In many ways, Stanley Pfeiffer’s experience in Vietnam was just like any other young American soldier’s. He occasionally drank warm beer with the men in his platoon. He smoked marijuana in joints the men would pass around a late-night fire. He jumped out of Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcars, the type of planes the military used at the time. He killed Vietnamese soldiers.
Pfeiffer sat at his kitchen table just outside his hometown of Red Oak, Iowa, and pulled out a blue plastic binder, full of photos, photocopies of letters he wrote to his parents, maps and other memorabilia. Near the beginning of his time in Vietnam, Pfeiffer had a camera, but the dirt and moisture of the Vietnamese jungle soon rendered it useless. Years later, one of Pfeiffer’s closest friends, Bruce Graves, mailed him the map Graves used in Vietnam. Pfeiffer spread the map across the kitchen table, displaying the jungle trail his platoon covered in a year.
He pored over the photographs, pointing out various members of his platoon: Graves, whom he sometimes referred to as Brucie, Peewee (a “mean little bastard”), Crazyhorse, the platoon lieutenant, Dennis Corcoran and others.
Pfeiffer served in the field in the A Company, 2nd Battalion, 237th Infantry, 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division during the heart of the Vietnam War, from September 1967 to September 1968 — his deployment was only a year long. He celebrated his 20th birthday overseas, but said his young age wasn’t an exception—that was about the average age of men serving.
“That’s why they send young men into war — we don’t know any better. They don’t send older guys that are seasoned veterans because they know what to expect,” he said. “I think being young and stupid helps, because you don’t know what those bullets can do, but you find out real quick.”
His second day on the ground, his platoon suffered several casualties. On top of bad weather, it was a rude awakening to the reality of war. His platoon was moving through the jungle, looking for cover while being shot at when Pfeiffer saw a flash of a black head in front of Corcoran, who was ahead of Pfeiffer. Without thinking twice, Corcoran fired his M16 rifle. Instead of a Vietnamese soldier, a little girl collapsed to the jungle floor.
Not seeing the extent of her injury and thinking she may still be alive, Pfeiffer turned her body over, only to find her face disfigured into a bloody mess.
Members of the platoon buried her in a shallow grave and set up camp not far away. The men sat around a fire and shared a joint like they would any other night, but Pfeiffer said they were in shock. He said he could hear the girl’s family dig her up to give her a proper burial.
“When I was on guard duty that night, I could hear them still crying and mourning the child,” he said. “I mourned her, too.”
That experience with death so early in the war prepared Pfeiffer for the rest of his time in Vietnam. Both sides of the war experienced loss, he said.
“They tried to think that we did some good over there, but I can’t see that we really did much to help,” he said. “Maybe I’m just being a pessimist about the whole thing … but the people over there suffered terribly.”
He and his platoon burned hooches —Vietnamese huts — as they made their way through the jungle and saw the havoc the Americans were wreaking on the common Vietnamese citizen.
Pfeiffer’s platoon didn’t just see devastation, however. He recalled a fond memory of when the platoon members came across an elk in the jungle and Crazyhorse killed the animal, not wanting the meat to go to waste. They roasted it that night and, compared to their typical freeze-dried meals, he said this was heaven.
“It was the best meat I’ve ever had,” he said. “I can still taste it.”
Coming home from Vietnam, Pfeiffer said people in California, where he arrived, and his hometown didn’t thank him for his service. The U.S. involvement in Vietnam was not popular, Pfeiffer said, and the war didn’t affect everyone back home in the U.S.
“Most people ignored us; we didn’t get any recognition when we came home,” he said. “It was more like you didn’t exist. It was kind of like you were the invisible soldier, you might say.”
Isolation wasn’t the only feeling Pfeiffer experienced.
He saw a therapist to help treat his post-traumatic stress disorder. He said even now some triggers, like loud noises and helicopters, rewind him 51 years, pushing him back into the jungle.
“If I see a little kid, especially from the back, say they’re lying down … that kind of sets me off,” he said.
He still goes to Veterans Affairs every year, but mostly, it’s self-medication that helps him now.
Years ago, that therapist, a former journalism major, suggested another way for Pfeiffer to heal from his war wounds: by writing his own book.
For the past three years, Pfeiffer has been writing the book he said shares a message of peace instead of war. He’s proud of his service and said he’s not ashamed he went to Vietnam, but the war wasn’t necessary.
“Some wars are necessary — World War II was a necessary war … World War I may have been, even Korea may have been,” he paused. “But Vietnam — total bullshit.”
Pfeiffer likened war to a football game, where two teams just want to win over the other.
“I didn’t hate them, just personally; I just figured it was the way it was,” he said. “It was kind of like a deadly game, you might say.”