Skip Navigation and Jump to Page Content    The Library of Congress >> American Folklife Center  
Veterans History Project (Library of Congress) ABOUT  
SEARCH/BROWSE  
HELP  
COPYRIGHT  
Home » Text Transcript

Interview with Bill Helwig [11/11/05]

Steve Estes:

My name is Steve Estes. Today is Veteran's Day, November 11, 2005 and I'm interviewing...

Bill Helwig:

I'm Bill Helwig and we're in Berkeley, CA.

Steve Estes:

Bill, some of the questions I'm going to ask here you've already answered, but just for the record: when and where were you born?

Bill Helwig:

I was born in Riverside, Southern California.

Steve Estes:

And when?

Bill Helwig:

October 28, 1941.

Steve Estes:

What did your parents do for a living?

Bill Helwig:

My dad was a - well, did a number of things in his life, all kinds of different jobs. When I was born, he was just getting off of unemployment during the Depression and then he got on with the Army Air Corps out of March Air Force Base, and he worked the last seven - eight - nine years as a handyman for the plumbing shop out there. My mother was a registered nurse that would work part-time. At the time that I was born, she pretty much stayed home and didn't go back to work until I was nine or ten years old.

Steve Estes:

What was it like growing up in Southern California in the '40s and '50s?

Bill Helwig:

Absolutely lovely. We didn't have smog in those days. We did have smudge from the orange groves in the wintertime. That was one of the reasons we moved to Northern California. My Dad had bronchial problems and couldn't stand it when they would light the heaters for the orange trees in the winter time.

Steve Estes:

What year did you move to Northern California?

Bill Helwig:

1950 we moved to Northern California.

Steve Estes:

Did that change anything with your growing up or your family having moved up here other than hopefully helping your dad's health?

Bill Helwig:

Yeah, it did mainly because at the time, within a month of moving to Northern California, my older sister Barbara died very suddenly in San Diego where she was going to nursing school, so I sort of became an only child at that point. As a consequence, as I grew up in Northern California, my parents being older, most of my growing up and acquaintances were with older people, and so you might say I matured in my attitudes and that sort of thing fairly early in life.

Steve Estes:

I saw on your resume that you went to the University of Washington. Why did you pick the University of Washington?

Bill Helwig:

Well, what happened is my folks moved up there in 1958 and I was still going to high school in Auburn, California and we moved the previous year. So it was like we moved one year and here I was a junior, and now the folks were going to move, and I didn't want to make new friends and whatever. They said, "well fine, we'll go up there and you can come back and stay your senior year in Auburn and finish high school." So when it came to the choice, I put it at Cal here, in Berkeley, and I put in at UW in Seattle. UW came through first, so I said, well fine I'll go to UW.

Steve Estes:

Who did you live with that year, your senior year? Did you live with friends?

Bill Helwig:

There was an elderly lady that I used to do garden work for in Auburn and she had a room in her house and she said, "yeah, I'll rent you a room," so that was a nice place to stay. So, I did occasional gardening for her and my folks paid board and room for me.

Steve Estes:

You did ROTC at University of Washington, right? Did you do that right off the bat or did you start doing it later?

Bill Helwig:

No, I did it right off the bat because at the time I started in there, UW was a land grant university and you had to take ROTC for your first two years in order to graduate, unless of course you were physically handicapped or something. And initially I'd wanted to go into the Navy because my uncle was a retired naval captain and I really wanted to go into the Navy. The Navy took one look at my eyes and said, forget it. [laughs] There's the Army, go sign up with them. So, that's how I got in for the first two years. At the end of my sophomore year, I had no intention of going on and staying in ROTC, and the folks in the Army, being very smart, started propagandizing my folks. I went home one weekend and all I could hear was, "why don't you sign up for advanced course, and that way, when you get your degree, you'll have a job" and blah, blah, blah. I was like, okay, fine, I'll sign up. Went back, never expecting to be accepted and put in the application and signed up for all my fall courses and about three weeks after that I get this letter saying welcome. Go down and sign up for your ROTC, so I had to pay late fees and revamp all the courses, [laughs] I was into the program.

Steve Estes:

I think also in the information you sent me, you said there were a lot of people in your family who served in the military, not just your uncle, right? There was a generation before that?

Bill Helwig:

Well, you see, my dad didn't, because he was very much older. He was born in 1882, so by the time the First World War came along, he was almost too old for that. But o- his brother served in the First World War and my great-grandfather was in the Civil War. My uncle, Yancey, my mother's brother-in-law was a graduate of Annapolis but those were the only immediate family members.

