Memories of an older brother from Montana: Vietnam killed him, but years after the war

Dan after Tet

Dan McElderry, shown in Vietnam after the Tet Offensive and before he was wounded three times. Dan eventually left Vietnam, but he never escaped it. (Photo courtesy of Bob McElderry Sr.)

By Bob McElderry Sr.

(Bob writes about his older brother Dan McElderry, who graduated from Powell County High School in Deer Lodge, Montana, in 1967. Dan joined the Marines with three other young men from the same town when it became apparent they would drafted in the Army if they didn’t enlist. The recruiter promised them they would stay together in a “Montana platoon” but the Marines quickly split them up. Bob’s words about his brother will resonate with many Vietnam combat veterans.)

Like the small Montana town he grew up in, he was friendly, fresh and full of hope for the future. He was engaged to his sweetheart, a high school cheerleader and a gal many guys had pursued. He spent his days picking up odd jobs and his evenings working at the local post office.

Dan McElderry joined the Marines in the summer of 1967.

Dan McElderry joined the Marines in the summer of 1967.

Friday and Saturday nights found him “cruising the drag” in his red and white ’56 Chevy. He would be parked at the A&W munching on a double Teen Burger and sipping a root beer float, or at the Youth Center dancing with his bride to be. Midnights usually found him searching for Lucky Lager, Great Falls Select or Coors, the favorite brews of the locals. And in the small hours of the next morning he might be up on Powder House Hill, or out at Red Gate.

If he was really seeking privacy with his girl, they would be out on some side road on the way up to Spotted Dog Creek or along the Little Blackfoot River.

It was the summer of ’67 and his life was good. But this is not a tale of root beer floats, keggers, young love and warm evenings to get lost in. Halfway around the world, war raged. And in the thick of things were young men from all around America. Men, who had become members of the U.S. military complex, most not by a personal choice, had been drafted into combat. Young men who were facing injury and death in a land mostly ungrateful for the assistance sent from afar.

Christmas of ’67 was a success for the Montanan, who helped to distribute over 1,000 gifts to local villagers near Dai Do. He also helped to serve nearly 1,000 villagers Christmas dinner and cake. One hundred and fifty blankets were also given out as gifts. An additional 600 toys were given out as gifts from the USS Iwo Jima which was patrolling the South China Sea nearby. That same day 17 Vietnam youth were detained when they were discovered to be peddling narcotics to military personnel.

On New Year’s Day, the Montana boy found himself in a bloody conflict with NVA who were attempting to secure the river transportation corridor for the Marine Third Battalion. He was lying in a ditch just above the river, returning fire toward the enemy and avoiding ‘friendly fire’ from American artillery and warships just off the coast. The Tet Offensive had begun. He was wounded for the second time during the conflict. He was then declared MIA for a period of almost two weeks.

When he emerged from the jungle, he was wearing a necklace of war trophies and was no longer a boy.

After receiving his third wound and being then transported to Japan for medical treatment, he was sent home.

He told me nothing was about being a hero or experiencing a grand adventure. It was about survival, helping comrades to survive; about boredom, loneliness and prolonged periods of fear. It was the worst of times. It was a time not of living but of not dying.

How can you thank someone for their service when the service was demanded and it took their life? I have always been at a loss.

Dan was not killed in action while serving in Vietnam. He suffered many strange illnesses after his return. Though he went to the VA to try to understand what was going on with his body, he never was given an explanation. At one point, he went to the VA and was treated so poorly that he refused to ever return. And he didn’t.

When his illnesses finally got the best of him and he was literally on his death bed, a private doctor told him that he had cancer that was caused by Agent Orange. That he, the doctor, had seen it in several other Vietnam vets but that the VA was refusing to admit that the illness was caused by being in Vietnam during the conflict.

Will always miss Dan very much. He may have died but his memory will forever live.

(Published with permission from Bob McElderry Sr., who wrote of Dan’s death on Veterans Day 2015. Their younger brother, Tom, also served during the Vietnam era.)

Dan McElderry

Dan McElderry was 19 in this Vietnam photo. Forty years later, he died in Florence, Montana, of Agent Orange-caused cancer.

3 thoughts on “Memories of an older brother from Montana: Vietnam killed him, but years after the war

  1. My Father served with Dan in Vietnam and last year passed away from a brain tumor also caused by Agent Orange exposure while serving his country. Rest in Peace to both of these amazing men. Dan McElderry and Terry Wood♡ as well as all the other heroes who have lost their battle after returning home.

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