Speakers of the Cherokee language know Durbin Feeling as the author of the Cherokee- English Dictionary, which has been in print since 1975 through Cherokee publications. However, many do not realize the dictionary’s author is a Vietnam War veteran.
Born in 1946 in Claremore, Oklahoma, Feeling attended Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma before transferring to Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kansas. Shortly after he ended up owing the University and was not permitted to enroll the following semester—stopping his educational deferment. In 1967 he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam.
“As soon as we got there they gave us an assignment near Long Bihn,” Feeling said. “It had the biggest ammunition dump in the world, so a lot of mortar rounds came in from the enemy trying to blow it up; it was kind of a hotspot.”
Feeling’s main duty was to work on planes and guard the dump, but he also worked as a Door Gunner on helicopters, where the thought of being killed went through his head before every mission.
“The mission included things like when the ground troops got into trouble, and backed into a corner, we were supporting them with our helicopter gunships and they were heavily loaded down with guns, rockets and grenades,” Feeling said. “Being in the air was kind of a better place to be. I mean it wasn’t good, but it was a better place to be. We could see a lot down there. Whereas the ground troops, the enemy, couldn’t see us that far away. It wasn’t until about three months after I came back from Vietnam that the Russians began to send surface-to-air missiles to the North Vietnamese, then they started knocking those helicopters out of the sky after that.”
Feeling was in Vietnam for the Tet Offensive, which many see as the turning point of the war. Though America won the offensive, the enormous cost in human lives was demoralizing to the American troops.
“I was in Vietnam 12 months. I got in there in late ’67 and the Tet Offensive was 1968,” Feeling said. “When they attacked they missed it by one day and there was some kind of missed order or something by the enemy. They were supposed to surprise us, but the United States must have gotten information. We were prepared long before that—24 hours before they attacked. We had helicopters and the Air Force with their jets, and we also had one of those big cargo planes (the Lockheed C-130 Hercules). They took up big flares, they were long tubes around six feet long, and they had parachutes on them. The planes circled around our compound and dropped flares with the parachutes and it lit up the whole area big time, and of course the enemy lobbed mortars and rockets toward us, but we had our trenches, and our helicopters up in the air, so they could see where the firing was coming from and go straight for that area.”
Discussing the morale during the Tet Offensive, Feeling focused on the ground troops. “They saw a lot more than we did. We saw it all from the air, but it was like a glimpse of it. I remember right about that time the Paris Peace Talks were going on and the two sides couldn’t agree on anything, or even what kind of paper they were going to use. I thought ‘Get them out here in the war and let them decide if they want to wait like they were doing.’ If they had been in the middle of the battle zone they would have hurried up their response.”
Feeling was discharged in 1969 and remembers soldiers were brought back to the U.S. and left to deal with their problems on their own. A contrast compared to today’s combat soldiers who are debriefed and receive psychological help before going back to civilian life.
“I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since I got back from Vietnam because I find myself late at night walking around and checking the doors, windows, and things like that. When I first got back it was real frequent and I would dream about being at war again and have flashbacks,” He said. Feeling says that he has tried therapy and his religious faith helps him a lot.
After the war Feeling finished his undergraduate degree in journalism and eventually got his masters. The Cherokee-English Dictionary was supposed to be a ten-year project, but it was completed much quicker than expected. “We were trying to hurry it along and there were a lot of things that we wanted to go into it. It’s kind of like an incomplete book, but people say it’s probably the best descriptive language book on the Cherokee language that exists.” Feeling is currently working on an updated version.
Feeling taught at the University of Tulsa and The University of Oklahoma, before moving back to the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Oklahoma to work in the language department. He is currently collaborating with Apple as they are about to introduce Cherokee fonts that can be used in syllabic Cherokee writing on iPads and iPhones.
Feeling married his wife when he got out of the army and they have two daughters, and 10 grandchildren who are now college age. “They help me stay sane,” Feeling said.