Stephen H. Greene
US Army – Chief Warrant Officer 2
173rd Airborne Brigade, Casper Platoon, III Corps
Vietnam War (December 27, 1965 – December 1, 1969)
Stephen Greene, just like thousands of others, is proud to say that he served in the United States Military. He was born In Brooklyn New York on December 17 of 1946, and grew up in a variety of places from Hastings NY, to Florida, to California. He did odd jobs like babysitting, mowing lawns, delivering papers, cleaning windows, and working as a bus boy to make a little extra money as a kid. His father was an officer in World War II, and being a guy that found fulfillment through working, started his own business, to later becoming a letter carrier for the postal services. His mother was a sweet woman who took care of Stephen, his older brother, and four younger sisters, which was a full-time job. Greene’s father and his three uncles served in the military, earning his grandfather four blue stars. Greene would later add 1 more blue star and over 60 more awards to his family’s collection.
Greene describes the Vietnam War, ostensibly, as a battle between ideologies: Communism and Capitalism. The United States intervened in the war to inhibit communist North Vietnam, China, and Russia from advancing into Southeast Asia. Initially it was the US Air force, Naval forces and Army advisors that intervened, but in 1965 US Army infantry and the Marines entered the war. Greene was in the first Army ground combat unit to go to Vietnam after being drafted to go into the military.
He had lived in a veteran community prior to entering the military, and grew up in a place that made him accustomed to taking commands and following orders. However he and his father weren’t quite sure what the US was doing in Vietnam and had a lot of ambivalence around it when he was drafted right out of high school. Upon Greene’s father hearing the news that Greene got drafted, he took Greene to the Army recruiter who asked if he was interested in being helicopter pilot. Since Greene had never even been on a plane before, he thought he would like to be a pilot, and so he enlisted. Even though he had mixed feelings about serving in the Vietnam War specifically, he thought that, “If your country calls you, even though it seems for superfluous reasons, you’re supposed to go”.
At basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, Greene excelled both physically, because he was a good athlete in high school, and academically. Because of his excellence, the commanding officer pulled him aside and wanted him to go to Officers Candidate School to become an infantry officer and then a pilot. But Greene turned that offer down and went on to Fort Wolters, Texas, for Primary Helicopter School. There he learned areodynamics, navigation, meteorology, and mechanics for a month during the time called “preflight”. At flight school he experienced another level of discipline, “Your shoes had to be shined to a high gloss. And if you had a drawer, it had to be displayed a certain way. So all your underwear had to be folded in a 7 by quarter – and a quarter – by 8 and two-thirds inches,”. The people in charge were called “tac officers” and would actually measure with a tape measure to make sure that your shirts were 4 and a quarter inches from the left side of the drawer and 2 inches from the front side. Gradually, Greene and the others in flight school did learn to fly during every time of the day. Each month they had to progress or else they would be cut. That is why 45% of the people in flight school washed out by the end, because either their academics were deficient or they couldn’t fly.
In the beginning flying a helicopter seemed impossible to do because of everything the pilot has to worry about; different velocities and angles, the pedals, two sticks, a throttle, and the coordination of everything. After six months, Greene and many others learned the “impossible” task of flying and were transferred to Fort Rucker, Alabama. There he learned more skills such as being able to fly in the clouds without reference to the ground. He was transitioned into a helicopter called UH1 known as a Huey. So after several weeks learning to fly the bigger, faster Hueys, Greene went through something called tactics. That’s where he learned how to fly like he would have to in combat; flying in formation, landing in confined areas, making radio calls, and so on. He also went through survival school. They dropped him out in the middle of nowhere with only a bag that had maybe a rabbit, a chicken, and a couple potatoes, and had to live on that for the next couple of days. The tactics training went on for several weeks, and on January 17, 1967, after much hard work and one year of training, Greene got his Army Aviator Wings. Those wings are still one of the top two things that Greene is most proud of today. After completing flight school, Greene had taken some exams during his senior year of high school, and he found out that he was accepted into the Merchant Marine Academy to become a ship’s officer. He turned the offer down because he had already fallen in love with flying.
Greene was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade as a Warrant Officer and flew to Long Binh Replacement Depot in Vietnam. When he landed in the 90 degree weather and extreme humidity, Greene was at a big military base and the new men were all lined up to get their clothing, get vaccinations, brush their teeth with extra strong toothpaste, then get on their way. Shortly after he got there, he was flying and his helicopter was under heavy gunfire. The man in the back got shot up and so Greene was covered in blood and bone that wasn’t his own just a mere three weeks after he arrived. If he didn’t know what to except before arriving, he was now awakened to the horrors of what really happened. About a month later, Greene himself was shot down and wounded. He was in the three different hospitals for 10 weeks and was supposed to go back to Oklahoma for recovery. But Greene knew he would have to return to Vietnam anyway, so he stayed in the hospital in Japan until he recovered and flew back to Saigon, Vietnam. He hitchhiked to the 173rd Airborne Brigade base, sort of conning his way past Long Binh Replacement Depot so that he could go back to his own unit.
