Dick Kingsbury was 17, a high school dropout, when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy to fight in the Vietnam War.
He served two tours, enduring what he called a “horrible war,” before he returned home to Waitsfield where he went to found a very successful excavation and contracting business. But he carried with him a severe case of PTSD that informed everything in his life. That PTSD came from the horrors of war but also from what greeted him when the young man returned to the states at the height of the civil protests over the war.
Kingsbury started his basic training at 17 and, in 1967 at 19 years old, began his tour of duty in Vietnam as a “riverine,” serving on Task Force 116 as a member of a four-man team patrolling the rivers of Vietnam in a 30-foot fiberglass-sided boat.
“When I first got there, the first month, we never heard a gunshot. Then all hell broke loose,” he said.
“Our boats were called death traps. We were basically sitting ducks. The boats went 35 miles an hour which is not fast compared to a bullet,” he said.
Riverines patrolled the rivers 24 hours a day in the Mekong Delta in some 250 Patrol Boats River (PBR), stopping native boats called “sand pans,” checking identifications and searching for enemy combatants.
“I liked patrolling nights better because you could see the incoming fire,” he said.
Their base, when they didn’t sleep on the boats, was a converted ship. After three and a half months in the south they were transferred north to the DMZ following the TET offensive.
“We were in Dong Ha where it was much more dangerous,” he said.
His boat was blown up on the Perfume River in an attack where his crew saw casualties. That was not his first or last experience with losing friends and fellow crewmen.
When his second tour ended, he and others were flown to Norton Air Force Base and then bused to a rehab facility.
“The biggest thing that bothered me was the crap demonstrators who were gathered around our bus, throwing tomatoes and protesting the war. People were so bad to soldiers. I wanted to come home so badly. They took us to the airport and I sat there for two days waiting for a military standby seat,” Kingsbury said.
When he got home he began experiencing the symptoms of PTSD and at the urging of his wife, Laura, began seeing a counselor.
“But people didn’t know what it was then,” he said.
He got better, with some therapy and some medication, but the PTSD stays with him still. As horrible as his wartime experiences were, being greeted by tomato-throwing protesters was pretty difficult for a 21-year-old to understand.
“I was talking to someone about this not long ago and how we didn’t know anything going into this. I’d be a lot more scared now if I were going into the service because I’ve been there. I know what it’s like,” he said.
“Vietnam was horrible. It was the nastiest war,” he said.
When he returned he worked for several companies in Vermont before forming Kingsbury Construction and raising his children, Jamie and TJ, with Laura.
But the PTSD was always there. About a decade ago, Laura was reading the book Up Country and got interested in Vietnam and asked if he’d ever think about going back.
“My shrink had been trying to get me to go back with a group, but I resisted. She kept at me and finally I said yes,” he recalled.
“The first few nights were pretty bad. I had the sweats and couldn’t sleep and then it got better. I’m so glad we went,” he said.
“The people were so open and so forgiving. When our boat got blown up, I lost everything, all my pictures, so going back and seeing the country again helped,” he said.
They were there for a month and their trip included several homestays, including one where they were driven a portion of the way and had to hike up the terraced rice paddies to a tiny home where their host was cooking over an open stove into which she kept feeding rice stalks.
Those homestays and the warmth of the people they met helped him heal, he said, especially the faces of the children.
“But what helps the most is to try and put it out of your mind. It will bother me for a few days after now after talking to you,” he said at the end of this interview.
Photos of Dick And Laura Kingsbury in Vietnam. Photos courtesy Dick Kingsbury