After a couple close calls with death, contracting malaria and discovering the majority of his heavy weapons squad was killed in action, Art Dohrmann returned from the Vietnam War and took all the psychology and sociology courses he was allowed to take.

Fresh out of college, Dohrmann volunteered for the draft in 1968. He went to high school in Taylor and attended North Dakota State University, where he got a degree in agricultural economics and production. He would later own some property near Taylor, which he farmed until two years ago.

Throughout college, he studied the Vietnam War, gathering information from the news and the general public.

“I had studied the Vietnam War all the years I was in college,” said Dohrmann, now 70. “I was unsure of the validity of what I learned about the conflict, but yet society said the conflict was what needed to be done.”

Dohrmann looked at minimum time to serve in the U.S. Army, signing a two-year enlistment and eventually getting out 140 days early. He completed advanced infantry training at Fort Lewis, Wash., and then went to Vietnam.

He was first stationed on a river south of Saigon and joined a heavy weapons squad that traveled north and spent some time in Cambodia.

The six “biggest guys” in the squad, including Dohrmann, were given the option to carry heavy weapons, either a M60 machine gun or 90mm recoilless rifle, he said.

Dohrmann chose the recoilless rifle because he learned the radio operators and machine gunners were more likely to be targeted.

“I didn’t want to be a target; I had learned that much,” Dohrmann said.

He learned a lot during the war, some things he didn't quite understand or agree with, including a derogatory term used to refer to Vietnamese people.

“They were dehumanized; they were just something else and that bothered me a lot," Dohrmann said. "And it continues to bother me."

Dohrmann said he also saw "nothing but Buddhist temples" in Vietnam and Cambodia and learned a little bit about the religion while he was there.

He contracted malaria while in Cambodia and had a staph infection, which basically incapacitated him.

For about a week Dohrmann had a high fever, over 102 or 103 degrees, before he was transported to the 7th Evacuation Hospital. He was eventually transferred to a Cam Rahn Bay hospital for nearly three months.

When he was released from the hospital he weighed 155 pounds, about 50 pounds lighter than his current weight.

"And that was when I had gotten better," he said.

“I have little recollection of that time. I mean, it’s just a blur of sleep, eat and that was about it," Dohrmann said.

In the infantry, Dohrmann and his heavy weapons squad would travel deep into the jungle and rice paddies.

“When I came into the infantry, nobody learns your name for several weeks because you’re dumb and quickly killed," Dohrmann said.

And he did the same.

"I knew one person who came in with me; he was the only person whose name I knew for quite some time,” Dohrmann said of Bob Cooke, 19. 

“We spent a lot of time on ambush together,” he said of the young radioman from California. He even learned Cooke had a pregnant girlfriend back at home.

On his last mission before being sent to the hospital at Cam Rahn Bay, a medic in his squad refused to take him on the mission.

“He said I was in such bad shape," Dohrmann said.

Within a week, the medic, Cooke and five other men in the group were killed.

“The majority of my squad was killed, and I found out about it about a month later," he said.

Dohrmann found out while staying at the hospital in Cam Rahn Bay.

"One of the people who had been in my squad was there in a body cast, so I kind of found out what happened within days after I left the company," he said.

Dohrmann still thinks about contacting the family of Cooke and his son or daughter, who would be about 45 years old now.

“I’m having a great time being a grandfather, and I’m going, 'How would it be to be about 50 years old, knowing nothing about your father?'" he said.

After being released from the hospital at Cam Rahn Bay, he went back to the infantry for one day. He then applied for others jobs in Vietnam as a clerk typist, brigade carpenter and a job doing construction details. He took the last job and was assigned construction details for the last six months of his enlistment.

His service ended in 1970, and he spent three weeks at home. His college roommate, who served in Germany, sent him a telegram telling him to come to Europe. That same afternoon, he drove to Bismarck to get his passport and bought a ticket from New York City to Germany.

Ten days later his passport came in.

“My mother took me to Interstate 94, I think it was almost completed, and I hitchhiked to New York City,” he said. "I took a lot of rides from here to New York City.”

From Norway to Greece, he hitchhiked all over Europe for about four months.

When he returned home, he went back to school at NDSU and enrolled in senior and graduate-level psychology and sociology courses.

His war experience prompted him to take the courses.

“That’s why I took the psychology and sociology courses, how do you do this? And basically I look at basic and AIT (army) training,” he said. “It’s an amazingly efficient method of reforming minds.”

After he started farming, he began taking courses at Dickinson State, which is where he met his wife, Donna.

“I was proud to have served the country," Dohrmann said, pondering the two years he served in the war.

“Serving in Vietnam meant forfeiting my personal beliefs for what society required at that time," he said. “Even though I didn’t particularly like it, it was something that needed to be done.”

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

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