Today’s article is written by Stephen Ordway. Stephen is a fellow Vietnam War Veteran and a former Green Beret. This is the second article Stephan has provided for our blog. In this article Steve reflects on a life of struggles and triumphs. Please enjoy “the ramblings of and old sheepdog”.
Every Day is a Challenge
It’s four AM here in Arizona. The doctors at the VA give me pills to help me sleep. They don’t work. You see I have Neuropathy from Agent Orange affecting both legs and my right hand now and also let’s not forget the PTSD. I should be out cold for a good ten hours but my mind doesn’t work that way. It fights its way up through a swirling fog of yesterdays, trying to clear cobwebs that block my escape to the surface and the clarity of making it through another night of sleepless sleep. Some weeks are good and I can go for days with no issues. This week has been exceptionally bad.
I sleep alone right now, that way others can sleep. My wife and I have been married 18 years now, and she truly loves me but deserves her sleep, having been putting up with my snoring all these years. Sadly, it has grown progressively worse and she deserves so much better.
Sometimes on the really bad nights, I call out for others – who are dead now – and sometimes I get a form of night terror that can cause me to break out in a sweat; the dreams so overwhelming that I push and tear at the covers trying to get free one more time, one more step in my mind! Then it passes and the sun rises and it’s another day.
Anyway, a false dawn has already begun to gray and lighten the sky, a sky that later today will be a beautiful, clear and cloudless blue. I remember long ago so many mornings I would lie in a jungle watching and waiting for the early morning mists to begin breakup and the sun to appear and bring the new day. I would lay listening to the sounds moving through the mists, watching the Yards (Montagnards) as they either started their day or lay still waiting to see what else out there might be moving. During the Vietnam war there were 7,000,000 Montagnards, now there are only 600,000 left. Days could go by on patrol with nothing happening – except we knew they were out there. We were in their world and they had all the time they wanted before they would rise up from the mists attacking on their terms.
My mind wanders around sitting in my chair alone waiting for life to happen. My wife Annie and the two boys will be up soon. She makes wonderful coffee with just a touch of French Vanilla. She’s a Professor, teaching from home right now with our world closed down from the Virus. She spends hours and hours on line and on the phone with her students. Her enthusiasm never dwindles and she is such a joy to have in my life.
I didn’t enjoy my childhood. How very many of you echo those words in your minds? So many of us spent our childhood trying to find our way to fit in or at least get through the day without losing it. We tried so hard to find our way when “fitting in” really doesn’t exist – but no one explained to us, that most of us would never “fit in.” I was a skinny little kid with a stutter – an excellent target for those bigger and stronger; the ones that knew how to get away with things in the hallways without getting caught. I had ADHD (that would never be diagnosed until adulthood) which made me even more of a target because it was easy to dislike me. In 2nd grade I was left back (what we called it back then, now called “retained for additional learning”) because I stuttered, didn’t pay attention in class, and fidgeted in my seat too much – and I needed to learn to “follow directions” better.
By the way, all those descriptions of me were absolutely true. “They” moved on from 2nd to 3rd grade and I started over again, looking out the window and wishing I was on the outside too. I guess I said goodbye to the few peers I may have had as friends. All of this is leading up to two points needed to be made. First, I would be an easy target to bully and abuse because I did not move ahead to 3rd grade, and yes there were children as young as 3rd grade that could bully. Second, over the years, I have learned to push myself beyond the pain whether physical or mental, something I have found to be a very common trait in SF men. I made it through 2nd grade (a second time) followed by 3rd, 4th, 5th and finally entered 6th grade, my final year of my elementary years at Pierrepont School in Rutherford N.J. There, my wheels came off the track again, maybe for good.
