Vietnam vet McDowell: ‘I’m proud I did it’
By Shelley Jones Post-Tribune correspondent June 29, 2014 4:20PM
Signs and other reminders of his time in Vietnam are always near Earl McDowell at his Hobart home. | Joe Puchek~Sun-Times Media
This year marks the 50th anniversary of our country’s entry into the Vietnam War. More than 3 million men and women served and more than 58,000 didn’t return home. While there was fighting half a world away, the events there also brought a transition in American culture. The Post-Tribune will profile a Vietnam War veteran every Monday. If you know someone who served who might like to be profiled, please email Joe Puchek at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Updated: June 30, 2014 2:02AM
HOBART — Earl McDowell represents many of the images of a Vietnam veteran.
He was swept up in the tide of violence in a war whose political roots the then-19-year-old knew nothing about. He has a Purple Heart, earned under fire in that Vietnam era icon, the helicopter. He suffers from heart problems his doctor blames on Agent Orange exposure.
What he doesn’t represent is regret. He has no memories of reluctance.
“I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t want to do it again,” he said. “But I’m proud I did it.”
The son of a World War II Navy veteran who survived D-Day, McDowell enlisted in the Marine Corps on March 3, 1966.
“I just always thought the Marine Corps was the toughest and the best. I still think that today,” he said. “I had a lot of people trying to talk me out of the Marine Corps. My mom and dad tried to talk me out of it. They had some friends in the Navy try to steer me toward that.”
McDowell may have known he wanted to be a member of the Corps, but he didn’t know anything about Vietnam, an exotic place that lay in wait for 3 million Americans.
“When I was growing up all I wanted to do was play baseball,” says the Hobart native who still lives in the home he grew up in. “I didn’t know anything about Vietnam. I didn’t even know where it was.”
After boot camp at the Marine Recruit Depot in San Diego, McDowell headed to infantry training and then the Classified Control Center where he received top secret clearance. In a twist of irony, the young man who once couldn’t place Vietnam on a map now personally shuttled top-secret war plans via helicopter. “They would intercept messages over the airwaves,” McDowell said, “but if I was carrying a briefcase they couldn’t do that.”
McDowell flew three or four of these missions a week in the 13 months he served in Vietnam from August 1967 to September 1968. His CH34 helicopter was shot down twice during the 30- to 40-minute missions. He said the aircraft was slower than other helicopters.
“They were a lot easier to hit because they were so slow.”
He was stationed with the 9th Marines Regiment, 3rd Marines Division, in the far north of South Vietnam close to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that was supposed to serve as a no-fighting zone between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. “We were 12 to 13 miles below that (the DMZ) at all times, but the artillery could cover 20 miles. They would hit us all the time from North Vietnam,” McDowell said.
When he returned to Hobart, McDowell married his penpal, Sue Collins, who had been assigned to correspond with someone serving in Vietnam as her senior class project at Hobart High School. They wrote back and forth for six months and married within a week of his return.
He took a job at Taylor Forge in Gary and they had two sons, Steven, 42, and David, 41. When the forge closed, McDowell began his lengthy career as a truck driver, working for Wonder Bread, Dairy Rich and Frito Lay for the next 36 years. He divorced Collins and married Kim, his wife of 36 years. She raised Steven and David and the couple also had a son, Adam, 34, and a daughter, Heather, who died seven years ago.
McDowell joined Hobart Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5365 in March of 1969 where his father was a member, eventually serving as Post Commander and then District 1 commander for the state of Indiana. He also served 20 years in the Indiana National Guard.
Unlike his parents, McDowell did not try to discourage his three sons from joining the Marine Corps. “I believe every man should do at least two years in the military,” McDowell said. “It makes a lot of them grow up.”
His sons followed him into the Marine Corps. Like his father, David also chose to serve as a reservist. Those experiences have deepened his relationship with his father, he said.
“As a kid, any time something would come on TV about Vietnam, my dad would yell for me to come and watch it with him, and now I do that to my son, David Jr., who’s 11,” said David McDowell of Hebron. “I have an understanding now of why it was important to him.”