By Reggie Ellis

Being too tired to sit upright in a helicopter. A dud explosive device. A warning from a four-legged friend. What do all these things have in common? They all saved Mike White's life.

"It was like God had his hand on my shoulder," White told the Exeter Kiwanis Club as guest speaker earlier this year. "I am very lucky to be here."

A sergeant in the U.S. Army, White served in Vietnam from 1968-1969.

First as a dog handler and later as a sniper, he said there were numerous close calls that could have killed him if he had been an inch or two one way or the other.

Dog Tags

By early 1968, the Communist goverened North Viatnamese military, called "Vietcong," had suffered major casualties and the U.S. military had won decisive battles. However, battles in Vietnam were few and far between. Following several battles where the Vietcong had suffered demoralizing losses, the North Viatnamese switched to more guerilla tactics. While the casualties for the Vietcong would remain high, American casualties sharply increased after 1967. From 1964-1967, 6,000 U.S. troops were killed.

In the next eight years, 52,000 more troops would be killed. This is the Vietnam that awaited White in 1968. The year began with one of the largest offenisves in the war - the Tet Offensive. On Jan. 30-31, the Tet holiday, Vietcong units surged into action throughout most of South Vietnam. In more than 100 cities and towns, surprise attacks by Vietcong commandos were followed by waves of supporting troops. By the end of the battles, 37,000 Vietcong troops deployed for Tet were killed. More than 2,500 American troops were killed in the battle, a serious blow to public support. Just a week earlier, the Vietcong began a 77-day seige of the U.S. Marine base at Khe Sanh.

White's division was stationed at Chu Lai, the site of Operation Starlite, the Army's first major battle of the Vietnam War on Aug. 17, 1965. A resounding victory for the United States, nearly 700 Vietcong soldiers were killed while U.S. forces sustained only 45 casualties and about 200 wounded. White, 20, had received extensive training as an Army dog handler before being deployed to Vietnam. He spent much of his tour in Vietnam as part of scout troops. Going out in front of the platoon, White followed the dog on a five-foot leash searching for mines. His dog, a German Shepherd named Joe, became his closest friend.

"We would talk a lot and would always agree," White joked. "Joe and I became good friends."

Dogs were an important mine detection tool in the pitch black jungles of Veitnam. White said it was always overcast so there was no moonlight at night cloaking all the dangers of war in "darkness you couldn't imagine." On one patrol, Joe missed a mine and White stepped on it. The mine was a Bouncing Betty, a French-engineered mine that instead of blowing up underneath your foot springs into the air and explodes at eye level. White watched the mine ascend into the air and then fall back to the ground. White felt sick with anxiety and dropped to the ground.

"It was a dud," he said. "Me and Joe had a long talk after that."

White said whenever he and Joe rode in a helicopter he would sit near the middle of opening with Joe between his legs. "He loved to sit there and watch the wind go by."

After returning from one of the longer missions, two to three days, White and Joe were both tired and leaned to the side to rest against the helicopter.

"I felt something burning in my side," he said. "There was a bullet whole through my shirt. If I had been sitting where I normally do it would have been killed me."

White was almost killed on a helicopter three more times. Twice a helicopter giving him a lift was shot down and another time a helicopter crashed shortly after take off. "We weren't under fire. It just crashed."

White said he would not go anywhere without his dog. "He saved my life too many times to ever leave behind." The last time Joe saved White's life was entering another small village near the DMZ (demilitirzed zone), the dividing line between North and South Vietnam established in 1954 at the Geneva Convention. Joe snapped his head up to signal that there was danger.

"By the time I hit the ground Joe was shot and killed," White said. "I lost a good friend that day."

A new dog, Andy, was assigned to White shortly thereafter. Andy had lost his handler a week before so the two came together to finish out their tour. White said most dogs could not be brought home following the war. Most dogs were infected with a rare disease called IHS (internal hemorrhaging syndrome). The disease would cause internal bleeding and the dog would bleed to death from the inside. The U.S. was fearful the disease would be spread in America so most of the dogs that survived the war were destroyed and left in Vietnam.

Enemy In Sight

White and Andy were transfered from scout troops to long range patrols or "Lerps." Generally Lerps were assigned search and destroy missions that had a scout with a dog, radioman, bodyguard (a guy with a big gun) and a sniper. The missions usually targeted high ranking officers in order to demorialize and disorganize their troops. On one mission the sniper missed his target from only 400 yards.