The two joys of my life that I remember from those early years were Cub Scouts with my den leader Mrs. Robinson and my trips to Ticonderoga N.Y. and the woods of northern Lake George. I loved the outdoor activities and camping in Cub Scouts, and of course the wilderness I explored, from dawn to dusk at the lake. I could escape the bullying that had become a part of my life and run free to my heart’s content. Nature would become my best friend, something Tony Winters, who also grew up during those years in Rutherford, posts weekly when looking back into the world he loved so much, Vermont – not too far from my Brigidoon, Ticonderoga, NY., and northern Lake George.
Back to my story, a story some of you that follow my “Sheepdog” posts have read before. Sadly, my progress ended in 6th grade. I moved from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts with my goal to become an Eagle Scout and to grow up able to help others. I even thought, at one time I wanted to be a priest. But first of course, I would have to pass 6th grade – and start also at the bottom rung of scouting. I would have to start out all over again as a Tenderfoot being trained by older boys. In school, I entered Mr. Rogers 6th grade class, a man that expected every child to fit into his neat little box of good behavior. As we all know now that just wasn’t me. Still, a skinny little runt with a stutter, both arenas, scouts and school were to become a major challenge.
In Boy Scouts, the senior boys were the leaders under the guidance of the assistant Scoutmaster and then the Scoutmaster. I became fair game for the clever older boys who felt I didn’t in any way fit the image of the pack. I was handed off to the Scoutmaster and in turn his son (the assistant scoutmaster) for training and the teachings of the ways of a “good” scout, if I wanted to fit in and get rank promotions. It became a nightmare. At school, from day one, I butted heads with my new teacher. He had no time or patience to teach a boy with a stutter and I did not fit into his class schema at all. In the end I was left back (covered in an earlier post) again in 6th grade (retained for additional learning) thus putting the final nail in the rejection coffin established for me by my peers anywhere near my age.
After enjoying a 2nd year in 6th grade with a different teacher, I made it to junior high school. There I learned how to get by walking the halls by making as little eye contact with as few older boys as possible. The problem with that was pretty girls also walked the halls and I tried to do both – tried to stay under the radar and not get beat up more than once a week by those that ruled the school and still enjoy the view of the older girls. It’s funny, many now on my friend list remember who ruled the schools 50 and 60 years ago. The football teams. I no longer found any joy in scouting and finally after time gave it up. My love of the outdoors drove me from sport to sport trying football my freshmen year.
Stephen finds his inner strength
By then I had built up a reputation of fighting back and getting back up when knocked down; not winning but also no longer losing in my mind. At less than 100 lbs., I found football to be the sport of my worst antagonists. After getting pounded each day in practice, I would change my clothes without taking a shower (having learned in junior high school to avoid the shower room, home of the bullies) and start my one mile plus hike uphill to home. I love saying that about the walk home! Anyone from Rutherford NJ can remember what it was like walking uphill on Passaic avenue at dusk from where both football and track practiced. I think the walk, exhausted from practice each night, helped me learn early to push on after my body wanted to quit.
In Vietnam there was no quit, no matter how tired we got. I kept pushing myself, and pushing the men with me in that jungle, to keep moving and stay ahead of an enemy who was always nipping at our heels or trying to cut us off. I served on two different border teams in Vietnam with some men that in my eyes were real heroes. Buddy who’s call-sign was “Lizard,” and Lt. Jim Blanchard, call-sign “Rabbit,” and of course our medics, men we knew were the finest!
Back to High School, football was my fall sport and since I loved running, I went out for spring track to burn out my fire each day. Finally, I had found a sport that my Dad could be proud of me doing. There were no cheering crowds, no packed stands, worst of all, NO pretty cheerleaders (and yes, our cheerleaders were very pretty in my eyes) bouncing and twisting out front at the football and basketball games. Mostly it was just the track team and one or two parents that could show up. That was fine with me. By then I had kind of given up on people anyway being a big part of my life.
