Interview with Jeffrey L. Stoffel
Interviewed by Devin J. Bilbee
Marion High School
Interviewed on May 14, 2003
at the Stephen D. Bilbee House
DB: This is Devin Bilbee interviewing Jeffrey Stoffel at the Bilbee Household. Jeffrey Stoffel currently lives at 4711 W. N. 00 S. Jeffrey Stoffel was born on October 24, 1955. He was enlisted in the army and served in the Vietnam and Desert Storm Wars. He was a Specialist 4th Class and served in the Big Red 1.
DB: When were you drafted, or when did you enlist in the Vietnamese War?
JS: I wasn’t drafted, I was a volunteer. I enlisted in, let’s see, it was March, I believe, of 1974. But I didn’t go in until September 2nd, 1974 under the six month delayed entry program the Army was sponsoring at that time.
DB: What was the six month delayed entry program?
JS: It just gave you six months to realize what you were going to do, prepare yourself for it. And I was still a senior in high school, I hadn’t finished high school yet. It just gave you six months to just have fun, and to get ready for the next step.
DB: What was the situation of the war at the time you were entering?
JS: Oh, the war was pretty much dwindling down. They were bringing a lot of guys home. People were kind of, I don’t know, glad, but also kind of dejected I think. It was a pretty traumatic time in history for us. We were losing one! It was confusing to me, but later on, as I got into the service, I was kind of surprised at some of the things that I saw that other people were thinking about and how they were feeling.
DB: Yeah, there was a pretty heavy anti-war sentiment in America at that time. How did you feel about these activists and their message?
JS: I talked to combat soldiers about that kind of stuff, and they were fighting for these people as much as they were fighting for those who were for it. They didn’t want to see them lose their freedoms of speech, and they wanted them to have the rights to protest, and they were actually taking part in the protests themselves, and speaking out against it. It just got to be a very ugly event in our history towards the end. No matter how much honor that the soldiers and the sailors and everybody put into it, it just couldn’t get any better. It was just one of those things that was going to last forever, it seemed like, and it was better to cut our losses and come home.
DB: When you first joined, do you have any boot camp experiences that you remember?
JS: Oh yeah, there were a lot of those. The one thing that really stands out in my mind was our drill sergeants. They were all Vietnam veterans. Active combat veterans. And they just had a wide range of personalities. I remember mine was a real nice guy, but you could see a far way look in his eyes constantly. He never really screamed or yelled at us, he was real firm, but he just expected us to be able to do everything that he did, and that’s just the way he taught us. There were some that were screaming. Maniacs! You didn’t know if they were going to be inside you screaming to get out, or pounding you down into the ground from one minute to the next. But, I think that I did get the best drill sergeant of the bunch, because it was all about respect, duty, and honor to him. And I could tell he was a good guy.
DB: After boot camp, do you recall any of your first days of service? What were those like for you?
JS: Oh, boot camp and then advanced individual training, then going to my regular duty station in Ft. Riley, Kansas. Yeah, there was quite a bit of difference. You’re a real tight unit when you get out of boot camp, it was a pretty serious time, and we all wanted to do the best we could for each other, and we were there to serve our country. There were a lot of very highly motivated people, and it was a very different situation for me. I had never been anywhere away from home, a little, small town. And now I’m thrown in with all these guys where we were all the same. Nobody was better than anybody else. We treated each other that way, and we got along really well. My first experiences into the real army, my first permanent duty station, there was a lot of confusion there too. Because a lot of these guys, again, were combat veterans just returning from a war. And there was a mixture of all different kinds. Every movie shows you just a few more of them. I seemed to get along really well with a lot of the combat guys. And I would sit around a lot, and listen to their stories to try to understand what they went through. But, it was a learning period for me too. There were situations that they were in, where they weren’t sure if they did the right thing, but they did something. And, they kind of gave you an idea of what you might do if you ever got stuck in that situation. And I really appreciated that input.
DB: Could you describe your services in the Vietnam War? Where you served—
JS: Sure. Like I said, the Vietnam War was tailing down pretty fast, and, although, just one time the post was put on activation order-I never did understand quite what was going on-for a day, I think it just amounted to one day we were on really high alert. I’m not sure what caused it, but I was not in the situation where I asked questions. They told you what to do and you just did it, that was all there was to it.
