Dan King was raised to respect warriors, but when he got to Vietnam in 1969 he soon re-accessed his definition of bravery. Like so many others, after the physical war was over, he still continued to fight with himself for years.
King is a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin. He was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1952. He volunteered for the Army in 1969, after the devastating Tet offensive, which took its toll on both sides of the fighting and changed America’s perception of the war.
“At that time I was just trying to be like everybody else,” King said. “If you hung out around the American Indian Center in Chicago the guys talked about being in the service. My idea was first to join the Air Force or the Navy, and that would have been for education, but I didn’t follow what I wanted to do and I kind of regret it now. But I don’t regret going in the Army; I met a lot of good guys there.”
King was sent to Vietnam straight out of boot camp and literally wound up in the middle of a battle as soon as he landed on the ground. “They told us we were going to spend a week at this camp to get adjusted, but when we landed in Vietnam it was a running stop, you could hear bullets hitting the plane,” King said. “We had to make a jump out of the plane while it was moving and then run over to a Quonset hut. They passed us through fast, and had us on a helicopter and out in the field that day to set up an ambush. Within five hours I was ready to dig a hole in the ground with my hands; I was that scared.”
“At the time I felt like everybody else; it’s a war, we’re going to win, and I’m going to be like the great Indian heroes, like Geronimo, or Crazy Horse, but it’s totally different. Reality hits you hard and fast when it comes down to life and death. Within two weeks, my whole attitude changed. I realized I was doing the same thing that Europeans were doing to us hundreds of years ago. The Vietnamese were fighting for their land and their people. We invaded them; it was reversed. Suddenly I understood it all.”
King said that he could see the descent and racial problems that were going through the exhausted infantry divisions as the war continued. “I think by 1973 even the Vietcong were tired of the war, because we would come across them and we would look at each other, and nobody would go in position or anything, and we would just wave at each other; no fighting today. They wanted to go home too.”
In 1973 King’s part in the war came to an end. He was one of the many soldiers who came home to protesters demonstrating at the airport. “How would you like to get spat on or called ‘Baby Killer’? That was a shock to come home to, but in Indian country it was different, you felt welcomed; you’d get a big pat on the back and a case of beer.”
Once King got home he realized that something was wrong. “In World War II, you went to war, served your country, and you came back home and got on with your life, but after you kill people, how can you do that? Afterword, I would think ‘He had a mother, a father, maybe he had brothers and sisters, maybe he even had a kid.’ That wore on me a lot. How do you live with that? How do you carry on?”
King started drifting and became suicidal. At one point he put a 357 magnum in his mouth and pulled the trigger six times, but the gun didn’t go off until he turned it away from himself. “When I got back to the states, years later, I looked at our Iroquois tradition, Longhouse, and our great law. It tells us we were only supposed to defend when they attack us. I felt like I had gone against Iroquois law, and that was my punishment, the alcohol, the drinking, and the jail. Finally, in 1982, a judge told me that I had a problem and he gave me the choice of spending 90 days in treatment or in jail. I figured I needed a vacation, so I went to treatment and that helped me some. It was supposed to be a three week program but it took me three and a half months to finish it.”
King eventually married in 1981 and had a daughter in 1983. At that point he wanted to get better. “I got a notebook and started writing, and four or five notebooks later I was finished. It was whatever came to my mind, I didn’t care about spelling or anything, I just wrote through the whole thing and put it away. I read it and put it away several times over the years until I started laughing because of the spelling and my broken English. Then I made a fire and burned each page. It was like taking that stuff away and sending it off somewhere else – it took the weight off my shoulder. At that time, when I returned, we had lost a lot of the ways for when a warrior returns home. Now, our Veterans’ group does the ceremonies and welcomes the guys back from Afghanistan or Iraq, and we let them know that we are there for them.”
King currently works as the Safety Coordinator for the Oneida Tribe, and he also takes late night calls from his veteran’s group when someone just needs to talk. When asked what the main goal is for healing, he said, “We have to forgive ourselves first.”