"I was upset with the guy because he put all of us in danger for nothing," White said. "We got into it and I said I could have hit him with the kind of weapon they carry. He said if I thought I could do better than I should do it next time."

On the next patrol White was the sniper and hit his target from 600 yards. On the next patrol he hit from 650 yards. After awhile White was reassigned from scout to sniper, but always took his dog with him. White said he used a 30-caliber Weatherby 300 rifle, "one of the finest weapons I have ever fired." His most difficult mission came on a two-day patrol. The closest he could get was 1,000 yards away and he discovered there were three targets, something he had never done. White said two targets is common because the second bullet is already in the air when the first hits its mark. But the third person would have time to react to the first shot.

"I didn't really know how to do it," White said. "So I watched them go through the motions for awhile to try and anticipate where the third person would be when I fired the third shot."

White hit three targets with three rounds at 1,000 yards, which at the time was the longest triple hit for anyone in his division.

White was also a tunnel chaser. In order to hide their bases from American spotter planes, the Vietcong built an enormous network of intricate tunnels to hide their headquarters. White said there were complexes big and small scattered across the country, "some housed hospitals." Each villager in a NLF area had to dig three feet of tunnel a day. There was even a standard handbook specifying how tunnels were to be built. The biggest tunnel systems were in the Iron Triangle, between the Thi-Tinh and Saigon rivers 20 miles from Saigon.

Coming Home

White said he was fortunate to take most of his shots and shrapnel in the back.

"I still have some shrapnel in my back to this day," he said. "I was always hit in the back because I was always hitting the ground or going the other way. Dirt became a familiar place when you were being shot at."

He said 15 of the 20 men he came to Vietnam with died there. And those that did return did not all receive a warm welcome. By 1969 every corner of the country seemed to have felt the war’s impact. Perhaps one of the most famous incidents in the anti-war movement was the police riot in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Hundreds of thousands of people came to Chicago in August 1968 to protest American intervention in Vietnam and the leaders of the Democratic Party who continued to defend it.

President Richard Nixon's order of intense bombing campaigns and intervention in Cambodia in late April 1970 further sparked intense campus protests. The country was appauled when four students at Kent State university in Ohio were killed by National Guardsmen who were called out to preserve order on campus after days of anti-Nixon protest. Shock waves crossed the nation as students at Jackson State in Mississippi were also shot and killed for political protests.

"I was fortunate to come home to banners saying 'Welcome Home Mike,'" the Exeter native said. "A lot of guys came home and didn't have any support. They were called baby killers."

White said others had trouble readjusting to civilian life. Post-war studies showed that at least 15 percent of Vietnam veterans suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which can cause irritibility, sleeplessness, flashbacks, delusions, and detachment from society.

"In the military they teach you the opposite of everything you are taught growing up. Don't hit, don't kill, that was all OK now," he said. "You are on another planet. Everything is different and there is no decompression. One day you are in the jungle and two days later you are at home. You don't change overnight and some guys couldn't deal with it."

Back to life

White still feels the effects of his experiences in Vietnam. Many years after the war, White would often wake up with hand prints on the sides of his chest from tucking his hands underneath his armpits. He said they were probably due to nightmares he would have about the large rats in Southeast Asia. White said sleep was hard to come by in Vietnam so he carried a hammock with him. It rained day and night so the only way to dry off was to stay above the muddy ground and the floors of flooded buildings. White said he and Joe were exhausted after a grueling mission and decided to find a safe place to sleep. He found a flooded bucker and hung the hammock about a foot above the water. Joe slept on a step leading down to the top of the water.

"It gave me a nice place to stay dry," White said. "Only problem was it gave a nice place for about 20-30 rats to stay dry also."

White said the rats ate the tips of his fingernails off. "I know men can't walk on water, but when I woke up I ran out of that bunker and never touched water," he said. "My kids have had rats and mice they hold and pet, but I didn't want anything to do with them."

Regardless of how society views the Vietnam War, and how history may judge the war in Iraq, there is no denying the sacrifice that men like Mike White have made to keep our country free. Soldiers don't decide when and where we go to war. Their job is not to ask why we are at war but only how can we serve our country. Veterans Day is tomorrow, Nov. 11. Make sure to take the time to thank local veterans who protected the rights and liberties that we often take for granted.

White is now a farmer and a family man with four grown children. He recently ran for re-election to the Exeter Union High School District Board after serving on the board for nine years. While he was not re-elected on Nov. 2, it is important to remember that without men like Mike White there may not have been any elections.

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