Steve Estes:

So you wouldn't say it was a military family?

Bill Helwig:

No.

Steve Estes:

But your parents were proud that you served?

Bill Helwig:

Oh, yes, very much so, because I was raised not as a jingoistic patriot, but one who was raised in terms of service to country was a privilege and it was something that you did. My mother's father was a judge for many years in Toledo, Ohio, so I was sort of raised on civic responsibility and that sort of thing. If I hadn't continued in the military, I probably would have gotten out and gone to work for one of the government bureaucracies of some kind.

Steve Estes:

When you graduated from University of Washington, where was your first post?

Bill Helwig:

Fort Lewis Washington, which was quite nice. I was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division, in the Administrative Services area. Worked in that for oh, about a year, and then I switched over to the personnel department and worked in that area.

Steve Estes:

We're talking about 1963?

Bill Helwig:

1963, actually '63 to '65 I was at Fort Lewis.

Steve Estes:

And then you went to Okinawa, is that right?

Bill Helwig:

Yeah, I went to Okinawa in '65.

Steve Estes:

What was that like?

Bill Helwig:

That was fascinating. I enjoyed it, it was American enough because you had the military government there at the time, so the island was run by a 3-star general. So you had the military enclave, and the Oriental population and everything, so it made it a nice, interesting tour. It was very cushy as far as life was concerned. We had a four-man [unintelligible] that we hired two maids. They'd come in every day at 8:00 in the morning and do the place up and went home at noon to change clothes because the perspiration was so rotten in the tropics, you'd throw your uniform on the floor - by the time you got home at night it was washed, starched, hung up in your closet, [laughs] The boots were polished. $30 a month.

Steve Estes:

Amazing. So, I guess if it's '65 - '66, Vietnam is starting to heat up. Are you aware of that in Okinawa? f'/

Bill Helwig:

Oh, yeah. The unit that we were sent - well, Gordon and I were levied at the same time and we went to Fort Lee, Virginia to hook up with 2nd Logistical Command. That unit was brought to Okinawa to basically straighten out the logistics mess that they had over there in the depot, as Vietnam started to build up and they were going crazy trying to figure out how to move supplies and all this sort of thing. It was an absolute total mess at the time, so we brought this logistical command over to actually straighten that out.

Steve Estes:

So you saw all the supplies, a lot of the men that were going over also, or were they going through...?

Bill Helwig:

They were occasionally the transports would sail into Naha Harbor, just touch base and then go on south, but normally you didn't see the troop population. We'd see continually B-52s take off from Kadena Air Base and go out on bombing runs to Vietnam.

Steve Estes:

When did you first find out that you were gonna go to Vietnam?

Bill Helwig:

When I came back from Okinawa and went to the 108th Military Intelligence Group at Fort Devens and I was only there a year - a little over a year - a little less than a year. Originally I got orders to go to Korea and my boss didn't want me to leave, so he pulled some strings in Washington to get that cancelled and a month later I came down on a levy to go to Vietnam, so I was assigned to 1st Brigade of the 5th Infantry Division at Fort Carson. We went there and sort of organized that brigade to go over and then in July of '68 I went over with the advance party to Vietnam.

Steve Estes:

Now, by July of '68, is anyone starting to question the war here at home?

Bill Helwig:

Oh, yeah. When I came out, I actually went home. It was at the time of Okinawa when we actually flew out to Oakland, got on the transport here at Oakland Army Base and went to sail across the Pacific. Well, in order to load some of the troops that were going on the troop ship to Vietnam at that time, there were demonstrators outside the gate of Oakland Army Base and literally the troop trains had to have live steam on their engines to blow at the demonstrators in order to be able to get the trains down the tracks into the army base.

Steve Estes:

So could you her what the demonstrators were saying? What kinds of things were they saying?

Bill Helwig:

Yeah. They were shouting out anti-war slogans and all that sort of thing.

Steve Estes:

How did you feel about that - the protestors and the war itself in '68? Before you went, I mean?

Bill Helwig:

Actually, I felt that Number 1, certainly they had the right to protest and I didn't have any feelings really badly about their protesting because I figured, that's their right to do so. I'm in uniform to defend that right. So it didn't really bother me in any sense and my own going over was about a year after I had been appointed as a regular army officer, so that's my job. Government says "go," you go. It wasn't really an issue for me.

Steve Estes:

Let's back up. Was that your choice to go regular army as opposed to reserves?

