Like many veterans, Larry Skoglund will always bear the marks of his military service.
His right wrist won’t rotate, he can’t move his little finger and there’s still a scar where a bullet went through his neck. His burns, however, healed nicely.
It’s been 52 years since Skoglund, who lives near Rose City, landed in Vietnam and hit the ground fighting, part of the 4th Infantry Division, 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry.
Everything smelled like septic system over there, he recalled, with its dense jungle and rotting vegetation. Firefights were plentiful.
“The first time you get involved in one, you’re scared out of your mind initially,” he said. “You hear slapping around you and guys getting hit. The second time, you realize the guys around you are doing their jobs and you try to do yours. The third time, emotionally, you jam it down deep inside.”
Skoglund didn’t sign up for Vietnam. He was studying engineering at the University of Minnesota, and had gotten a college deferment. When he dropped a class because it conflicted with his job, his college credits fell too low to qualify for a deferment, and he received a letter in the mail.
“Greetings,” the letter began, and that was that.
He did basic training at Fort Knox in Kentucky, then got training in field artillery. He attended officer training school and was commissioned a second lieutenant.
A fast introduction
In Vietnam, Skoglund fought in the highlands against the well-trained North Vietnamese army as an artillery forward observer.
Just a month after landing, he was with three infantry companies, about 250 guys, trying to find enemy soldiers, when bullets started flying.
One went through his neck.
“It went in and out and didn’t touch anything,” he recalled. “I didn’t even know I was wounded until my radio operator said, ‘There’s blood running down your neck.’”
That was his first wound. Amid everything else going on, it was pretty minor.
As Skoglund gained experience, his job changed. He took to the skies, looking for enemy soldiers from a low-flying airplane. Once they found them, they would drop white phosphorus, marking their location so a following airplane could drop rockets and napalm.
On Feb. 3, 1968, he and a pilot were looking for American soldiers who needed help. The plane banked steeply so he could see out the doors, just above the treeline, when Vietnamese soldiers started shooting. Bullets killed the pilot and fractured Skoglund’s right arm, severing an artery.
He couldn’t tend to his wound and fly the plane at the same time, so he chose to fly the plane with his left hand while blood spurted from his right arm. He wasn’t a pilot, but he knew enough to aim toward the airstrip at Dak To, which wasn’t far away. But before he could land, he had a clear thought: A profanity, followed by, “This is too much work.” And he let go.
Looking out for him
He passed out and recalls seeing a bright white light. At the end of the runway, the plane went up into a loop, crashed into the runway and exploded. Anyway, that’s what the guys on the ground told him. He assumes he was thrown clear of the airplane, but doesn’t remember.
At the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku, nurses hooked him up to several IVs before the hospital came under attack during the Tet Offensive the same evening. His hospital wing was hit by rocks and a ground attack. He could hear hollering in English and Vietnamese and small arms fire, but said he was too doped up to be scared.
He also remembers that as nurses evacuated patients, he couldn’t be moved because of the IVs, so two nurses took the time to set mattresses on top of him for protection.
He doesn’t know their names, he said, and has never been able to track them down.
“I’d really like to give one a hug if I could find her,” he said.
Friend Jim Conn, who knows Skoglund through the local Vietnam Veterans of America chapter, said he’s tried to help find those nurses.
“Over the years however, as I’ve come across written historical details involving nurses during the Tet Offensive,” he said, “I send them to Larry because his quest to find the actual nurses remains strong.”
When the fighting died down, Skoglund was transferred to a hospital on the coast, then to a field hospital in Japan, and eventually to a military hospital in Denver, where his tendons were reconnected.
He had to learn how to use his right hand again, focusing on his thumb until somehow his brain began sending signals to the nerve again and it moved. Then he worked on the other four fingers. His little finger never did respond, he said, “Which isn’t the end of the world.”
Others, he said, were much worse off.
“The guy next to me doesn’t have an arm and the guy next to him doesn’t have either arm and the guy on the other side is blind,” he said. “It doesn’t take long to find someone worse than you. … I’ve never had a bitter moment.”
Back to school
Skoglund went back to school, became a shop teacher in several Minnesota schools and then raced and repaired Porsches before teaching again. He got married and had two sons.
His wife, Annie Skoglund, recently retired from the Douglas County Historical Society. They live on a farm in Spruce Hill Township east of Miltona. He’s chairman of the township board and until recently, sold organically-raised beef. He belongs to the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America.
Therapy helped him cope with PTSD and he’s learned that speaking about his experiences also helps. Skoglund is one of the few Vietnam veterans willing to share his combat experiences, Conn said.
“He does not dwell on his wounds – does not have an ounce of self-pity but rather always seeks the new day with a positive attitude,” Conn said.
Mostly, Skoglund’s Veterans Days are quiet. In past years, he has spoken at various events around the state.
Nowadays, he just appreciates the time to remember those who have served in the past and the ones serving now.