“Vietnam is always with me.”

I was born in Chicago and grew up north of Withee. I went to White School, a one-room grade school that didn’t get indoor plumbing until the summer before I went to first grade.

Photo courtesy of Scott Schultz

Skip Klabon | Colby, WI

I graduated in 1964 from Owen-Withee High School.  My family was farmers, and my dad took over my grandpa’s farm. Staying on the farm wasn’t going to be for me. It was quiet there, and I was 18 years old. I had better things to do than milk cows at 5:30 in the morning and 5:30 at night—I wanted some adventure.

When I was a senior, I went to the post office one night after football practice. A Marine Corps recruiter was there, putting up postcards. I took one and told him I was interested in the Marine Corpstwo days later he was at the farm. College wasn’t really an option for most young men in my community at that time, so having a job was the other option. I wanted adventure, and the Marine Corps sounded exciting. I took my aptitude test and knew what I was going to do after high school.

Vietnam was sort of going on, but it didn’t seem like much to me, it seemed like a little brushfire.  As a senior in high school, I didn’t even really know about it. Not many people my age were even thinking about the war. 

I went to boot camp in June 1964, and then to Camp Pendleton for on-the-job training for driving tanks. I started as a driver but did basically everything. When we left for Vietnam, I was part of the first units that took our own equipment. We were combat loaded when we left, and I was there as a tank driver for a full year.

After my leave from my first tour in Vietnam, I got back to Camp Lejeune. But I was bored and volunteered to go back to Vietnam as a tank commander. February, we were on a patrol in our three tanks with a whole company of Marines. We had a call about a reconnaissance unit that was getting hit, so we went to help. We ran into a reinforced North Vietnamese regimentabout 100 Marines against about 1,000 of them. We fired rounds and lost one of our tanks. We couldn’t get to the recon people because of a creek and incoming from rockets, mortars and small weapons. Air support came in, and I swear, I had a jet’s paint on my tank’s antenna because it was like he was flying 10 feet off the ground to drop napalm. We were pulling ammunition from the tank when a North Vietnamese rocket came in and knocked me off. I got some shrapnel, and I ended up with a broken hip and back injuries. After recovering from my injuries, I returned to active duty consisting of MP duty at Camp Hansen in Okinawa. I later transferred to Camp Lejeune until I received my active duty discharge in June of 1968 and remained inactive on the Marine Reserve through June of 1970.  

Vietnam is always with me. I had the hip replaced 18 months ago, but the back pain is always there, along with the hip pain. I also have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma from Agent Orange because they were spraying a lot of it in the Demilitarized Zone area. I have PTSD, and volunteering at The Highgrounddoing tours and teaching kidsis really my healing. 

I have been married for 38 years to my wife, Deb. She helps me, and the kids’ kind of take care of me. I had a bunch of issues before Deb and I got married. We both had two boys from previous marriages and dealing with work and raising a family kept Vietnam sort of hidden in me for a long time. 

Veterans Day and the Marine Corps birthday are important dates for me. They’re always big at our Veterans of Foreign Wars. After the Veterans Day events at the VFW, I go to The Highground where we read aloud the names of those lost from Wisconsin from the Korean War until now. No matter what the weather conditions are, those people are not forgotten. I haven’t stayed in touch with many of the guys from Vietnam, but I always remember and honor them.

It’s important to honor veterans and the people that are deployed—letting these young kids that are out there know that we’re thinking about them. And we have to teach people about it because we’re down to only 1 percent of our population with any connection to veterans who served in Vietnam. 

This year, even with all the COVID stuff, being out at The Highground is just relaxing; it’s comforting. It’s almost like a safe place. If you understand, no explanation is necessary—if you don’t understand, no explanation is possible.

Skip’s story is part of our series of stories connected to The Highground Veterans Memorial Museum. This story was produced by Scott Schultz.

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