During the U.S. troop pullout, the State Department needed a Redstone civilian to go to Vietnam in 1973 to oversee the turnover of Army calibration equipment to the Vietnamese army.
The scheduled worker decided not to go after all. So, Redstone’s deputy calibration chief asked Millard Jernigan. This meant spending three months in a war zone to evaluate U.S. contractors tasked with turning over the equipment to the Vietnamese army.
Jernigan agreed to go when the Redstone calibration center and Calhoun Community College allowed him to complete his three courses at Calhoun within the three weeks before his January 1973 trip. His 23 years of experience in calibration qualified him for this dangerous job.
“I was anxious to see Vietnam but not in a war time,” he said.
“Having returned from Germany six months prior to that, I considered this a great opportunity to see another country and help out.”
Jernigan was assigned to the Army base at Long Binh which was right outside of Saigon. He arrived at Da Nang during the evening and checked into his Saigon hotel. One wing of the hotel had been bombed the previous night and destroyed.
“I could actually look outside my window and see the Viet Cong troops on a hillside about a half mile in the distance,” Jernigan said. “In traveling by jeep from Saigon to Da Nang, I could see Viet Cong on one side of the road and South Vietnamese troops on the other side of the road. A few hundred feet separated them. And you’re going right between them.”
For security his hotel was surrounded by an 8-foot high metal fence. The hotel had a telephone line where he could communicate at any time 24 hours a day to the United States free of charge.
Jernigan went to Vietnam as an attache to the State Department and was assigned to a colonel. “My mission there was to evaluate the contractor calibration support being provided to the Vietnamese army and to assist in the transfer of all U.S. Army calibration equipment located in Vietnam to the Vietnamese army,” he said. “I traveled across the country, areas such as Da Nang and Nha Trang.”
He traveled by jeep and helicopter and was escorted at all times by a Vietnamese first lieutenant. “The mission was not difficult to accomplish but the major concern was traveling across country by jeep with only a lieutenant’s sidearm. He was armed at all times,” Jernigan said. “But fortunately we experienced no difficulties.”
During his three and a half months in Vietnam, from January to mid-April, he found that five of the 30 calibration contractors were not doing their job and had to be released. This posed another potential threat to Jernigan, the evaluator. “They did not want to lose their job, so you had to be very careful and very diplomatic in doing it because it had to be written up at headquarters,” Jernigan said. He added that he didn’t receive repercussions “but I had to be concerned at all times.”
He enjoyed the fine dining at the various restaurants in Vietnam. In Nha Trang, he ordered a lobster lunch. The whole lobster covered a large plate. The meal, which included his drink, cost just one dollar. He liked the French restaurants in Saigon.
“The U.S. Army had dining halls, mess halls, where fine meals were served by Vietnamese ladies dressed in long evening gowns every meal. Both food and service were excellent there,” he said.
Fortunately he didn’t experience mortar attacks because combat activities had declined with the U.S. drawdown.
“I thought the country was very beautiful. The environment itself was comfortable – warm but comfortable,” he said. “And I’d love to go back for vacation to see it again.”
Jernigan, a veteran of the Korean War, returned to the then Missile Command. He retired in January 1992 as chief of the Integrated Support Office after 37 years of service. This included his three years as a Soldier from 1955-58. The Army specialist reported to Redstone’s field maintenance division in January 1958 and he left the military that July.
After his government career, Jernigan worked more than 20 years for defense contractors in Huntsville before retiring in 2012. He received an associate degree in management from Calhoun in 1974, a bachelor’s in management from the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 1977 and a master’s in logistics management from Florida Institute of Technology in 1978.
He and his wife of 37 years, Faye, who also retired from Redstone, reside in southeast Huntsville. They have a combined five children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
The Hornsby, Tennessee native belongs to First Baptist Church where he serves as an usher. At 83 he does woodworking, maintains his yard and he travels the world with his wife.
“I enjoyed all my career,” he said. “Can’t remember all of it but I’ve enjoyed a lot of it.”
Jernigan shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“I think it was a shame that we ended it the way we did,” he said. “And I believe that any war that we enter the American people should be told the truth about the status of the situation. And we should never enter without a plan to win.”
Editor’s note: This is the 252nd in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.