His duty to fight in Vietnam
LVN Editor Emeritus
“I am all ready for anything that somebody asks me to do, so I was ready to go for the country and when I did get picked to go, I was happy … I was ready to go do the defense for the U.S. — that was the main thing I did.”
Fallon veteran Kip Sam, now 74 years old, was one of thousands of young men who were drafted in the mid-1960s to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Sam, who attended McDermitt Combined School in northern Humboldt County where he played basketball and football and ran track. Afterward, he received an associate’s in business administration from Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., in 1966, the same year he also received a letter from the U.S. government to notify him of his draft status. In reflecting on that letter, his wife of 46 years, Michelle, said Kip’s mother, who lived on the McDermitt Indian Reservation, instinctively knew the content.
“She got the mail when he was graduating from college. She knew what it was. Her heart just sank,” Michelle recalled. “The letter was waiting for him when he got home. She handed him the paperwork, and he was going away.”
Kim, whose father was Paiute and his mother part Shoshone, began his basic training at Fort Lewis, Wash., on Sept. 21 and then reported to Fort Polk, La., to complete his advanced training to make him more proficient in swam and jungle combat. It was there at Fort Polk that Sam, who had been promoted to private first class, knew his fate: He, along with other soldiers from SVC Battery, 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery, received orders for South Vietnam. The soldiers flew to Oakland, Calif., connecting on a flight to Saigon with a quick refueling stop in Honolulu, Hawaii, the last time they would set foot on American soil for at least a year.
“Da Nang was my first tour, which was close to the DMZ (demilitarized zone) between North and South Vietnam,” Sam said. “We were involved in combat, and we used a lot of weapons such as hand grenades.”
During the first few months of his back-to-back tours that included Chu Lai, a former U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) base in central Vietnam, he also served in a security force in the DMZ and then back to Da Nang. He said the Viet Cong would come ashore in a canoe and into the Da Nang area. Sam saw combat — both hand-to-hand and with weapons, heavy artillery and both night and helicopter security guard duty. His platoon moved into the backcountry and also to the Central Highlands to flush out the Viet Cong. He said once the company saw the enemy, they retreated from the soldiers.
At another time, Sam’s platoon took fire on ground coast security duty, and shrapnel from the Viet Cong wounded the McDermitt grad in his lower left leg from knee to toes.
“I was on the front line, and all the service guys, if you were really wounded and got a shot through the chest or leg, you were flown off,” he said.
Medics treated Sam in the field, removed the shrapnel, stopped the bleeding and wrapped the wound. He avoided taking a helicopter flight out of the combat zone. Sam, though, slept for a few hours, but within 24 hours, he returned to duty. Although his leg shows a scar from the wound, Sam has experienced discomfort over the years. Michelle said her husband still feels pain and must protect that area from cuts because it’s very vascular because of the wounds. Kip Sam, though, said he never received a Purple Heart for his wound, an omission that doesn’t bother him.
Not every day was war and no play. Sam said soldiers also had relief from the day-to-day military operations and they either traveled to Thailand or Malaysia for R & R (rest and recuperation) or to Saigon, which was more restrictive. He said the designated hotel in Saigon allowed the servicemen and women a location to escape the terrorism.
“We were put in an area with a big hotel,” he said. “We were pretty much isolated.”
While spending a few days there, Sam said the government provided them an area to swim or play baseball or basketball and to eat some food that reminded them more of home than chowing down rations or eating cooked meals in the field.
“You couldn’t find a more loyal soldier because he was not the guy who was going to buck the system,” said Michelle, who married Kip in 1973 when she was 18, almost 10 years his junior.
Michelle said soldiers didn’t receive much encouragement from their commands to extend their time in the military or to make the Army their career even though he was honorably discharged with the rank of master sergeant. She said the military mindset was negative, sending soldiers back to the United States and to their home towns.
“They sent you back, and you were done,” she added.
Kip Sam received an honorable discharge on Sept. 10, 1968, but he was placed on U.S. Army Reserve Active standby for four years.
The Sams said Kip never experienced any positive or negative reception when returning to the U.S. While World War II, Iraqi and Afghanistan war veterans came home to bands and waving flags, he did not. After flying from Saigon to Oakland with the standard refueling stop in Hawaii, Kip Sam took the bus to Winnemucca and transferred to another bus to McDermitt. Only family welcomed him back, and barely a word uttered by his friends. Almost 51 years after he left Saigon with little fanfare, Michelle, though, said Kip feels overwhelmed when someone approaches him, shakes his hand and says, “Thank you for your service.”
In addition to the occasional comments of gratitude coming from complete strangers, Kip Sam said he has a wish to provide him additional closure from his deployment to South Vietnam. Eventually, he expressed interest on taking an Honor Flight Nevada to Washington, D.C., to see the nation’s memorials built in honor for the veterans and the various wars in which the U.S. fought.
Michelle met Kip when her father served as pastor of a church in McDermitt before her family moved to Phoenix. During their marriage, especially in the early years, Michelle said they often heard the occasional comments asking how she could be married to a Native American. Michelle’s friends, though, were accepting and said the marriage was wonderful. Yet, they persevered and brushed away the comments.
Since their marriage in 1973, Kip and Michelle Sam have lived in almost every region of Nevada. He began his banking career in 1971 with First National Bank of Nevada in Winnemucca, but two years after their marriage, Kip received a promotion to lead teller to the Officers Management Training Program, and they relocated to Las Vegas. His rapid ascension with the bank landed in Wells, Nev., as the operations officer, and then to Yerington as bank manager. He retired in 1997, but he still enjoyed working and accepted jobs with the South Lyon Medical Center, the Yerington Paiute Tribe and the U.S. Forest Service as a trail maintenance crew member. Michelle Sam worked in human resources, a field she said allowed her to meet new people and help them with their basic needs. They moved to Fallon in 2014 to be closer to their children and grandchildren who live in the area.
“Family is everything,” Michelle said.
Chantelle Johnson lives in Fallon and works for the Churchill County School District. Gillette lives in Reno and Cimarron resides in Mound House. Two other adult children live out of state. Kameron is a district ranger in Oregon, and KamBriah Gilmore teaches school in Florida.
But it’s Kip Sam’s overall outlook on life that impresses others, especially Michelle.
“His humor is what keeps me going,” she said. “He doesn’t realize how funny he is. (But) this is a person who truly knows what it’s like to move on. Keep family, don’t look back. You don’t harbor any bad feelings.”