AN AMER­I­CAN ICON

Viet­nam vet­eran Earl McDow­ell proud to serve his coun­try in a com­plex war

Post-Tribune - - News - BY SHEL­LEY JONES Post-Tri­bune cor­re­spon­dent

HO­BART — Earl McDow­ell rep­re­sents many of the im­ages of a Viet­nam vet­eran.

He was swept up in the tide of vi­o­lence in a war whose po­lit­i­cal roots the then-19-year-old knew noth­ing about. He has a Pur­ple Heart, earned un­der fire in that Viet­nam era icon, the he­li­copter. He suf­fers from heart prob­lems his doc­tor blames on Agent Or­ange ex­po­sure.

What he doesn’t rep­re­sent is re­gret. He has no mem­o­ries of re­luc­tance.

“I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t want to do it again,” he said. “But I’m proud I did it.”

The son of a World War II Navy vet­eran who sur­vived D-Day, McDow­ell en­listed in the Marine Corps on March 3, 1966.

“I just al­ways thought the Marine Corps was the tough­est and the best. I still think that today,” he said. “I had a lot of peo­ple try­ing to talk me out of the Marine Corps. My mom and dad tried to talk me out of it. They had some friends in the Navy try to steer me to­ward that.”

McDow­ell may have known he wanted to be a mem­ber of the Corps, but he didn’t know any­thing about Viet­nam, an ex­otic place that lay in wait for 3 mil­lion Amer­i­cans.

“When I was grow­ing up all I wanted to do was play base­ball,” says the Ho­bart na­tive who still lives in the home he grew up in. “I didn’t know any­thing about Viet­nam. I didn’t even know where it was.”

Af­ter boot camp at the Marine Re­cruit De­pot in San Diego, McDow­ell headed to in­fantry train­ing and then the Clas­si­fied Con­trol Cen­ter where he re­ceived top se­cret clear­ance. In a twist of irony, the young man who once couldn’t place Viet­nam on a map now per­son­ally shut­tled top-se­cret war plans via he­li­copter. “They would in­ter­cept mes­sages over the air­waves,” Mc- Dow­ell said, “but if I was car­ry­ing a brief­case they couldn’t do that.”

McDow­ell flew three or four of these mis­sions a week in the 13 months he served in Viet­nam from Au­gust 1967 to Septem­ber 1968. His CH34 he­li­copter was shot down twice dur­ing the 30- to 40-minute mis­sions. He said the air­craft was slower than other he­li­copters.

“They were a lot eas­ier to hit be­cause they were so slow.”

He was sta­tioned with the 9th Marines Reg­i­ment, 3rd Marines Di­vi­sion, in the far north of South Viet­nam close to the De­mil­i­ta­rized Zone (DMZ) that was sup­posed to serve as a no-fight­ing zone be­tween North Viet­nam and South Viet­nam. “We were 12 to 13 miles be­low that (the DMZ) at all times, but the ar­tillery could cover 20 miles. They would hit us all the time from North Viet­nam,” McDow­ell said.

When he re­turned to Ho­bart, McDow­ell mar­ried his pen­pal, Sue Collins, who had been as­signed to cor­re­spond with some­one serv­ing in Viet­nam as her se­nior class project at Ho­bart High School. They wrote back and forth for six months and mar­ried within a week of his re­turn.

He took a job at Tay­lor Forge in Gary and they had two sons, Steven, 42, and David, 41. When the forge closed, McDow­ell be­gan his lengthy ca­reer as a truck driver, work­ing for Won­der Bread, Dairy Rich and Frito Lay for the next 36 years. He di­vorced Collins and mar­ried Kim, his wife of 36 years. She raised Steven and David and the cou­ple also had a son, Adam, 34, and a daugh­ter, Heather, who died seven years ago.

McDow­ell joined Ho­bart Vet­er­ans of For­eign Wars Post 5365 in March of 1969 where his fa­ther was a mem­ber, even­tu­ally serv­ing as Post Com­man­der and then Dis­trict 1 com­man­der for the state of In­di­ana. He also served 20 years in the In­di­ana Na­tional Guard.

Un­like his par­ents, McDow­ell did not try to dis­cour­age his three sons from join­ing the Marine Corps. “I be­lieve ev­ery man should do at least two years in the mil­i­tary,” McDow­ell said. “It makes a lot of them grow up.”

His sons fol­lowed him into the Marine Corps. Like his fa­ther, David also chose to serve as a re­servist. Those ex­pe­ri­ences have deep­ened his re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther, he said.

“As a kid, any time some­thing would come on TV about Viet­nam, my dad would yell for me to come and watch it with him, and now I do that to my son, David Jr., who’s 11,” said David McDow­ell of He­bron. “I have an un­der­stand­ing now of why it was im­por­tant to him.”

| PHOTO PRO­VIDED

Sgt. Earl McDow­ell (left) re­ceives the Navy Achieve­ment Medal in Novem­ber 1968.

| JOE PUCHEK/SUN-TIMES ME­DIA

Earl McDow­ell keeps re­minders of his ser­vice in Viet­nam at his Ho­bart home.

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