And Stephen Finds a Home
During my senior year I finally gave up and quit school and went into the Army starting at Fort Dix, N.J. Pushing beyond other soldiers for whatever reason came easily for me when it came to training. I signed on for the best of the best training I could get – first jump school after which I then had a choice of 3 schools – Warrant Officer school (choppers), OCS and of course Special Forces. I couldn’t fly choppers because I wore glasses so that was out. In my mind, I still had a world of things I needed to prove to myself, so I volunteered for Special Forces. The Sgt., a five striper I filled out the paperwork with, laughed in my face and said I would be the first to washout and couldn’t even last a whole week, IF I survived the first day. Jump school was easy. We ran non-stop everywhere and I never tired – which drove the Black Hats crazy. They put me first in the door on the first jump trying to shake me – but again for me, I loved it! After jump 5, and the equipment jump, I was officially airborne qualified. From there I left for Fort Bragg, the home of Special Forces.
Now Special Forces became a whole different kind of challenge, they never let up on us day or night, nor should they have. The goal was not to break you but instead to weed out all those that could not live up to the standards – they needed to weed those that could not stay the course, not live up to the oath, not always look forward to the next mission, and not always continue to train. Down time for others was rest and recovery time – but not for us. Down time for us was additional time to train; to become not just good but to be better than just good; to strive to be the best. It sounds very egotistical to write it now, but it was the truth for each one of us. We didn’t do it for us, it was never for us. The team, like a pack of wolves, is the strongest when together. We trained together hard and when time allotted, we were cross trained. To learn and to work as hard as we could was our mission, and those that couldn’t live it were not SF material. Our goal was to help others, to set them free. To liberate the oppressed, DOL.
They taught me everything I needed to know I thought, but that can never be true. There will always be more – new thoughts, new ideas, new missions, learned from others or that comes with aging. We never talked about medals, and we should have. We should have been trained in how to write those that deserved it up; how to write someone up for something earned. Over there, we never ever talked about what we did, what we saw, the strength those men gave to me. On the team I was the FNG and believe me it fit. Bottom of the food chain again. People like Buddy Brueck, Jim Blanchard, Tom Hinton, Brillo, Blue Max, and one of our truly finest medics in all of SF, Boxie Joplin. Forgive me if names were spelled wrong, it’s been so very many years now. I wish now I’d known, known what to write. They all deserved medals, especially Buddy. His family will never know the man from that dusty red hill so far away. Nothing phased him and no enemy would ever take his camp out from under him. He just wasn’t killable. He was one mean SOB if crossed. Simple rule, don’t cross him. They were the best of the best, willing to die for what they believed in, and I saw it all. Buddy was the hardest on me by far, but he wasn’t wrong. I belong in the field, not in a commo room with a stutter. For me it was no different from my childhood in upstate New York’s woods. I could just disappear, blend right in and become part of wherever I was. The woods had always been my home, you didn’t have to talk, to stutter.
It kills me now, never having learned how to write them up for all they did, day after day. I never wrote them up, never got for them what they earned and deserved – not really for them anyway – they didn’t care, would never have cared – but for their families, their wives, their children and their children’s children. Those are the ones that deserve to know what that old man did, when he was once upon a time a young boy/man. He sits now some mornings down on his dock, aged and wrinkled and gray, sometimes with his fishing pole, often alone, watching the sun rise, the same sun he watched more than 50 years ago; remembering. Sometimes he even still fishes.
It’s now more than fifty years since I went to Vietnam. Another Friday morning in a quiet house in Arizona. The war for the United States in Vietnam lasted approximately 19 years with more than 58,000 dead on our side alone. I’m sorry so many of our young people died. I still wonder sometimes what they all died for; the why of it all. We came home after all that blood and death, to so very much anger and hate directed towards us, as if we had committed crimes, instead of in the end being still the same boys that had been sent away under orders. Changed – yes, forever – but most of us had stopped growing inside, the 1000 yards stare at times; so real people wouldn’t talk to us. How could they ever train us for what we saw, what we did. No one ever decompressed – dropped back in the world less than 24 hours after killing an enemy.