Bill Helwig:

Oh, yes. Because I came on board as a reserve officer on extended active duty and when I was sitting in Okinawa, I was thinking, well, if I really want to stay around in the army for 20 years, I need to get that ticket, have the tenure. So I put in the application, again, never thinking that I was going to be accepted as one of the 44,500 regular army people and all of a sudden one day, I was sitting at Fort Devens this message came in that said discharge Capt. Helwig from his reserve commission and appoint him as a 1st Lieutenant regular army, [laughs]

Steve Estes:

Was that weird -1 don't myself understand the way rank works in the reserves as opposed to in regular army. Was it weird to go from Captain to Lieutenant or was that just kind of...

Bill Helwig:

No, but I still had my temporary appointment as Captain, I was still paid as a Captain, wore the rank and insignia as a Captain, but my permanent rank was as a 1st Lieutenant regular army as opposed to a 1st Lieutenant USAR.

Steve Estes:

Take me to Vietnam. What are your first impressions when you get there?

Bill Helwig:

We flew on an airlift on our C141 out of Peterson Airfield in Colorado Springs and several hops - Travis, and then Wake Island and then Clark in the Philippines and then on into Vietnam. It was about, really a 24 hour transit because the plane had some problems en route and we got delayed. Anyway, we got off the plane at 0:30 in the morning at Danang, and fog all over the place. People that were marshalling us said okay, come on over here, bring your duffel bags, come on over here to these [--] that they had to protect the fighters from damages and everything. There were some [-] that had coffee and doughnuts and that sort of thing out there. They said, ok, just rest and everything and I had my duffel bag on my shoulder like this [gestures] I let loose of it like this and I heard this "oomph!"and I turned around and I was starting into six stars, [laughs] I just dropped it onto Lieutenant General [-] who was the commander of my corps, [laughs] But he was very understanding. Most of my encounters with general officers had been very understanding. He said, oh yeah, had a long trip, didn't you, Captain? [laughs] Actually, going is sort of like, you think, oh my god, I'm going to a war zone, and well, you couldn't even tell there was a war going on at that point in time. Then, they shipped a couple of C130s and got flown up north to Quang Tri and landed at this dirt strip up there and loaded up on a couple of [-] and they ran us off to this little area on the edge of the combat base perimeter where there were some tents and barbed wire out here, and that was it. It was just, every once in awhile, we'd get a little harassing scare from the enemy or whatever, but nothing much. The only casualty in the first 30 days we were there was some Lieutenant Colonel that got shot when in the ass, accidentally in the shower point because all they had for shower point was a bunch of duckboards and some overhead piping and you were sort of right out there in front of the enemy and everybody. This kid came in with his - delivering something to Brigade headquarters and they had a dismount point and everything at the sand barrel where you're supposed to clear your rifle. Well, when he supposedly cleared his rifle and pulled the trigger, he accidentally shot this colonel in the rear end. [laughs]

Steve Estes:

That's an ignominious way...

Bill Helwig:

But aside from that, and one night we get some, the Marines thought it was tremendous fun to run through the army encampment [--] grenade simulators and so they did that one night, and running from through bunker I sliced my leg open on a steel [-] but other than that, no bad experiences.

Steve Estes:

When did you - or maybe you never felt like - now, I'm in a war zone, now I feel that?

Bill Helwig:

You certainly felt that in a sense, but I never felt really, truly threatened. I suppose really the closest that I ever came to an encounter with the enemy - we had gone one day down to -1 had a place down on the coast about maybe ten miles away from the base camp, in the little area where they would bring units in for some stand-down time. Got a call one afternoon saying, hey can you get some athletic equipment and stuff down here, so my special services officer and I and a driver and another specialist got in the Jeep and started heading down to the place. As we were coming back up, sort of getting toward evening - road only went along the top of a dike and there were some intersecting dikes in the rice paddies, and we came along, and saw this guy coming toward us on an angle. And as he saw us, he started to run toward the Jeep, and he had his hand down like this [gestures] and I said, "watch this guy when he comes across and pick him up when we-" We all had him under tracking with our rifles and the minute he saw that, after he'd come across, he sort of went along about his own business, but I'm convinced to this day he had a grenade he was gonna pitch. Another friend of mine was going down through a local village there and they had [-] across the roadway to keep - some of our trucks down to keep the massive [-] kids that would run out. As they slowed down for one of these things we heard a "clunk" and somebody had thrown a grenade under the Jeep and fortunately we could get the dang thing out of there before...

Steve Estes:

You gotta thank your reflexes on that day.

Bill Helwig:

It was a much different war than what the poor kids are trying to fight in Iraq today. You had a sense of where people were coming from and you had the sense that people around you who were part of the group that was together for mutual protection and so forth. I really pity the guys over in Iraq today for what they're doing because they have everything coming at them from all kinds of different directions.

