In April 1969, Mike Carlson figured he had no choice but to join the Army.
He had dropped out of high school to work so he could pay the rent on the apartment where he and his mother lived. But he lost his job and they got evicted. He joined the Army and his mother went to live with his grandmother.
“My brother was in Vietnam and he couldn’t believe I did that,” Carlson said.
After his older brother, Ron, returned from Vietnam, Carlson went there, too.
He served a year at war, eventually finished his education and became an Army civilian. Now retired and living in Huntsville, he said he is proud to own his own home.
“That’s why I like America, because people like me can own a house if they’re willing to work,” he said. “Got to be willing to work.”
The Ecorse, Michigan, native has always been willing to work. After his parents divorced, he moved to California with his father. But he returned to Michigan to be with his mother when she got sick and she couldn’t work. He worked at an all-night gas station from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. And then he would go home, get something to eat and leave for school by 7:30 a.m. He was falling asleep in class so he dropped out of school.
Carlson found a different job but lost it and couldn’t pay the rent. He and his mother became homeless so the 18-year-old joined the Army on April 17, 1969. Three months after his brother returned home, Carlson went to Vietnam in December 1970 and stayed until December 1971.
After basic training, Carlson trained as an engineer equipment repairman, graduated from parachute school and then a few months later, parachute rigger school. The specialist four became an engineer equipment repairer with Company D Maintenance, 173rd Support Battalion, 173rd Airborne Brigade. He spent nine months with the 173rd at Landing Zone English, outside of Bong Son in the Binh Dinh Province. He repaired generators by day and did perimeter guard duty at night.
“Most of the time nothing happened (on guard duty), probably 90% of the time nothing happened. Very quiet,” he said. “We were shot at every now and then. This would be semiautomatic fire. Bang, bang, bang. And then it would be over. You could feel the bullet go by if you were close enough to it.”
Nine months into his tour, the 173rd Airborne Brigade left Vietnam. Carlson, a paratrooper, was reassigned in September 1971 to the 101st Airborne Division. He became a parachute rigger with B Company, 426th Supply and Service Battalion, 101st Airborne Division at Camp Eagle, outside of Phu Bai in the northern part of South Vietnam.
During 101st troop withdraws in November 1971, he and a handful of other riggers helped close Fire Support Base Bastogne and Fire Support Base Rifle by sling-loading 105mm howitzer ammunition onto a line of Chinook cargo helicopters as they flew into the base and hovered overhead for the sling loading. Circling Cobra helicopters would provide security support during the ammunition withdraw mission.
Carlson knew his yearlong tour was nearly done so he expected his departure orders to arrive within days. But he said he reluctantly got assigned to participate in a sweep around Camp Eagle.
“A sweep is when you go outside the perimeter maybe one kilometer and you walk around the perimeter and you’re looking for signs of the bad guy, signs of the enemy,” he said.
Ten Soldiers participated in the sweep. The sergeant led the first four Soldiers at the front; and Carlson led the second four at the rear. The rear group got ambushed with sniper fire. Fortunately no one was injured.
“I could feel the bullets going past my head. Nobody got hit. We were very, very fortunate,” he said. “And then one or two days later, I got orders to go home and I left Vietnam.”
He earned an associate degree in data processing from Pasadena City College in 1978. He circulated his job resume but found he didn’t get any calls until he left out mention of his Vietnam service. Carlson worked as an engineering assistant at Texaco Reservoir Engineering in Los Angeles from 1978-84. He recalled one incident in the break room where a senior engineer saw a story about Vietnam in the Los Angeles Times.
“Carlson, you were in Vietnam weren’t you?” the senior engineer announced to the group. “What the hell did you go to Vietnam for? Only an idiot would go to Vietnam.”
Carlson told the engineers that he had three choices. “I could go to Canada, I could go to jail or I could go to Vietnam. I told them I chose Vietnam. And that was the end of the conversation,” he recalled.
He graduated from California State Polytechnic University, or Cal Poly, in 1989 with a bachelor’s in business administration after majoring in computer information systems. That summer he was hired as an Army intern. He worked in St. Louis until the Army aviation function moved to Redstone Arsenal in 1997. He retired from Redstone in 2007 as an international program manager, in aviation, at the Security Assistance Management Directorate within the Aviation and Missile Command. Carlson finished with 20 years of government service, including 17 and a half years as an Army civilian and two and a half years as a Soldier.
At 70 he resides in the Monrovia community of Huntsville. He said he enjoys watching television. He is getting his garage ready for the tornado shelter which he purchased. His brother Ron, 72, of Wyandotte, Michigan, is a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam.
Carlson shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“I think people need to understand what happened,” he said. “They need to understand (Franklin D.) Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and the Atlantic Charter. That’s where it started. Roosevelt felt that nations need to be independent from colonial processions because these create animosity among the population and that starts wars. Roosevelt failed to get Truman on board with this principle. When Ho Chi Minh was writing Truman asking for help after the war, Truman could have used the Marshall Plan to get Ho Chi Minh on the American side and prevented the war. Truman had the opportunity and failed. So, they need to understand the Atlantic Charter and the events from the Atlantic Charter to 1975 when Vietnam fell. And when they understand that, they’ll understand Vietnam. Every president made mistakes beginning with Roosevelt’s failure getting Truman on board. Vietnam is an amazing story. Every president made mistakes one after another and it caused 58,000 Americans to be killed. My thoughts.”
Editor’s note: This is the 316th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.