We’ve finally become old now in chronical age – the boys from Vietnam, and the boys from Rutherford that crossed the ocean to fight there. The boys from yesterday that are left, still alive. Buddy and Jim from Vietnam; and some others from my high school that I once knew, still alive. Old men who are finishing out their winter years, sitting around maybe fishing still like Buddy. Or like Tony Winters, walking the trails of NY and Vermont alone, surrounded by those people no longer able to walk with him – instead, joining him in his mind – like his brother Chris, gone to a jungle so very long ago. Maybe like me, remembering my childhood and now mixing it up at night with the bombs and the blood and that dusty red hill that once was home to me. Soldiers that trained me, in the end became friends and then finally forever brothers from so very many different mothers.
Thank you all for what you taught me. I hope in my own way I passed something on to others also.
Stephen D. Ordway enlisted in the United States Army in January of 1968. He completed Airborne school, and with additional training became a member of the Fifth Special Forces Group. As a Green Beret, he served in Vietnam during 1969 and 1970. Upon returning to the United States, Stephen achieved degrees in Public Administration and Psychology, and Masters credits in Special Education and in Clinical Psychology. He has been a member of Crimestoppers; a parenting time supervisor; and a special investigator for a child advocacy practice in New Jersey. Stephen and his wife have a total of nine children, two of whom still live with them in Gilbert, Arizona. Stephen is currently retired.
Note: Feel free to leave any comments for Stephen.
Wonderful reminiscence by Stephen. He served there the same years I did, 1969-70, though my war was much different than his. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for the feedback Tom, it is a nice article.
Maybe not so different, I too wanted to be a priest but enlisted and in my case instead of OCS I went SF.
Very telling personal story; honored to send you some my writing and prose. Jim, Advisor/Linguist,MACV,II Corps, Battle of KonTum, 1972, Ironman-Kona, Oly Trials marathoner p-VNam
Thank you for the kind words on Steve’s article.
Very good write Stephan! I live in Gilbert AZ also…….was in VN ’67 to ’70…….then 46th Co in ’72. Have retired 3 times from the Army…….first in ’89……..then called back for Desert Storm …..retired June ’91…..then called back for Afghanistan in 2005 with 3rd SFG….and retired third time June 2006 NO MAS!!!!!
Good to hear from you David, Welcome home!
Good write-up Steve …
Thank you for the feedback.
Steven is the real thing ” Combat Warrior and Leader” Stephen has only shared half of his military story, I can only guess it is due to his modesty.
I’m proud to call Stephen my friend. Thank God America has young men like Stephen willing to wear the Green Beret and willing to crawl into dark enemy tunnels to meet and defeat those fighters against our troops and flag.
Saying thank you to Steven and the men and women that served in Special Forces in Vietnam and every conflict since has never made me feel satisfied enough as an expression of my heartfelt thanks and appreciation of their service and personal sacrifice.
It has been a very long time and a lot of years now Peter, I hope this post finds you well.
Stephen, I met you today while we were both waiting for our vehicles to be serviced. You have not left my mind since early this morning. It was a true honor to have met you and to hear just a small part of your story. What I wish I had said to you is, welcome home, Sir!
It was my honor to sit and talk with you, thank you for your kindness.
Stephen- Ted and I were with friends from Conn. today reminiscing about our time in college at the Univ. of Bridgeport. We remembered our friendship with you and decided to try and find you. We found you. I remember your telling of Your Vietnam experience and I see by your writings that the experience never left you. I want you to know that your experiences affected me greatly. As you may remember, I worked as a nurse at the VA for six years taking care of Veterans.
You are an excellent writer. As I read your articles, I remember you telling them. I’m glad you wrote about them.They are stories that need to be told and remembered. You will always be a true hero in my mind. I’m sorry to hear of your illness. May God give you the strength to keep fighting. Stay safe, my friend.
Hi guys, living in Gilbert Az. and still laughing about our lives back in Conn. I don’t know how to get in touch so here goes 973-879-6167.
Stephen, I truly enjoyed reading your writings, thoughts and memories about Rutherford, our high school and your experience in Vietnam.