EXETER – Even now, 44 years after he patrolled the jungles of Vietnam – a place that steamed in the daytime, becoming, cold and wet at night – Ken Fernstrom remembers the daily quest to survive.
“I think about it on a daily basis,” he says. “Everything is still crystal clear.”
Fernstrom, who served 18 years on the Town Council (he thinks that's a record for length of tenure on Exeter's governing body), was 18 in 1967 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Infantry.
His first stop was Fort Jackson, S.C., where he was stationed, he recalls, “the first time it snowed. There was no heat in the barracks at the time.” To Ken, who hailed from the chilly Northeast, it seemed like another element of a vigorous training regimen.
The next stop was Fort Gordon, N.C. for advanced training, followed by airborne training at Fort Benning, N.C. Fernstrom shipped out from Fort Campbell, Ky. where he'd undergone final preparations.
His unit landed in California and were sent to Vietnam via ship. “It's was just a luxury,” he says sardonically. His first stop was Cam Ranh Bay, then on to Barang. “We were moved around by chopper,” he recalls.
Fernstrom attests that all the horror stories you've heard about Vietnam are true.
“We were never in camp much,” he says. “We were partrolling all the time. I saw my share of action and I lost many buddies over there. I had some scrapes here and there but I was fortunate not to be injured.”
The daytime temperature reached 120 degrees, so bad he says, “I would get blisters on my face from the sun.”
An aura of fear prevailed 24-7.
“You never knew who was who or where they were. Someone could be working in the barbershop in the day and setting up an ambush at night. They used a lot of women and children; the same techniques you see in Iraq today. They [the Vietcong] would put women and kids in front of them as shields and try to overrun the camps. At night you couldn't see.”
And then there was Agent Orange, the cancer-causing defoliation chemical that fell from the sky with total impartiality. Fernstrom, 62, is an Agent Orange survivor.
“We didn't know what they were doing, dropping stuff. We had no idea what the effects were. I go up to the Veterans Hospital [in Providence] frequently for reviews.”
He served three years and came out with the rank of Specialist-5. He returned home and began working at the former Ladd School. Today he's the owner of the owner of the Exeter Variety Store, near the post office on South County Trail.
Fernstrom rarely talks about Vietnam but on Memorial Day he will attend the town's parade then go home, “sit and watch the old military movies and meditate; think back.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .