Vietnam ‘education’

Robert Hardy is shown in his Owosso home Friday holding a shadowbox made by his wife, Marie Hardy, containing memorabilia from his military service in the Vietnam War.

OWOSSO — U.S. Army Spc. Robert Hardy survived brutal attacks by the enemy in Vietnam, but he has never looked at his tour of duty in 1967-68 in terms of what he might have lost.

Instead, he looked at what he gained.

“What an education it was,” Hardy, 70, said during a conversation Friday. “When I came home, I really appreciated everything we had here in America, like never before.”

Hardy, an Owosso resident since 1983, grew up on the east side of Detroit. Maybe that helped him handle the deprivations and violence awaiting him in Vietnam.

Not that even Detroit could have prepared him for the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise assaults in early 1968 by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army against U.S. military compounds throughout South Vietnam, including Hardy’s compound in Qui Nho’n, on the China Sea.

No one expected the VC to attack during Tet, a week-long holiday in Vietnam celebrating the lunar new year. President Lyndon Johnson had even ordered the soldiers to stand down from their weapons for Tet.

When the shooting started at Hardy’s compound, on the night of Jan. 31, 1968, he and fellow soldiers ran to the roof of the three-story building they slept in to try to ascertain where the bullets were coming from.

The men poked their heads up from a 3-foot ledge along the roof that gave them some protection as they scoped out the situation.

“The first thing I thought about wasn’t getting shot, but immediately trying to figure out where it was coming from so I could return fire,” Hardy said. “We returned fire.”

That night, the shooting lasted an hour. Turned out, that was only the beginning. Every night for six more days, the enemy fired mortars over a mountain toward the compound. North Vietnamese and VC soldiers, some in their mid-teens, would scramble over the mountain and try to breach the base.

They’d climb over the fence along the perimeter in the dark. The unlucky ones would be found hanging from the wires in the morning, dead.

Sporting black “pajamas,” they’d sit in trees and shoot handmade arrows tipped with poison at the Americans. Hardy still possesses a handmade wooden sheath and set of arrows taken off one of the VC fighters killed at the compound during Tet.

The enemy would dig tunnels and crawl through them into the camp. Hardy and fellow soldiers didn’t sleep for days, he said, the thought that they could die at any minute constantly racing through their minds.

“We shot artillery at the mountain every night,” Hardy said. “We killed so many cows, we had to pay the farmers. But we had to protect the compound. They would do anything to get to you.”

Following that hellish week, life in the military base returned to what passed for normal. Hardy worked as an officers’ administrator, personal driver and bodyguard to an overweight, pear-shaped “geeky” colonel who avoided danger at all costs.

“He always made sure he was really safe,” Hardy said. “I had so many weapons on me, I could hardly walk.”

His other duties included making various repairs, ensuring the ammo dump was supplied and the motor pool operating correctly, and cleaning equipment and jeeps.

The toughest job, the thought of which still brings Hardy to tears 50 years later, was keeping track of the soldiers’ bodies that would come in, and collecting their personal items — including letters from girlfriends, fiancees, wives and parents — and send them stateside to their families.

“These were guys I knew,” he said.

There was so much dying around him, “and for what reason? For what purpose?” Hardy asked. “We were there 15 years and didn’t even make a dent.”

He was only 19 when he signed up for a three-year stint in the Army, determined to fight for his country, but not deeply versed in all the reasons behind the war.

Having graduated from high school the year before, he studied architecture at Macomb Community College for a couple of semesters while playing the drums in two different wedding reception/high school dance bands.

After basic and advanced training in the armored division at Fort Knox, Kentucky, he returned home on liberty long enough to marry 18-year-old Marie Pfiffer, whom he’d met on a blind date.

Five days after the wedding, Hardy was deployed to Vietnam. The couple stayed close by writing every day and sending each other messages recorded on reel-to-reel tapes they still have.

Now Hardy was home again, arriving on Christmas Eve, 1968. He served his remaining 11/2 years of military duty in Fort Polk, Louisiana, working once more as an officers’ administrator and personal driver. He and his wife lived in a non-commissioned officers’ trailer park and he attended Louisiana State University.

It wasn’t until he returned to the Detroit area that he was harassed by people who opposed the increasingly unpopular war.

“When I got back home, people would find out I was in Vietnam and try to spit on me and call me baby killer,” Hardy said. “I got into a couple of fights. I probably shouldn’t have. But in my heart I knew I’d done it for my country, including for the people who were spitting on me.”

With the country stuck in an economic recession, Hardy was lucky to find a job repossessing cars. He quickly worked his way up to manager. In 1974, Michigan National Bank hired him to be a lender. By age 25, he was promoted to vice president of the Port Huron branch.

Hardy’s focus and drive were impressive. He credits his time in Vietnam.

“I see it as a personal education in life,” he said. “I went over there at 19 with a chip on my shoulder. I was what you would call a greaser. After I got back, it took about a year to get over the protesters and Tet but then I sort of mellowed out. I learned to look at all angles.”

He stayed in banking, working for Key State Bank (now Chemical Bank) as a commercial lender until he retired in 2016, though he continues to run a business consulting firm on on the side. He and Marie had two children, Kevin Hardy and Krystal Campbell. Today, their brood includes three grandchildren, two girls and a boy.

Hardy joined the Durand VFW, American Legion, Knights of Columbus, Shiawassee Conservation Association, Owosso Country Club. As a member of the Shiawassee-Owosso Kiwanis Club, he gives talks about the impact Vietnam made on his life.

Since 1998, he has served on the board for the Selective Service of Michigan, having been recommended by then-President Bill Clinton. Board members review requests from service members seeking a discharge based on personal hardship.

Hardy is an avid golfer and hunter, and he enjoys playing the drums, guitars and mandolin kept in his music room. His collection of PEZ dispensers tops 600.

In January 2016, he was named the treasurer on the board of directors of Welcome Home Veterans, a local nonprofit that is working to establish a residential facility for homeless veterans in Bancroft.

“So many veterans need assistance, and there’s nothing like Welcome Home Veterans in Shiawassee or Genesee county,” Hardy said. “They need this, and I want to help.”

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