DB: What was your rank and your duties?
JS: I went in as a private and received, about a year later, I went to private 1st class, and then I got Specialist 4th just before I left for Korea. I was a heavy equipment operator. I was a combat engineer. I drove bulldozers and earthmovers and bucket loaders, dump trucks, heavy equipment of all sorts, just a little bit of everything.
DB: Was there any particular reason why you joined the army and the—
JS: No, no particular reason, other than my dad was in the army. My dad got drafted. I expected to get drafted, but the draft stopped. I still had planned on going into the service to start my life after high school. Hopefully it would become a cornerstone for the development for the rest of my life. To have a lot of experiences, some good, bad, kind of a mixture. But it’s the first time that I really got to mix with people of different ethnicities and backgrounds and origins. I came from a little town in the middle of nowhere. Pretty calm, peaceful, never anything real exciting ever went on there, but nothing real bad either. So it was an extremely eye-opening experience. I’m not so sure that I took it in real well. But, I didn’t get in any trouble. I always did what I was told, followed orders. Every now and then, my mouth would get me in trouble, but it was just because you can’t understand some really stupid things, and so when I questioned them it just meant that you were going to get in trouble even more. So I just learned not to even ask questions, just wait for the next day to get over with, and the next day after that until your term was over and you could go back to civilian life.
DB: You said your dad was drafted. What war was he drafted in, and did his role and army life influence you?
JS: He was drafted in 1951 in the Korean War as a Military Policeman. He was an only son, so this actually forwent him having to go to Korea, for just the chance that he might be killed and the family name stops. He ended up in Germany and served two years as a Military Policeman.
DB: Did that influence you in any way, did you want to continue on with the family role of being in the Armed Forces?
JS: Yes, sure, my dad was in the army and that had something to do with why in went in the army. I saw the Vietnam War stopping, we were not going to be active in it anymore, so I actually went into a branch where I thought I might learn something that I could enjoy doing the rest of my life. As it turned out, I couldn’t find work as a heavy equipment operator anywhere near where I wanted to live. I wasn’t the best-educated kid. That was my fault, I didn’t study hard. So it wasn’t something that I was ready to take on privately, on my own.
DB: You also joined the war effort in Desert Storm. Did you volunteer for this again?
JS: When I was little, I’m going to say probably 10, 11, or 12, I would, everyday, watch the 6 o’clock news. And to me, the body counts were a really confusing thing. I probably did this the better part of three or four years. Probably 1965 to almost 1970, everyday. I thought it was a game. I mean, I could understand what was happening on T.V. but the war protests and everything, it was so far away. And there were not very many people from Huntington directly involved. There were a few, and we had casualties from Huntington in Vietnam, but I was not directly involved with these people either. We were very shelled. The outside world didn’t get to Huntington a whole lot. But the body count thing, it would say-just guessing numbers-260 V.C. dead, and it would say 13 U.S. dead. And, although, I realized this was a bad thing, but in a war the idea is to eliminate the enemy. And, even 10, 12, 13 years old I understood that, but I just never understood that in was never going to end. No matter how big their numbers were, no matter how small our numbers were, they were never going to quit until we annihilated all of them, and we weren’t prepared to do that anymore than we were prepared to send hundreds of thousands of more soldiers over there for what ended up being a lost cause. Too many restrictions. Too many handcuffs. You can’t tell a guy to go do something and then say if you get to this point you have to quit doing it and come back, that’s just not the way to do it.
DB: In Desert Storm, did you volunteer for that or-I don’t know if they had the draft then or not-
JS: No, the draft was gone. No, I pretty much was a volunteer. Anything they did in the service, whenever they asked for volunteers, if somebody else didn’t beat me to it, or somebody waited too long, I always volunteered for it. I thought that I would get to do something that somebody else didn’t get to do. Yeah, I did. I got to wash a lot of trashcans that I didn’t really want to. I got to do some other things that were fun to do, and other guys didn’t, and that’s the pros and cons. But, there is nothing wrong with being a volunteer, volunteers are the backbone. Hey, the whole United States military, right now, today, is all volunteers and it’s the best it’s ever been.
DB: In Desert Storm, how was the situation of the war, how were we involved in that?
