Editor's note: This article originally published Jan. 20, 2011, but was re-posted for Memorial Day.
The foul odor of rotting foliage and decaying bodies had seeped into the air. The soil itself seemed angry, because it was soaked with blood and bloated with the remnants of human fear, anger that later turned to hate and a sense of self-imposed isolation. This lonely existence dominated the lives of on-the-ground U.S. soldiers stuck in the surreal hell that was Vietnam under siege in the late '60 and early '70s.
On Jan. 11, the day after 64-year-old Lou Vargas received the Outstanding Chairman's Award from the Veterans Assistance Commission Will County, he recounted his year-long trip through the valley of death, which ultimately led to his commitment nowadays to serving veterans.
Vargas, who doubles as commander of both the in New Lenox and the Disabled American Veterans of Will County, Chapter No. 103, sat behind a desk in a two-man office in the rear portion of the VFW building, which itself is tucked in an out-of-the-way parcel on Old Hickory Creek Road, just off Vine Street.
The gray-haired patriot carefully grabbed a package and proceeded to gently lift the plastic cover off the two-foot-tall plague that lauds his drive to navigate the bureaucracy that oversees the distribution of benefits for which the agency was established to facilitate.
Speaking about the practicality of the Washington-based Veterans Administration, Vargas said he believes the folks behind those desks have short memories.
"They don't seem to remember that the veterans went to war so that they could live healthy and safe here," he said. "They don't see individuals."
But there's nary a soul that passes through the local VFW that Vargas doesn't know personally and greet with a genuine smile. Bustling through the Tuesday night Bingo crowd that fills at least 30 long tables, Vargas yells over the "caller" and tells the front door sign-in crew that he's stepping away for awhile.
It's pretty much routine for Vargas to meet with veterans who want to talk over a beer on Bingo night. Vargas is the guy they turn to when times are tough. His 5-foot-4-inch frame belies the heights he'll climb to connect with a buddy in trouble. He stands at the ready to assist veterans with benefit claims and to support them through a barrage of social ills that frequently spark job and family problems. What lies at the heart of these troubles, said Vargas, are the haunting memories that a distance of 8,000 miles and 40-plus years can't erase.
Surrounded by military memorabilia — black and white photos of soldiers standing next to the American flag, official-looking certificates and a desktop covered with VFW paperwork — Vargas neatly laid out two military parade caps, the brims of which are lined with medals that stand as symbols of his tour of duty.
Wearing a well-worn replica of the army field jacket he was issued in 1968, Vargas himself seemed to fade into the khaki character of the room. A recipient of the Bronze Star for his many actions performed on behalf of American troops during his tour of duty (Jan. 14, 1966 to June 13, 1968) Vargas said, "I was in the Iron Triangle," a Viet Cong stronghold throughout the war; it was located about 30 miles northwest of Saigon. This area on the border of Cambodia had been completely defoliated by bombs, napalm drops and heavy artillery blasts that occurred during Operation Junction City.”
Baptism By Fire
The phrase "baptism by fire" is an understatement, said Vargas, who was a 20-year-old private assigned to work on heavy artillery, the guns and cannons division.
"My third month in Vietnam was the first day of Operation Junction City; that was in March 1967. We got a call for a fire mission."
But Vargas survived relatively unscathed from that encounter until, he said, "I had an 8-inch (cannon) round accidentally dropped on my knee. I remember I was kneeling at the back of a truck, cutting (gun) powder into one bag and one guy dropped a round. It tore up all the ligaments in my knee." To this day, Vargas walks with a limp.
Leaning back in his chair, he said an injury like that normally would have bought him a ticket home, but Vietnam had its share of exceptions.
"We were short of men, and I had to stay," he said.
Vargas later joined the motor pool and ended up working as a wheel vehicle and gun track mechanic, assigned to the 25th Infantry. That's when the real nightmares started.
His deep, dark brown eyes grew intense and he shifted in his chair while he provided an edited version of the details about the Vietnam campaigns in which he was involved. The VC had the advantage, he said. They'd built an intricate network of interconnecting underground tunnels and bunkers tucked into the actual ridges of the terrain.
"There was no 'front' like in World War II," he said. "We'd set up compounds and establish ambush trenches. They came at you from everywhere." And the climate was like the tropics. "It was extremely hot (about 100 degrees) and humid. You could take a shower at night and put baby powder on, and by the time you walked 50 feet, your shirt would be soaked through again."
For a kid whose focus back home in Crest Hill was working on cars in the family garage, Vargas said, the experience was overwhelming. "When people ask me what I've learned in life, I tell them that I learned more in one year than you could or should in a life time."
Pausing for a moment as if to catch his breath, Vargas started and stopped a few times before he could get through the events of a single day.