Steve Estes:

Part of the difference, I think, is - we're talking about a rural, predominantly rural, part of Vietnam, and a predominantly urban one in Iraq. There's just so much density and so many places to hide - not that there's not places to hide in a jungle, obviously there are. It sounds like your main mission there was not to go on search and destroy missions.

Bill Helwig:

No. I was with the Brigade Headquarters element and I was actually the Deputy Adjutant General, which is the head of Personnel Administration for the Brigade. Most of my time was spent in the [--] area of the base camp at [--]. Iwould take day trips out to some of the outposts out there, the DMZ for example and down south a little bit, but for the most part, you could - during daylight hours at that time, that portion of Quang Tri Province, you could basically go down the road and be considered fairly safe. There wasn't any problem. I know my boss and I and a driver drove from Quang Tri down to Hue on Highway 1 and we didn't encounter any kind of a problem doing that. Because basically the Brigade - one of the reasons we were sent over there was to essentially pacify the area by putting out all these small unit patrols. We rarely had an engagement with the enemy of a company size or larger. It was all platoon, squad level tactics.

Steve Estes:

I think I read that you got a Bronze Star while you were over there, is that right?

Bill Helwig:

Meritorious service, yeah, that's right.

Steve Estes:

Was that just kind of doing your duty, or was there anything special that you...?

Bill Helwig:

Yeah, they handed them out with the lunch bags. Nothing heroic about it. It was basically for going over with the advance party and setting up all the administration and that sort of thing, before the rest of the brigade came over.

Steve Estes:

Did you have, yourself, relations with civilians? I mean, Vietnamese civilians? Did you get to know any, or did you see them, or what was your interaction?

Bill Helwig:

Not really. You would have incidental relations with the employees that they had come in. Like we had the ladies come in and clean the dining rooms and the latrines and originally we had to take our laundry all out to the ladies alongside the river that pounded 'em on the rocks. And then dried them over the dung fire, so you ended up smelling absolutely lovely when you put them on.

Steve Estes:

Eventually they came in...

Bill Helwig:

Eventually they would let them come in for the day, but as soon as it got towards sundown, they threw them all off the base again.

Steve Estes:

Was there any fear of Viet Cong saboteurs or anything like that coming in?

Bill Helwig:

More so that they would not be - not saboteurs - but rather they would pass the information as to the location of where you were staying and then they could zero in on, you know. But in the year that I was there we had one small mortar attack on the whole Quang - which was a very large combat base. We were attached to the 3rd Marine Division, which was - had an immense amount of people in that area. There was only one small mortar attack that I can remember. One night when I was on -1 was the fire support coordinator for our section of the perimeter - folks called in and said, we see some lights out there. Nothing was supposed to be out there once darkness fell and I said, fine, give me some coordinates and they did and the third round that the mortars put up, it was - the whole ground shook and came up. Apparently they were putting in ammunition in underground storage, so it was about a half mile outside of our [--].

Steve Estes:

So, your average day - what was your average day like, and did it change?

Bill Helwig:

No, it stayed pretty much the same. The average day was just, you would get up like you were in garrison in the morning and go to chow and go to the office. The office was a wooden barracks type, 1-story long building with screening halfway up the side of the thing, built by the CBs. We couldn't have gotten along without the CBs because they built everything for us. And then just fight the daily battle of getting stuff for people. I used to stay up at night -1 had a couple of kids that ran the casualty section of the personnel office, even though they weren't under my direct supervision, I used to make it a point every night, I'd go get in there about 10:00 at night and make sure that everything was ok and shoot the bull with them and see what the latest situation was with the casualties coming across and that sort of thing. It was almost like being in a regular garrison situation in the States except that normally you don't stand a chance of somebody throwing a mortar around in your office, [laughs]

Steve Estes:

Let's back up a little bit - before I talk about sexuality, and this may get you to talk about sexuality a little bit -1 read about you going on R & R and maybe you could talk about that a little bit. Where did you go?

Bill Helwig:

Well, I went on three of them actually. I went to Panang Malaysia, and I went with another Captain who was chief of the personnel office. He was married and at that time, I wasn't particularly interested in sexual relations with anybody, and so we just enjoyed Panang Island, going around and seeing different people. We got a chance - when my boss came back from an R & R in Bangkok and just absolutely raved about how wonderful it all was and so forth. So there were some extra allocations that came up and I and two of the NCOs in my office decided to go. At that time it was like, well, maybe I should go experiment and whatever with the ladies and I went to a massage parlor, which of course is a euphemism for house of prostitution [laughs]. It just didn't turn me on at all, and so that was sort of when the penny really finally dropped and I said, yeah, you really are gay, and so forth, and so on.

