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Interview with John Dell [9/22/2012]

Will Hamilton:

Today is September 22, 2012. I am Will Hamilton and I am interviewing John Dell at [redacted]. Mr. Dell is my uncle's brother. Mr. Dell is sixty-four years old and was born on [redacted] 1947. Mr. Dell served in the Vietnam War. Mr. Dell held the following rank: Staff Sergeant. Were you drafted or did you enlist?

John Dell:

I tested into the air force, you have to be tested in . .

Will Hamilton:

Why did you join?

John Dell:

The Vietnam War was going on, and they were going to draft me into the army, and I decided that I wanted to have a little bit more choice, so I chose the air force.

Will Hamilton:

What was it about the air force that interested you?

John Dell:

They're more interested in their support unit and they're not as heavily involved with ground forces and killing, you know, that sort of thing. They're more interested in your mental ability than your marksmanship.

Will Hamilton:

Where were you living at the time?

John Dell:

Columbus, Indiana.

Will Hamilton:

Do you recall your first days in the air Coree?

John Dell:

The first thing they do is they take everything away from you that is personal. Very early mornings, I did my basic in San Antonio, Texas and it was extremely hot. Some days it was so hot, you just stayed in the barracks. You got up very early; it was still dark out when you got up in formation. It was a whole different way of life.

Will Hamilton:

Do you remember your instructors?

John Dell:

A little bit.

Will Hamilton:

Where they very stereotypical?

John Dell:

Very strict, very stereotypical males.

Will Hamilton:

Was it very hard to get through?

John Dell:

No.

Will Hamilton:

Where exactly did you go in Vietnam?

John Dell:

I went to Tan Son Nhut Air Base which was the largest air base in Vietnam. You could walk out the gate and walk into Saigon.

Will Hamilton:

Did you meet any Vietnamese people there?

John Dell:

Yes.

Will Hamilton:

Were they friendly?

John Dell:

Yes.

Will Hamilton:

Do you remember arriving?

John Dell:

Oh yes.

Will Hamilton:

What was your specific assignment in Vietnam?

John Dell:

I worked in the photographic intelligence outfit. Sometimes, I would have to take pictures from low-flying planes, but the majority of our work was done by jet fighters that had cameras mounted in the bellies and the wings, all over. They would make aerial flights, reconnaissance flights over areas and the film would come back in nine hundred foot rolls, a foot wide. Some of them were a thousand foot rolls, five inches wide and we would take them and process them then we would use them to make bomb plots so that we could kill more people.

Will Hamilton:

Could you tell me a bit about your most memorable experiences in Vietnam?

John Dell:

The first day that I arrived, when I turned the corner of the jet to walk off, the heat was so intense that you could see the heat waves in the air. I noticed all these little people running around with these funny little hats. I guess the second one was our first attack. I was there during ret Offensive of 68' and 69' and we had thirty-five mm rockets, one hundred and forty-five millimeter rockets fall around us within ninety seconds and one night, the base was being overran and we all had to get our guns and go out to the firing line, do what you have to do. So, those experiences were really big and the day that I left. We were on the jet and the stewardess said, "We have now left the Vietnamese air space" and everybody just applauded and was so happy.

Will Hamilton:

Where were you planning to go after?

John Dell:

Well you don't plan. They send you where they want to send you. When I came home I had thirty days ofleave and after that, they sent me to Grand Forks, North Dakota in the middle of winter after coming from Vietnam. I really didn't like it very well. I was a base photographer and ran the lab. There were two openings, one in Italy and one in England and I chose the one in Italy and for some reason it closed. So I took the one in England and went to England at Upper Heyford Air Force Base. It was a part of NATO which is North Atlantic Treaty Organization. I worked in a top secret crypto intelligence outfit and photographing. It was a great experience because I got to live off base. I lived in a small town called Banbury, England in the Midlands, which is about twenty miles east of Oxford. I remember taking the hovercraft because the tunnel wasn't built under the ocean from England to France, there was a big, huge underground tunnel that you can just take the train from England to France now. I took the hover craft, bought train tickets, been all over Europe. So that was a great experience. I found out, after I got to England, I started having the shakes, I would have these spells, and actually I had Post Traumatic War Syndrome and I still have it and I'm on medication for it, but they didn't properly diagnose me for almost thirty-five years, which presented a lot of problems which I could come out of now. I did really heavy work outs, I run thirty miles a week on an incline of twelve at five and half mph and at sixty-five. That's' a heavy workout. It seems to be helping. I've been able to decrease my medication and it had its pros and it had its cons just like everything else in life so I was kind of resentful for having to come home to a society that did not accept us and it made you feel ashamed. That's just a part of people being fickle and now, I am very much a pacifist and believe that most wars are politically instigated and a lot of innocent people who just want to live their lives normally get pulled in because the politics and people. I am pretty much a pacifist when it comes to all that.

