Royal Hettling is a Vietnam War veteran.
At one time in his life he didn’t let a lot of people know that, and those who did heard very little about what he experienced.
Hettling, who served as a member of the United States Air Force from 1969-72, spent one year in Vietnam on a tour of duty that changed his life.
Hettling, a Minneota native, was in Redwood Falls March 23 to talk about his experiences in Vietnam. He shared his story at the Redwood Falls Public Library as part of the “One County, One Book” program, a collaborative effort of Redwood County libraries.
“I graduated from Minneota High School in 1969,” said Hettling. “I had no idea what I wanted to do. I grew up on the farm, but I was sure there was more to life than that.”
Yet, after high school he stuck around his hometown and worked on the family farm. He also worked at the local filling station pumping gas, sweeping floors and doing whatever else his boss told him to do.
That November Hettling turned 18 and registered for the draft.
It was not even two weeks later when Hettling was approached by an Air Force recruiter who told him he had two choices – enlist or wait to be drafted. While waiting might have allowed him to stick around for a little while longer, there was no guarantee where he might end up serving.
A decision to enlist posed challenges for Hettling, too, as he would have to leave soon after signing on the dotted line. After mulling over his options and getting some advice, Hettling enlisted, and six days later he was on his way to Lackland Air Force Base in Texas where he started his basic training to serve his country. Not long into his technical school training following basic, Hettling and the others he was training with were encouraged to participate in dog school.
“They wanted people to volunteer for dog school and they needed 25 people,” said Hettling. “We all knew volunteering was a direct ticket to Vietnam.”
Hettling and a number of others sat in a room and waited. A few at a time would volunteer when asked, and eventually Hettling and a guy he knew from New Mexico raised their hands to serve.
In an adjoining room, Hettling wrote a note on a piece of paper that said he volunteered for dog school. He signed it and dated it and then his training began.
“We went through 12 weeks of intense training,” said Hettling, adding at first there were 25 but 21 made it through to the end.
That direct ticket to Vietnam was waiting.
Hettling arrived at Cam Ranh Air Base where he was processed in and was introduced to his dog, a German Shepherd, Collie mix named Pepper.
“When I first touched the gate of his kennel all I saw was fur and teeth,” said Hettling, adding he worked as best as he could with that dog.
However, in the end, during an effort to connect with that dog, Hettling was bitten by the animal and had to be taken to the hospital. He later learned he was the eighth handler that dog had attacked.
Hettling was then assigned to another dog named Thunder.
“We bonded right away,” said Hettling. “I never had any problems with Thunder.”
On the Air Force base Hettling was assigned to sentry duty as part of a security police squad. That meant standing at one of 60 different posts around the base where they stood and watched to ensure nothing happened and no one was able to breach the borders of the base.
“At one time we only had 45 handlers, so we had to go out every night for 35 nights straight without a break,” said Hettling, adding when conditions deteriorated the number of posts increased to 80.
Out on sentry duty, Hettling admitted there were times when fear would get the best of you, as the wind and shadows played tricks with one’s mind.
“There were many nights in the beginning when I would walk along just petrified,” said Hettling, adding he had to make a decision to control his fear. “You really had to be able to think clearly and have your wits about you all of the time.”
Hettling said the dogs could sense the fear of their handlers, which also made them less effective on duty. That, he added, could be disastrous.
While Hettling shared a number of stories from his tour of duty in Vietnam, others have been published in a book he wrote entitled “Ten-Five-Five.” That book is a collaboration of Hettling’s stories, as well as stories that have been shared with him by others he served with in Vietnam. The name of the book, he added, is the code for a canine alert.
“A dog is a very intelligent animal,” Hettling said. “They can sense anything that you are sensing."
During the Vietnam War there were as many as 4,000 dogs who served in various capacities including serving as sentries.
At the end of the war most of those dogs were turned over or were destroyed. Thunder, said Hettling, was one of the dogs which was ordered to be destroyed.
Those dogs are the forgotten heroes of the war, explained Hettling, adding a law has since been enacted in the United States that brings back service animals who serve their country abroad for adoption.
Hettling, who arrived in Vietnam in August 1970 was on his way home in August 1971 and spent the rest of his time in the service in Florida where he worked with a third dog named Duke.
It was in the U.S. where Hettling experienced the challenges of anti-war demonstrators.
In fact, he was told not to venture very far away from the base without a buddy, and the farther away one went the more important it was to have others with you. It was never recommended to wear one’s uniform in public. Of course, there were also places it was never safe to visit.
Hettling shared a story about his arrival in Minneota after his tour came to an end. While waiting for the bus to go home someone approached him and commented about him being in Vietnam.
At first, Hettling said he ignored the comments, but when that individual would not give up, Hettling said he braced himself for an altercation.
What he got instead were words of encouragement from a fellow Vietnam veteran who only served the country for three months before getting gut shot and spending months in a hospital recovering.
Hettling said he has not returned to Vietnam, adding at his age he likely would not be able to handle the trip physically. Returning back to life in Minnesota, Hettling settled down, got married, had a family and spent most of his life “turning wrenches” as a mechanic.
The book Hettling wrote can be found on Amazon, and is also available at the Vietnam Memorial History Center in Minneota.
Proceeds from the book are donated to the center to ensure the stories of Vietnam are not forgotten.