Steve Estes:

Had you thought about that before? This was obviously an evolving thing, probably, so when did that start for you?

Bill Helwig:

I think it started when I was in college. It was sort of like, well, maybe you're a late bloomer, sexually. My dad never got married until he was 47. But there just was absolutely no attraction. I remember going out with a gal in college and we were sitting parked at a park in Seattle and sort of making out, and she said, you kiss like I'm your mother or something [laughs]. Well, there's a message there, somehow, [laughs] It was a long and evolving sort of thing, and you've got to remember at the time that I started drinking alcoholically when I was first in the service, and so that put the kibosh on a lot of emotions and a lot of things and I hid behind alcohol and the rigidity of the time in the service. I was fond of saying when I finally got sober that booze and the army held me together long enough for me to fall apart, [laughs]

Steve Estes:

So you felt like you'd already had a problem with alcohol before you got to Vietnam?

Bill Helwig:

Oh, yeah. It wasn't a problem. It didn't become a problem until later on, but yes, I drank alcoholically from the first drink I ever took, and I just never copped to it. It was never a problem. For years, I didn't drink during the day because I knew if I started drinking, the production would fall off. Occasions when we would go down to the club for somebody's going away luncheon, I never made it back to the office in the afternoon. So I very infrequently did that. Certainly most of my army career when time to hit the door at night, the cap came off the bottle, and I started drinking, and I'd drink until 1 - 2 o'clock in the morning and then get up at 6 and go to work. Never was a problem until 1981.

Steve Estes:

Were you aware of other folks who were gay in the service when you were - before or during Vietnam?

Bill Helwig:

Yeah. Gordon put the make on me in Okinawa, [laughs] I was scared to death of it. There was a sergeant of mine in Vietnam who, in the shower, was like, "well, let me wash your back" and that sort of thing. Yeah, sure, I knew there were other people but I never [-] didn't really have anything to do with them.

Steve Estes:

Were other people aware - was this kind of an in secret, or was everybody kind of in on it, that there were gay folks, and were like, well, whatever...

Bill Helwig:

I think there were and I think it's absolutely true to find that particularly in war time that unless you get a very rabid anti-gay official that's [-] as long as it isn't blatant, then turn the blind side because they want the manpower, they want the workers. My boss certainly knew. He didn't say so much to me, but quite interesting Jerry [-] who was my boss in Vietnam, and who was the one who that had raved about the girls in Bangkok and so forth and so on - years later, when I was stationed at the Presidio, Jerry came and was the adjutant of the CID unit at the Presidio. We had a mutual acquaintance, a big black sergeant that worked with me that also knew Jerry and they used to pal around together. One day Bill [--] my sergeant came into the office of the 6th Army and said "I saw Jerry the other night and said to tell you hello and he said also to tell me to tell you to be very careful." And that's all he said. And of course I had an inkling of what that might mean. Well, years later, when I read - what's his name's book, I'm bad on it - you know, the guy that wrote...

Steve Estes:

Randy Schultz?

Bill Helwig:

Yeah, Randy Schultz. When I read his book, he talks about the big CID investigation of gays at the Presidio at that time frame. So, it finally dawned on me that what Jerry was doing was giving me the word, be very careful about what you do. Obviously he knew that I was gay. There was nothing that - he never mentioned, never said anything to me.

Steve Estes:

What's really interesting about this is he is CID so it's his job - but, maybe because you had a long-standing relationship with him or...

Bill Helwig:

He wasn't actually CID. He was in the same branch as I was - he was in the administration of the headquarters at the CID element there.

Steve Estes:

So, let's not fast-forward too much, because I want to get to the Presidio. Let me think if there's anything else I wanted to ask you about Vietnam. Are there any other experiences in Vietnam that you feel like we really should talk about for the Library of Congress?

Bill Helwig:

I can't really think of anything. No, I really don't think of anything. I'm very glad that I had the opportunity to serve there. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Steve Estes:

If you think about something else as we go on, please interrupt us. When you get back from Vietnam, there are stories similar to the one that you told when you got on the transport to go over, where protestors welcomed troops home. Did you have that kind of welcome, or was it...?

Bill Helwig:

No, it was later on where I began to experience it, and it was very subtle. I was on a flight someplace in uniform and you would get the impression that people wouldn't want to talk to you or once a stewardess on an airline completely ignored me during the dinner service, but otherwise than that, there was no overt sort of "babykiller" or that sort of reaction to it. Maybe I was just immune to it, just never paid much attention to it and all.

