OWOSSO — U.S. Army Sgt. Gary Vogl was patrolling a mountain near the Demilitarized Zone in Vietnam with his squad when he slipped and tore apart his left knee.
The year was 1971 and the Vietnam War continued to rage, with 334,600 U.S. military personnel stationed in what was then South Vietnam.
Vogl couldn’t get medical treatment for days; he had no choice but to deal with the pain and hobble around the mountainside, using an M-16 rifle as a makeshift crutch.
Finally, a resupply chopper transported him back to the base camp, where his knee was put in a cast. Then he was sent to Japan for surgery.
However, for some reason, the Japanese hospital was closing its surgical department. So Vogl spent a week in traction there before getting flown to a hospital at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, where he was finally operated on and spent weeks recovering.
But that was OK.
“I got to come home. I was one of the lucky ones that came home,” Vogl, 70, said Wednesday in the Owosso house he and his wife, Nancy Vogl, purchased in 1973.
Gary Vogl spent several months in Vietnam, taking part in jungle patrols that put him in constant danger, under terrible conditions. Today, he has no regrets about his military service, but added he wouldn’t want to do it again.
“He understood service to country. He just never hesitated, never tried to avoid it,” Nancy Vogl said. “When he was called, he had to go.”
Gary Vogl grew up near Henderson on a farm, sharing chores with seven younger siblings. After graduating from St. Paul Catholic High School in Owosso in 1967, he worked on the family farm and then took a job at Midland Ross.
It was during that time Nancy Crambell got to know her future husband better, after being his neighbor for many years. Crambell’s father had died of a heart attack at age 45, and the Vogls were among the friends and neighbors who helped out on the Crambells’ dairy farm after the unexpected death.
They started dating. Now, Vogl had a girlfriend and a job, and that’s when he received his Army draft notice — three months before the military started a lottery system that might have bypassed him altogether.
“I got drafted just like everybody else,” he said. “I figured it probably was going to happen.”
His girlfriend was supportive but concerned.
“So many were being shot at that time,” Nancy Vogl said, “and I just wanted him to be safe.”
In the spring of ’69, Vogl underwent basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, followed by advanced infantry training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. A hunter for most of his life, Vogl said the weapons instruction came easily to him.
After six months of training, Vogl entered non-commissioned officer school in Ft. Benning, Georgia, graduating as a sergeant. The program also took him to Fort Ord, California, where he taught advanced infantry training. At the time, there was civil unrest and rioting in California, which sometimes called for the base to go on lockdown, Vogl recalled.
He said he enjoyed Fort Ord, which was located on the ocean. He was now less than a year away from completing his two-year hitch of active duty. A commanding officer tried to keep Vogl and the other instructors in California longer than they were supposed to stay, but instead the worst-case scenario happened.
“He couldn’t pull enough strings to keep us there,” Vogl said. “So off we went to Vietnam.”
Flying out of San Francisco and making a stop in Hawaii, Vogl’s group eventually landed somewhere in South Vietnam. It was June 1970, and hot.
“When I got off the plane, the first thing I noticed is, it just smelled,” he said, adding many places in the nation didn’t have sewers or any type of sanitation system.
Assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, Vogl was transferred to a fire base where artillery was based on top of a mountain north of Hue. A squad leader of five to eight soldiers, Vogl and his men — or a larger platoon, or an even larger company — would be transported by chopper to an area along the mountain where the men would search for North Vietnamese soldiers.
“We were told to go check out certain areas, and avoid letting the North Vietnamese get a foothold,” Vogl said.
His group was often in the field for multiple days before the helicopter would return to take them back. Out on the tree-filled mountain, the men ate C-rations — prepared and canned meals — and drank from one of the freshwater streams that seemed to be everywhere.
The men usually slept on the ground. If the terrain was steep, Vogl would sleep fitfully with his legs wrapped around the trunk of a tree so he wouldn’t fall off the mountain.
Some of the stench in Vietnam might have emanated from the soldiers themselves. There weren’t too many opportunities to take a shower, Vogl recalled.
When he returned to the U.S. as a result of his knee injury, his parents and Nancy visited him at the hospital at Valley Forge. They found Vogl in a large open hospital ward. Nancy Vogl said she was shocked by the condition of some of the soldiers, whose injuries included missing limbs.
Gary Vogl returned home to the Owosso area in January 1971, and he and Crambell were married that July.
Fortunately, unlike other soldiers during that period, the uniformed Vogl was not accosted by anti-war protesters during his travels.
At the same time, “Nobody congratulated you, either,” Vogl said. “There was no parade and no pat on the back, but I didn’t need it. I just wanted to make it back home. Serving in Vietnam, you really appreciate the United States.”
He came back to find trouble on the work front. He was supposed to have continued earning seniority at Midland Ross while serving in the military, but was told his seniority had not accumulated. Matter of fact, he was laid off.
It turned out to be a blessing in disguise: Vogl was hired by Chevrolet, one of about a dozen Shiawassee County veterans sought out by General Motors. He also served in the Army Reserve for the next four years but was never called up. Vogl retired from the Flint V8 Engine Plant after 31 years.
Today, the married couple of 48 years have two grown daughters, Patricia and Mary, and six grandchildren. Gary Vogl enjoys hunting and woodworking, and still works on the family farm in Henderson, now owned by one of his brothers.
He said he has no desire to return to Vietnam for a visit, but appreciates the maturity he developed there.
“You learned a lot,” Vogl said. “You grew up in a hurry.”