(This is a story I did for the Cap Journal as part of a continuing series profiling veterans in the area. Fascinating guy, and by chance, I interviewed him 40 years to the day from when he shipped out to Vietnam.)
PIERRE — Time and war can play tricks on the mind.
Some things seem frozen forever, just the way they are — all the while, time seems to pass faster.
Tom Magedanz, who works for the Legislative Research Council at the Capitol, can’t believe 40 years have passed since he got on a plane bound for Vietnam. But it was June 29, 1969, when the wheels went up. The dates serve as guideposts.
"It’s hard to believe it has been 40 years," Magedanz said. "I was 19 years old, then, but it doesn’t seem that long ago."
But the gap will strike Magedanz, who helps out with Rattlers amateur baseball, at times.
"One thing I do think about, now, is how young we all were," he said. "I’ll look around at the Rattlers guys and realize there are only one or two guys on the team that would have been our age. I was 19. Most of the guys were 19 or 20. We had a lieutenant who was 23, right out of school. We had another guy who was 23, and we used to tease him about how old he was."
Magedanz spent three semesters at the School of Mines before enlisting in the Marines and heading to Vietnam.
After graduating from Yankton High School, where he played Teener and Legion baseball before he left and amateur ball upon his return, he spent some time in college, but felt because he supported the war effort, he should enlist.
"At the time I thought the policy was good, and I couldn’t escape that it wasn’t right to take the student deferment if I believed that. I was playing Legion ball as a returner, and we got beat out on a Saturday, and Monday morning I was in the recruiter’s office."
Magedanz finished one more semester and went to boot camp in California on Feb. 7, 1969.
Time started going backwards when the wheels went down.
He was initially assigned to the Third Marine Division, and was eventually transferred to the First Division as part of a rifle company. They would alternate day patrol and night ambush. They would hump from spot to spot. They were constantly moving, constantly guarding, constantly taking turns sleeping.
"I’ll always be thankful it wasn’t the cold, like the Korean veterans and some of the World War Two guys had to deal with," Magedanz said. "Other than that, conditions were pretty bad. It was tiring. The food was C-rations, which weren’t bad, but if it was foggy, we’d have trouble getting them in. You sleep on the ground. When it rained, you slept in the rain."
Though the United States was drawing men out of the war by that point, it took time.
"By the time I was there, enemy contact was down, but we still lost guys," he said. "A lot of those were to booby traps and things like that. How do you fight back against those?"
Time was different, too, in the bush. Those Marines, still young enough to count up to birthdays, counted down from the day they landed in-country toward the day they got to go home.
"When you were getting short, for sure you counted the days," Magedanz said. "You wouldn’t know if it was Tuesday or Saturday out there, but you knew how many days you had left."
Shortly before Magedanz was scheduled to leave, he and his company were sent back into a bad area, a place they called, with gallows humor, Happy Valley.
"There were a lot of Happy Valleys over there, but we had been there before, and I didn’t like the area," Magedanz said. "I did have friends who got hit there. And you just didn’t want to have that happen with such a short time left."
Magedanz was lucky. He made it through Happy Valley and spent the last of his time in Vietnam south of Da Nang, near the ocean.
"The tradition was, the short-timers got out on the resupply helicopters, and someone had to pop a smoke grenade to guide them in," Magedanz said. "So the guy who was going home got to do it. But they sent a track vehicle for me, so I didn’t get to pop my own smoke."
Then, someone hit the fast-forward button.
"They took me to a bigger base in Da Nang, and I spent a week or so doing paperwork and physicals and things," he said. "I flew back to Camp Pendleton on July 20, 1970. And I was back in Yankton as a civilian by the 24th or the 25th.
"It was nice being home," he said.
Time passes. Magedanz would finish school at USD, go on to get his master’s and do a three-year stint for the Peace Corps in the Phillipines. There, he met his wife Lita.
"That was a good thing," he said. "Just the experience. You hope you made a difference, but just in terms of my own development, it was a great thing to do."
His daughter, Stephanie was born there, too.
And when she graduated college, she and her husband signed up for the Peace Corps, too. They ended up stationed in Cambodia. And on a trip to visit them in April, Magedanz returned Vietnam.
"I probably wouldn’t have gone, on my own," he said. "But we were there, and we took the bus over. And it was just so different from what I remembered."
Time and war have played tricks on Vietnam, too.
Paved roads have replaced gravel. Tile roofs and concrete floors sit where only grass and dirt stood before. And satellite dishes adorn houses and gas stations where American bases once called out coordinates to short-timers in the bush.
"I knew specific hilltops, specific features of the land that didn’t change," Magedanz said. "But everything else was so different. But I’m glad I went. I’m glad I got to see the place when a war wasn’t going on. Everyone doesn’t have a bunker under their house, now. There are men in the villages."
He is hesitant to discuss the policy or politics of America’s involvement in Vietnam, but Magedanz said his time in-country did change his outlook.
"In our current situation, the group overall seems older," he said. "By the time I was there, some of the more experienced NCO’s weren’t re-enlisting, and it seemed like the group got younger and younger overall. You had guys with six months experience who were the senior guys.
"Politics aside, I really did like the guys I was there with. There were a few who I never would have come in contact with otherwise," Magedanz said.
Clicking through photographs from his recent trip, Magedanz points out different places — always noting the difference between what war made them and what they have become over time. He has an encyclopedic recall of hills and landing zones.
A restaurant does brisk trade where choppers used to land; a Vietnamese war memorial now sits where the Marine headquarters once stood. Tourists wander through ruins that were there for a thousand years before an American boot ever touched down in Vietnam.
He has two pictures. One shows a beautiful waterfall, adorned with greenery poking out between ancient rock formations. A tourist could take this picture. Another shows a spot under the waterfall. In between the rocks. A spot big enough for a man to hide.
A millenium. 40 years. 365 days, counting backwards.