The 173 Airborne Brigade which Greene was a part of, was the only separate airborne infantry in the Vietnam War. Their job was to support their infantry in whatever ways they could. Every day had a different mission; scouting, command and control, delivering supplies (food, water, and mail), attacks, medical evacuation, and directed artillery are some of the main things that Greene did. He lived out of tent in the mountains for 10 months through huge monsoons that flooded the area. They used “very rudimentary bathroom facilities” that were “not even close to the luxury of an outhouse”. They took outdoor showers from buckets of water that they had to hang on a 4×4 board, and ate C-rations which is one box or can of a “main course” and a small box of a “side” for almost a year. As a pilot, during his downtime, Greene would spend time writing letters and sometimes he’d be sitting out in the jungle with three other guys and just a helicopter, so they played a lot of cards, using ammunition as chips. Greene also was enrolled in the UC Berkeley Extension Program, and completed a semester of college while in Vietnam.
After returning from Vietnam, Greene went to Fort Hood, Texas to support the efforts of the Cold War. He was called to Chicago after Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination to assist the local law enforcement there with riots. He did the same thing during the infamous Democratic Convention in 1968, although Greene wanted to be on the ground demonstrating. At Fort Hood, he learned how to fly airplanes. He had flown helicopters in combat 1804 hours at that point, and quickly transitioned to flying airplanes in just half an hour. While in Texas, Greene worked for NASA, and continued his college education by taking night classes with the Central Texas College in Killeen.
Although the United States prevailed in nearly every battle during the war, Vietnam eventually fell to the communists. Over 58 thousand Americans lost their lives and over 300,000 were wounded in the war, only to see Vietnam reunited under the communists. Greene, believes that those who fought were as effective and brave as any who fought in our Nation’s other wars, but failed to gain the respect of the American people. To this day, Greene still gets together with some of the pilots and crew he flew with in Vietnam every year at a reunion. They have a special bond—Brothers-in-Arms—with mutual respect and recognition for what we did and for one another.
Once Greene got out of the Army in December of 1969, the army tried to persuade him to stay in the Reserves. But Greene wanted out and wanted to go back to UC Berkeley to finish school. So one day he was sitting outside on the steps at Berkeley, and there was an anti-war demonstration going on. There were protestors and police lobbing tear-gas grenades back and forth at each other. At this time, Greene had just gotten out of Vietnam and did not appreciate the irony of the scenario. As the demonstration dispersed he went to the basement level of a Hall to register for classes, and as he got down there, it was full of tear-gas. Greene had been exposed to tear-gas before but it was still an extremely uncomfortable situation. He was trying to get out when a “hippie-medic” came to him and gave him a face mask and directed him to safety. Even with all of this anti-war stuff going on at Berkeley, nobody ever showed disrespect to Greene, nobody spat on him, or had a bad word. Although, he did feel a bit estranged because he was a few years older than the other undergraduates and he lived off campus in San Francisco. In fact, he hitchhiked to and from school every day. Through college while living in San Francisco, Greene worked in many jobs. He worked as a short-order cook at a fish and chips restaurant, an insurance-code adjustor, and as a lifeguard at a nude beach. He loved flying and since he had his licenses, he could rent commercial airplanes and just fly around whenever he could afford it.
Eventually though, Greene graduated from Berkeley and that accomplishment is one of his two proudest moments still today, along with getting his Aviator Wings. Out of college, he got a job working with the Federal Aviation Administration for about a year and a half. Then he took a job flying helicopters out of Oakland to fight fires for a couple of years. In 1983 Greene started flying medical helicopters and did that for 29 years all over the state of California. This job gave him the satisfaction that he was doing something meaningful and worthwhile that really made a difference. He also met his wife who was auditing Commodore Helicopters. They “had a five-year whirlwind courtship, and got married in Fiji on the beach, in 1987”. Greene said, “She saved my life. I was really going through a lot of trauma because of the war, and, it was just a very difficult time for me. She gave me a sense of purpose, and has been there for me all the time,”.
Although throughout his years nobody gave Greene a hard time for serving in Vietnam, he also found that there was no appreciation for what he had done. He, and a lot of others, went through personal hardship at a very young age, and whether people agreed or disagreed with the cause, there was an overall lack of caring for the Vietnam veterans. Greene is a member of the Disabled American Veterans which he supports them and they support him.
His psychologically wounded friend asked Greene to go back to Vietnam for him. So, in fact he did return to Vietnam in late February of 2017. They worked with the Department of Defense Prisoner of War Missing in Action Accountability Agency specifically focusing on the Battle of Dak To, Hill 875. There are three soldiers still missing 49 years later after the battle, and Greene and a team of 10, went there to hopefully help locate them by pointing out the patterns of the battle. When Greene ascended Hill 875, along with two other veterans from the battle, it was the first time since the war ended and it may be the last time that American veterans returned to the hallowed ground of this battlefield.
Greene’s experience serving in the military made him grow up pretty quickly. It made him a lot older at just 19 and “certainly prepared me to accept a lot of responsibility in my life”. He thinks it’s important for people to know that war is real, and “people do this, and are still doing it. Don’t take for granted anything. And try to work toward a situation where no one has to do this again”. He encourages people to “live life to the fullest extent possible” because he has witnessed firsthand, his friends’, 19 year olds, lives cut short. But Greene is proud to say that he served for his country, and he showed the world what he could do.
Interview Conducted by Cassidy Bruner on January 8, 2017