Steve Estes:

Now, I think your father passed away in '68?

Bill Helwig:

'68, yeah.

Steve Estes:

So you said in the stuff you sent me that you kind of took care of your mom after that. What was that like, taking that kind of responsibility on?

Bill Helwig:

Essentially, for many years it was just financial responsibility because she was a very independent sort of woman. I mean, she kept going physically until thirty days before she died at 99 /4. I felt a sense of responsibility and I always have and I guess I was raised with that because my grandmother lived with us for the first sixteen years of my life. So it was like, that's what you do. You take care of the old folks. She had nobody besides me, of course. Eventually, we bought a house down in Beaumont and lived together there for sixteen years before she passed away.

Steve Estes:

Did you have the choice to get out at ten years, when you've been in for - in '73 or so, or was that not a breaking point?

Bill Helwig:

Well, there was no official - once I got my regular army commission, and that's essentially that's something you hold until you die, it would be up to me to put in a resignation, basically saying, no, I want out. I just never [] because it was a good life. First of all, it protected me in my drinking. Nobody was going to mess with me unless I really screwed up. It was something that I was familiar with, I didn't have to go out and decide what I was going to wear in the morning, it was a very protective sort of environment. I pretty much enjoyed that.

Steve Estes:

Now, when you were in the Presidio, this is the '70s, right?

Bill Helwig:

Yeah, I was there from '74 to '78.

Steve Estes:

This is in some ways the flowering of gay liberation in the city so were you aware of that?

Bill Helwig:

Oh yeah, but again, I was holding it at bay. I never went to the bars, I never went to -1 used to frequent the porno place on Polk Street - not Polk Street, but Powell, there was a theater in there that used to show gay flicks, and I used to go to that. But if anybody suggested that, you know, you might want to not...

Steve Estes:

Was that even risky, going to the flicks?

Bill Helwig:

I'm sure it could be. I used to quietly go a circuitous public transportation route going down there, and certainly after Jerry warned me about the CID looking out for things, I sort of thought maybe twice about going down there, but no, it didn't really keep me away.

Steve Estes:

So, when you got out of the service - you said in '81, things started being a problem in terms of drinking.

Bill Helwig:

Yeah, it was '81.

Steve Estes:

Talk about that.

Bill Helwig:

My mother and I had been in Germany for three years - almost three years - and I came back and what I knew was going to be my final assignment before I retired and I went down to Fort Owen out in the desert in Southern California. Got there, and mom went back up to our house in Oak Harbor, Washington at the time, so I was by myself. Seemed like the drinking got worse and worse and worse and worse and more frequent. Every night I was getting absolutely wasted. I was supposed to go up home and visit -this was on the middle of July -1 had two weeks vacation, and I thought to myself, well, drinking is becoming a problem, so I tell you what, I won't - I'm just not going to drink on this vacation. So, the first thing I did was take the half-gallon of gin out of my car which I used to carry around with me. I stared out early in the morning to drive up, I thought, well I'll drive up. I'm in a lot of stress because we've been reopening up the base and everything; I'm under a lot of stress, maybe if I just drive up, I won't have the excuse to drink. I started driving, got up as far as San Louis Obispo, checked into a motel about 2 o'clock in the afternoon - by 3 o'clock I'd been to the liquor store - by 6 o'clock I came out of a blackout on the floor of the motel room. I did what any good drunk would do, which was my solution to my drinking problem, I got up, I get cleaned up, I drove downtown to a nice restaurant, ordered a nice meal and a whole bottle of wine, which I drank. Crashed a party of a couple of little old ladies who were celebrating a birthday there, [laughs] Had after dinner drinks with them; that was the answer to my drinking problem. Finally, after I got back from that trip, about a week later, I got up one morning and it was all over. I went in to see my boss, and I said, Colonel, I've got a problem, and I don't know what to do about it. Thank God I worked for a wonderful Lieutenant Colonel. He said, well, we'll get you some help, and he sent me down to see the clinical director of the drug and alcohol program, a guy by the name of Arthur Dutch Schultz - just passed away last month. Old WWII paratrooper, at that time about 20 years of sobriety, and he was able to, by hook or by crook, because there were only 30 beds for alcoholics in treatment in the entire army, by hook or by crook, he got a bed down in a hospital down in El Paso, Texas. I went down there, and things started to happen. I began to get honest with myself. That was the big breakthrough on my sexuality. I had to admit that I was gay.