"We were deep on a fire fight patrol," he said choking back tears that post traumatic stress disorder prevented him from shedding for 30 years. "You can't imagine the feeling. I was with the artillery, and we were overrun by the VC. We called for air cover, which meant that we were ready to die — our own airplanes would be dropping bombs on the site to prevent the enemy from capturing it.
"We tucked in where we could. We had a dugout where the artillery was. You went anywhere you could to avoid the napalm. I could smell it; it smelled like gasoline and chemicals. It burned my eyes. ... I lost a lot of friends there. I was overrun again in August 1967."
The atrocities to the human body and soul were beyond words, Vargas said. Most of the guys over there had no choice in the matter. "I was drafted," he said, as he rattled off his draft number, US 54801787. "You remember that like you remember your name."
Misfit at Home
When their tour of duty was over, the veterans came home to encounter more violence. There were anti-war demonstrations, and people took it out on the vets, he said.
"I came home on Jan. 22, 1968. My whole family was there to meet me at O'Hare. It was a heart-warming experience. Then while my brother and I were waiting to pick up my duffel bag as I was walking out of the airport, I saw a protestor. He walked up to me and called me a baby killer and spit in my face. I did the only thing I could do. I had no choice. I beat the hell out of him right there at the airport. That was my introduction back home.
"When we came back, we were misfits," he said.
In those days, the Veteran's Administration didn't offer any debriefing.
"There wasn't anybody to talk to, so you become a loner," he said. "After I got married, I still had issues. My temper never turned into physical violence, but my wife put up with more nonsensical outbursts than anyone should ever get."
His wife, Bernice, has stuck by him for 35 years and got involved with the DAV Auxiliary and worked to learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Lou's given his life to helping vets," Bernice Vargas said. "I'm very, very proud of him. He does a lot for them." She recalled the early years of the marriage as being particularly tough. Upon her insistence, he'd worked with several psychiatrists and psychologists, but they didn't know how to deal with it.
Lou said it wasn't until he was on the verge of divorce that he finally found authentic help at Hines Veteran's Hospital in Maywood in the late '90s, where he was diagnosed with PTSD and began to talk more openly about combat with his doctor.
But he still wouldn't share his feelings with Bernice, who said that hurt her feelings. So she did the next best thing: joined in his outreach efforts. She's now the Illinois State Commander for Disabled American Veterans Auxiliary.
"It's quite an honor," she said. That union in terms of outreach for the veterans helped bring their marriage even closer. "He's so happy that I get involved like that."
The couple's two adult children, Billie Ann and Rick, are supportive of their father as well, she said. When the kids were younger, sometimes Lou couldn't get as involved in their activities as he would have liked. Lou remembered how he'd be despondent when he got home from work. Frustration marked his existence for 18-plus years at the Commonwealth Edison plant in Braidwood. It got to the point that his psychiatrist ordered him to quit his job.
"He told me that I was going to hurt somebody if I stayed," he said.
And while he got pension benefits from ComEd, he couldn't muster anymore than 30 percent of his rightful claim from the VA. It took years before his claims were processed.
"They kept denying me. It got to the point once that they actually asked me to prove that I was in Vietnam at all."
An investigative story in the Sun Times that featured Vargas and nine other veterans drew enough attention to the issue, and he quickly went from 30 percent eligible for claims to 70 percent and then 100 percent covered for physical and psychological claims.
"Up till then, I was paying out-of-pocket for treatments.”
Reaching Out to Help Others
After that, Lou decided to dedicate himself to helping other veterans. He's been at it ever since. For the past five years, he has been the commander for the Will County DAV; for three years he's served as a board member on the Veterans Assistance Commission of Will County; and in 2009, he served as the national deputy chief of staff for the DAV. Today, he also serves as the VFW junior vice commander of the 18th District, which represents 15 posts from New Lenox to as far as Sandwich, and as senior vice commander for the Northern 12th District of the DAV.
His efforts are not merely tied to a list of titles, Bernice said. "He really works hard to help people."
Cindy Ketcham, superintendent of the VAC of Will County, said Lou is a great choice for the VAC's 2010 Outstanding Chairman Award.
He took over the VAC children's fund drive last year and now shoulders the fundraising efforts to assist the families of struggling veterans. This year, he raised about $3,000," which was distributed with gift cards so families could decide how best to use the money.
"Lou's a very, very dedicated veteran," Ketcham said. "He's a good patriot. He'll bend over backwards for you."
Lou said his claims assistance and one-on-one meetings take between 10 and 40 hours a week. "I'll do whatever it takes," he said. However, he makes sure that Bernice and the rest of the family, including three grandchildren, are taken into consideration too.
"He's great with the grandkids," Bernice said, because he's got things more in control these days. Lou readily admits that he still suffers the effects of PTSD, but he knows how to cope with it.
For years, he wouldn't talk about anything, but that's changed.
"I tell these guys that we can't let them forget what happened there," he said. "We have to tell our stories. And it helps to talk about it."