Dale O’Keefe Vaughn

US Army, Vietnam, 1966-67

(“War is hell!” Every generation of soldiers have returned with physical and deeply hidden wounds. The Vietnam War took its soldiers into a darkness that left men scarred with internal injuries that none except those who served with them can begin to fathom or understand. A brutal ghost enemy, the inability to discern between citizens or combatants are just a few factors that traumatized these 20 something soldiers to the core of their mental and emotional existence. They were forced to become dehumanized to survive.  When they returned to society they were ignored, ostracized and provided zero resources to heal. As they share their stories, each of these veterans has suffered alone, internally, for fifty plus years. Those few with courage to open their memoires to share, do so for the sole purpose of helping others to heal. This is one such soldier’s story.)

Dale (O’Keefe) Vaughn, a seventy-seven-year-old Vietnam Veteran, passes his time these days often sitting on his porch in rural Washington state, surrounded by forest, his pup Pepe snuggled in his lap, still sorting out what he experienced as an MP and a door gunner in a Huey helicopter while serving in Nam from 1966-67. It has only been in the past two years he has found resources that have allowed him to begin to heal and to share his experience. He is in the process of writing a book so I will be brief in my story so not to steal his thunder.

Dale is a Northern California boy, born in Redwood City in 1942. His childhood was tumultuous. His mother worked as a waitress her entire life but was able to send her boys to a catholic military school until the fifth grade. He was by his own admission, a rebellious “wild child”, riding motorcycles down logging roads and down the main hall of his high school. He attended Sequoia and Woodside high schools. He lost a year of schooling when he was bedridden his junior year with a paralyzed leg diagnosed as polio in 1959.

Dale volunteered for the army and was sent to basic training at Ft. Ord in 1960. He wanted to be an MP and trained at Ft. Gordon, Georgia. Upon completion he was assigned to the Red Stone Arsenal in Alabama where he spent his time checking ID’s and opening gates. Wanting more, he volunteered for duty in Alaska where he became a dog handler. His fur partner’s name was Saki and for a year they worked together patrolling the missile base perimeter. 

At the end of this tour, Dale returned to Alabama where he would join an off base synchronized skydiving team. This team would jump as many as six times a day for fairs, football games and other events. 

Dale returned to his old stomping grounds after leaving the army. He drove a brand new 1966 red mustang with a white convertible. He trained as a bartender and became very successful to the point he was placed in charge of booking entertainment. His favorite group he booked was the up and coming Warlocks, (better known by their later name, The Grateful Dead) Dale enjoyed his friends, but the atmosphere of the night party life wore on Dale. He missed the structure and routine of the military.

In 1966 Dale applied for and was accepted into the Army Warrant officer candidate school. From 300 applicants the pool was slowly whittled down to ten when Dale was disqualified for having a astigmatism of the eye. Very discouraged but under contract to the army, he was reassigned to the army MP unit as a private and given orders to Vietnam. 

He landed in Ton Son Nhut Air Base and would serve as an MP in Pleiku, providing security, patrolling in armed jeeps, and accompanying convoys to Pleiku. Dale was fortunate enough to be tasked to fly to Okinawa on a C-130 to pick up 30 dog teams and bring them back for service in Nam. With his new dog Thor, he was then stationed in Vihn Long.

Still drawn toward his passion to fly, he hung out in Vihn Long with members of the Huey gunship unit nicknamed the “Cobras”. He was well liked by the crews and was invited on a recon flight. As the helicopter Flew over a large body of water near Cambodia known as the Y, they encountered a sampan with women & children in it. A major resupply route is no man’s land so occupying the left seat armed with a 60 mm machine gun he was ordered to “bust it”.   His very first flight he took lives, it validated him to the crew, but would live with him his whole life. 

Transfer orders came shortly after permanently moving Dale to the Cobra unit. He was assigned to the 114th Assault Helicopter Company, 1st Aviation Battalion, nicknamed the “Shield of the Mekong.” Dale has many stories of his time with the Cobras. They were constantly involved in missions that engaged the enemy. One particular mission stands out. 