Steve Estes:

So were you admitting that in counseling in El Paso, or did you admit it to yourself?

Bill Helwig:

Well, both. It was sort of by sleight of hand because of course they didn't want to make a public record issue out of it because of the career aspects of it, but it was certainly quite clear. What happened was, I had been there for two and a half weeks, and I hit this absolute wall in sobriety recovery, where I knew I had to get honest, and I didn't know how I was going to do that. I remember, I was petrified, I was laying in bed one night with five guys in this room, and here I am, sniveling into my pillow, and my buddy says, "what's the matter?" I say, "I can't tell you." The next day, I walked downstairs to the Catholic chaplain in the hospital and said, Father Bill, I got to talk to you. And I walked in and said I'm a homosexual. He wrapped his arms around me and said, "God loves you and you've got to begin to love yourself." And I had to hear those words from the representative of the most [-] religion I could think of.

Steve Estes:

Had you grown up religious?

Bill Helwig:

Not really. I went to church. I actually sang in the choir Episcopal Church up there in Grass Valley when we lived in Northern California, but not - it was more of a social Christian thing as opposed to a fervent believer sort of thing. But yes, I certainly had the religious aspect -1 internalized the feeling, oh, I'm a bad person, all these different...

Steve Estes:

I've talked to other people who had the same revelation and came out to the chaplain on their base and things turned out very differently, where the chaplain actually turned them in. Were you at all afraid of that?

Bill Helwig:

No, I don't -1 was afraid, I think, of just admitting. Father Bill [-] was a wonderful man. I have no idea whether he was gay himself. Certainly was a possibility. Just a wonderful human being, and you sort of sensed that, and in dealings with people. He was also a recovered alcoholic, which made it easy to talk to him. I don't know - it's sort of like, all throughout these - when I look back through the pattern of my life, I've sort of been put in situations, it seems like, where I'm supposed to be at the time. I can't explain it, but that's the feeling that I get.

Steve Estes:

Once you started coming grips with that, you're only have one more year.

Bill Helwig:

Yeah, I only had about a year and a half left. I came back -1 had done the Adjutant General Post at the time that I had left, well, of course, they couldn't keep me on at that, so [-] essentially gave me his executive officer and his office and he would sit me at this desk outside of his door with a bunch of paperwork to do. He was really understanding. When I got really squirrelly, it was okay, fine, I could get up and leave for two or three hours, go down and talk to the folks at the drug and alcohol center or whatever, and he never said a word about it. He was absolutely wonderful. After about six months of that, the position as chief of the drug and alcohol program came open, I said, I'd really like to do that for the remainder of my time here. They said "fine, okay, the job is yours." So I spent the last year of my time in service running the drug and alcohol program.

Steve Estes:

That must have felt really good, to help people the same way you had been helped.

Bill Helwig:

It really was. It was very rewarding, and I had a wonderful staff.

Steve Estes:

This is going to sound weird, but did you feel like there were other folks who came in and had substance abuse problems that were also hiding sexuality or that sexuality was kind of what had driven them in?

Bill Helwig:

Yeah. There's no question about that.

Steve Estes:

Do you think that's particularly a problem in the military, or worse in the military than in civilian life? I mean, it's hard to say maybe, but...

Bill Helwig:

It really is hard to say. I think the structure of the military attracts people with some problems, because of the fact that that structure helps them to stay together.

Steve Estes:

When you left the military in 1983, what was the transition to civilian life like?

Bill Helwig:

A little bit aimless for the first year, maybe. I didn't really work for 6 months after I retired, and then I got bored essentially doing nothing, and got interested in doing some counseling work for the drunk driver program that the state has, the SB38 program, and I did that for a long - and I get tired of that. I went to work for Budget Rent-a-Car down at Ontario Airport, hiking cars, picking them up in San Diego, worked at that for about a year and a half. Then, riefly tried working for the Department of Public Social Services, at Riverside County and the caseloads just got so overwhelming that I couldn't stand the stress of trying to produce [--] I finally said, no, I don't need that. About that time, my old friend from the army days, my first tour at Fort Irwin John [-] who had been [-] advocate at the same time I was the AG - we stayed in touch over the years, and he saw me wandering around aimlessly and said, "we need somebody in the law firm that can kind of do administrative bullshit for us. Would you like to come to work as a gofer?" I said, yeah, sounds good to me. I spent seventeen years with this law firm [laughs] in San Bernardino until my disability from Agent Orange and the diabetes and all that sort of stuff started to get the better of me and I could no longer spend 8 hours a day [-] that's it, I'm going to retire for good.