JS: There again, there is something about the way I grew up, the way I look at things that I always thought that I was combat material. So I volunteered again, just in the chance that I might get to go over there and actually be in combat. And I’m not ashamed to say that I wished, in my life, someway or another, I would have been able to find out if I had what it takes to do the job right, when called upon to do it.
DB: You were stationed in Korea for Desert Storm?
JS: Oh, no. My year in Korea was from 1976 to 1977. It was the third year of my three-year voluntary hitch I did in the regular army. I volunteered to go to Korea. I put in four, five, six transfers before I finally got it. I went over there in September of 1976.
DB: What was the atmosphere like there?
JS: Oh, it was a great unit. I was really, really surprised. We were very cohesive, there was absolutely no disrespect shown, we got along really well, and we were only about twelve miles from the DMZ. I got to spend a lot of time up there. When you got up there, now you’re seeing the real soldiers. These are guys that are combat prepared, combat ready. I was on the last active artillery firebase in the world of the United States at that time. It was pretty neat, to have shells flying over your head, listening to them. We built bunkers and did a lot of stuff over there. It was a real good experience. I can still think back on that today and think that was a very rewarding time in my life. I do not regret that year at all, it was a very good year.
DB: You said you were about 12 miles from the DMZ. What, exactly, is the DMZ?
JS: Demilitarized Zone. That is the buffer zone in between North Korea and South Korea, north of the Imjin River.
DB: You said you were a heavy equipment operator for the Vietnamese War, while you were in service there. Did you continue on with this assignment in the Desert Storm effort?
JS: Yes, I had the same M.O.S.-62 ECHO CHARLIE, I believe-which was a tractor-crawler operator, bulldozer operator. Yeah, same thing. They didn’t have bulldozers in the unit I was assigned to, but the M.O.S. stuck with me. I just did, then, whatever I was told to do. That’s just the game you’ve got to play when you go to do, in the service, if you don’t like it, if you can’t stand it, it doesn’t matter, you just have to keep your mouth shut and follow orders, that’s the way it runs.
DB: Were there any special moments or events that you remember from either of these wars?
JS: Well, the year and eight months that I spent in Ft. Riley, Kansas, we really didn’t do a whole lot, mainly maintained equipment, but there wasn’t a whole lot of moving around to do. We built a little bit of something, but we didn’t stay real active with our equipment. I don’t know if we just weren’t spending the money. The military was kind of regrouping, I believe. We were the Big Red 1, and they had some combat scars from Vietnam. Just trying to let things heal. Now Korea, that was a neat place, I really enjoyed it. I liked the land, the people, they were pretty nice. If you went back far enough you could meet some older people that, you realized just by looking in their face and the look in their eyes that they have respect for the American soldiers. You get in around the cities and the little villages, and it’s not a whole lot different from here, other than they didn’t have running water very much, they didn’t have toilets, they used outhouses, large family complexes, they didn’t have big houses, they had little houses where eight, ten, twelve, fourteen people might sleep in what, four, five, six people in this country normally sleep in. They went swimming in ponds where the drainage came off rice patties that were fertilized with human manure. You didn’t ever want to fall in a rice patty. North of the DMZ was where I had all my fun. I loved going across the river and going up on the demilitarized zone. I did a lot of work up there with my bulldozer. Cutting big hills off, so that one base could see another base. Standing up on my bulldozer looking down at P’anmunjŏm village and the bridge of no return are pictures in my mind that I’ll never forget. Turning around and looking south, and seeing the mountains sticking up through the clouds, it’s just an absolutely gorgeous place. Now there were a couple times when I’m bulldozing that I’m uncovering artillery shells, or something that was metal and explosive, and we’d have to call explosive teams up to detonate it. After three or four times calling them up there, they just finally told me don’t call us anymore, just push it over the side. So that’s what I did after that, I just didn’t bother. I never did have anything explode on me. The only thing that exploded was what they exploded. So, I just didn’t pay any attention to it after that.
DB: Did you see any combat in either of your terms of service?