On March 26, 1967, Easter Sunday, a large ARVN unit with American advisors landed in an LZ near Hoa Binh and were ambushed. The initial fire killed or wounded over 100 ARVN soldiers. When gunships were sent in for support and evac three choppers were immediately were shot down, with a fourth crash landing at its home base. Several helicopter units were alerted and responded forming a daisy chain trying to protect the soldiers still on the ground. 

The VC were hidden in bunkers and air assault by guns, grenades and air support bombing did not stop their fire. Dale can still recall the constant flow of green tracers the size of basketballs coming up from VC locations and the red tracers as the choppers returned fire.

During his time in Okinawa, Dale bought a Nikon F4 camera and began documenting his experience. He has hundreds of photographs and slides of his time as an MP and as a door gunner. They can be found on his Facebook site.

Dale would leave Vietnam shortly before the Tet Offensive. Dale describes what happened to his psyche/soul while in country. Soldiers had to become dehumanized to survive against a ghost enemy that was brutally savage to any captured American soldiers. 

At the age of 28 he returned again to his northern California neighborhood, enrolled in college and earned an Associates degree in Aviation. He spent much of his time flying with friends and he continued to skydive accumulating near 800 civilian jumps.

Dale’s return was much like other Vietnam vets. Even at the VFW and American Legion, Vietnam veterans were looked down upon and ostracized by the older vets from previous wars as well as an entire nation of ungrateful citizens reeling from the anti war movement. 

Dale followed his passion for photography joining the large Keith Cole Photography firm which photographed schools, universities and sports teams. He would be very successful but left California after two years for the peace and solitude of Oregon. There he bought a small working general store, that had a gas pump and housed the post office. By default, he became the postmaster and fire chief. This would be home for nearly 30 years. 

It was in Oregon he became drawn into running trails for exercise, to improve his health and provide a break from thinking. Starting at two miles he worked up to 5 and 10 K, and eventually mastered 26.2-mile marathons, competing in 13, including the NYC marathon.

Dale would marry and have two children, a son and a daughter. He struggled in his personal and private life with PTSD, TBI, IBS and other war related issues that would eventually lead to a divorce and bankruptcy. 

In his late 40’s Dale experienced a near death experience that altered his life forever. It would be the beginning of an almost 30-year spiritual quest to understand his life, purpose, and what lay ahead in this life and beyond.

Dale married Robyn twenty-five years ago and they have six children in their blended family. Fourteen grandchildren have been added to the clan. 

Due to conflicts and downsizing in the postal service in 1998 complicated by PTSD Dale would leave the Postal Service 5 months before his retirement date and move to Kauai. Later he moved to Washington were he would live on his daughter’s large property and built a three-story house with his own hands. Time was filled doing photography, painting and doing network marketing. The exposure to nature was healing to his soul but even into his seventies Dale was haunted by PTSD directly related to the brutal experiences during his Vietnam tour.

Two years ago, a member of his spiritual group introduced him to “Blu Room” therapy, a light and frequency based ultraviolet chamber where one is isolated for twenty minutes in ultraviolet solitude in a small room. He finally was able to break free from the horror of the memories and begin to heal and share his stories. 

(This program is proving to be effective to veterans and is being implemented by the VA.)

Three years ago, he and Robyn lost access to their home and were forced to move to three acres with Mt. Rainer in sight. He passes time working in his wood shop, raising chickens, sitting on the porch absorbing nature, napping and writing his memories down in a book. Several of his blogs are available on his Facebook site.

(This soldier served voluntarily and bravely and for over 50 years has been tormented by his actions that were necessary to survive physically. No combat soldier survived spiritually or mentally intact. Finally beginning to heal, Dale has one passion, to share that others also may begin to finally mend the wounds of Vietnam.)