As a Green Beret veteran who fought in Vietnam for four years, Harold Walkner knows about the dedication it takes to be a member of the United States Armed Forces. Now, he’s sharing his story in hopes of getting other veterans to share their own stories of time in the service. Walkner, who served during the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1972, will share his service story with fellow veterans on Tuesday at the Veterans Open Roundtable. Walkner was drafted into the Army in 1967. After going through basic training, he elected to join the regular Army to be eligible to join up with the Army’s Green Berets, a special forces unit. “I had to enlist for another four years, which I did. I told them, from the inductions on, ‘Teach me everything you can because I know where I’m going.’ I knew I was going to Vietnam” Walkner said. For 10 months, Walkner trained to become a Green Beret, developing specialties in three areas — language, hand-to-hand combat and demolition. Walkner spent all of 1967 and some of 1968 in training to become a Green Beret. The training was intense. Of the 117 soldiers who set out to become Green Berets, only 13, including Walkner, made it through all the training and “Hell Week” to make it to graduation. Walkner added that Hell Week was appropriately named, with trainees being pushed to the brink mentally, physically and emotionally. But, as Walkner says, he learned the traits desired by special forces soldiers were always inside him. “I was a Green Beret long before I went into the service. I just never knew it,” Walkner said. “My mother and father taught me the right kind of morals. They taught me how to be an officer and a gentleman long before I ever got to the service.” Once Hell Week was over, Walkner was trained on how to co-pilot various aircraft before he was sent to Vietnam. When he got to Vietnam in the spring of 1968, he didn’t receive a warm welcome. As soon as he got off the plane, he was rushed into a vehicle to shield him from mortar fire. “That was my intro into Vietnam, and then my instincts and training started kicking in,” Walkner said. Throughout his time overseas, Walkner had several different jobs. He gathered intelligence on the enemy’s movements using his linguistic skills that allowed him to read, write and speak Vietnamese and French. He used his expertise in hand-to-hand combat to train his fellow soldiers, a duty he considered paramount. “A Green Beret is actually a teacher. They really are,” Walkner said. Walkner was awarded four Purple Hearts after he sustained four separate injuries during his tour. He took shrapnel to the hand, which he stitched up himself. His second injury came when a mortar knocked him off his feet and a stick went through his foot. One of the most famous battles of the war, the Battle of Hamburger Hill, served as the backdrop for Walkner’s third Purple Heart. While American troops were charging up the hill, he was on the other side, climbing through trees and trying to scout the enemy’s position. “The guys were just getting nailed. I was up in a tree trying to get troop movements. There were hundreds of them on top of that hill in bunkers,” Walkner said. “I’m telling you, it was bad. It was really bad, and we’re going right up the hill, right into the middle of it. I could see it all.” While trying to scout the enemy position, Walkner said he was spotted by an enemy soldier and a rocket propelled grenade was launched at him, blasting him out of the tree. “I got my left foot hung up and I hung there for a couple hours. I woke up, pulled myself up, fell out of the tree and I got out of there,” Walkner said. “That was a mess, a real mess. A lot of good boys died there.” In 1971, special forces were ordered out of Vietnam. Despite the fact that he was able to go home, Walkner wasn’t going to leave when there were soldiers he could train, possibly saving their lives. “I said, ‘I will stay. I’ve got too much to do yet,’” Walkner said. “I was not leaving my boys. I was not going to leave them … I didn’t want to leave until those boys got home.” Walkner was awarded his fourth Purple Heart for injuries he received in an outpost attack. The North Vietnam Army attacked, an attack that continued overnight. Walkner said he radioed for help, and air support arrived the next morning to help drive the enemy back. But the cost was high, only a couple handfuls of soldiers survived the attack, and all of them were wounded. Walkner sustained injuries to his stomach, his knee and his foot. Even with his injuries, he wanted to go back to the combat zone, but the Army wouldn’t let him. And even after being told he would never walk again, Walkner walked out of a hospital in Tokyo, eventually making it back to the U.S. When he arrived in Oakland, a woman protesting the war ran up to him, spitting in his face. “The only thing I could say to her was, ‘Young lady, you do not understand how lucky you are to be in a country that will let you do that,’” Walkner said, adding that people today should continue to thank veterans for their service. “If you see a Vietnam vet, the first thing I want you to do is welcome him home. Then you thank him for his service. These boys went through hell. People just don’t know.” After his combat days, Walkner spent time as a teacher at West Point and eventually retired as a captain before returning to civilian life. Now, the Iowa native is making a point to tell his story to other veterans, setting an example that he wants them to follow. Walkner speaks to veterans groups like the Open Roundtable because he wants fellow veterans to know sharing their stories is an important part of the healing process. “They need to understand that it’s OK to talk. As you talk, things start to get better,” he said.
Good job in this exposure and the reporters turn around.
“Hell Week”? Guess I missed that part of the training in my SFQC class.