Some volunteered to go to Vietnam. But many of the soldiers who went were drafted into the service, ineligible for a student deferment because they had never been to college. Twenty-year-old Mike Troyer had taken classes at the local college in Urbana, Ohio, studying during the day and working at the Navistar truck plant by night. But he dropped a course, fell below the minimum threshold for a deferment, and was drafted in 1967. Troyer was like other soldiers in that he didn't question the draft or the Vietnam conflict. His father and grandfather had served in war, so that's what he would do; Troyer felt he had "no choice in it." As for the struggle against communism, Troyer didn't care if he was "fighting against Flamenco Dancers, okay? We're going to do whatever the government says -- they own me, I got to do it."
Nor was Troyer concerned about being a member of the Black Lions battalion, which was so well known that the Viet Cong had allegedly offered a bounty for every Black Lions soldier killed. Like other twenty-year-olds, both in the service and out, he felt invulnerable. "There hasn't been a gook born yet that is going to get me," he wrote.
Men like Troyer had to deal with several frustrations particular to the war in Vietnam. Many were brought in piecemeal as replacements within existing units, which made them feel disconnected from the larger group. And with no geographical lines separating friend from foe, the GI in the field couldn't trust anyone. Villagers might be innocent civilians or Viet Cong sympathizers. Areas temporarily cleared of enemy forces could become dangerous again the next week. What particularly galled Troyer was his feeling that superior officers "wouldn't leave [a soldier] alone to fight the war with the knowledge he learned to fight with." Flying by safely in their helicopters, men like Battalion Commander Terry Allen pressured the enlisted men on the ground to move more quickly and kill more of their foes. Then, dog-tired from marching through the jungle all day with 50-pound packs, the soldiers faced the prospect of some general swooping down and declaring that the way they had set up their perimeter did not comport with Army regulations. As Troyer put it, the war "is run by the book and Charlie can't read English so he gets all the breaks and we usually get killed." Troyer told his family that he didn't "feel like marchin' in any protest march against Vietnam, but this war is worthless."
The majority of American soldiers never witnessed large-scale battles or suffered through the terror of a jungle ambush during their one-year tours. But when they did, dozens of men could die within minutes. For Mike Troyer, an acting squad leader within Delta Company, the ambush of October 17 came just three months after he arrived in Vietnam, and what mattered on that terrible day was whether you were in the shade or sunlight. Crouching for cover behind an anthill, Troyer stayed out of the light and watched more exposed comrades get shot. He later crawled across the battlefield, "trying to find somebody that was alive." But the bodies had been so shot up that many were unrecognizable. Troyer identified one victim only by his 101st Airborne tattoo.
Troyer was lucky; he survived the year until his Date Eligible for Return from Over Seas, or DEROS, and came back to Ohio in one piece. But Troyer had no illusions that returning soldiers would be greeted as heroes; other than his parents, he wasn't sure anyone would be happy to see him. And so before he left Vietnam, Mike Troyer made sure to do one more thing: he sent a self-addressed letter home, welcoming himself back to civilian life.