Will Hamilton:

How did the people in England treat you?

John Dell:

Very nicely because they still regard us as part of their saviors from World War II. They still are very big on that, now this would be thirty years ago. The national cemeteries there that they built, for all the Americans that were killed because we have a lot of Americans buried there. They were very nice, very welcoming, very kind and it was even more welcoming coming there than coming home.

Will Hamilton:

How much combat did you see?

John Dell:

I was there during the Cambodian Invasion. I remember one night, I started hearing all these helicopters and we all ran outside and this sky was just filled. They looked like fireflies, it was filled with squadron after squadron after squadron with helicopters and I was there during Tet Offensive which was 68' and 69' when the Vietcong overran. When I got there, they were still cleaning up from all that. So it was an intense time to be there.

Will Hamilton:

When you were in Vietnam, how much were you able to stay in touch with your family?

John Dell:

I wrote letters to my Dad at least once a week.

Will Hamilton:

Just your Dad, or anyone else?

John Dell:

My brothers, I had an aunt that I was close to at the time, my mother's sister. I corresponded with her and I had a few friends that wrote me. The internet wasn't going on and we didn't have that then. It was just hand-written.

Will Hamilton:

Did you feel homesick?

John Dell:

Yeah I did. I was very nervous and wanted to get out of there.

Will Hamilton:

When you were in Vietnam, did you have very many supplies?

John Dell:

Well I was on a very large base. This base was set up for VIPs and the military. They had their own golf course. They had a secluded area that was very, very nice for them. You're talking a base that was huge, it was like another city within a city.

Will Hamilton:

Is it still there today?

John Dell:

I don't know. I'm sure that the runways and all that is their airport now. The thing about Vietnam is we had more firepower than they ever thought about and we still couldn't win. It was a total failure. It was an unnecessary war. It started back under I think it was Eisenhower, it started to cool over there. That's when it all began. It's political, it's all about politics. Fifty thousand young men and women killed over what?

Will Hamilton:

What was the food like at your base?

John Dell:

Food was good. They kept us fed very well. We had a huge PX go and buy whatever you wanted - stereo systems, whatever. Theyhad Rand R where you could take off a week. You could go to Australia or you could go to Hawaii if you were married. I went to Bangkok, Thailand for a week and lived like a king for a week - all that good stuff.

Will Hamilton:

You said earlier that they took your personal stuff away, but did you have anything you did for good luck?

John Dell:

I had in my wallet a religious holy card that was my mom's when she died. I didn't have a wallet. The wallet was taken away from you. It was locked up until we were done with basic.

Will Hamilton:

You were talking about that Rand R week earlier, generally how did people entertain themselves?

John Dell:

A lot of men would get a female escort and just do the city and take in the sites.

Will Hamilton:

Did you ever have any visitors for the soldiers to give them company?

John Dell:

Nope, not while I was there.

Will Hamilton:

What did you do while you were on leave?

John Dell:

Pretty much what all the other G.I.s did.

Will Hamilton:

Where did you travel while you were in the service?

John Dell:

I've been to Alaska, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Spain, England, France, Italy, Germany, quite a bit of travel.

Will Hamilton:

How did you travel?

John Dell:

If I had time off. I would travel on my own. A lot of times I was sent to different places in Europe for training and to give training.

Will Hamilton:

Do you recall any humorous or unusual events?

