Veteran writes about ‘stolen years,’ lasting effects of Vietnam War

John Lund, a machinist’s mate with the U.S. Navy, served during the Vietnam War from 1967-71. Lund served aboard the USS Hancock and wrote a book about the hardships he endured, the larger context of the war, and the challenges he and other veterans continue to face.

John Lund pens book about his experience in the Navy

Imagine working 16- to 20-hour days in a boiler room that reached temperatures of 120-140 degrees.

That was reality for John Lund. After graduating high school in 1967, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a machinist’s mate aboard the USS Hancock until 1971.

Books and movies have touched on the destruction of the Vietnam War, but Lund wanted to give his own perspective. He released a book in February titled “Vietnam 1967-1971: Danger, Affliction, Toil, Heartbreak, and Stolen Years.”

About three years ago, Lund found boxes full of letters that he and his wife, Sandra, had written to each other while he was serving. He had never opened the boxes, but decided the time had come to look through them.

Once he did, he says reading those letters “reopened mental compartments” that he’d closed ever since he walked off the gangplank for the last time on June 2, 1971.

He pulled certain information out of those letters and began compiling a book.

Though he never considered himself a writer, Lund said he wants people to understand the hardships people faced during the war and the larger context of why the war was “the greatest American disaster of the 20th century.”

Background

Lund has lived in Rosemount for about six years and has bounced around the Twin Cities area most of his life. Growing up, he lived in Farmington from sixth through 11th grade and moved to Lake City during his senior year of high school, where he met his wife.

When he was in high school, Lund said there weren’t many options for young men of his age — you either enlisted, were drafted, tried to dodge the draft or got a draft deferment.

He opted for enlisting, and chose the Navy partly because his oldest brother, Olaf, was a machinist’s mate in the Navy.

“I was always thought that’s what I wanted to do,” Lund said. “So I kind of had an idea, but with the Vietnam War … you didn’t have much of a choice.”

Lund said he was always around machinery growing up. Olaf, nine years older than Lund, was a mentor to him growing up and taught Lund how to operate farm equipment.

Lund worked on his uncle’s farm and the Fair Hills Farm and also got a job working at the Rambler dealership in Farmington. So becoming a machinist’s mate seemed like a natural fit, he said.

After moving to Lake City, Lund met his future wife and the two soon got engaged before Lund left for boot camp. Originally, the plan was to get married after Lund completed his four years in the service, and Sandra finished college, but that plan didn’t last long, Lund said.

By February 1968, they were married, and by July, Lund was deployed.

Service

Lund was deployed for three eight-month cruises. He started his first cruise as an E-2 working in the World War II-era ship’s engine and boiler rooms, and eventually worked his way up to an E-5.

A typical day consisted of working in 120-140 degree heat, he said. Because the ship was in tropical waters, seawater coming into the main engines was about 88 degrees. Forced air blowers from outside brought air into the engine rooms, but the air temperature was in the 90s.

“You’d stand underneath a blower to stay cool at 90-some degrees, but away from that blower over by the air ejector, that was 140 degrees,” Lund said. “Engine rooms were 120 constantly.”

Conditions were even worse if there was a breakdown, he said. Reading letters to Sandra brought back memories of repairing machinery and “crawling down into the bilges of this greasy area.” He’d pull apart the pumps, fix machinery and put the pumps back together in the oppressive heat.

Frequently working 16-20 hour days was a recipe for sleep deprivation, Lund said. To top that off, sailors were served “anything they could turn into powder and feed you” — potatoes, eggs, milk and cottage cheese were all powdered.

“Mentally and physically, it was very depleting,” Lund said.

And for a teenager who had never smoked, drank or gotten in trouble with the law, the ship’s culture took some getting used to as well.

“You go aboard a ship at 18 years old and that life changes. There is an abyss of things that are put in front of you that will take you down into a rabbit hole,” Lund said.

Estimates vary on how widespread drug use was during the war, but according to a 1971 report by the Department of Defense, an estimated 28 percent of Armed Forces personnel had taken hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, with higher percentages of personnel using psychedelics and marijuana.

The conditions of the war, and the reality that most of the people serving were 18-24 years old, were things that Lund wanted to highlight. He also details the pain of being separated from his family. At 19 years old, he was already a husband, father and war veteran.

Book

Laced in with Lund’s personal recollections are historical events that Lund believes illustrate how disastrous the war was, like the Battle of Hamburger Hill, the capture of the USS Pueblo and the 1969 EC-121 shootdown incident, among others.

Lund also criticizes how both Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon handled the war. He points out that before he was elected, Johnson remarked that he was not “committing American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land” in August 1964.

After winning the election, on July 28, 1965, Johnson ordered an increase in military forces in Vietnam, from 75,000 to 125,000. Earlier in the year, Johnson had stated during his “Why We Are in Vietnam” speech, “I know … how their mothers weep and how their families sorrow.”

Lund’s thoughts on that speech? “Just a mouthful of garbage,” he said.

He’s no fan of Nixon’s handling of the war, either, referencing an April 1969 incident when an EC-121M Warning Star was shot down by a North Korean MiG-21 and Nixon did nothing in response.

“So now North Korea, Russia, China — they knew the United States did not have the backbone to end the Vietnam War. … You had the military men over there fighting a war that … they didn’t have any strategy or plan to win it, and we lost 58,300-some men.

“And the ones that we didn’t lose, they came home with problems,” Lund said.

Aftermath

Like many Vietnam veterans, Lund has felt the lasting effects of the war. He’s suffered from autoimmune problems since he returned home and was diagnosed with asbestosis.

He had his large intestine removed 46 years ago and four years ago, he had to have major surgery again due to complications.

Lund did research to apply for VA medical benefits and found that the ship he served on was filled with hazardous materials.

The ship had asbestos and many of the lubricant oils, greases, paint and so on were full of PCBs. Lund said he more than likely breathed in and ingested the toxic chemical dioxin, which is prevalent in Agent Orange.

He found that the VA had put out a directive that workers had to wear a hazmat suit or PPE with a breathing device to dismantle ships like the one Lund had served on.

He also found that when the USS Hancock’s sister ship, the Oriskany, was sunk as an artificial reef, the EPA ordered that all the PCBs on the ship had to first be removed. The levels of PCBs far exceeded EPA standards, Lund said.

Lund applied for medical benefits back in 1982 and didn’t reapply until after he retired about 15 years ago. It took almost five years for the VA to grant him medical benefits, and Lund had to cite his own research to convince the VA.

“This is what the vets go through, even 50 years later. And I’m just one of thousands,” Lund said. “I’m just one of hundreds of thousands with stories such as what I wrote about.”

Lund hopes people can learn from what he’s gone through and appreciate what the veterans endured.

These days, he and Sandra are still married, and they have three children and nine grandchildren.

Though he faced many hardships, Lund said some good that came from his serving — after returning home, he got a job at Minnesota Mutual Life Insurance Company and worked there until he retired. He started as a stationary engineer and eventually became a property manager, managing 2 million square feet of property.

“We’ve had our ups and downs with health problems, but the military gave me a foundation. … They gave me a start — can’t complain,” Lund said.

For more information, visit Lund’s website, www.mmsnipe.com. His book can be purchased on Amazon by searching for “Vietnam John Lund.”

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