Rank/Name: Sergeant Daniel L. Whitson
Hometown: Piqua, Ohio
Branch: United States Army
Unit: B Company, 1/5 Cavalry, 2nd Platoon
Service Dates: 1966-1968
For Dan Whitson, a 19-year-old boy from a small, rural Ohio town, the call to serve his country came on a cold December day in 1966. The war in Vietnam was raging, and President Lyndon Johnson had just ordered tens of thousands more troops to be sent overseas.
"I reported and was sworn in on December 14th," Dan recalls. "But they told us we had two choices. We could go home and report back on the 28th, or we could go sit at Fort Knox for two weeks." Without hesitation, Dan and three of his fellow compatriots decided on the former. After spending the night at a cheap motel in Cincinnati, the men hitchhiked the 80 miles back home to spend the Christmas holiday with their families.
But the 28th came, and Dan was shipped to central Kentucky where he spent the first months of 1967 in boot camp at Fort Knox. Shortly after, Dan headed to Fort Polk, Louisiana where he completed eight weeks of Advanced Individual Training (AIT).
"Everyone knew if you went to Fort Polk your next stop was Vietnam," Dan says. Everyone was right. Upon graduation of AIT, Dan received 30 days of leave before flying to California and ultimately to Vietnam. He arrived in country on June 1st, 1967 and was assigned to the 1st Calvary Division seven days later. He completed a week of cavalry training, was assigned to the 2nd platoon, and sent to the field.
"Within a day or two of joining the company we had our first air assault," Dan remembers. "Which was the biggest one I was in while I was over there." Dan would later discover that this 2-day, 1-night battle took the lives of 11 men and wounded 25 others, nearly a third of his company. "I remember asking ‘do you do this all the time? How does anyone do their year and actually go home?’" Fortunately most of Dan’s days were not nearly as eventful as those first down range. The majority of his time was spent on patrol, walking and building perimeters. "It was hours of boredom with moments of sheer terror, that’s how we described it."
For 9 of the 12 months of Dan’s deployment he was in charge of carrying the company’s machine gun. This duty was crucial to the unit, so when Dan fell ill in October of 1968, another troop took his place manning the weapon. "They thought I had Malaria or Hepatitis," Dan recalls. "I was back at the aid station and saw a medevac helicopter land in the distance. I saw familiar platinum blonde hair and I knew it was some of our guys." Dan’s fears were ultimately confirmed. Three men were injured that afternoon; one paid the ultimate sacrifice. Shrapnel from a nearby IED fatally wounded the young man tasked with carrying Dan’s machine gun. "All you can think is that it could have been or should have been you."
Dan made it through the rest of his deployment unscathed and rotated home in June of 1969. After another 30-day leave, the 21-year-old spent the last five months of his service guarding prisoners at the stockade at Fort Knox. He returned home to Ohio and has been married to his wife, Connie, for 25 years.
In the early 1990’s, Dan reunited with some of his fellow troops at his first divisional Army reunion. "When I got home from that, I decided I would try to find some of these guys," Dan states. "We’ve probably located 9 or 10 that we were there with, and we’re still tracking ‘em down." The reunions, which take place all across the continental United States, give the veterans the opportunity to reminisce, build friendships, and remember those who weren’t fortunate enough to come home. Dan has participated in over a dozen reunions and proactively recruits other veterans to participate.
Dan is also an active member of his local Veterans of Foreign Wars. Since joining in 1974, he has held offices as Commander, Trustee, and Quartermaster. "It’s important to be involved," Dan stresses. "They help, also. The organization is about honoring the fallen and helping the living veterans. That’s what’s important."