Steve Estes:

So when you -1 didn't actually ask you about the Agent Orange. Did you know while you were in Vietnam that you were exposed to it, or is that something that emerged later on?

Bill Helwig:

Absolutely not. I could see the planes fly over and they'd be 500-1000 feet spraying this stuff out; I thought they were spraying for mosquitoes. There probably were people that knew, but I certainly didn't know that. They'd be out there while this stuff was falling on the vegetation and the encampment and everything else.

Steve Estes:

When did you start to feel the effects or the aftereffects? [End of side 1]

Steve Estes:

So we were talking about Agent Orange, and I had asked, when did you feel the effects of it?

Bill Helwig:

I think fairly immediately because when I came back -1 began to get breakouts in my skin and chronically had been through two - three - four years after I came back from Vietnam, and eventually they went away. So I think that was connected with the Agent Orange exposure and then I suspect that I had the onset of the diabetes long before it was ever detected, and my doctor sort of played back and forth between whether it was diabetes or whether it was thyroid, Graves' Disease and it turned out I had both conditions and it wasn't until about 1993 or '4 that they began to actually pin it down.

Steve Estes:

Was it hard to get the VA to recognize that you were a veteran who had been disabled in relation to your combat?

Bill Helwig:

No. By that time, the presumptive condition of diabetes being related to Agent Orange had already come in and it became one of the - at the time, it was one of seven medical conditions and now I think it's up to ten or fifteen medical conditions that were related to that. So essentially all you had to do was submit the paperwork that said, yeah I have a diagnosis of that, and the VA eventually came back and said, okay we'll give you a disability.

Steve Estes:

That's good, because I know - I've talked to people who struggled.

Bill Helwig:

Absolutely. Just like some of the guys from Iraq are struggling after the first Iraq war with a number of conditions. Rumor has it that the current regime in Washington is doing everything they can to purge the [-] folks.

Steve Estes:

Okay, let me just take a look at my list and see if there are things that I haven't asked you about that I want to make sure I get to. One of the questions that I ask everyone, even though not everyone, including you, didn't serve during the time that Don't Ask, Don't Tell was passed, you had already come to terms in yourself about being gay by that time that Clinton authored the compromise. What did you think about DADT? What were your impressions of it?

Bill Helwig:

I thought it was a copout.

Steve Estes:

Why?

Bill Helwig:

Because Clinton essentially promised during his campaign to say he was going to reverse the policy of discrimination against gays, and when DADT came out, we simply knew that it was a Band-Aid over a sucking chest wound. There was no way that the military was going to play along with that. Of course it happened; the discharge rate went up and - aside from an out and out ban from the top, like Harry Truman did with the integration thing, saying, "by god you're gonna do it, get on with it, don't tell me you how can't do it, just get on with doing it." Then of course we'll have to work our way through the culture and that sort of thing. I'm convinced today, and this is one of the reasons I'm talking to you, is that the more people know that gays are just other people in this world, get over their fears of - the better off we're going to be, and the more we're going to be able to change policy and direction, and that sort of thing. I don't see how you can overcome ignorance and fear other than that.

Steve Estes:

That goes into the last question that I ask eveiybody, and that is, what was the legacy of your military service, both for you and for the country?

Bill Helwig:

I think very strong satisfaction that I served my country. I mentioned I had a great feeling inside that I always wanted to do something to serve my country, and I'm very, very grateful for that. As far as the -1 don't know that there's any one thing that I can say, oh yeah, I saved the whatever. But I participated, and that to me is very important. I did get to participate in some significant things while I was in the service. I helped develop and field the totally new 64 million dollar personnel system for the Army, and was instrumental in testing some of the glitches and finding out how different things could work with it. So that was about a 4 and a half year program. I'm proud of that achievement.

Steve Estes:

And is there anything -1 asked you this about Vietnam, but looking over the whole time that you were in the service, is there anything that I didn't ask about that you think would be important to talk about for the Library of Congress?

Bill Helwig:

No, I can't think of anything significant, Steve - that is terribly significant. I guess I'm impressed with the willingness of a lot of people to give their service to their country, and yet not be - how do I want to say this? - super-patriots. They want to show up and they want to do a job, and yet they're not the radical flag-wavers and that sort of thing. There are millions of them out there; they're wonderful people and I'm glad to be among them.

Steve Estes:

Great. Well thank you very much, Bill.

Bill Helwig:

Thank you for talking to me.

Steve Estes:

Yeah, it was a pleasure.

 
Home » Text Transcript
  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
  Legal | External Link Disclaimer Need Help?   
Contact Us