John Dell:

I used to go to London. We would take the train into London on the weekends. At one time I lived in a house with five other guys. So it was a big party, all the time. I would go into London on the weekends - fabulous city, wonderful city to go visit. I remember we went in one New Year's Eve and went to Trafalgar Square and it was just this massive group of people who were inebriated. I thought I was gonna get squeezed to death because of the amount of people I was glad to get out of there. We just had a lot of fun.

Will Hamilton:

Do you have any photographs?

John Dell:

Lots, I have a full book.

Will Hamilton:

What's in the photographs?

John Dell:

A girlfriend, whatever that meant. The base that I was at-an orphanage that our squadron supported there. We did some support for an orphanage there. That was really something to behold. It was a Catholic orphanage. I went once to go do some work there. We took a big donation there for them. They took us to this big room - it was a tile floor and on it were little square mats and each mat had a child on it. It was full, the room was full of orphan babies. I was just shocked and there was a group of Catholic nuns and brothers there that ran the orphanage and they were well taken care of.

Will Hamilton:

Was the orphanage doing well financially?

Will Hamilton:

What did you think of the officers or your fellow soldiers?

John Dell:

I seemed to get along with everybody. I never had much conflict with anybody. When I was in England I struggled a lot because of the Post Traumatic War Syndrome. I was at the hospital for a week, hooked up to an electrical cardiogram and they put me on phenobarbital and sent me on my way.

Will Hamilton:

Did the people there often feel stressed?

John Dell:

Oh yeah. Everybody had one thing on their mind: get their time and get the hell out.

Will Hamilton:

Did you keep a diary?

John Dell:

No, my mind is my diary?

Will Hamilton:

You were talking about how when you got into the air plane to leave, everyone was cheering can you talk about that a little bit more?

John Dell:

I think that everybody was glad that they got out alive and in one piece. There was a lot of anti-war sentiment at home going on, riots in streets and the shootings at Kent in Ohio. The majority of soldiers I must say did not want to be there.

Will Hamilton:

Did anybody go to a different country to avoid anything?

John Dell:

There were a lot of people that left country and went to Canada and decided to do what they wanted. I was pretty green, coming from a little town in the Midwest and thought I would do what my country wanted me to do. You know, be this kind of support system for America. It was a real education.

Will Hamilton:

After you came back to America, what work did you do or did you go back to work

John Dell:

Oh no, I went back to Cummins Diesel Engine Company and worked there and put myself into Quint Co which is a psychiatric place because I was having lots of depression, lots of anxiety.

Will Hamilton:

Did you go to any support groups?

John Dell:

Not for Vietnam. Post Dramatic War Syndrome, they hadn't really honed in on it yet. I wasn't diagnosed with it until fifteen years ago so I had lived with it for thirty years.

Will Hamilton:

While you were in the service did you make any close relationships?

John Dell:

I had a buddy of mine who was converted to Catholicism and I was his sponsor at his baptism and I haven't heard from him for many years but no I don't, I don't have any contact.

Will Hamilton:

Did he get baptized in Vietnam?

John Dell:

No, this was in England.

Will Hamilton:

You didn't join a veteran's organization?

John Dell:

No, I used the V A Hospital. I had full Medicare and I go to the V A just to touch base with them and get my meds.

Will Hamilton:

When did they start taking the Post Traumatic War Syndrome more seriously?

John Dell:

It's a strange thing. I suffered from addiction to marijuana and then it developed into cocaine. I've been clean now for fifteen years. I was self-medicating myself because I wasn't properly diagnosed and the head of psychiatry at a private Catholic hospital diagnosed me with it. So I went to the VA and they denied me and they said yeah you do but we're not going tooit's all about the money and so I worked with private physicians. They put me on medications, Lexapro, I started out with Paxil and then I went to Lexapro and now I'm on citalopram and I'm on ten milligrams a day, I was at forty at one time. So I've learned how to live with it and perceive with it and I'm an artist. I became a teacher and taught art in the city of Chicago for twenty five years and taught at Loyola University in Chicago, training teachers-I've moved on with my life and it's really had its struggling points.

Will Hamilton:

When did you first get into art?

