James Voyles said nothing could prepare him for the rigors of Army service in Vietnam.
“I grew up on a farm baling hay all day and stuff like that, Voyles said, implying that was child’s play in contrast to hauling a 70- to 80-pound pack through the steamy jungle.
Voyles served from 1969-71 and was attached to an infantry company as an artillery corps observer along the Cambodian border. He was part of the incursion into that country.
“We were a front-line search-and-destroy (unit),” he said.
Voyles’ company operated parallel to the Ho Chi Minh Trail across the border.
“We were out for about 21 to 28 days straight before we went back to a real forward base for seven days for fire base security. Then we’d go back out,” Voyles said. “I lost a lot of weight.”
Voyles of Tuscola and Richard Brandt of Mahomet are among the 94 military veterans who will take a Land of Lincoln Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. It will be the final honor flight of the year — the 69th total.
Korean- and Vietnam-era veterans, plus two from World War II, will be participating.
Voyles called his Vietnam service “the most tiresome and gruesome thing I’ve done.”
His responsibility when his company got into a firefight with the enemy was to call in artillery and direct the fire of gunships.
“That’s with real assault weapons,” he said, noting the closest he called in artillery to U.S. troops was about 50 meters away.
“That’s ‘danger close,’” he said. “That’s what they call it in the artillery so the guys with the guns will double-check and triple-check their settings.”
Voyles’ primary responsibility was to know where the company’s troops were. There was no GPS equipment then. He was taught map-reading skills and adjustment of artillery at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. He always had a compass in one hand and a map in his pocket and was constantly reading the terrain to keep track of their location.
There were up to 120 U.S. troops at one time on patrol from the company. The most he could see was 10 to 15 of them because the jungle was so dense.
“The only time I saw them all was back on the fire base,” he said.
Voyles suffered a leg injury that refused to heal on its own after he jumped out of a helicopter with a heavy pack on. He tried to live with it for several months but eventually was medevacked to Japan for treatment and then hospitalized at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for surgery.
After recovery, he was placed in charge of 12 basic rifle marksmanship ranges until his discharge in January 1971.
Voyles earned a master’s degree in English at Western Illinois University before earning teaching and assistant principal jobs in Decatur and Olney. After serving as Tuscola High School principal for four years, he was promoted to superintendent. He retired in 2002.
Voyles serves as chairman of the Parkland College Board of Trustees.
The 76-year-old has been to Washington, D.C., a couple of times.
“When I was there, that was a time when you didn’t talk too much about your Vietnam experience,” Voyles said. “There was a general dislike for those who served. When guys came home they got rid of their uniform and never wore it again. Back then Vietnam veterans were considered crazy because that’s how they were portrayed on TV.”
Voyles said he is looking forward to revisiting the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial and the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
Voyles’ daughter, Darcey, who teaches English at Tuscola High School, arranged for her father to take the honor flight trip. She will accompany him on the trip.
Mahomet resident Richard Brandt served in the Navy but was always land-based. That is, until civilian life.
Brandt served from 1959 to 1965, which he said was considered the Korean era.
“I went in as Korea was shutting down, and I got out as Nam was starting up,” Brandt said.
Stationed the entire time in Georgia, “in the Navy I never went to sea.”
“While I was in Georgia, it was a naval air station, and they had a lot of electronics that matched every ship in the Navy,” Brandt said. “They would fly planes out of Jacksonville, and the officers learned how to plot courses, and we maintained all that equipment.”
The 81-year-old Brandt is grateful for his naval service. It gave him skills that led to a career with IBM after he attended junior college in Cincinnati.
“They teach you a lot of things in there that I used,” he said. “I was an electronic technician in the Navy.”
His IBM work led him to three-month excursions on a pair of U.S. naval carriers — the first one from San Diego to Hawaii and the second from Norfolk, Va., to Portsmouth, England, and back.
IBM sent his wife to Hawaii and Portsmouth for both trips.
“We were able to have a mini-vacation in each place,” he said.
Brandt is looking forward to seeing the Vietnam War Memorial.
He’s also interested in visiting with fellow veterans making the trip.
“I’m sure they have some pretty interesting stories to tell,” he said.
Among those making the honor flight trip is Marc Roderick of Champaign, an Army vet from the Vietnam era.
“I’ve known Marc for about 30 years” and only recently learned he had been in the Army.
OTHER AREA VETERANS
Other area veterans scheduled to make the flight: Harold Hard III and Lee Smith, both of Champaign; Leroy Thompson, Georgetown; David Drake and Michael Wattles, both of Mahomet; Paul Keehner Sr., Allerton; Timothy Wilson, Danville; James Keller, Fithian; Lowell Suits, St. Joseph; Robert Carter, Tolono; and Wayne Matthews, Urbana.
The honor flight veterans will leave by chartered jet from Springfield. Among their stops will be the World War II, Korean and Vietnam War memorials as well as Arlington National Cemetery Tomb of the Unknowns, the Lincoln Memorial, the National Air & Space Museum in Chantilly, Va., the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial and the U.S. Air Force Memorial.
The trip is provided at no cost to the veterans.
They will return to Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. Family, friends and the general public are encouraged to greet them upon their return.