JS: No, we didn’t see any combat as far as actually having to fire rounds, but it came to the point where they were there and you were there, and it was just a matter of if somebody pulls a trigger it’s on. But nobody ever pulled the trigger. It was almost like they were testing you, but didn’t want you to pass the test. They didn’t want you shooting at them anymore. We were not as aggressive as they were. We weren’t sent over there to see what they would do, we were just a stabilizing force keeping them in check. So, it wasn’t our job to go out and actually hunt them. That evidently was their job because, yeah, they came into our area several times.
DB: Now you said that when you joined the Vietnam War it was kind of dying down. How was the U.S. keeping you supplied with ammunition and supplies that you needed in the warfront?
JS: Oh, well, I was never on a warfront. I was never in, the first two years I was in the service, other than the firing range, just learning how to handle and shoot the M-16 rifle, I didn’t shoot hardly at all. In fact, we didn’t get a whole lot of training with our weaponry the first two years. Stateside duty, there just wasn’t a lot of force or drive, we were kind of backbone. There were people who went overseas, though, that were taught and trained a little bit better. They got a little bit better training over there than I did here, as far as, their mission was more serious, a little more complicated.
DB: Did you receive any awards or medals?
JS: Other than the basic awards or medals that you get when you get out of basic training-that’s your sharpshooter badge for your rifle and your hand grenade training-the one I did get was the Imjin Scout Award, and I really liked it. I wish I had appreciated it a little more than I did. But I am proud of it. As far as I know, after I showed up at my unit in Korea, I was the only one who got the award, and you had to spend quite a few days on the demilitarized zone to get it, and I did spend a lot of time up there, but I was the only one who went up there. I’d put the bulldozer on the back of the semi, drive up there all by myself, unload it, do the work all day long, and at the end of the day I’d put it back on, if I didn’t take it inside the compound where the infantry stayed, because they stayed there 24/7, then I’d put it back on my tractor-trailer and bring it back up. You’re only talking, where I used it, my work area, 14 miles from base. That’s not a very big deal. It was easy to unload and load.
DB: What was required of you to receive this award?
JS: You had to make so many trips inside the demilitarized zone. You had to cross the Imjin River and I think it was thirty, and I am going to guess I spent the better part of six months up there. Just during the day, I never had to stay at night.
DB: How did you stay in touch with your family during these wars?
JS: Just the mail, and when I was stateside I could call, but when I went overseas I didn’t call. They did set up a ham radio, of sorts that you could call on, right at Christmas time in 1976. The only thing is there were a lot of people wanting to do it and when you got done, it was a military set up, when you got done talking you had to say “over”, and when the conversation was over you said “out”. And I didn’t want to talk to my parents like that. I was doing a job, they knew I was alright. I had pen and paper, I wrote, they wrote me. That was good enough for me. I didn’t need voice communication that year. I don’t see that that was a mistake, not calling home. I don’t think it was. It was a good experience.
DB: Did you keep any sort of a diary, or did you need to keep some sort of inner monologue?
JS: No, that’s something I probably wish I would have done. But then I’d have to go back and be rereading all the mistakes I’d made. No, I did not keep any diaries.
DB: What else did you do to spend your time or entertain yourselves?
JS: Oh, we did a lot of running. For the first couple of months I stayed on the post and just got a good jist of what was going on. The area around our post and the availability of special things just wasn’t there. It was a combat ready unit. We were prepared for whatever happened from this day to the next, every day. There were a few villages around but we didn’t get to see the real good part of Korea, I don’t think. I only went to Sŏul once. It was just to busy for me. There were just people running everywhere. I just never did really feel good in crowds. And a few of the villages around ours were less than reputable, so I just kind of stayed to myself. I had a couple of friends who liked to run. We did martial arts, stood around and listened to stereos. Our days were long. We’d get up at 5 o’clock and most of my days didn’t end until well after 5 o’clock. So you only had a couple three hours and we spent way too many of them partying. But we were inside a restricted compound. We had guards and barbed wire. It was different, but there were a lot of things in Korea that were really interesting. Some of their ways of life, the way they did things, and they were a polite people, quiet people, non-violent. I never saw hardly anything, any violence at all, only one time that I can remember.
DB: How did you spend your time on leave?
JS: I never took leave. I was there for a whole year and I only, I got a three-day pass once and basically all I did was spend that getting in trouble. Real close to getting in trouble but just barely staying out of it. And that’s one of those stories I’m just not that proud of so that’s one I’m going to pass on.
