David Lewis just missed going to Vietnam.
But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t ready to join the Army’s fighting force in Southeast Asia.
A 1973 ROTC graduate of Morgan State University in Baltimore, Lewis commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Ordnance Corps, detailed to the infantry. He then joined the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Washington, just as the Vietnam War was coming to an end.
“I consider this era the pivotal time of my life,” Lewis said. “I have frequently discussed this era of my life with my father, brother and children, including a stepson who is a retired command sergeant major. There are other veterans in my family who I have also shared with about this experience.
“Even though I didn’t go to Vietnam, we trained and prepared to deploy to Vietnam. There were many life lessons about leadership from that time that have made me who I am. I was a 22-year-old platoon leader responsible for 44 Soldiers, most of who were drafted Chicanos from east Los Angeles who could barely speak English.”
Lewis, a plans officer for the Army Materiel Command Operations (G-3), is among Vietnam-era veterans who are being recognized through AMC’s Vietnam Veteran Commemoration Program, which is registered with the national Vietnam War Commemoration Program.
“My work at AMC today was a natural progression to the skills I acquired as a young Army officer,” he said.
In the late ‘60s, Lewis was a high school student looking for a way to be the first person from his family to attend college.
“My family couldn’t afford to send me,” he said. “Three weeks before college, I was selected for an Army ROTC four-year scholarship. I had already received federal grants and a public school scholarship. But the ROTC scholarship paid for everything plus gave me $50 a month. I turned the other scholarships down and jumped on what ROTC had to offer. At that time, I didn’t have much interest in going into the military. I was just looking for a way to go to college.”
But like so many other ROTC cadets, once he got into the program, he found the Army life appealed to him, even if it didn’t appeal to his friends.
“There were some rough times,” he said. “I lost a lot of friends because of my military uniform. I got into a lot of fights on campus. I played lacrosse and football. There were a lot of disparaging remarks said by my teammates and I was lucky if I didn’t get spat on. I was younger and stronger then, and I would fight at the drop of a hat. I wouldn’t stand for the things they said to me.”
Lewis’ first assignment was as a rifle platoon leader with the 9th Infantry Division. He later became an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, with training at Redstone Arsenal, and then served with the 636 Ordnance Company (EOD), 21st Support Command in Germany from 1977-80.
“I lost part of my right middle finger when a grenade blew up in my hand during an EOD operation,” Lewis said. “A farmer plowing a field hit the grenade, which was left over from World War II. We were called in to remove it. Fortunately, it only partially exploded when I was picking it up.”
Although his obligation to the Army was for six years, Lewis ended up serving for nearly nine years total.
“It was important to me to do my duty, to fulfill my obligation and pay back my scholarship,” he said. “I enjoyed the camaraderie and the mission we had so much that I decided to stay in the Army beyond my obligation. I left active military service as a captain.”
A year later, Lewis was working as a defense contractor in the Baltimore area and missing military service. He joined the Army Reserve, serving another four years until it became too difficult to manage both professional obligations, and be a husband and father.
“I made friends in the Army that I’ve had for 30 or 40 years,” Lewis said. “I played on the divisional championship football team with then 2nd Lt. Jim Pillsbury and then we met again when he was Lt. Gen. Jim Pillsbury here at AMC. One of my good friends was then 2nd Lt. Al Lofton, who retired as a brigadier general. We attended the Army Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, Georgia.”
In 2009, Lewis became an Army civilian and returned to Redstone Arsenal, this time with AMC headquarters.
Lewis appreciates AMC’s efforts to recognize Vietnam-era veterans, but shrugs off the designation of being a Vietnam-era veteran.
“A lot of good friends of mine went over to Vietnam and they are the real veterans. I also had a lot of friends who didn’t make it back. Recognition should go to them,” he said. “I think it is important that the Army and AMC recognize the sacrifices and experiences of its Vietnam veterans, particularly for the next generation. Anyone who wore the uniform during that tough time should be recognized.”
Editor’s note: Service Honored is an ongoing Army Materiel Command series highlighting AMC employees or their family members who served during the Vietnam War. AMC is a partner of the Vietnam War Commemoration Program. To learn more about AMC’s Vietnam veteran recognition program, contact Capt. Willi Hohm at 450-6136, email@example.com.