By Paul Wood
URBANA — Larry Soliday served in an elite unit that did everything from helicopter rescues to fighting in enemy tunnels.
In the early 1970s, the buck sergeant, now 70, served two tours in Vietnam as a volunteer. He was shot at, crashed in a copter three times and was buried alive when a tunnel collapsed.
For the tunnel rats, someone in the unit would toss a grenade into the Viet Cong Cu Chi system. The downside was that part of the tunnel might collapse, as happened to Soliday.
Of his Aero Rifle Platoon of 18, only six returned. Soliday hasn’t been able to meet up with any of them — he knows that two died of drug overdoses.
A Neoga native, he graduated from high school in 1967, near the height of the war.
His brother found him a job, and he was living in Champaign.
Soliday enlisted for Vietnam specifically.
“I worked hard in basic and Advanced Individual Training, knowing I would need it in Vietnam,” Soliday said.
Soliday was in Vietnam from December 1969 to February 1971.
Helicopter rescue was part of his job; the copter could come under fire as it dipped down to pick up dead, stranded or wounded soldiers.
“Other times, we were used as bait,” Soliday said, sent in to draw the enemy away from the main force, then quickly picked up. “Our 18-man unit was always outnumbered.”
The fellow soldiers were close because they had to be, he said.
One of the most dangerous duties was serving “point” — first man — in a Viet Cong tunnel search.
“I was small, so I was made a tunnel rat,” Soliday said. “Most guys were too big.”
Besides the chance of running into a guerrilla, the tunnels were frequently mined or had booby traps such as sharpened and poisoned bamboo sticks.
He carried a shotgun with a light cloth at the end of the barrel, so it could not fill up with dirt.
“All I had for light was a flashlight,” he said.
Once, he came across a large room created underground.
“The Vietnamese built some of the most sophisticated tunnel systems ever,” he said, after perpetual warring with China, Japan, France and the U.S.
In one jungle mission gone wrong, Soliday said, he went missing in action for three weeks.
“I finally found a small village. They were good to me. They kept me hidden from the VC,” he said.
It took a few days, but “finally, a guy with motorcycle took me back to the base.”
“I needed a little bit of rest,” Soliday added.
Another odd moment: He has photos of a tiger that had been hunting villagers. It was wounded, but led Soliday into a clearing, he said.
“I emptied my machine gun, but it didn’t slow him down,” Soliday said. “A door gunner (on a helicopter) got him.”
After the two tours, he returned to Champaign.
“You’re out of the jungle and home in 24 hours,” he said.
That took some adjusting. Soliday said he was troubled for a while after he got back. PTSD was not a diagnosis until 1980.
Eventually, Soliday found a steady job driving trucks.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.