As far back as Lloyd M. Kettle can remember, he wanted to be a soldier.
Perhaps his first inspiration to serve was when his uncle, looking sharp and squared away in his military uniform, returned home from the Korean War and introduced himself to Lloyd when he was a little boy.
“I remember my Uncle Sonny coming to my bed and saying hello to me,” Kettle says.
When he was 18, Kettle quit high school and enlisted in the Army – on his way to fulfilling his dream. The fact that the country was at war was of no concern to him.
And when he had the chance to volunteer to serve in Vietnam, he didn’t hesitate.
“I was in an airplane with about 50 other soldiers, and we were flying to training at Fort Benning, Ga., when the officer said, ‘Anyone who wants to go to Vietnam should stand up,’ ” Kettle recalls. “I looked at the guy next to me and stood up first. He hesitated but then he stood up. Only three of us in the plane stood up, and we all went to Vietnam.”
He arrived Aug. 27, 1968, and quickly learned that a soldier must be willing to put everything on the line. That was drilled home when he got his first assignment.
The point man for his platoon, he was told, had recently been killed, and Kettle had caught the eye of the lieutenant who was looking to fill the vacancy.
“The lieutenant asked me, ‘You’re Native American?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘Take the point.’ I said, ‘Sir, I’ve only been ‘in country’ a few days.’ He said, ‘Take the point.’ I took the point,” Kettle says of the exchange.
A member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, Kettle suspected that the lieutenant must have watched too many Westerns in which Indians were often cast as scouts, going out ahead of the cavalry. But this wasn’t Hollywood. Death was everywhere.
In order to survive, Kettle says, he overcame his fear and learned to spot the enemy, not so much by actually seeing a human form, but by catching glimpses of movement in the distance as foliage shifted without explanation. And if he was close enough, he said, it was possible to catch a whiff of the enemy.
“All my senses were at heightened alert.” he says.
The encounters frequently led to firefights, Kettle says, and he stopped counting how many of the enemy he shot after the first couple of kills.
As part of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), Company B, 2nd Battalion, 8th Air Cavalry Regiment, Kettle and his buddies were flown into one hostile spot after another, and in time he grew accustomed to his assignment as the point man.
“After a while, I didn’t trust anyone else to do the job. You develop a ‘Superman’ complex. You’re the only one who can do it right,” Kettle says.
For months at a time, he says, there was no break from the “search-and-destroy missions” out in the jungle.
“We didn’t get much time in the rear,” he says. “I ended up serving as the point man for nine months or more during the year I was in Vietnam.”
Although he was young and living his dream of soldiering, the stress and hazards of war caught up to him, with post-traumatic stress disorder clobbering his ability to cope and exposure to the carcinogenic defoliant Agent Orange weakening him physically.
“There are times when my PTSD kicks up and I get very anxious and I have to take a break,” he says.
After he returned to civilian life, a number of debilitating events struck: the failure of a marriage, a lack of a desire to live and frequent flashbacks of war.
“I came back to Buffalo, but I never really returned home,” he says.
For years, the honorably discharged veteran supported himself working as a day laborer, but eventually the pressures of life caused him to seek help from the Veterans Administration in 1996, where he was rated fully disabled and awarded a disability pension.
These days, he takes care of an older brother who has severe health problems, but mainly, he says, “I bunker in.”
Much of that, he explains, has to do with the war.
Lloyd M. Kettle, 64
• Hometown and residence: Buffalo
• Branch: Army
• War zone: Vietnam
• Years of service: 1967-70
• Most prominent honor:
Air Medal with oak leaf
• Specialty: Infantry