His black leather vest tells the story of his two tours in Vietnam.
Dean Anderson explains each patch on the personalized vest he wears as a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 1067 in Huntsville. When attending events, the members wear a black vest with gold shirt, black baseball cap, black pants and black shoes.
“That bottom patch is from Fort Rucker back in ’63,” Anderson said of the emblems on the back of his vest. “And that’s where I got aviation training which led to my service in Vietnam.”
The patch at the top depicts the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One. Anderson deployed from Fort Rucker to Vietnam in 1966-67 with the 1st Aviation Battalion of the 1st Infantry Division. He was at Phu Loi, close to Tay Ninh, from February 1966 through February 1967 as an air traffic control chief at the airfield. At Fort Rucker he had started in aviation maintenance before going to air traffic control school at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1964. After receiving training, he returned to Fort Rucker where he married his first wife in 1965.
Anderson went to Vietnam as a 21-year-old specialist and returned to the states as a sergeant. The Phu Loi airfield was in the middle of the base.
“The duties were to support the division in the field with their aviation assets and those that supported the division,” Anderson said. During his yearlong tour, he recalls going to the field with his battalion for six major operations, including the two longest, Operation Birmingham and the Michelin Rubber Plantation operation.
At night during these field operations, the Soldiers would swap duty as perimeter guards. “It was you, two guys in a hole that was about so deep, with a couple of sandbags there and your steel pot, your M14 (rifle) and your basic load which was 100 rounds of ammunition,” Anderson said.
In the middle of the back of his vest, beside the words Vietnam Veteran, are the patches for the units from his second tour from 1969-70. He was assigned to the 1st Aviation Brigade but he was working for the 158th Aviation Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division. He went to Camp Evans which was about 12 and a half miles north of Hue. He was a staff sergeant, 24, and then single. Anderson was the air traffic control chief at the airfield, in the middle of Camp Evans, which had a larger 2,300-foot runway. “It was almost like being stateside except for the RPGs and the mortars,” he said.
He was injured during a night-time mortar attack in July 1969, about the same time as the lunar landing. A piece of shrapnel entered the right side of his stomach. Anderson ran to the surgical hospital about 85 yards away and received emergency treatment. “The doctor said had it gone one-sixteenth of an inch further I probably would’ve been dead,” he said. “So the Good Lord was watching me then.”
Anderson stayed about three weeks in the field hospital before returning to his air traffic control duties. When he got back to the U.S. in March 1970, he was sent to Fort Stewart, Georgia. In 1973 Anderson initially received orders for a third tour to Vietnam but was instead assigned to Germany because the U.S. was withdrawing its aviation operations. Besides the Vietnam campaign recognitions, he received a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart and two Army Commendation Medals.
Born in Queens, New York, Anderson moved around the country as a Navy family member and he finished high school in Norfolk, Virginia. His father, a Pearl Harbor and World War II veteran, retired from the Navy after 25 years. Anderson joined the Army on July 5, 1963, because he knew he was about to be drafted. He went on to serve 21 years, including three tours at Redstone Arsenal, and retired in Germany as a first sergeant in 1984. Anderson started his Army civilian career in 1985 at the Ordnance school at Redstone. He retired in 2006 as a logistician with the Program Executive Office for Missiles and Space after 42 years with the government, 21 as a civilian.
Anderson and his wife of 49 years, Mae, reside in Huntsville. They have two daughters, Lisa Edwards and Sheila Dorning, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. At 74 Anderson’s hobbies include woodworking, golf and cooking.
“One of my biggest hobbies, believe it or not, is helping veterans,” he said.
The front of his vest includes patches from his veterans organizations. He is the commander of the Gentry-Isom Veterans of Foreign Wars 2702 for the past four years; on the board of directors of Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 1067 which he joined in 2012; a member of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Chapter 2201; and a member of the American Legion Post 237.
Anderson plans to complete a second black leather vest with patches from his six divisions during his military career.
He shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“Since we started our official Vietnam Veterans of America ‘Welcome Home,’ which is the 29th of March, for the past few years it’s been great. It’s getting better every year,” he said. “One of the biggest things we did we brought the Wall That Heals, which is a smaller version of the one in Washington. I tell you what, there’s a whole lot of school kids that were just in awe. And a whole lot of adults for that matter.”
Editor’s note: This is the 227th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.