DB: Was there any humorous events or pranks that occurred in your term?
JS: I don’t remember it being humorous, but there was one thing that I do remember that was really strange. We had seven Koreans, they were called Catoosa’s, they were Korean Army attached to the United States Army. They were neat guys. I got along great with all of them. But their leader, man, was he strict. They got to partying a little bit too heavy one night and a couple of them got into a fight and you talk about an absolute no-no. You do not hit each other. The next day he lined these guys up and he was chewing them out, I mean really chewing them out. I just stood there and watched. They just pretended like he didn’t exist any way when they’re dishing out, he walked from one man to the next and would rip into them and then just beat them. He hit them so fast and so hard and they would not move. They’d buckle, but they’d come right back up to attention. He would slap them, and he was letting them know that this was never going to happen again and he was being nice. And this guy was very fast. I think he was a fourth or fifth degree black belt and that was the way they lived. That was the training, they were in the United States Army because that was good duty. They weren’t in the rock army. In the rocks they were mean guys. The few I met, I got along great with them, not a problem. But the training they went through, compared with the training the guys went through that were attached to us was us just nowhere near. But I liked them. I got along good with them. A couple of them called me “brother”. One of them wrote to me after I came home. I wrote him back but I never heard from him again after that, and I think about him every now and then, but you know that’s just the way it goes.
DB: How did you feel about your officers or fellow soldiers?
JS: My fellow soldiers, enlisted, we got along great. I don’t remember ever having a problem. I got real close to a black guy over there, name of George. We had a lot of good times together. I’ve never talked to or spoken or corresponded with anybody since I’ve left. It’s a real different feeling. They were glad to see you go and at the same time not. That was just likewise with anybody that left. The officers, I guess I’d call them a little overbearing. They would say stuff that, to me, just didn’t make sense, but it didn’t have to make sense to me. They were in charge. What I couldn’t understand I just followed instructions and didn’t worry about understanding it, just got the job done. DB: Do you recall when your service ended?
JS: Yes, I left my mom and dad’s farm on August 26, 1976 and that was my sister’s first birthday. And I was back on the farm August 26, 1977, the day I came back up the driveway.
DB: How were your first weeks back?
JS: Well, the one thing I do remember more than anything was the whole year that I spent over there I only got to watch TV one time. We had a TV, but it, I don’t know, I just wasn’t interested in it. I watched the Minnesota Vikings play in the Super Bowl. We stayed up and watched that one night and, I don’t know, it seems like that was at three in the morning. When I came home I think I just set down in front of the TV for about four days and that’s where I sat. I don’t know if I just missed it that much or it just seemed like it was a strange invention. I kind of figured out what it was, I didn’t watch it at all. When I came back I did a lot of running, visited all my friends, and got around. Plus, I did a year in the National Guard from 1977 to 1978.
DB: During the Vietnamese War, there was a lot of anti-war sentiment going around. Did you encounter any?
JS: Well, in all of my travels during my three years as a full time service, I always traveled in uniform all I could. Chicago Airport, L.A. Airport, St. Louis. The one thing I remember more than anything was the Hari Krishna’s, and the first time I met one I was just really surprised. They were selling books, all they wanted was a dollar or two, so I bought one of these books, and I carried it with me, and every time I went to a different airport, three or four of these Hari Krishna’s would come over to me wanting donations, and I’d just pull this book out and show it to them. Oh, they’d just go crazy, they thought that was just the neatest thing. For five bucks, I bought this book, it was like 400 pages, I never read a word in the book, but it was just something you could hold up, make friends, and avoid hassles. Now, I never had anybody come up to me in an airport and say anything bad towards me or good towards me. The only thing that ever happened to me when I flew, this was on United Friendship Flights, was every time I fell asleep on an airplane, I woke up with a pillow under my head and a blanket over me. And, I thought that was just so neat. They made sure I was comfortable and warm. And I really appreciated that. But, I never got treated badly. And nobody ever said anything mean to me. People looked at you know and then. A lot of times I traveled by myself, nobody else with me, no other soldiers. But, for the most part there was no blatant sign of respect or disrespect.
DB: How did the people closest to you respond to your coming home?