John Dell:

Actually it was the air force because I was put into photography and I graduated academically in basic. I graduated first in my class. I went to a photography school before I went to Vietnam in Colorado and it was ran by Kodak and it was one of the best schools I've ever went to and everybody had their own big four by five camera, the old fashion kind with the big negatives, and I went to school for eight months, reeling every day, all day long, for eight months, and I was really into black and white photography. One point in my life I was married and was living in Columbus and I was tired of that and working at Cummins. The Art Institute of Chicago was having a canvassing looking for prospects so I took my portfolio up there of photography. Two weeks later, I got a letter that said that they would give me scholarships and I told my wife it's time to get out of here. So we went up there and she got her PhD and I got my B.F.A. and later a Masters and was into this whole field of art and education.

Will Hamilton:

What did it feel like when you suffered from addiction?

John Dell:

Lonely. I'm also gay so I wasn't allowed to be who I was then. That was a very different time in the world then. Being gay, was the worst thing in the world. People were being killed for being gay if you came out in certain areas. So I had other issues in my life that I was dealing with. You couldn't be who you wanted to be in the military so I just kind of had this hidden life to conform to society.

Will Hamilton:

How did you get out of the state of addiction?

John Dell:

God. I turned it all over to God. Told Jesus, I said I'd had enough and I was raised in an Italian Catholic family so that whole aspect of religion was in me all my life. It had its conflicts but I wasn't happy and I was bound and determined that I could not go on this way.

Will Hamilton:

When did you start to feel like you being accepted for your sexuality or do you even feel like that?

John Dell:

I still think that there are people and there will always be people and this is the way of the world, the way the world is-who believe one way and other people believe another way. It used to bother me, now I don't care, I could care less about what everybody else thinks.

Will Hamilton:

How do you feel like your military experience effects your point of views?

John Dell:

When you live it and breathe it and you have your own insight. For example, I was born and raised Catholic but I don't go to Catholic church because there is a lot of things they say that I don't agree in. Basic Christian belief, there's a lot that I believe in. You know, after you live life you start to see that a lot of things that are said in society aren't necessarily so. There just not that way at all.

Will Hamilton:

How do you practice you religion?

John Dell:

It's private. If! want to go to Holy Communion. I don't believe that people need to go to a confessional. When you do something wrong, your penance is the way that you've made yourself feel by doing something wrong.

Will Hamilton:

Have you ever been into going to church?

John Dell:

No. When I was younger, I was reared that way, I was an altar boy and we went every Sunday and it was like a ritual. It was a part of who you are. You know, being a part of Italian descent that's a big deal. At one time, I was going to be priest. The night before I was supposed to leave, I looked at my mom and dad and said I can't do this. There is no way that I can totally be - I mean not love anybody physically or emotionally the rest of my life? To me, I said I don't know ifI can do that. There's just a lot of things about any organized religion that I have problems with.

Will Hamilton:

Do you attend reunions?

John Dell:

High school? No.

Will Hamilton:

I mean from your base?

John Dell:

No, we don't.

Will Hamilton:

How did your services and experiences effect your life as a whole?

John Dell:

First of all, I got to see the world. I got to travel a lot, my mind was opened up, and I could see a lot and observe a lot. The world is much bigger than what I was accustomed to. I just think that a lot of what people are told by society is a lot of bull crap. As you get older you form you own religion, your own belief system, your own sort of way of learning how to live with life and be happy with it the best you can. There is no set script for it. Some things that you were told, you kind of just knock out of the way, and move on because you've lived it, you've seen it and you know that there has to be a different way than all that.

Will Hamilton:

Do you feel happy with your life so far?

John Dell:

I am more happy now with my life than I've ever been in my whole life. I'm independent, I know who I am, I'm very comfortable in my skin, I've went ahead with my life, and did something positive with it with education and kids and all that. I have my art in the winters, I'm painting, and I have a group of friends and everything. Are my days filled with total bliss? No, that not the way this world is. I have days that sometimes I don't feel like I'm on top of the world, but that's part of it.

Will Hamilton:

Do you want to keep living your life this way or is there anything special you want to do?

John Dell:

I guess becoming a lottery winner wouldn't be bad although I have everything I need. I have a nice home, it's modest but it's home and I have a wonderful pension, I'm in good health. You look at those things, you feel very blessed. You feel extremely blessed to have that because there are so many people out there who don't. So, it doesn't take a lot for me to be happy.

