Gore's Inauspicious Tour of Duty in Vietnam War Vice President Received 'Early Out' to Return to School

The Florida Times Union, July 5, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Gore's Inauspicious Tour of Duty in Vietnam War Vice President Received 'Early Out' to Return to School


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A foxhole near the hotly contested Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Vietnam didn't provide enough cover to satisfy U.S. Army Spc. 5 Al Gore. He began gathering sheet metal that had been discarded from the 20th Engineer Brigade's effort to rebuild an abandoned airstrip.

"I said 'What are you building, a hotel? We're only going to be here three days,' " recalled Mike O'Hara, who, along with Gore, was an Army journalist reporting on the first C-130 transport to land at the reconstructed runway in March 1971.

Gore replied in colorful and dismissive terms "and kept working," O'Hara said with a laugh.

"I may have made fun of him, but I used that foxhole," quickly added O'Hara, now a sportswriter for The Detroit News.

Days later, the plane landed without incident and Gore returned to the 20th's much safer base at Bien Hoa, near Saigon, to write the story for the Castle Courier, the engineers' newspaper.

For Gore, now awaiting the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, the volunteer assignment was one of the riskiest during his five months in Vietnam.

OPPOSED TO WAR

A few months after graduating from Harvard in 1969, Gore joined the Army as an enlisted man rather than as an officer. He knew he would go to Vietnam even though he vehemently opposed American involvement in the war.

While most enlistments were for three years, Gore signed up for only two. He was supposed to spend seven months in Vietnam but came home after five, when his unit was being deactivated, so that he could go to divinity school. Others in the 20th, like the commander's stenographer, Wayne Pelter, say they got reassigned within Vietnam.

Pelter says that before Gore got to Vietnam in January 1971, "a piece of paper came across the desk saying he was not to go out on any dangerous missions."

As a result, Pelter said, Gore drew duty no more precarious than that of the "doughnut dollies" -- Red Cross volunteers taking coffee and pastries to soldiers. Others who served with Gore have said they were told to protect him.

Gore bristles at the notion.

"Anybody who actually served there knows what a silly idea that is," Gore said during a recent interview.

O'Hara agrees.

"Neither of us were war heroes, but neither of us ducked anything. A lot of guys malingered their way through. He didn't do that," O'Hara said.

INFORMATION SPECIALIST

Gore, then 21, enlisted in the Army on Aug. 8, 1969.

He says it was just happenstance that he became what the Army calls an "information specialist."

Rather than Boston or Carthage, Tenn., or Washington, D.C., Gore signed up in Newark, N.J., near Fort Dix, a large post with a variety of positions available. He mentioned on his application that he "writes poetry" and "worked as a newspaper trainee for NY [The New York] Times during summer."

The Newark recruiting station commander said Gore never would have ended up in the infantry with his Harvard degree.

A few days later, the senator's son became Private E-1 Gore and began basic training at Fort Dix.

In October of 1970, he was assigned to the public affairs office at Fort Rucker, Ala., home to a helicopter crew training school. There he wrote news releases and helped publish the fort's newspaper.

He and wife Tipper, who had married in May, lived in a trailer nearby.

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