By Paul Wood
ARMSTRONG — Curtis Heck was in Vietnam in the Army’s 101st Airborne, and he saw Vietnam as a place of booby traps and unexploded shells, ever-present dangers.
Because Heck spent 71 days after his normal 365 in country, the Rantoul native was able to finish up his service in 18 months.
At 67, he’s still not eager to talk about his time, unless he’s with friends in the Danville AMVETS.
He describes earning a Bronze Star for helping a fellow soldier who’d fallen out of their helicopter, but doesn’t want to say much more about it.
But first he had to be drafted.
Coming out of Rantoul High School, Heck already had a job with AT&T.
He was one of eight friends who were going to enlist in the Marines, but when one of them was killed right away in that branch of service, he ended up in the Army at 20.
“When I was drafted, they were taking every 10th man for the Marines, and I’m glad I missed out,” he says.
It was a short trip from basic to advanced infantry to the jungle, where he landed in 1970, as the light at the end of the tunnel was still shadowy.
“They were starting to think about pulling the numbers down, reducing troops levels,” he says.
Life at Camp Evans northwest of Hue was not spit-and-polish.
Two military policemen once cited him for having a shirt unbuttoned, saying he was “out of uniform.”
The battery commander gave him the world’s shortest reprimand for the offense, Heck recalls.
But there were much grimmer aspects to his tour of duty.
As part of his base duties, Heck had to clear the wires of vegetation, especially vines, with a sickle.
One of his fellow soldiers was “short” — about to return home — when he snagged something with his sickle.
It was an unexploded M79 grenade launcher shell, nicknamed a “thumper.”
The explosion “opened him right up,” Heck says, still recoiling at the memory. He watched his friend slowly die.
“That stuck with me,” he says.
Heck spent his 21st birthday near the demilitarized zone.
“I remember watching the F-111s napalm some place in the distance and being glad it was them and not us,” he says.
Besides the Viet Cong, there was another slithery enemy.
“I hate snakes,” he says. “You had to do guard duty on the bunker line one out of every two nights, and catch sleep inside the hole. One night, a guy came out with a 12-foot-long snakeskin.”
New soldiers came by the next morning and encountered a cobra — not the famous kind, the King cobra — but one that was deadly still.
“I’m glad I didn’t sleep in there that night,” he says. “The only good snakes are dead snakes.”
All known cobras are venomous, though the Vietnamese consider them a delicacy.
Another time, a snake got cold and crawled under his poncho for warmth.
Heck said he values the experience of his year-and-a-half in Vietnam, “but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
He has retired from Kraft. He and wife Jackie have four children between them.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.