SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Vietnam changed the U.S. National Guard. The guard was seen then as a way to avoid the draft. But at times during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Guard and Reserve have made up nearly half of the forces in combat. Next week marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam. Steve Walsh, of Lakeshore Public Radio in Maryville, Ind., met with veterans of one of the few Guard units to go and fight in Vietnam.
STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: In 1968 Bob McIntire was a college student in Indianapolis having trouble paying for tuition. When he dropped a few courses at Butler University, the draft board called.
BOB MCINTIRE: When we got done with the physical, the guy there said you've got usually about 90 days to find a way out if you've got a way out.
WALSH: Back then, the National Guard was one way out. You could serve without going to war. So McIntire looked for Guard and Reserve units. Most were full, except for a unit in Greenfield, Ind., which would take him if he agreed to attend jump school.
MCINTIRE: I lucked out by joining the National Guard and signing up to go airborne. It was the only way they were taking anyone.
WALSH: Unfortunately for McIntire, he landed in one of the very few National Guard units sent to Vietnam - Company D, 151st infantry.
MCINTIRE: I brought this. This is a compilation.
WALSH: McIntire and a handful of vets from the old unit got together recently at the VFW Post in Carmel, just north of Indianapolis. They're sitting around a table in the middle of the day. The bar in the next room is empty. McIntire says he was so sure he wasn't heading to Vietnam. He didn't realize he'd gotten orders until he heard it on the radio during a lunch break.
MCINTIRE: I couldn't believe it. I didn't even make it to lunch. I went back to work and quit.
WALSH: The next thing they knew, they were north of Saigon at a base in Bien Hoa. It was just before Christmas 1968. They were sent into the jungle in teams of six to set up ambushes until they were picked up by chopper pilots from the regular army. Mike Slabaugh remembers a patrol in April 1969, when he traded positions with another member of the unit - a guy named Bob Smith.
MIKE SLABAUGH: He wasn't there for 20 seconds. He got shot in the head. And we carried him to the chopper and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it was - he was gone.
WALSH: Four men from his unit, including Smith, died in the year they saw combat. Their Guard unit was one of the most decorated of the war. Its soldiers earned 19 Silver Stars. Their experience was almost unique. President Lyndon Johnson never wanted to call up the Guard. Sending it into war could turn the public against what the White House and Pentagon, in the early days, hoped would be a short conflict.
ANDREW WIEST: It would publicize the war. It would make the war economically more difficult, two things that Johnson did not want to do. This war was going to be quick and quiet.
WALSH: Andrew Wiest is a professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. He says after the draft ended in 1973, the Army had little choice. General Creighton Abrams, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam, wanted to ensure the Guard was not sidelined in future conflicts.
WIEST: He felt that one of the great failings of the Vietnam War was that the National Guard was never called up and the nation was never engaged.
WALSH: So the Pentagon began to knit the Guard with the active-duty military. Key specialties like combat engineering or air refueling come from Guard units. That unit from Indiana actually paved the way for what was to come.
GARY BUSSELL: There's been a lot written about the Indiana Rangers because it did work. We were successful. But it was the first step into trying something like that.
WALSH: That's Gary Bussell, part of the group of Vietnam vets at the VFW Hall. All of them say they watched how Guard troops and active-duty soldiers worked together in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a small victory from a war that the men sitting around the table wished they didn't have to fight. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.
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