Will Hamilton:

If you had to give advice to someone that's considering going into the military, what would you say?

John Dell:

Wow, that's a really good question. Get what you can out of it. Learn from it and try not to let it tear you apart. Especially if you go off to war, military wouldn't be such an experience, but once you get involved with a war, and you're in a war zone - that's a whole different story. Now, going into the military and just having a job, and being sent here and sent there without that experience-I don't see any big deal with it. I don't see a problem with it. I see it as very much a growth thing.

Will Hamilton:

What did it feel like to be in a war zone? Was it just plain chaos?

John Dell:

Isolating-realizing that you might not ever leave there. I think one of the most-hardest thing for me to do, was the day that my brother, Jerome, and my dad took me to the airport to go. I mean they were holding on to me, crying, and I just wanted to burst out crying. I mean the lump in my throat was horrible and I just told them just pretend like I'm going away to college and I'll be back, but it was very serious. I was realizing I might not ever see them again. That was the first time I was hit with that feeling in my life-I mean that serious of a feeling. I mean there's all kinds of external traumas going on with a person when they're going through all that. You know, just let alone living in a war zone.

Will Hamilton:

Did you ever get injured?

John Dell:

Psychologically, yeah-but not physically.

Will Hamilton:

Did you ever see any?

John Dell:

Oh yeah, the night we got hit with one hundred forty five millimeter rockets, one of them just slid off the hooch. A hootch is a place where G.I.s live-and we saw one go in between our barracks go down and hit another barracks-and it was a night shift barracks, but we had to go in and clear it because there were two guys that weren't at work because they were ill and both of them were killed. So just the whole trauma of that-I am not the sort of male stereotype male that wants to go out and kill animals and do all that sort of thing. It's just not my nature. It's not part of me - I can't stand violence, I hate fighting, it's just a part of me-and when you put into a situation like that it's going to have effects on you.

Will Hamilton:

Before the war, were you a pacifist?

John Dell:

Pretty much, but I had heard this thing about World War II from my parents and Adolf Hitler and all that. So I figured you know, if there's bad people out there, sometimes you have to have a war, but there are a lot of unnecessary wars. We just got done having one-for ten years, which is still going on but is starting to recede now.

Will Hamilton:

When you would like imagine war, how much different is it from what it actually is or is it pretty much what you would expect?

John Dell:

Pretty much what I expected-but the realness of it, the rawness of it, and being there in it, it has its own space. It has its own space, just like being here in a house where everything's calm and it has its own space.

Will Hamilton:

When people for the U.S. were killed, what would your base do to honor them?

John Dell:

Put them in bags and send them to Dover Air Force Base to be cleaned up and sent home.

Will Hamilton:

Is there anything else you would like to add?

John Dell:

Nope. I've kind of given you what I feel and what I experienced and hopefully people will learn from war that there is a better way to live.

Will Hamilton:

Thank you.

John Dell:

This experience that we all are having now or this experience called life-it's very broken. It is a broken experience - because it's part of human nature. It's the way it is. No, when I get up in the morning and I look out and see the blue sky and all that, I am just overwhelmed. You know, there is a lot of joy and a lot of happiness in it-but there's just as much pain in it. For whatever reason it might be. You have to learn how to live with it and not let it take you and rattle you apart. I must honestly say I have learned how to live with it. There's something you don't know. For example, I don't know if you've ever seen this. That is how beautiful my mother was. She weighed forty five pounds when she died of Anorexia nervosa. That is my father. He was a chronic alcoholic. This is my little sister-look how beautiful-died at age three in 1948 of kidney cancer and it drove them nuts. So, live is a challenge. It's a real, real challenge and from these challenges, is what makes us. If everything's in a white picket fence and everything's just perfect in life, you are not gonna grow. There are painful experiences that you have to tum around, learn from them, and go on. I have no complaints because I have seen you know, people who are in far worse predicaments - people who have suffered much, much more. Every day is a gift. Every day is a gift. So with your mother and father, every day that you have them, believe me is a gift. My mother died when I was in my senior year of high school. There's a whole loss right there, but you have to learn and accept, this is the way it is. Does that make sense? [End of interview]

 
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