VALPARAISO — Christmas is difficult when you’re more than 8,000 miles away in a war zone, but even the memory of being a “doorknocker” is enough to bring Mitch Mullins, 66, to tears.
Mullins and four other members of Disabled American Veterans Post 120, all Valparaiso residents, reflected last week on their Christmases during the Vietnam War.
Command Sgt. Maj. Mullins was a chaplain’s assistant in 1966 in the U.S. Army. Among other duties, that included knocking on doors to break the news of a serviceman’s death.
“We got a call about 2 a.m. Christmas Eve,” he said.
“It was very bad. We got to the house about 5:30 in the morning. We knocked on the door, and it was a young mother with two kids. We stayed with her and did everything we could.”
His duties included helping widows and parents make funeral arrangements.
By 6:30, everybody in that neighborhood knew, Mullins said.
“Every year at Christmas, I say a little prayer for that family,” Mullins said.
That was one of two heartbreaking Christmases he remembers.
He was serving in Bosnia when his father-in-law died, on Dec. 16, 1990.
“I was here a week, and then I had to go back,” he said. “And that was hard to do, to leave home right before Christmas.”
Carlos Arambula, U.S. Army
Sgt. Carlos Arambula, 66, said when he arrived in Vietnam, the sergeant told him to get a drink of water. “That’s the last time you’re going to have ice in your water,” the sergeant said.
Arambula was a machine gunner.
“When we heard the bombs go off, we hit the ground and started shooting,” he said.
Once, he was shooting when his gun jammed. A combat engineer tapped him on the shoulder and told his crew not to move. A booby trap was right above them. The combat engineer disarmed it and saved Arambula’s life.
“There were guys who lost limbs, lost legs and even lost their lives,” Arambula said.
He was one of the lucky ones — lucky enough that on his way home, he had two 21st birthdays, the result of crossing the International Date Line.
Arambula was accustomed to going out on operations in Vietnam that lasted two to three months.
In December 1966, though, he got to spend three days at the base camp for Christmas.
“The mess really fixed up a great holiday dinner for us,” he said.
Midnight Mass was good that year, too.
“It was nice to just lay back and enjoy the holidays,” he said.
Arambula said he had a ticket to see Bob Hope’s Christmas show at division headquarters that year, but then he was offered a chance to see Pope Paul VI.
“Pope, Bob Hope. Pope, Bob Hope.”
Arambula opted to see the pope, so his Bob Hope ticket went to another soldier.
“So the next morning, he packed up and went to see Bob Hope,” Arambula said.
And Arambula found out the pope wasn’t going to visit Vietnam, after all.
Roy G. Martin, U.S. Navy
Machinist Mate 3rd Class Roy G. Martin, 72, was stationed in 1963 at the naval air station at Kenita, Morocco, Africa, during his first Christmas in the Navy.
Martin was a disc jockey for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, playing records and reading news from the teletype — after it was heavily redacted.
He was given a letter from the king of Morocco to the American people to be read on the air following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. He still has that letter, Martin said.
Among his memories was serving on the USS Tutitula, delivering fuel to keep the airport power plant running in the Dominican Republic to protect the capital from rebel troops.
The Tutitula was the first naval vessel to run on jp5, a jet fuel, he said.
“We had the cleanest boilers you ever saw.”
Aboard ship for Christmas, “we put lights up on the ship and stuff like that,” Martin said.
His two Christmases at a land base, in 1963 and 1964, were “pretty cool.” He danced, drank beer and had dinner in the officer’s club, the only time of year he was allowed inside.
The first year, though, was difficult for his family back home.
“My mother cried; she was all upset,” Martin said.
John Diehl, U.S. Army
Staff Sgt. John Diehl, 73, was in Vietnam for three and a half years — halfway around the world.
Among his duties were going out after firefights to bring back dead and wounded soldiers.
He remembers making shepherd’s coffee, boiling water with the grounds at the bottom of the pot.
“God help the guy that stirred his coffee,” he said.
His first year, he had a small battery-operated Christmas tree from home.
“Christmas wasn’t too bad until it got to Christmas Day,” he said. “That’s when it got the hardest.”
The mess hall served a great dinner, but the time off gave time to think.
“You look at the pictures of your family on the wall,” he said.
Diehl said his last Christmas during the war, he was with his family in Hawaii.
“There’s nothing like looking out the window on Christmas Day and seeing people surfing,” Diehl said.
The warm weather, though, wasn’t unusual for him.
“We only had two seasons in Vietnam — hot and rainy. Hot and hotter,” he said.
Among his wartime memories was helping bring home the 101st Airborne in 1973.
Martin Glennon, U.S. Army
Specialist 4 Martin Glennon, 68, was a combat medic in Vietnam.
“I thought maybe I’ll get a nice hospital with a lot of nice nurses. But no, I get to be a combat medic,” he said.
He provided first aid, getting soldiers prepped to be put on the helicopters that would take them to that hospital.
Martin tells about tragic experiences, including the 17-year-old father of two children who died when he hit a trip wire.
And Waylon Norris, brother of famous actor Chuck Norris, was volunteered to walk point even though it was a suicide mission. Waylon was shot in the heart by a sniper. The soldier behind Waylon was hit in the shoulder and survived.
Martin didn’t see that lucky survivor for 47 years, until a reunion this year in Laughlin, Nevada. Martin flew into Las Vegas the day after the mass shooting there.
For Christmas, Martin was able to return to base to escape, briefly, the horrors of war.
He is now a chaplain. “Through a Gideon New Testament, I was called on to serve him,” he said.