Al Fischer has never gotten out of uniform.

Fischer, 69, wore a uniform in the U.S. Army, at the hospital and as a law enforcement officer. And he still wears a uniform as a member of the combined Mandan American Legion Gilbert S. Furness Post No. 40 and Mandan VFW Post No. 707 Honor Guard, conducting military burials at the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery in Mandan.

On average, he does about two burials a day. At most, he and the other volunteers do as many as five burials a day.

"Too many," Fischer said.

Last week, he laid to rest a U.S. Air Force veteran and former Mandan city auditor, whom he worked with across the hall from the Mandan Police Department.

"Somebody's gotta do it," Fischer said of the reason why he decided to volunteer with the honor guard.

Fischer joined the U.S. Army when he was 18 years old and a senior at Bismarck High School. He dropped out and went to Fort Leonard Wood, Miss., for basic training, but didn't start any training because he and other army recruits were quarantined for about a week due to a spinal meningitis outbreak.

“One night they came in and told us to dress in our greens and they loaded us up in the airport … and they flew us out," he said.

He and other army recruits ended up at Fort Dix in New Jersey, where he completed basic training.

Fischer was first stationed in a village in Verdun, France, for a few months in 1966.

Fischer was an engineer at the time, part of the 197th engineer group, which comprised about 50 other men. They traveled on temporary duty assignments all over Europe, in France and Germany, building roads and putting in sewer lines.

“We didn’t stay in one place very long; we lived out of our duffel bags,” Fischer said.

He was in France for three months and Germany for over a year. In Germany, he was stationed at Pirmasens, where he and the other men in his group stayed in German SS troop billets.

The locals weren't too friendly, he said, and some older folks would sing the old SS marching song anytime he and the other men would stop at a guest house to grab a beer.

"You didn't feel too welcome," he said.

From Germany, he offered to go to Vietnam, where he was assigned to a medical detachment for about two weeks. After that he volunteered to be a machine gunner on a helicopter.

He volunteered to be a machine gunner because "it was just something different," he said. "Not too bright. Young and dumb."

Fischer was assigned to the 173rd assaults helicopter company in Lai Khe, Vietnam, which was nicknamed "Rocket City."

"They'd send rockets in on us at least three times a day," he said.

The 173rd helicopter assault company was also nicknamed the Robin Hoods.

"On the nose of our (gun) ship we had a Robin Hood hat with a red feather," he said.

The doors on each gun ship were emblazoned with a Maid Marion or King Arthur insignia.

"We were a different kind of crew," he said with a laugh.

Fischer and his crew flew 16 hours a day.

"It was dark when we took off, dark when we’d come home," said Fischer. Once a month, they'd be assigned an "ash and trash" mission for half a day, completing different assignments, ranging from supply delivery to picking up body bags.

Fischer recalls one experience that stuck with him. A radar and spotter location on top of a mountain peak was overrun during the night and Fischer and his helicopter crew got an emergency call to go there. Only one helicopter could land on top of the mountain, he said, because there were a lot of large rocks. The pilot had to land between two rocks while the other crew members hung out of the right and left sides of the helicopter guiding the pilot so he wouldn’t get too close to the rocks.

“Boy, there wasn’t too many people alive up there,” Fischer said. He still recalls a black man and a white man up there, their dead bodies splayed out. They were holding hands.

“It just struck me, it stayed with me all my life. I can still see it,” Fischer said, adding during the time he served there was a lot of racial strife. But in Vietnam the color of your skin didn’t matter and everyone took care of one another, he said.

The choppers Fischer flew in were called "slicks," he said. They would haul other soldiers into battle, finding different ways of landing in dense jungle foliage. Sometimes, another helicopter would come in and lay a smoke screen so the other helicopters could fly in.

“And we’d try to get underneath it so they wouldn’t see where we were at," Fischer said. Then the helicopter would lift off by the time the smoke cleared.

Fischer left the service in 1969 and resumed high school as a slightly older student, but said his peers didn't notice a difference because he was still kind of young looking.

After school he became a medical orderly at a Bismarck hospital. He was also a medical attendant, riding in the back of ambulances in Bismarck and Mandan.

He later joined the Morton County Sheriff's Department as a sheriff's deputy in New Salem for two years. Then, he transferred to the Mandan Police Department. He retired early as a lieutenant 20 years later.

Fischer retired when he was 48 years old. When he was 42, he had a heart attack at work and went on medical leave. He went back to work for six years, but had a stroke and retired.

Fischer has an enlarged heart and experiences weakness, which he and his wife later found is related to his exposure to Agent Orange.

"You learn that life, you can lose it at anytime," Fischer said, reflecting on his military experience. "You learn to appreciate life a lot better."

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or Blair.Emerson@bismarcktribune.com)

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