing his experience through writing was a good thing.
“I think it was cathartic, and now it’s available for my family, for my family’s history, for my grandchildren to have this,” he said.
He insists veterans don’t need to be good writers to create a lasting document.
Archie said he sent his journal to family members, but he’s not sure if his grandson has read it yet.
“Right now, he thinks he wants to be in the military,” Archie said of his grandson. “I hope he doesn’t go through with it.”
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