Service & Sacrifice

Sterling Schultz: “I knew right then, it was all different”


Journal City Editor

Sterling Schultz is a guy who walks the walk when it comes to helping and honoring Upper Peninsula veterans.

The U.P. native is a veteran of the Vietnam War war himself who struggled with post traumatic stress disorder, he knows what it’s like.

After graduating from Ishpeming High School in 1962, Schultz held several jobs that included driving big trucks and hauling furniture. That was, until he got his draft papers in1965.

Schultz was among some of the first U.S. Army troops drafted to Vietnam in 1965. He was just 20 years old.

The Ishpeming native did his basic Army training at Fort Knox in Kentucky.

As a former high school athlete, Schultz said overall he enjoyed the three months he spent at Fort Knox because it involved a combination of physical challenges and being outdoors.

But there were reality checks for the young recruits.

“They told us “You guys listen to what we are telling you and understand what we’re telling you because at least two thirds of you are going to end up in Vietnam,” Schultz said.

He said reality began to set in with the transition to Fort Benning, Georgia went to infantry camp where he got advanced individual training.

“When you have infantry training, it starts to get in your head, because that’s what they pound in your head.” Schultz said. “That once I get through here, I am probably going to end up in a war zone — and that’s what happened.”

He got the orders that sent him to Vietnam in 1966, and he got a specialized job because of his experience in the U.P.

“ I got in the transportation unit, and I thought I was very lucky,” Schultz said.

The battalion he worked in delivered critical supplies like jet fuel, ammunition, and c-rations to a large base in Plaiku. The job required the line of trucks to traverse a high mountain range through the Mang Yang pass.

“Now it’s 120 degrees and you’re in your big army truck with your big flack jacket on and helmet – so It’s probably 200 degrees and as fast as you could go was probably 4 or 5 miles per hour. Sixty trucks in a row and you’ve got 3 gun ships (which) were a deuce and a half so we had them rigged up with machine guns and stuff,” Schultz said. “And you also stopped at a city before you went up to Mang Yang Pass and picked up three choppers (to) guide you through the pass.”

The trip was not only slow and uncomfortable, it was also extremely dangerous. The route from Pleiku to An Khe and then on to Qui Nhon was the same road where the French Mobile Group 100 was annihilated, according to a U.S. Army Transportation Corps web page. While driving along the route American soldiers in the trucks could see the tombstones that marked the buried French from that ambush.

“I was told about the pass, that you’re nothing but a sitting duck,” Schultz said, “because you’re doing 5 miles per hour with a lot of sniper fire. “

There was also a chance the drivers might get another assignment where they would have to tranport items to another compound.

“They would say, ‘your truck, your truck and your truck are all going to the Kontum.’ So the five drivers, we would head out there and you get to their camp and you are lucky to get out of there because once you get stuck in there, they would say ‘Well, you aint getting out of here today,’” Schultz said. “So the first time I got stuck in a compound, I mean there’s mortar rounds firing and s**t firing all over the place and I wasn’t used to that stuff right off the bat. But as time went on you did (get used to it.) But that was the worst part.”

Either way, Schultz said driving the truck for the U.S. Army made for a long day.

“You’d get up at 4 in the morning and it was like a 14-hour trip by the time you left and got back,” Schultz said. “And if you didn’t get any fire or anything, it was a good day. Then you would go back, get a meal, get up the next day and go again.”

Military meals were a far cry from civilian fare.

“We had World War II c-rations,” Schultz said. “Think about it, World War II ended in 1946, and I was (in the military) in 1966. That’s 20 years. We always made fun when you opened up a box. there was like, six different meals. We had beans and wieners, there was ham and crackers. But you had a box of cigarettes and I think there were four in a box. You’d open up that box and you’d go to light it and it was nothing but paper.”

Schultz was happy to come home, but the transition was abrupt to say the least, he said.

“One minute you are in a combat zone, and next thing you knew, 12 hours later, you are sitting back in the United States. And all they do is give you a booklet (called) ‘How to Adjust to Civilian Life.” Schultz said. “Oh, and they buy you a steak, too.”

And the greeting back home did not hold warmth and gratitude.

“I didn’t know what was going on in 1967 in America…. but when I flew to Chicago there must have been 20 or 30 protestors there, hollering bad stuff,” Schultz said. “We looked at each other and said’ What is this all about, protesting baby killers and this and that?’ I just walked right by them because I had to go and catch another plane.”

Once he got home to the U.P. he found out fairly quickly that he did not fit in with people he was once close to.

“I used to hang around the Congress bar all the time. So when I got home, I visited with my parents for a day or two, then I went to the Congress. The same guys who split, a lot of them went to college or got married to get a draft deferment. And, a lot of them were in the same seats in 1967 when I got home. But I knew right away that it was all different.”

Life continued to be rocky for Schultz as he tried to find his way back into civilian life

“The first 10 or 15 years at home I was a mess,” he said. “I did a lot of drinking, I did all the drugs you can think of. I got a divorce. And that was my fault, not my wife’s.”

Schultz said something clicked in the mid- to late 1980s for him, and he was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He went through three mental health professionals before finding the right fit.

“I hit rock bottom before I sought some help. And when I found Dan Forrester, he just seemed to get it,” Schultz said. ““He understood somehow.”

In 1986 and 1987 Schultz founded the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 380 in Negaunee. The organization started holding weekly “rap” groups — a form of group therapy for veterans — and helping vets with applications for agent orange as well as other endeavors related to serving Vietnam veterans.

Schultz then joined every local veterans service group he could, including the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans, but still saw needs.

“Then on my own, without aid from other establishments, I helped other vets go to see psychiatrists, psychologists,” Schultz said.

He’s continued to be a champion for veterans, working on the Marquette County Veterans Administration Committee, visiting veterans in their homes and getting them the help they need.

“I would never forget the veterans because they deserve to be honored and taken care of. I have had that commitment forever. I mean that is just my nature — if I see a veteran in need, I like to reach my hand out.”

Schultz hasn’t forgotten the men and women lost in the fog of war. He raised tens of thousands of dollars for a veterans memorial in Republic.

“I will tell you what, Republic Township and Marquette County responded in such a manner that I was astounded,” Schultz said.

But nothing could be more meaningful to him than the memorial he built in his own yard.

“I certainly did’t do half as much as those guys who were in the infantry or were out in them jungles. I give those guys all the credit, I mean, yeah we got fired on and they hauled a bunch of bodies and stuff out, but, that was just part of it. I made a vow when I left Vietnam that I would never forget the guys that were left behind that died in combat,” he said.

Sterling Schultz is pictured during his service in Vietnam in the early 1960’s. (Photo courtesy of Amy Bond)