JS: Oh, it was great. The whole family, at that time six sisters and four brothers, mom and dad, I came home and surprised them. They didn’t know I was coming home. Called home and my brother came up to the airport and got me, just came driving up and got out of the car and there they are. That was good enough for me, that was good enough of a homecoming, it was worth the three years. Shaking dad’s hand, the smile on his face and a big hug from mom, everybody jumping around. It was different, it was good. I really enjoyed it.
DB: Did you make any close friendships during your terms?
JS: Oh, I had a lot of really good friends. Angel Bergos was probably my best friend. I spent a year and a half in stateside duty at Ft. Riley, Kansas with him. He was a Puerto-Rican American from Queens, New York. He was a real interesting guy, and a real good guy. I really got along with him. But, then again, there’s just something about it, when we parted company, we parted company. Went back to our own little worlds. Never heard from him since.
DB: So, you really didn’t keep in touch with a lot of these people?
JS: I have never spoken to anybody I was in the service with since I left.
DB: After the wars, what kind of careers did you start?
JS: Well, when I first came back I really tried to find a job operating heavy equipment. There just wasn’t anything close, and I wanted to stay at home. I’d been halfway around the world, it seemed like, and did a lot of traveling in this country, and knew I wanted to stay in Huntington the rest of my life. Nice quiet little peaceful place. A lot of the craziness that was in the world, that surrounded army bases, was not in Huntington. I liked that, felt like that was a privilege to have one of those places left. I just wanted it to be nice and quiet, and for the most part it was.
DB: Now, you said your father was drafted into the Korean War, and you participated, volunteered into the Vietnamese War, and now your son is apart of the current conflict in Iraq. How do you feel about that?
JS: It’s one of those things where you wish it didn’t happen, but I was really proud of the fact that he stood tall, kept his head up, and left with pride and honor in his mind and on his heart. It made me feel really good, he was going to go, and he was going to do his job, perform his duties the best can. He even one-upped himself, he did an exemplary job, and he still is as of this recording. He’s still in Iraq somewhere. I have not heard from him, but I get letters. He’s doing good, he was with the third armory when they went in. I’m extremely proud that he’s fulfilled his obligation to his country and to himself.
DB: Does your military background influence how you look at this conflict?
JS: Oh, absolutely. I guess the best saying that I’ve ever come up on is that you must hate war, but you’ve got to love the warrior. You should never ever be mad at a soldier that’s following orders issued by the commander-in-chief, the President of the United States. You can be mad at the President all you want. He doesn’t follow orders, he gives them. But, these guys, here, they’re just doing what they’re told. And that’s what they have to do, they don’t have a choice. They have to follow orders. And they did an absolutely fantastic job. I’m just absolutely amazed at what the military has done. The way they’ve composed themselves, they way they reacted under bad situations, and the high degree of honor and training that they seem to be getting now-a-days is just really good to see.
DB: Has your son seen any combat yet?
JS: He has not written me and told me that he has, but it is my impression that he went in with the third armory on the night of the invasion when they went around Basra and then into Nasaria. He can write me anything, and I told him “I want you to write me the truth”, “Don’t worry about that” he said. I think he’s waiting to tell me what happened. He just writes me and tells me he’s O.K.
DB: When is he due back?
JS: Oh, we have no idea, absolutely none. The last thing that I heard was that they did a lot of moving of people and supplies to designated areas in the first two months before the war. So, they’re probably going to be there moving the stuff back out for awhile yet, I’d imagine. As far as I know he’s just somewhere around Nasaria.
DB: Is there anything else, or any other experiences that you would like to mention or share that we haven’t covered?
JS: Oh, not really. Just that I’m really glad that I did the three years that I did, and I’m really proud of the two honorable discharges that I got for serving my country. I was well trained and well taken care of. It’s an honor to serve your country. That’s the way I always looked at it, and that’s the way I always will look at it. That was one thing that I pointed out to my son before he left; a day before he left. I said, “You’re in one of these, and you’re in it the right way. You can look at it the rest of your life and be proud of it.” He didn’t have to speak or answer, he understood. He went with his head held high, and I believe he did the best job he possibly can, and I couldn’t be more proud of him. I don’t think it’s possible to be any more proud of a son. He’s a volunteer. That’s a great thing these days.
DB: Thank you very much. This concludes our interview.
JS: Thank you.