Four SLO County veterans share memories of Vietnam War ahead of tribute

It can be somber, complicated, prideful and intense for Vietnam War veterans to relive their experiences.

Four Central Coast veterans recently recalled missions that required all of their wits, training, skill and fortune to carry out their duties — and to stay alive.

They will be among about 340 veterans honored as part of a Vietnam War veterans tribute luncheon to be held Thursday by the local chapter of the Military Order of the World Wars. It is the final year of three consecutive annual luncheons to honor local veterans.

“For many of these guys, they came back home and were never recognized for their service, after all of these years,” said Joseph E. Brocato, the MOWW’s chapter president. “These are good people, and we’re thankful they’re finally getting some recognition. It’s time for people to honor their service.”

The four men who spoke with The Tribune each served in different American military roles during the war.

They are Marine Corps Cpl. Timothy Haley of Atascadero, Army Capt. James Brenneman Jr. of Santa Maria, Air Force Capt. George Marrett of Atascadero and Army Lt. Col. G. Russell Zink Jr. of San Luis Obispo.

They all served alongside people who died in the war and remember those fallen with sadness and honor. For Haley, it took several years of decompressing before he reconnected with military organizations that honor veterans.

Haley recalled losing 13 men in one month, something “I carry with me to this day.”

“I’m very proud of my service,” Haley said.

In total, about 400 veterans will attend the tribute at the Alex Madonna Expo Center. Although the event pays special tribute to Vietnam veterans, those who served in World War II and Korea also are invited and will be honored.

Tim Haley

Haley served in Vietnam as a weapons platoon sergeant from May 1967 to June 1968.

He fought in the Battle of Khe Sanh, a massive artillery attack on the U.S. garrison near Vietnam’s border with Laos.

Haley, who called himself “a grunt,” said that he saw horrific things during his time in Vietnam, including a captain who “had a chunk of his chest” blown off in battle.

In the chaos of the scene, Haley lost track of the man and years later wondered about him.

“I was able to track him down online,” Haley said. “I wrote to him, and he wrote back. I never knew whether he had made it or not.”

The weight of the war was a heavy experience, and Haley carried some resentment about how the strategy was carried out, though he didn’t go into detail.

“I thought the military was trying to kill me,” Haley said. “... We were winning when I left.”

He said it took him a long time before he renewed his affiliation with military organizations. He now serves with the Honor Guard and the Marine Corps League.

The Honor Guard provides funeral duties for fallen comrades and guards national monuments.

“We help bury the dead,” Haley said.

James Brenneman

When chopper pilot Brenneman first arrived in Vietnam, he was sent to a base that at first glance was quite comfortable.

It had running water, showers, working toilets and comfortable beds.

But it wasn’t long before his level of ease was upended by loud booms and shouts of “incoming!”

“It was completely dark in the room about 1 a.m., and I was nowhere near my boots and clothes,” Brenneman recalled of one particular incident. “I was scrambling to figure out where to go and what to do.”

For the next year, between 1967 and 1968, Brenneman piloted dozens of flights to supply equipment for combat assaults. Sometimes fellow pilots came back, and sometimes they were shot down in midair.

“We lost people every couple of weeks,” Brenneman said.

From 1971 to 1972, on his second tour, Brenneman’s duties changed and he flew military leaders to locations within Vietnam.

Asked what he thinks about Vietnam-related movies, he says that a film like “Apocalypse Now” isn’t realistic in how it portrays a covert operation that involves an escort by boat.

“They would never do it that way,” Brenneman said. “They might fly three or four planes or choppers in different directions to create confusion, and one of them would do the drop-off.”

The movie “Platoon” is more realistic, he said.

G. Russell Zink Jr.

A career military man who served in active duty from 1966 to ’85, Zink was an Army commander responsible for 100 men during his service in Vietnam from 1966 to ’69.

Foremost on his mind when recalling the war is how he had “the privilege of serving with every man who didn’t come home.”

He said it was an honor to serve in a leadership position, and he holds the sacrifices of those men and their families in the highest regard.

Asked what’s it’s like to carry on after losing a soldier in battle, Zink said, “(You) just have to move on.”

“You have a job to do,” he said. “You have a mission.”

Zink said he would have chosen to continue the fight against the North Vietnamese. He cited the domino theory and the fear that if one country in a region fell under the sway of communism, others would follow. Zink wished that Congress had funded the continuation of the war.

“We effectively stopped the chain effect of communism taking over in countries throughout that region,” Zink said. “But we didn’t lose that war. We left.”

George Marrett

As an Air Force pilot, Marrett flew 188 combat missions.

He was part of an aircrew that lost 12 men. Two others were so badly burned they were sent home.

His plane was shot and hit many times, but he said the World War II-era Douglas A-1 Skyraider was fairly effective at resisting gunfire.

“You got to the point where you don’t want to look at it after landing because you don’t want to see the bullet holes,” Marrett said.

His duties included hostile rescues where he provided cover for choppers picking up pilots whose planes had been shot down.

In 2006, Marrett wrote a book on his experiences titled “Cheating Death: Combat Air Rescues in Vietnam and Laos” that is available on Amazon.com.

The synopsis on Amazon reads: “They flew low and slow, at treetop level, at night, in monsoons, and in point-blank range of enemy guns and missiles. They accepted missions no one else wanted, and they were the heroes other pilots prayed for when shot down.”

“Our job was to protect everything around the chopper and the man on the ground,” Marrett said. “We saved a tremendous number of lives.”

If you go

A luncheon to honor Vietnam War veterans will be held 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday at the Alex Madonna Expo Center. The cost is $20 per person. To sponsor a veteran, attendees are asked to pay $130.

For more information, call Joseph E. Brocato at 805-543-6244 or email him at jebrocato@gmail.com or call Jim Murphy at 805-528-7565 or email him at jlmurphy@calpoly.edu.