Roger Rickert went to Vietnam in 1965 with the Big Red One, the 1st Infantry Division, as an 18-year-old rifleman.
“Our base camp was Bien Hoi,” he recalled at his home in Sarasota National more than 50 years later. “We went out on a lot of night ambushes and patrols during my first tour.”
Early on, he remembers being at the base camp when another patrol came back from a firefight with the Vietcong.
“They returned to the barracks and during the early part of the evening I could hear someone moaning. It was a Vietcong the patrol shot in the firefight. I listened to him moan most of the night, then he started crying out.
“The next morning we went out on patrol and found a dead VC nearby that was probably the one I heard during the night. Somebody come back and got his weapons and stuff and left his body there in the jungle.
“He was just a soldier carrying out his duties just like I was. That’s bothered me for 53 years,” Rickert said.
“Later on I was out on an ambush and got in a firefight with the VC. When the smoke cleared and the bullets stopped flying, we found one dead VC in the brush. This was just about the time Washington wanted a true body count of the enemy KIAs (killed in action). We put the dead enemy soldier in a poncho and a couple of us carried it back to base camp.
“We had to carry him quite a while. On the way back to base we dropped the poncho and it opened. The dead soldier laid there with only half a head and one eye. Flies and maggots were climbing all over him. He smelled so bad because he was inside the hot poncho for so long.
“Because of these episodes, I have nightmares almost every night. I dream there is this Vietcong down in a hole and he is reaching out to me. I always thought he wanted me to pull him out of the black hole. Then it occurred to me that maybe I was the one who killed him. And maybe he’s not trying to get me out of the hole, but he’s trying to pull me into it.”
When Rickert returned from the Vietnam War and his first tour of duty, he realized he had post traumatic stress disorder and went to the Veterans Administration for treatment.
“I told the VA I was severely depressed and felt alone in a crowd of people. They told me that was normal and it should go away after awhile. It never went away. They gave me a bunch of pills and that was about it.”
Rickert served a second tour in the Army. Initially, he was sent to Germany during round two.
“I didn’t want to stay in Germany and only shoot blanks so I asked to be sent back to Vietnam as an adviser. I taught members of the Regional Popular Forces (South Vietnamese soldiers) how to survive in battle. We would go to a villages and show the local soldiers how to defend themselves. They were kinda like reservists in this country.’
Coming home to the U.S. made a big impression on him.
“When we came back we knew all about the Vietnam protesters,” he said. “They were waiting for us when I flew into San Francisco Airport. I changed my Army uniform and threw it in the trash at the airport and wore my civilian clothes.
“They still knew who I was. They were shouting at us at the airport and calling us baby killers and druggies.
“When I got home my parents had a coming home party for me. In the midst of the celebration I ran out of cigarettes and ran down to the local tavern to get another pack. I opened the door and walked in the bar and asked the bartender for a pack of cigarettes. I was wearing my summer Army uniform at the time.
“He said, ‘You get the hell out of here, you’re not welcome!’
“After my second tour in Vietnam I was supposed to go to Fort Carson, Colorado, but I wrote Washington and told them I would really like to become a drill instructor so I could teach trainees how to survive in battle. They granted me my request and I was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, as a drill instructor.”
After seven years in the regular Army, Rickert was discharged as a staff sergeant. He went to work running a body shop for an auto company. In 1974, he decided to join the Army Reserve, and spent the next 21 years as a reservist.
“In 2006, I was watching a video about the Vietnam War. They showed footage of the war and something snapped inside me. I felt like I was spiraling down. I went back to the VA and they sent me to the hospital. That’s where I started my PTSD treatment.
“While I was in the Reserves, my brigade commander recommended that I go to West Point with a group of instructors during summer camp. This was in 1980. The first year I went as an instructor. The next four summers I went back to West Point as the NCO in charge of all of the instructors. I taught them military tactics.”
He speaks a lot about West Point.
“It’s a remarkable place. It’s so peaceful and quiet when you’re walking around the grounds looking at all those statues.
“After West Point, my brigade commander asked me to join an ROTC program at the University of Wisconsin. I taught infantry tactics to the cadets. Teaching at West Point in the summer and the ROTC cadets were some of the best times I had in the service.
“The only thing I couldn’t teach them was how it was being shot at. I told them the first time I was in a firefight in Vietnam I was lying on the ground and bullets were flying over our head. I told God, ‘If you will get me out of this place I will never do anything wrong.’
Rickert retired in 2009 and moved to Venice with his wife, Francine. They have three daughters, Tonya, Jennifer and Naomi.
“I came back from Vietnam and became an alcoholic. I spent the next 10 years as an alcoholic. Then I turned my life around for the most part. Nobody knows I have PTSD; I’ve only told the VA and my family.
“I never talk about Vietnam because nobody wants to listen to me. The only people I trust are the ones I went to war with.”