"They were relentless," said Rudy Gomez, a Vietnam veteran who took basic and advanced infantry training at Fort Polk's Tigerland in March 1968.


"They were relentless," said Rudy Gomez, a Vietnam veteran who took basic and advanced infantry training at Fort Polk's Tigerland in March 1968.
Gomez, of Somerset, Texas, along with Clayton Waldron, of Seattle, Wash., and a few dozen other Vietnam veterans, began arriving in Leesville Thursday afternoon for a weekend reunion of the 23rd Infantry Division, or the Americal Division, which fought in World War II and Vietnam. The reunion featured tours of Fort Polk and the Joint Readiness Training Center.
For Waldron, the reunion was doubly important. He would get to see his daughter, Christine, whose husband, Sgt. Gered Gruber, was recently stationed at here.
Waldron and the other veterans toured Fort Polk's Berry Battle Command Training Center (BCTC), a state of the art training facility for soldiers, heard from Brig. Gen. K.K. Chinn and were allowed to explore various military vehicles and other displays, all before lunch. The afternoon was taken up with a tour of Tigerland, where many took basic training and advanced infantry training before being deployed to Vietnam.
 In March 1968, Gomez was a two-year draftee out of high school who found himself in Tigerland's piney woods where the code word was "kill" and troops training for war in the Vietnam jungle had to growl everywhere they went. American soldiers in Vietnam were not vicious, unlike the popular stereotype, said Gomez.
"We were indoctrinated." 
"'Every man a tiger' was the motto at Tigerland," writes Bill Sloat in a blog post about his days in Tigerland in 1970. "The signs were everywhere on Fort Polk. There was no way to lose sight of why you were there ... Everyday and everything you did at Tigerland inculcated the inescapable truth that you were Vietnam bound to fight a war." 
And the reality of that was terrifying for the 18, 19 and 20-year-olds who found themselves clinging to a hill, or a battalion headquarters, in the middle of the Vietnam jungle, with an invisible, mysterious and deadly enemy only a stone's throw away.
"After awhile, you get numb to it," said Waldron, who served for a year at the age of 19 with the Americal Division in Vietnam at Hawk Hill. Along with 100-150 other soldiers, Waldron ate, drank and slept on that hill, he said. The soldiers dug their own holes, or bunkers, to live in underground. Shower barrels provided quick baths, and the only way on or off the hill was by helicopter. The mission was to locate or fight the enemy, said Waldron. But sometimes the enemy came to them. 
While barbed wire and claymores along the hill's perimeter kept the Viet Cong at bay most of the time, snipers, were a constant threat, as were mortar rounds. Sappers, specially trained enemy assault troops adept at infiltrating and attacking airfields, firebases and other fortified positions, would try to overtake the hill about once every other month, said Waldron.
In 1969, the enemy was successful. 
"They just took the hill from us," said the veteran, whose teeth were knocked out in the fight that lasted only a day taking 40 American casualties and leaving Waldron with a steel plate in his head. Too many friends died in that year, he said. But the soldiers that remained that day regrouped and took the hill back.
While the war was brutal, coming home was difficult in its own way.
"We weren't exactly America's favorite people," siad Waldron, who remembers that crowds through rotten eggs and tomatoes at the bus that brought him home to Fort Lewis and that the Chevy dealer there refused to sell him a car.
"What hurt the most was coming back," said Gomez. And those in the Americal Division, likely had the worst of it, with stereotypes of brutal American soldiers in Vietnam already beginning to form even before Gomez and Waldron completed their training.
By the time either began their tours of duty, the My Lai Massacre, in which hundreds of innocent Vietnamese women, children and elderly were murdered, had already occurred. While they were in the jungle, C Company of the Americal Division's 11 th Infantry Brigade, in particular platoon leader 1st Lieut. William Laws Calley Jr., was implicated in the massacre, effectively sealing the American public's view of the war and the soldiers who were fighting it.
"A lot of untrue stuff came back. Killing women and kids wasn't typical," said Waldron, who attributes the stereotype partly to the times. "The sixties were unique years."
To this day, Gomez won't go to the American Legion in his hometown because of the way Vietnam veterans were treated, he said.
"But time heals, and a lot of people are sorry they treated us so,"  said Waldron, who went to work for the  government soon after the war in the Veterans Readjustment Program helping veterans returning home to readjust to society.
"It's a different era, now," he said. Now, soldiers deal with multiple deployments, but troops are welcomed home.
"Most Vietnam veterans adjusted and went on to successful careers," he said. "Most aren't the criminals they're made out to be."
And many used their experiences as a jumping off point for helping others, Waldron included.
"Veterans groups really try to work with troops so they don't have to go through what we went through," said Waldon.
Look in their faces and you'll see that many veterans are still holding fast to that sense of camaraderie built within them more than four decades ago, a sense of camaraderie that keeps them fighting, though now on a battlefield of a different sort. Now, the fight is for the needs of today's soldiers who, like they were so long ago, are far from home, fighting in a war that is brutal on both the heart and the soul.