A boomer remembers being a short-timer in Vietnam

Of the many things that shaped our generation, the war in Vietnam surely is a big one. Dennis Kirban of Kintnersville, Pennsylvania, wrote a story for BoomerCafé about how he got there … and how he left.

I served one year of my three-year Army stint in Nha Trang, Vietnam. It was from 1966 into ’67. I was lucky because when the plane that took me there landed in nearby Cam Ranh Bay, an officer addressed the group of us new recruits, asking if any of us had photography experience.

Three of us raised our hands. We were given some tests to measure our skills, and I proved to be the chosen one. That’s probably because my photography experience had started a year earlier when I was seventeen, helping my dad who was a wedding photographer. Oftentimes Dad had two weddings on the same day, so I would cover one of the weddings by myself.

Dennis with his father, Salem Kirban.

Dennis with his father, Salem Kirban, together in Vietnam.

When I got to Vietnam, I was sent up to Nha Trang where I replaced the current 17th Aviation Group photographer, and became editor for the group’s newspaper. I wrote home a lot, and one day my father decided he’d come out to visit, and take pictures, and learn more about the war.

Dennis (right) made the cover of Moody Monthly, a religious publication.

Dennis (right) made the cover of Moody Monthly, a religious publication.

He had served in the Navy in WWII, and he was a journalist by nature, so he packed up his Hasselblad camera and his tape recorder and flew over. He stayed in the barracks with me, and I took him around the base. Out of respect for his own service, he was given access to a press conference, and a helicopter tour over parts of the area. Dad was forty-two, and was just beginning to find his calling in life. To write.

For me back then, at age eighteen, I didn’t realize the history I was witnessing. I can remember taking photos with a camera my dad had sent over for me, the same one I’d used for weddings back in the States, and suddenly here I was, sometimes standing maybe ten feet away from General William Westmoreland, snapping his picture.

Being in the military, especially in wartime, you grow up in a hurry. It prepares you for whatever you plan to do later in life. I’ve been fortunate to do what I love, and work for myself. That’s the upside. The downside is that Vietnam was a very unpopular war and there was no real welcome home from the general public. I still have my dog tag attached to my key chain.

Short timer stick.

Short timer stick.

I also still have a special souvenir from my time in Vietnam: my “short-timer’s stick.” It was a small wooden hand-carved cane-like stick that some of us short-timers would carry, and when other troops saw us, they’d immediately recognize that we were going home within a matter of weeks. I can’t recall if carrying a short-timer’s stick was done all over Vietnam or just in my unit, but it was a special thing to do.

As Veteran’s Day approaches, a day that also coincides with my father’s birthday, I’ll spend a few moments by a memorial I have for him in my flower garden.

Thanks, Dad

5 Comments

  1. I had the pleasure of working for Salem and Mary Kirban!! I learned sooo much from them!!! Wonderful family I will never forget!!! “Goodbye Mr. President” great story of his trip to see Dennis in war time!!!

  2. Thanks for sharing. I was in Nha Trang with the 54th signal in 68 and 69. Gave my short timers stick to my daughter last year. Thanks for your service. Welcome Home

  3. I was an Intelligence Officer at Tan An FSB in 67-68 and we often traveled to the 9th Med at the airfield about 3 miles away whenever we were needed to gather intelligence from wounded POWs. Middle of the night call and my driver/security and I traveled the 3 miles, which as anyone there at the time knows the dangers traveling in the dark in Vietnam. We almost made it to the Field Hospital when we got into the middle of a mortar attack. We pulled over and found a makeshift bunker with about 8 other soldiers already there. They started asking who was the shortest in the group and several had months to go, some just got there and I said I have two weeks left in country. At that, they all took off their flak jackets and piled them on top of me and said no one that short should go unprotected. That show of support has stuck with me for over 50 years and summed up the ‘band of brothers’ attitude of our troops in Vietnam. We weren’t supported by people in the US, but we sure supported each other.

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