Soldiering on: Vietnam vets get a taste of modern military training

Two friends who grew close while sweeping mines in the 11th Armored Cavalry in Vietnam reunited in March to drive cross country and get a look at how their old unit is training for the battlefields of Iraq.

As engineers with the 919th attached to the cavalry division, Wayne Connie Padgett, 57, of the Laurel section of Carroll County, and Fred Sheetz, 56, of Lakeland, Fla., became fast friends as they rode around from Saigon to Parrott's Beak packed into an armored personnel carrier with four other soldiers, their gear, ammunition and other supplies to do odd jobs.

"The main thing we as engineers did was mine-sweep the roads and destroy ordinance," Padgett said.

The men have vivid memories of blowing up 500-pound American bombs on the Ho Chi Min Trail that didn't go off when dropped from the Flying Fortresses.

"We'd go swimming in the bomb craters," Sheetz said.

"They'd fill up with water in one day," Padgett said, recalling the weather in tropical Vietnam.

"We had to throw hand grenades in first to kill the snakes and the leeches," Sheetz added.

They belonged to the only Army engineer corps in Vietnam, so they got jobs like building roads and a community center.

For 8 1/2 months, Sheetz drove a personnel carrier resembling a tank in the field. It had a back end that lowered like a beach landing craft.

Padgett remembered Sheetz as a smooth driver from their days "in the saddle" with the cavalry.

Close quarters made close friends, they said. The soldiers had a bond that rivals their families, Padgett said.

"You could tell who got a CARE package and you could tell who got a sweet-smelling letter," he remembered.

Certain perfumes still make him flash back to those days. Sheetz gets the same effect from the smell of diesel fuel.

The two friends stayed close even after they suffered injuries during guerrilla warfare with the enemy.

After almost getting through his two-year tour, Sheetz took shrapnel in the face from a rocket-propelled grenade at the 1st Cavalry's fortified base at Quan Hoi.

Sheetz had just got a job driving a captain around, so he figured he was out of the field and safer.

Add to that, the 1st Cavalry had only that day reinforced its defensive perimeter with fences and barbed wire.

When the siege came that night, Sheetz had the option of driving a jeep out to the bunker under attack, but he felt safer manning the M-60 machine gun on the back.

The guerrillas had breached the defenses when they drove up. Sheetz thought he saw an American soldier come out of their bunker.

But it was really a Vietnamese armed with a rocket propelled grenade.

The rocket hit the tip of the M-60, blowing metal shards into his eyes, face and throat.

He would have fallen off the jeep, but a fellow soldier made sure that he didn't and then took him back for medical treatment.

Sheetz went into shock instantly. He felt no pain but was aware of what was going on around him.

Padgett came back from leave that day to find Sheetz in the same cot that one of his commanding officers had died in earlier. He squeezed Sheetz's hand and thought that he would survive his injuries.

It was about two months later that Padgett followed his friend to a clinic in Japan.

He jumped down off an instant bridge that folds out from a flatbed truck to cross a stream. He landed on a landmine and lost his leg.

Padgett and Sheetz caught up with each other stateside at Walter Reed Army Hospital, but lost track of each other when they were discharged.

They found each other at a reunion of the engineer's corps two years ago.

Sheetz had lost one eye and most vision in the other, as well as part of his larynx, and hasn't been able to drive.

"I'm not complaining one bit," he says now. "There's a lot more guys on that [Vietnam Memorial] wall worse off than me."

The two began making plans, along with several others, to drive out to Fort Irwin, Calif., to visit their old unit's base, see the troops train and check out its museum.

So Padgett picked up his friend and drove 5,000 miles roundtrip for a visit.

They picked up fellow veterans from the 919th: Rick O'Dell in Vinton - the guy that Sheetz credits with saving his life on the day of the attack - and Sam Caldwell in Texas and Joe Rooney in Santa Clara, Calif.

The vets joked they had a one-legged driver and a blind navigator.

They took side trips to see other comrades, like Ben Fields, who couldn't go to the reunion, and made a stop in Las Vegas.

A stop in Aspen offered Sheetz his first in-person look at winter weather.

"I never saw icicles before," he said. "I got out of the car and got my feet wet in the snow. I never knew snow got your feet wet."

What really impressed the friends, though, was the personnel at Fort Irwin.

A lieutenant served as a liaison and two soldiers had the assignment of showing the veterans the base and the war games taking place.

"It was sort of like having a valet at a hotel," Padgett said.

Technology in the field has taken huge steps forward with developments such as global positioning systems and satellite phones.

A two-star general seemed quite approachable, compared to what the vets were familiar with in the past. He gave two of the corps' medallions to Padgett, who admitted to being "too star struck" to ask for the same for his buddies.

"They haven't let me live that one down."

An all-volunteer Army made a huge difference in morale at the base.

The mess hall also proved to be quite different than what Padgett and Sheetz experienced in the Army.

"What stuck out in my mind is going to the mess hall and having 60 varieties of food," Padgett said.

When they went to the base museum, Sheetz noticed the record wasn't complete for the 919th from when they were soldiers.

He brought along articles that proved that the unit won four citations that had not been accounted for in the museum. He donated his clippings to the museum so it would have documentation.

The most exciting part of the visit was fulfilling a dream of Sheetz's, Padgett said - to get him an opportunity to drive a personnel carrier again.

The vets crowded in and Sheetz drove through the Mojave Desert, despite his virtual lack of vision. Padgett said he is still a smooth driver.

Don't lose contact with your Army friends, the vets told the soldiers. The other soldiers will be able to understand you in ways your family can't, they said.

Sheetz, Padgett and other veterans talk often, especially when they want to blow off steam about something connected with the military.

"Thank God for cell phones," Sheetz said.

"Stay in touch," he said. "Don't spend 35 years looking for each other."